Brooks Cobb in his studio with a couple of guitars he recently built from his own designs. PHOTOS BY TONY KUKULICH

There’s no avoiding that Lowcountry weather is tough on stringed instruments.

High humidity, sizzling heat and salt-laden air conspire to turn even the best guitars, basses, mandolins, violins and cellos into unplayable wrecks. Finding a single shop capable of caring for everything from beginner instruments to top-of-the-line masterpieces and vintage treasures is a challenge in many parts of the country. Bluffton musicians are fortunate enough to have two such shops.

Brooks Cobb, owner and operator of Brooks Cobb Guitars, moved to Bluffton 10 years ago. His path to building a business here was circuitous, as was his route to becoming a luthier, a term that means “guitar builder.”

While studying architecture at Hobart College, he was introduced to woodworking. Already a guitar player, one of Cobb’s first projects was building a guitar of his own design. He initially worked on the guitar in his free time, but eventually earned credit for the project through independent study.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to build it in the first place,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to build more. It was very much a feeling-out process, but an involved process nonetheless. I had no prior woodworking experience, per se.”

While many luthiers develop their designs over years, the guitars that Cobb builds today are strikingly similar to that first effort completed 25 years ago. At the time though, Cobb was still a long way from embarking on his career as a luthier.A chance stop to visit his parents after graduation led to an eight-year stint in rural Wisconsin building custom furniture and houses. While there, he also started racing sled dogs, which led to a move to Alaska. He worked with dogs and as a carpenter until chance intervened again, and he landed a job as a guitar repairman in a busy music store for two years.

“I really cut my teeth as far as the number of repairs and work go,” Cobb said. “I had done only my own stuff up to that point. I had built a lot of guitars by then, but when I got to the music store I started doing the tasks over and over and over again. That really pushed me to the next level of abilities and techniques.” 

Now settled in Bluffton, Cobb splits his time between doing repairs and building his own instruments. Unlike many builders, Cobb avoids copying the traditional approaches developed by large-scale manufacturers like Fender and Gibson. His designs are clearly his own.

“My whole life has been about design – designing products that fit comfortably and work,” explained Cobb. “Very versatile tools, very versatile instruments is the idea. They kind of lump everything into one instrument. Instead of bringing three guitars out, you can bring one.”

Sun City resident Bill Oremus plays guitar regularly with the Okatie River Band and took a guitar building class from Cobb.

“I took one of his classes and I fabricated a guitar,” Oremus. “It was a fabulous experience. We started with nine pieces of wood. It took me about three and a half months to make it. He’s a great teacher. He’s one of the guys who can do it and teach it. It’s pretty unique to work with him.”

Wally Garfield and Marintha Miller are the husband-and-wife team that run The Lutherie. Garfield focuses on the repair of fretted instruments like guitars, mandolins and banjos. Miller handles the repair of orchestral instruments in their Bluffton shop. Both have developed sterling reputations among their customer base that stretches from Charleston to St. Simons Island.

“It was a division of labor,” Miller explained. “Obviously, he knows guitars, so I went the other way. A lot of people were calling about (orchestral instrument repair), so I took it upon myself to learn. I’m still learning. I’ll always be learning.”

While he stays busy with his repair business, Garfield laments the fact that he doesn’t have much time to build instruments.

“I’m going to build more if I can retire and start building maybe,” he said. “But otherwise, I’m not going to have time. This just keeps us so busy. It is amazing how hard it is to keep up with it. You wouldn’t believe it … I don’t build enough to call myself a builder.”

Fred Warren, co-founder and guitarist with the locally popular Chilly Willy band, is a longtime customer of The Lutherie.

“Wally is terrific at what he does,” Warren said. “There are people that string guitars. There are people that fix broken guitars. But what somebody like Wally will do is customize your guitar to the way you play.”

Garfield grew up in the woodworking business. His father and grandfather were master carpenters who built and installed spiral staircases for customers across the country. Miller got involved in the business after the two were married.

The pair got their start building custom furniture and cabinets and thought they’d do some guitar repair on the side. Before long, they realized they needed to choose one business or the other.

“We had a job for $120,000, and all of the sudden 20 instruments came in within a 24-hour period,” Garfield said. “We’re sitting here with 20 instruments and we had to go meet to talk about this big job we were going to do. She and I looked at each other and said, ‘What if this happens when we’re in the middle of this big job?’ She and I had to make some decisions. We decided to quit building furniture and cabinets. We invested $200 or $300 in advertising, and it just took off.”

Both Miller and Garfield agree that working with professionals who know exactly what they want can be easier than working with students who haven’t yet learned the finer points of their instruments.

“Professionals know what they want,” said Miller. “With students, they don’t know what they want. You have to know what they need.”

Duncan Aspinwall-Winter is one of the local professionals with decades of experience and the ability to discern between good repair work and great repair work.

“Wally’s just so skilled at what he does,” said Aspinwall-Winter. “He can fix anything. I’ve brought a whole bunch of different stuff to him that he’s repaired or enhanced or just made better. He will listen to you and do exactly what you ask him to, and he’ll do it efficiently. The results will be great. It’ll be just what you’re looking for.”

For more information on Brooks Cobb, visit For more information about The Lutherie, visit

Tony Kukulich, a recent transplant to Bluffton, is an experienced freelance news writer and photographer.