Made in Colorado 2016: Rich Sharples
He's had a hand in making thousands of banjos
Rich Sharples, luthier
OME Banjos, Boulder
Lured by mountains to ski and climb, Sharples, 53, traded New Jersey for Colorado in 1989. “I was obsessed with Colorado as a kid,” he says.
As an adult, he parlayed his woodworking experience into what is now a 27-year career. “Believe it or not, I found a Help Wanted ad in The Denver Post looking for a luthier,” he says.
Sharples had given guitar-making a shot as a teenager, but he had never made a banjo before OME founder Chuck Ogsbury hired him. The move paid off as Sharples dedicated himself to the craft from day one.
But that doesn’t mean he took years and years of banjo-making classes. “I’m self-taught,” he says. “It was before the Internet, so I also read a lot of magazines.”
While master luthier is a moniker he shies away from – “I still feel like I’m learning, for sure,” he says – Sharples has had a hand in making thousands of banjos in his tenure at OME. He now supervises two other luthiers, and the team crafts about 180 high-end banjos a year at the company’s shop in northeast Boulder.
“The hardest thing is the neck,” Sharples says. “I used to do 120 in a batch, which was hard. We do it a lot different now.” Hand-carving has given way to CNC routers cutting the neck, but there’s still plenty of hand work involved in an OME Banjo.
After the neck comes the rim. OME makes those in-house, outsourcing some manufacturing. Both pieces require a good deal of rasping and sanding before they’re ready for finishing. Once the oil or lacquer is dry, it’s time for final assembly with premium metal parts sourced from a slew of different suppliers.
While the banjo market has been fairly steady, the styles have changed repeatedly in his three decades on the job. “When I started, we were doing a lot of four-string banjos,” he says. “We’re doing a lot of open-back banjos now. Bluegrass kind of tanked. It tanked with the market.”
And the shifting market has pushed the entire industry toward bigger catalogs. “Everybody had to start diversifying,” Sharples says.
Likewise, his musical tastes are varied. “I listen to everything,” he says, laughing. “I listen to heavy metal more than anything.”