A passion passed on from father to son.
That’s how Robert Riccardi, Jr. describes the business he inherited, .
Riccardi, 42, is a luthier: a craftsman who makes, repairs and restores stringed instruments.
Inside his garage on Hickstown Road in Sicklerville, Riccardi gives new life to ailing upright basses, violins, violas and cellos—instruments that sweeten with age.
With the closing in recent years of bigger shops, such as Moenning & Son in Philadelphia, smaller ones like Riccardi’s are filling the gap for musicians who need a trusted technician to maintain their instruments
Despite his love of the craft, lutherie isn’t Riccardi’s full-time occupation—education is. He’s principal at Winslow Township (elementary) School No. 2. Most of his shop time comes in evenings and weekends.
“What I enjoy is putting on jazz or classical (on the stereo) and being able to engross myself in the repair,” he said. “This is a nice way to do something with my hands that’s gratifying."
A family tradition
It’s also a way for him to maintain the tradition begun by his father, Robert Sr. The elder Riccardi, who came from a musical family in South Philadelphia, played upright bass in the Pennsylvania Ballet orchestra. In the mid-1960s, he began repairing bows at a small shop on Merchantville Avenue in Pennsauken, and instruments when time permitted.
But by the early 1980s, budget cutbacks meant the ballet was touring less. Struggling to support his family, Robert Sr. turned his attention to the repair shop.
"He needed to rely on it more," the younger Riccardi recalls.
A good chunk of the shop’s business came through repairing instruments for area schools and their students, and for fellow musicians. Riccardi, Jr. started learning the craft while still in elementary school.
“In third grade, I was always in the shop with my dad,” Robert Jr. said. “I studied with my dad, playing double bass, but he pushed me more toward school, because of how hard he struggled financially."
The younger Riccardi eventually fulfilled his father's wishes, graduating from Rowan University with a teaching degree. He continued working in the family shop until 2006, when Robert Sr. died, and he was faced with closing the Pennsauken location for good.
The next generation?
Instead, Robert Jr. decided to move the business to his Gloucester Township garage, where, on a summer evening, the smell of sawdust hangs in the air. Rows of upright basses, a few resting between sawhorses, await his attention. Some have warped necks; others have bridges askew.
Riccardi wears a work apron over a Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt, khaki shorts and sandals. The tools of his trade—chisels, gouges, files, cutting knives—spill over onto an oblong work bench as he repairs the fingerboard of a 1940s Kay bass.
Riccardi’s wife, Deborah, helps out around the shop; his daughter Emily, 12, constantly pops in to ask questions about instrument repair.
“It reminds me of myself” at a younger age, Riccardi said with a smile. It’s too soon to tell whether his son, Robert III, age 6, will show a similar interest.
Asked if Emily might someday take over the shop from him, Riccardi beamed and said, "I could certainly see her doing that."
Emily also studies upright bass, which she took up two years ago; Robert Jr. only plays bass as a hobby, but therein lies another family connection: his father’s full-sized Hungarian bass, which dates back to the late 1700s or early 1800s.
One of the keys to being a good luthier, Riccardi said, is to understand what musicians want out of their instruments.
“I take the time to really listen to each player,” he said. “Each instrument has its own personality, and it takes time to connect the two.”
'A beautiful gift'
Although there’ s been a major shift from larger to smaller shops, there will always be a need for expert instrument repairers, said Tim Olsen, president of the Guild of American Luthiers in Tacoma, WA.
“These days, there are many thousands of decent new instruments flooding the world from China,” Olsen said in an email.
“Those all need expert set-up and repair work, and will for decades to come. Plus, all the old American and European fiddles are still around, and the older they get, the more work they need.”
So, the tuneful tradition that Riccardi inherited will keep on playing.
“My dad left a beautiful gift as far as the reputation he built,” Robert Jr. said.