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Meet the Craftsmen: Ryan Fish

By Michael Eck

Ryan Fish is the man who signs your new Weber mandolin. Look inside, there on the label, in a confident flourish, “inspected by Ryan Fish.”

“I’m happy to sign our instruments,” Fish beams, joining a tradition sometimes spoken of in hushed tones. “I feel really good about it. I’m so confident in the job that everyone is doing here at Weber.”

But Fish doesn’t start the day signing mandolins. Arriving at 6 a.m., he’ll be bending sides and placing head and tail blocks before you’ve had breakfast.

He can man every station in the shop, save perhaps the finishing booth. But he doesn’t need to. He trusts his six-man team implicitly. There are no titles at Weber, but if there were, Fish might be considered something like a foreman. But even that’s too rough cut a word for the art Fish brings to everything he touches, from handmade jigs to hand-tuned tops.

“We’re all working together as a team, trying to build the best mandolins possible. I do everything I can to make that happen. Everyone has different strengths, and they can be really focused at specific jobs, and shine.”

Fish was born in Denver, Colorado in 1980, the son of a rock and roll drummer. His earliest musical memories involve the band in the garage, watching, rapt, as his father pushed out classic rhythms, making sense of sound. By the time he was in grade school, like many a musician’s kid, he was carrying gear to the gigs.

He tried his hand at the drums, as pop (still his favorite concert-going buddy) might have hoped for, but it didn’t stick. When the group’s guitarist lent the kid his axe, at 13, all bets were off. Fish found the blues, in a good way, searching for every flat seventh he could find in greater Orange County, and burning up a wicked slide.

“I had an affinity for it,” he muses quietly. “Yeah.”

Fish still plays today, but rarely in bands anymore. It’s mostly for his own entertainment, at the occasional jam and by his step-kids’ request.

It was the guitar, though, that eventually led him to Weber.

“In early high school, I had a Strat that I put a different gauge of strings on. The bridge went up and I had no idea what I’d done to the thing, so I took it to a repair shop. It was the greatest place I’d ever seen in my life. They adjusted my truss rod for free and sent me on my way, and I knew I wanted to work on instruments from that point on.”

In pursuit of some kind of six-string nirvana, Fish found himself at the famed Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, in Phoenix. It was all he’d hoped for. It had a repair branch, which is what first called Fish to the fold. It had a clear, ardent mission for precision and attention to detail; for making the best instruments, every time. And, perhaps most importantly, it had mentors, the kind of people Fish collects in his pockets.

Spend any time with the lanky Fish at all, and you’ll find he is dead quick to give credit where it’s do.

“The teachers there were amazing, particularly John Reuter and William Eaton. Frank Ford came by once to give a lecture. His creativity was just awesome. He would make his own tools and come up with interesting ways of doing things.”

Graduation led to employment, and Fish spent five years at Modulus Guitars in Palo Alto, Calif.

In 2006, he looked north.

“I’d never been to Oregon, but a lot of my friends were moving up here. I had been knocked out by the Breedlove booth every time I went to NAMM with Modulus, so I visited Bend one weekend, dropped off my resume with Kim Breedlove and a few weeks later I was moving up here.”

Pulling up stakes is not as easy as it sounds when you are shy to the point of taciturn, which Fish, in very few words, is. But passion won out.

The namesake of the forward-looking brand became another influence, stirring Fish to the kind of zeal and rigor that he brings to Weber early every morning.

By the time Tom Bedell and Two Old Hippies entered the picture in Bend, Fish was making mandolins solo at Breedlove, and his suite of skills made him an obvious choice for Weber.

It’s fair to say the bristly-bearded Fish breathes mandolins, and we don’t mean the occasional accidental whiff of sawdust. When he finishes for the day, and smilingly signs the last Bitterroot, Yellowstone or Fern—having given it a full inspection from stem to stern, checking fretwork, intonation, sound, finish and vibe—he might head out with his fellow luthiers to one of the city’s noted craft breweries. The talk will inevitably turn to mandolins, and more importantly, their construction. On arriving home, he’ll spend time with his family, hugging wife Michelle as she heads to bed and he turns to the computer, watching videos of other makers at work, or reading up on pioneering acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar.

It’s all towards one purpose for Fish, making the best traditional mandolin available. It’s towards making your Weber mandolin.

“We take the time to do it right,” he says. “We’re proud to be stewards of a legend and to make Weber better than it’s ever been.”

“It’s so gratifying when someone plays a mandolin I’ve built. I think about all the time I spend in my room, playing my instruments, and all the happiness it brings me. Music means everything. It’s so special. The fact that I’ve helped make something that someone else can spend that kind of time with, that will hopefully inspire them and bring them joy, that’s really fulfilling.”