John Ramsey’s workbench is cluttered with tools of every shape and size. Littered among the hodge-podge contraptions are smooth pieces of wood, whose glossy flecks of brown and gold glisten in the light. These are the building blocks for what will become ukuleles.
Ramsey, 66, has been in the music business since 1974 and owns one of the area’s premier music stores. Throughout the years, he has bought, sold, traded, repaired and built a variety of string instruments, including mandolins and guitars. But his passion lies with the ukulele.
As a young man in his 20s, Ramsey didn’t expect he would spend his working life in music. In fact, he was planning to study architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Instead, the avid banjo player opted to take a couple of years off school to play in a bluegrass band.
Music eventually brought Ramsey to the Springs, where he began working as an instrument repairman at the Original Folklore Center on Tejon Street. Within a few years, the owner sold Ramsey the store.
The shop has seen many changes in three-plus decades, from its renaming to Tejon Street Music in the early 2000s to its downsizing last year and move to Manitou Springs, where the shop became Avenue Guitars. One thing has remained constant, however, and that’s Ramsey’s role in making music.
“I’ve always liked working with my hands,” he said. “It’s real gratifying, especially when somebody buys it, enjoys it and plays great music on it.”
His interest in crafting instruments took new form after a 2004 vacation to Hawaii, where he was smitten by the state and its sweet sounds.
“I love Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian music,” Ramsey said. “I’ve just been drawn to the Hawaiian side of things.”
That connection led to annual trips across the Pacific and soon Ramsey “got the bug” to build ukuleles. It was about the same time that the world started to go through what Ramsey calls a “ukulele revival,” and he began to sell his ukuleles across the globe to places such as Japan, Australia and even Hawaii. Some years, he would sell as many as 18.
Within the past six months, Ramsey has been working on his latest batch. A ukulele takes an average of 40 hours to create and costs anywhere from $1,600 to $3,000. The wood — as unique as a snowflake with a kaleidoscope of patterns, grain and color — comes from Koa trees, which are only found in Hawaii, and mango trees.
While making music is a labor of love for Ramsey, he is considering retirement. The future of the store isn’t finalized, but a likely replacement is Ramsey’s 37-year-old son Sean.
Sean grew up around the store and later helped run its online sales and computer system. In 2013, he spent a full year running the shop while his dad spent a sabbatical in Hawaii.
“We have a pretty good thing going,” Sean said. “So we’re looking at ways to possibly continue that and pass it on.”
One thing is for sure: Ramsey won’t stop making ukuleles.
“I still like working with my hands,” he said. “And I don’t think I can just sit at home.”
Contact the writer: 636-0275 @JessySnouwaert