Bringing new life to old guitars from a tiny workshop in downtown St. John's

Guitar technician Chris Kearsey takes us inside the O'Brien's Music workshop in downtown St. John's as he restores a dilapidated acoustic guitar originally purchased from the shop nearly 70 years ago.

We follow guitar tech Chris Kearsey as he restores a guitar originally purchased at O'Brien's in the 1950s

O'Brien's guitar technician Chris Kearsey assesses the repairs needed on a 1950s-era S.S. Stewart guitar. (Mike Simms/CBC)

Like a lot of young guitar players, Chris Kearsey's initial desire to learn was driven less by the art and more by the attention that came with playing music.

"A buddy of mine, he had an electric guitar, and to be honest with you he played it one day and his girlfriend looked at him, and I was like, 'I gotta learn how to play guitar,'" he said with a laugh.

However, after his mother purchased a second-hand guitar for him, that adolescent desire for attention quickly transformed into an obsession with the music and the instrument itself, one that has lasted for more than three decades. 

Kearsey began teaching himself to play, and also started tinkering with the guitar: taking it apart and putting it back together piece by piece, trying to understand not just how it worked but why six strings suspended over a piece of wood and tuned just right could elicit such a broad range of emotions.

"That was so mind-blowing to me," he said.

Kearsey removes worn guitar frets using a soldering iron and pliers. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

Now, years later, as the head guitar technician at O'Brien's Music in downtown St. John's — the oldest music shop in one of the oldest cities in the country — that obsession with what he calls "the essence of why a guitar is a guitar" has also become his career. 

Gigging musicians …use their tools as part of their livelihood.- Chris Kearsey

Kearsey brings new life to old, beat-up string instruments, provides much needed TLC to guitars owned by working-class musicians in the city, and even builds new guitars from scratch, all from a tiny, second-floor workshop above the O'Brien's store. 

"I get a lot of players who are active, gigging musicians who literally use their tools as part of their livelihood and they treat their instruments almost like a car if you were driving back and forth to work," he said. 

"And I'm just happy to be able to make them work better."

Many parts of the S.S. Stewart guitar had to be replaced, but others, like the tuning machines, simply needed a thorough cleaning. Kearsey also replaced the brittle, yellowed tuning buttons with new hand-moulded ones. (Mike Simms/CBC)

Every now and then, a guitar lands on his bench that for many would be a lost cause. But if the sentimental value is there for the owner, you can be sure Kearsey will do everything he can to restore the instrument to its former glory.

That was the case in early 2020, when a person showed up at the shop with a scratched, dinged-up and otherwise dilapidated 1950s-era S.S. Stewart flat-top acoustic guitar.

WATCH | See how the staff at O'Brien's Music gave new life to an old guitar — an instrument that had its roots at the venerable store: 

Plucked from the ages: The story of restoring a wonderful old guitar

3 years ago
Duration 5:31
For the Love of Music: We learn how O'Brien's Music in downtown St. John's brought new life to an acoustic guitar — one the store sold almost seven decades ago

Except it wasn't the customer's attachment to the guitar that made it special. In fact, they were trying to get rid of it. 

No, what made this particular guitar stand out was its shared history with O'Brien's Music.

"When the gentleman mentioned it was originally bought from this store from my grandfather, [store clerk Steve Hussey] contacted me and said, 'Can I buy this guitar? It's not playable, but I think you should own this guitar,'" said Dave Rowe, owner of O'Brien's Music and grandson of Roy O'Brien, who opened the shop in 1939.

Even though the guitar was nearly "in pieces" when it arrived, according to Rowe, Kearsey's talent and passion for fixing guitars will give it a new life at O'Brien's.

"I'll take the time to make this run perfectly again. It's totally worth it," he said.

Kearsey holds the guitar originally purchased at O'Brien's Music in the 1950s that was reacquired and restored at the shop. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Jonny Hodder is a journalist with CBC Radio based in St. John's.

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