Steve Sauvé, veteran crafter of stringed instruments
Photos by Megan Haley
Sauvé Guitars has remained hidden inside the Windsor Mill in North Adams for close to 40 years. It’s an unobtrusive place you have to know is there in order to visit. That’s the way luthier Steve Sauvé prefers it. He took down his big sign years ago, and now the only proof of his presence is a small one near the road, as if an afterthought. You have to be motivated by curiosity to wander into the mill and find the actual shop.
One evening, Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone came knocking on the door, his interest piqued by the minimal sign. “How come we didn’t know you were here?” Sansone asked while strumming a small Rosewood 12-fret acoustic built by Sauvé that just happened to be Sauvé’s favorite in the shop.
Wilco knows Sauvé is there now. The recent Solid Sound Festival saw Sauvé rescuing the band from a guitar-amp emergency, and he’s on unofficial call for the FreshGrass festival in mid-September at MASS MoCA.
Plenty of other people know Sauvé’s there, too, from college students begging for apprenticeships to professionals and guitar enthusiasts from Amherst and Albany needing his services for a variety of instruments. Right now, he’s doing work for Arlo Guthrie. They’ve all been rewarded by the sight of Sauvé’s cluttered, thoroughly alive guitar shop.
Cellist Paul de Jong has been a customer for years, starting back when he was one-half of the experimental duo The Books, challenging Sauvé with his unusual repair needs, most recently an antique drum that de Jong describes as “beaten to a pulp.”
“I have frequently brought in rare and unplayable string instruments with problems almost impossible to solve,” de Jong says, “but with uncanny craftsmanship, resourcefulness, and the aesthetic eye of a master, Steve has time and again revived the most unlikely contenders.”
Repair is Sauvé’s bread and butter and has fueled the word of mouth that keeps his business going all these decades. It has also subsidized his passion for building guitars. Tom Patten has brought his repair needs to Sauvé from Pennsylvania since 1982 and more recently purchased that Rosewood guitar that Pat Sansone connected with.
“It evoked a gentility, an almost reverential dancing of the fingers,” says Patten, a piano technician who also builds electric guitars. “I knew that this was very possibly the finest guitar I had ever played.”
Sauvé, an Adams native, got his start in 1976 while working on a banjo kit and seeking out help from Bill Cumpiano at Stringfellow Guitars, which was in the Windsor Mill at the time. They hit it off, and Cumpiano asked Sauvé if he wanted a job.
“I was his apprentice for five years and he started giving me commissions,” says Sauvé. “This was mostly because I had been doing repairs and making parts and showing enough woodworking ability for him to be confident to give me commissions that we put the Stringfellow name on. My signature didn’t appear anywhere on them.”
In 1981, Cumpiano left to set up shop in Amherst, splitting the business down the middle with Sauvé and leaving him to his own devices. Sauvé pared down the business to repairs and building custom guitars, and he made sure he had a steady stream of materials to last him a long, long time.
Sauvé says the biggest variable in the quality of a guitar is the wood itself. When he first got into the business, he and Cumpiano would take trips down to the docks in Brooklyn, N.Y., to handpick lumber—ebony, mahogany, rosewood from South America and Africa—that they would cut into planks in North Adams. Those woods are hard to get now, and Sauvé is still working off what he stockpiled in the 1970s. It is integral to his craftsmanship.
“No two pieces of wood are the same, even within the same tree,” says Sauvé. “You could take a tree and run it through a sawmill and cut it board after board after board, but if you tried to ascertain the acoustic properties of those pieces of wood, you’d find out some pieces are better than others.”
That means any guitar begins with Sauvé picking up a piece of wood and knocking it with his knuckle in order to tell the good planks from the bad ones. “The only way I can really decide about those pieces of wood is to hear them in a quiet environment when I’m listening to it,” he says.
By Sauvé’s own admission, he is a slow builder. He’s had years where he’s built no more than a couple guitars. This process of careful craftsmanship makes his creations special—and scarce. As Sauvé says, he’s not a guitar factory.
“The dream customer is the one who says, and means it, I want you to take your time,” he says.
“And I feel sorry for them because I’m going to take my time, and sometimes that’s a long time.”
The best way to reach Steve Sauvé is to wander into his workshop in North Adams at 121 Union St. and get a good look at his magical workshop.