The apprenticeship tree that luthier Gregg Lange has nurtured has spread far beyond his small violin repair shop on Elmwood Avenue. Lange has trained over 25 apprentices, including current head apprentice Marissa Pintz, in his 50 years as a luthier, and his latest shop, Palmetto Strings, has become a center for young instrument lovers.
By Becca Brennan, Abe Danaher and Reema Vaidya
April 4, 2018
It’s organized chaos as you walk into Palmetto Strings on Elmwood Avenue. The small violin repair shop is bursting with instruments, tools and craftsmanship as owner Gregg Lange emerges from the back room, an instrument in one hand, a tool in the other.
Those hands, worn from more than 50 years making and restoring violins and other stringed instruments, are but one sign of the 60-year-old luthier’s influence on South Carolina’s music industry.
Beside him, in a workshop with parts strewn about and stuffed chaotically into over 30 bins stored along the wall, a 15-year-old apprentice hunches over a violin at one of the workbenches. Her hands are carefully removing the strings from the instrument in front of her, and the bridge of the instrument sits beside her, waiting to be repositioned on the violin.
This apprentice is part of Lange’s aspiring luthier tree that stretches far beyond South Carolina.
“My apprentices are everything,” says Lange with a soft face and stern eyes. “I wouldn’t have been able to open the business if we didn’t have the apprentice program.”
Lange’s alumni, now over 25, have helped restore, repair and refinish instruments for many of the area’s young musicians. Palmetto Strings, which Lange opened in 2011 after leaving Star Music Co., supplies instruments and does repairs for Suzuki Strings, the USC String Project and many of Columbia’s public schools.
Much of this work - bridge repairs, string repairs, rentals and polishing - is done under Lange’s tutelage by apprentices like 18-year-old Marissa Pintz, the current head apprentice, who has worked alongside him for six years. Her mother, a longtime friend of Lange’s, introduced her to the apprenticeship program.
Pintz says she loves the routine, as well as simply working with her hands on the instruments, especially opening their seams and gluing them back together.
“My every day is always around this,” said Pintz, who is taking classes at Midlands Tech after graduating from Airport High School last year. She hopes to eventually get a business degree.
“My thought process is a lot different,” she said. “If I hadn’t been here for so long, it wouldn’t be as precise and orderly. It wouldn’t keep the details. I would be all over the place honestly.”
But Pintz says her favorite part of being head apprentice is passing on what she’s learned to the newer, younger apprentices. She now works closely with two apprentices, ages 15 and 10.
Alton Acker, executive director of Guitar International and editor of Guitarmaker Magazine, said starting an apprenticeship at young ages is typical.
“When I started, they used to tell me 10 years old is pretty late,” Acker said.
But another Columbia luthier, Damir Horvat of Horvat Fine Violins and Bows, said he has found that many students often get discouraged at the difficulty and skill it takes to repair instruments.
“Over many years, I have come to the conclusion that violin making and restoration, to do well, is a very, very hard thing to do,” Horvat said. “Very hard thing to do. It takes patience, it takes a certain amount of understanding, and it takes a certain amount of dedication.”
Yet through planning ahead and taking things one step at a time, Pintz said she is able to manage the hard work.
Although many of Lange’s apprentices are in their teens, he views their time in the shop as a job. Lange said he teaches his “kids” through real-world experience, incentives and two annual weekend trips to national luthier conventions in Anaheim, California, and Nashville, Tennessee. As part of the trips, they might also bungee jump in Las Vegas or go white water rafting in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Apprentices still in high school typically only work 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. They start for free and are compensated as their skills develop. When they can work with only partial supervision, they get a free lunch and $20 per day for expenses. When they can be trusted to work on customers’ instruments by themselves, they get $50 per day.
For varying reasons – grades, personal conflicts and lost interest – some apprentices choose to stop their apprenticeship early. Lange said he understands.
“I tell them, look, it’s not personal,” he said.
Yet those who stay embrace the routine nature of the job and the daily challenges that being an apprentice presents them.
James Watford, Lange’s longtime assistant, simply says: “It’s not like this anywhere else in the real world.”