Profile of a Luthiery

☕️ 6 min read

This was article written for The Post SD about a luthiery living in South Dakota.

Josh Rieck recalls a conversation he had not long ago with a high school friend. That discussion of what each was doing in their lives that we have all had when visiting with an old friend. Josh told his friend that he had started a luthiery business and was making a living building and repairing instruments and playing music.

“Oh, that’s great,” said his friend. “Just like what you said you always wanted to do.”

After some time to digest the standard conversation he realized that yes, he was in fact living out his dream. He also recalled another, similar conversation he had with one of his college professors.

“Oh perfect, you got your dream,” said his professor.

Through a series of nicely timed events and a lot of hard work he had become what he had always wanted. It just took a little reflection to realize it. He realized that subconsciously he was always pointing in that direction.

Rieck is the founder and owner of String Theory Luthiery located in Sioux Falls. He now has a partner in this venture and opened a new storefront in August.

Rieck was interested in music growing up and actually played the guitar in a punk rock band in high school. He wasn’t involved in any formal musical organizations (unless you consider a punk rock band an “organization”, but that is a bit against the institution, or lack there of). He brought this musical interest to Northern State University after he graduated from Aberdeen Central High School in 2001.

He began as an undecided major taking some music classes. He really couldn’t decide on any specific direction. He was exploring the possibility of becoming a professional musician. Rieck remembers having a conversation with one of his professors. He expressed his interested in wanting a profession that was musically related, but wasn’t sure exactly what. His professor pointed out that there are many other professions in the industry that aren’t performance-related and that maybe he should explore some other avenues.

One day Rieck noticed a poster hanging on the wall in one of his classrooms from Southeast Technical University in Red Wing, Minn., for a program that specialized in musical instrument construction and repair. This was something he had thought about doing before, but the timing now seemed right and with the school being a state school and offering partial reciprocity to South Dakotans, Rieck decided it was time to give it a try.

“I’ve always seen it as a crossroads between the visual and performing arts. I was big into visual arts in high school and I thought it was a cool way to be artistic and be involved in music all at the same time,” he said.

He returned to Aberdeen after completing the program and continued work towards an NSU degree while doing some instrument repair work on the side. He decided to pursue a degree in Double Bass performance after he found out that the music department was looking for another bass player. He had an interest in the bass, but Rieck wasn’t quite sure how it was going to work out. He ended up falling in love with the instrument and eventually obtained a Masters degree in it from the University of South Dakota.

After that, Rieck did a semester of teaching at USD. He enjoyed his time as a professor, but it didn’t take long for him to realize it wasn’t really the profession for him.

Throughout college, Rieck had continued to repair instruments; he even built some. He was also a practicing musician and through his experiences gradually met more and more people in the industry. His luthiery work combined with the relationships he developed helped build a larger and larger client base.

Luthiery is a niche business and building a trusted reputation is really the only way to grow a business. A big help in getting his start in Sioux Falls was through Sioux Falls Music. A repair man had just left the city as Rieck came to town. He showed the music shop a sample of his work and immediately started getting work from them. That was a great jump start for Sting Theory Luthiery and still an important source of work.

In August, String Theory Luthiery hit a milestone by opening their own storefront in Sioux Falls. Rieck had spent years working in basements of music shops, sharing space with a cabinet maker, a spare room in a house or whatever space he could find. He finally built the client base necessary and found the right commercial space. It gives Rieck and his partner, Phil Bennett, the room and opportunity to grow the business even more.

Rieck has a strong passion for music and his chosen profession. This was completely evident when I asked him if he thought he had gotten over the hump so to speak, and proven himself in the industry.

“I’m comfortable with my skills, but this is like anything else, there’s plenty of room to grow in what I’m doing too,” he said. “For instance, right now I’m doing an apprenticeship with a guy who does museum restoration work. While I do a lot of work that I’m really happy with, I’m still trying to take my skills to the next level.”

Rieck says the majority of their business comes from repairs. The ultimate goal, he concedes, was do be able to do more new construction. But he has found that working on repairs and restorations has its own charm.

“I’ve really come to love repair work,” he said. “It’s really rewarding to have someone bring something in and they’re all beat down about it, and to give it back to them and it is a completely new playing experience for them. That’s a great feeling.”

With the new storefront and also with Bennett now on board, Rieck hopes to be able to spend more time on designing and constructing new instruments. Being able to have some pieces available for people to actually play will help to build this aspect of the business, he said. He always tells people to never buy an instrument they haven’t actually played; he’s just trying to practice what he preaches.

String Theory Luthiery welcomes folks to come into the shop. They do have some original instruments on display, asl well as hand-made stands and other items for sale in their new showroom. They also do some consignment sales as well along with selling some basic materials that they use in their regular work such as strings.