Walking into Roger Morillo's shop in St. Albans, you cannot help but feel a tinge of excitement.
Here is a place where not only valuable instrument repair is done, but it's also where Roger makes his own basses and guitars. This is the proverbial "kid in a candy store" for a guy like me.
Born in Merida, Venezuela, musical inspiration first came with a Christian band he saw at his grandmother's house. The musicians' electric guitars he saw were "enchanting. " In 1983, he played his first electric guitar which started the ball rolling for him as a player. Eventually, it was the bass guitar that became his chosen instrument. After forming bands and playing all the usual gigs-weddings, club work, etc., he soon realized that the musician's life is not an easy nor profitable one. "I know how hard it is to make 60 or 100 dollars. I know how hard that is."
Roger was "very picky about my bass sound" and being dissatisfied with commercial basses, he wanted a custom instrument.
Roger sought out a local luthier to commission an instrument and to learn the craft, but this wasn't exactly an ideal master-apprentice situation. It was more that Roger watched him, but eventually "The man told me, 'Hey, you are bothering me and I'm spending too much time with you.' " The bass was completed, but still Roger felt that "It was not right," and decided he needed to build his own instruments. Information was scarce, these being the days before the internet, but by 1995, he had made a collection of his own instruments.
He came to West Virginia in 1998, but the idea of being a full-time repair/luthier did not become solidified until 1999. The quality of his work began to draw attention and in 2000, Bass Player magazine had featured his instruments. By any measure, that's a meteoric leap forward for an instrument maker.
"If it wasn't an art, I wouldn't do it. It's fixing memories; part of life for people. That makes me happy."
You can tell a lot about a person by their workspace. Roger's shop is small and so space is used to the utmost efficiency (see photo 4). Row upon row of tools are meticulously organized and are within easy reach.
Watching him repair my guitar was like watching a great conductor commanding an orchestra. A slight movement to the right brings out a tool that is used to shave the fingerboard. Precise motions with this tool starts to shave the fingerboard in order to make it level. A quick movement to the left brings a vacuum to remove the shavings. A move here, another tool and so forth. All is perfectly orchestrated and precise.
The work is not only being done expertly, it's being done quickly. The whole time, Roger carries on a conversation as if nothing interferes with a brilliantly organized mind.
In short, his work is impeccable, his prices are more than fair and his appraisals are honest and without puffery.
He does not do this work solely for the money, but because he is passionate about his art and being an artist. In fact, listen to how he says "artist" and "passion." This is conviction, my friends.
Listen to the interview:
About West Virginia, this is what he had to say: He says that, "West Virginians are the friendliest people in the world. I don't know why, but I belong here. People (here) are really kind."
Perhaps this observation by local musician Tony Wegmann can illuminate us on Roger and his work:
"The first time I had the privilege to play a bass built by Roger Morillo, I knew I had to own one. I went to Roger and asked him to build me a bass.
I started to describe what I wanted and he said to me, "Trust me. I am the artist." He looked at me and said, "Your wood is walnut." I said, "Okay, Roger, I trust you" and he built me the best bass guitar I have ever played.
The tone, the feel, the workmanship: it is all there. He even named my bass "relaxed happy." Roger is a shining gem in the Kanawha Valley."