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Carpentersville ‘guitar guy’ an artist at his craft

Robby Bakes shows some his custom guitars his Bakes Guitar shop Carpenterseville. | Janelle Walker for Sun-Times Media

Robby Bakes shows some of his custom guitars in his Bakes Guitar shop in Carpenterseville. | Janelle Walker for Sun-Times Media

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Elgin Vintage
Guitar Show

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Elgin Holiday Inn, 495 Airport Road, Elgin

Info: (847) 488-9000

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Updated: October 29, 2013 6:07AM

CARPENTERSVILLE — There isn’t much that can’t be made into an electric guitar — from car mufflers to cigar boxes, according to local luthier Robby Bakes.

Bakes, owner of Bakes Guitar here, has experimented with just about any combination to make the instrument. He has been either making or repairing guitars for 30 years after first discovering the occupation in high school.

He has owned the shop on Main Street in Carpentersville for the past three years but is preparing to return to his Genoa home to focus less on repair and more on the building of custom guitars.

His Carpentersville shop hosts a display of his ideas that later became guitars — two Chicago Blackhawks guitars marking the hockey team’s 2010 and 2013 Stanley Cup wins, a Chicago Bears guitar, even one that notes the violence the city of Chicago has seen in recent years.

“I make it into art, and Chicago is in my theme recently,” Bakes said.

Once he gets an idea for what he wants to do and create in a guitar, he can’t rest until it’s done, Bakes said.

Such as his Jimi Hendrix guitar — an ebony instrument with the rocker’s image carved into the headstock. “It got stuck in my head,” Bakes said.

“I get an idea and I have to do it. I have to get it out of my head, then start making it the next day,” Bakes said.

The La Grange native wasn’t in a band or heavily into music in high school. He did take all of the shop classes he could — figuring out how to take things apart and put them back together again.

His mother saw a newspaper story about a teen who went to guitar-making school, and that sparked her teenage son’s interest.

He ended up going to Phoenix, Ariz., to the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery on a government grant.

For four months, nine hours a day, he learned about luthiery — the art of making stringed instruments.

Police to Petty

He returned to the Chicago area and began working at Hamer Guitars in Arlington Heights.

Back then, he said, Hamer Guitars was selling to bands such as Def Leppard and The Police — and back when paying more than $1,000 for a guitar was unheard of, Bakes said.

“My motorcycle was cheaper than that,” Bakes said.

But he was cranking out the same guitar over and over again, and not getting to make his own instruments, Bakes said.

He went out on his own in 1984 and began selling custom-made guitars. But with the reality of bills and overhead, he went back to work for Chicago Music Exchange on Lincoln Avenue, fixing guitars for some famous names again.

In those years, it wasn’t odd to see Johnny Depp, Tom Petty, or a member of AC/DC walk in, guitar shopping.

But again, he found himself repairing thousands of guitars in three years there, but rarely finding the time to make his own.

That was why he went back to his own shop, Bakes said, and why he opened the Carpentersville location.

“I felt like I needed to reach the customers easier,” Bakes said.

He is still repairing and customizing guitars, and still making them from scratch — often with what he finds to reuse and repurpose.

He also has seen in recent years how the general economic downtown has hurt the guitar industry.

When he hosted the first guitar show in Elgin, vintage and collectible guitars were selling for $10,000, Bakes said. And in the early years, it was common to see entire families come to the show. Now, it is the die-hard collectors or people looking to sell the guitars they bought as investments in the early 2000s, he said.

“Someone might have a $30,000 Stratocaster … I’d offer them $11,000 today,” Bakes said.

Soon, Bakes plans to shutter his Carpentersville location and move back to his Genoa home to keep making guitars — and focus less on the repair jobs.

“When I leave here, I will try to find a way to sell what I’ve made to support 30 more years,” Bakes said. “And try to be discovered.”

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