A master craftsman, Brian has been building instruments since he was a teenager. Now he custom designs guitars for world-famous musicians, including Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz and Keith Urban. Through Rockbridge Guitars, he has helped position Charlottesville as a destination for the music scene.
A Lexington native, Rockbridge is named for that county. The shop, however, sits in the center of Downtown Charlottesville. While still in highschool, Brian apprenticed with a mandolin builder, and from there went on to violins before settling on guitars. Given the painstaking detail and intricacies of crafting one of a kind instruments, Rockbridge only produces 60 guitars a year. Loyal fans and enthusiasts include band members from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bon Jovi, the Eurythmics and Guns n Roses.
The entrepreneur in Brian doesn’t end with music, but rather continues with old-fashioned board games. Just this year Brian, along with his good friend, Dave Matthews, launched a kickstarter campaign for Chickapig, a brand new board game that Brian developed. All pieces of the game are individually handmade in Charlottesville by local crafters. With a few days left of the campaign, they have come close to tripling their goal. And it has already attracted a cult-like following, even restaurants host “Chickapig Nights”. For Brian, Charlottesville remains a home that is welcoming and receptive to creativity and entrepreneurship.
I had a great guitar as a teenager that my parents bought me. I thought it was the best guitar ever. When Randall and I started making guitars that I enjoyed playing more than my own beloved vintage instrument, I pretty much never wavered from my mindset that other people would feel the same way and we could make a successful business.
I started building guitars with my friend Randall Ray in the early 2000’s. Both of us had backgrounds in instrument building, and it didn’t take us long to start building guitars that looked nice and had a unique sound. At that time, guitar building was just a hobby, but as more and more people got excited about the way our instruments sounded, I started to believe we could turn that hobby into a full-time job. Randall likes to say that back then I was “too young and stupid to know that it was impossible to build guitars for a living.” Maybe I was, but determination can overcome some pretty big obstacles, and I was determined.
I started traveling to every music event I could find, carrying around two or three guitars and asking every musician I came across if they’d like to try them out. At the same time, Randall and I started to refine our process and look for ways to improve every aspect of our guitars. We had to make sure that our instruments held up aesthetically to the nicest instruments in the world, even though at the time we only had simple hand tools to work with. Our instruments improved quickly, and all my traveling began to pay off. Before long we had a year backlog, and in about 2004 both Randall and I were able to go full-time and focus on our new business.
I wanted to create a guitar that was not only beautiful and well- crafted, but was also unique and had a sound all its own. There is a big demand for replicas of vintage instruments. Randall and I always felt that if we set out to build a replica, our customers would only buy our guitars when they couldn’t obtain the actual guitar the wanted. By creating a guitar that had a unique sound, feel, and aesthetic, at least we were creating the possibility that some people would think our guitars were the absolute best for them.
Success in business is very different depending on whom you are talking to. For me, I felt successful when I was simply able to make a living doing what I loved. I mean, it’s hard to beat that. At the same time, I always have had a drive to push to the next step. Our company has come a long way since those early years, and even though I’m quite content, I always find myself thinking about ways to improve our product, expand our client list, and broaden our overall brand recognition as one of the premier custom guitar shops in the world. Basically I think success in business is feeling content with where you are, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thinking about how to make another step forward.
The early stages of developing an idea can be very frustrating and can easily come to a halt. A business-savvy friend of mine always tells me to “move fast and break things.” This is great advice when developing an idea. If you allow yourself to get frustrated and get off track, you will likely give up. That has happened to me with several other businesses I tried to develop. If you move fast and break things, it means the second something doesn’t work, you switch paths and try to find another way to make it work. In the early days of Rockbridge Guitars, Randall and I were making changes and testing ideas on every single guitar. If we finished a guitar that didn’t meet our standards, I would cut the logo out of it and we’d begin another one.
I’ve recently started another business, a board game called Chickapig. In starting Chickapig, I was constantly reminded of the early years with Rockbridge Guitars. These two businesses are vastly different from each other, but the similarities in getting them off the ground were striking to me. For starters, I love both of them and without that there is no way I would have put such an insane amount of thought and time into either of them. So to me, the first step is loving what you’re doing and believing that it is worth a significant part of your life. Everyone has good ideas for new businesses or products. Not everyone follows through to bring those ideas to reality.
With Chickapig, I felt like I made changes to the game every single day for years before settling on a product I was ready to bring to market. Every change meant something wasn’t working. The key was not letting that frustrate me, but finding a new solution to the problem. The same idea of moving fast and breaking things applies when you bring a product to market. If something is not working, either figure out why, or abandon it and find a new solution. Determination and believing in what you are doing are vital to getting a business off the ground.
It can take several months to build a guitar. If you mess up something at the end of that process, you need to backtrack a very long way to make it right. We knew we couldn’t enter the high-end
custom guitar market if our guitars had flaws. That meant in the early years we had to start guitars over all the time. We’d spend so much time on those early guitars, we were practically building them for free by the time we’d finish one. After honing our own skills, making jigs and machinery to help with certain tasks, and adding two more incredible craftsmen to our team, Adam McNeil and Jake Hopping, we were finally able to get on top of these problems and build instruments with very we were finally able to get on top of these problems and build instruments with very few setbacks.
Hopefully quickly. I’ve started, or I should say investigated starting, lots of businesses and projects. Rockbridge Guitars and Chickapig are the only ones I really went for. With some of my other ideas, I’d go down the road of making prototypes and seeking feedback, but either the initial responses from all my friends were negative, or I’d find my heart was just not in it. To me, you have to love what you’re doing in business or it will never work. That’s the first step. If you love it, but no one you present it to thinks it’s worth pursuing, that’s another good reason to drop it and start over.
Family and friends brought me here. Family, friends, and the fact that Charlottesville might be the greatest city in America keep me here.
It’s incredible. Charlottesville is filled with both established businesses and start-ups. There are so many entrepreneurs here, and I’ve found most everyone I’ve talked to is eager to give advice.
I imagine it will continue to grow. Everywhere you look someone is starting a new business. I just look around my tiny circle, from my brother’s incredible start-up, PsiKick, to my childhood friend’s
business, Relay Foods. Charlottesville is breaking ground for forward thinking and new ideas. I’m just happy to be part of it.