Ben Griffith: Piano man

By Kevin Wheatley Published:

Ben Griffith sits at a piano as his fingers dance along the keys, gracefully playing “How Great Thou Art.” They breathe life into the newly rebuilt instrument.

A smile occasionally breaks his deep concentration, but he’s in a trance. Sitting on that piano stool and touching the cool ivory keys sends him somewhere else.

The old 1911 Steinway & Sons piano Ben plays sounds resuscitated. Vibrant notes echo off the walls of his 600-square-foot piano shop next to his home on Crestwood Drive. 

A few other pianos – waiting their turn for Ben’s attention – are dormant on the shop’s concrete floor. 

Spools of piano strings, tuners and assorted tools fill the shelves. Cans of rich lacquers sit next to a Craftsman air compressor.

Ben, 54, is not only a performance-level pianist, but he also tunes and reconstructs pianos.

“I do complete rebuilding work on pianos. I work from the ground up, basically. I will refinish the piano. I will install a new soundboard, along with the new strings, new pin block and a new action.

“Everything you could possibly do to a piano, I do it.”

Most around Frankfort know Ben from the band “Stirfry,” where he shows off his other musical talents by playing the upright bass and accordion. 

The band – including Joanna Hay on violin and mandolin, guitarist Jeff Ellis and drummer Bill May – played the next-to-last summer concert series. Many ask Ben, “Didn’t I see you play downtown?”

But to his clients and those who know his technical work, Ben will always be known as “The Piano Man.”

Ben’s career choice makes sense, considering he has a natural ear for music. Living in Iowa at age 5, Ben heard music and played it on his parents’ piano.

His mom decided to put him in lessons.

While on the recital circuit, Ben ran into a number of out-of-tune pianos.

“It drove me absolutely crazy when I’d sit down to play and the piano wouldn’t be in tune,” he said.

When a tuner came to work on his family’s piano in 1970, Ben asked the man to teach him how to tune it himself.

“He started giving me some lessons, and I learned how to tune.”

Ben moved from Iowa to Lexington on the recommendation of a friend the following year after finishing high school.

“He moved down here before me,” Ben recalled. “We played music together and he said, ‘You gotta come down to Kentucky.’ So I moved here and started playing some music.”

Ben tuned pianos on a part-time basis along with his music gigs for a few years until 1978, when he attended a piano technician guild’s convention in Cincinnati.

“That opened my eyes to people who knew what they were doing around pianos. Real experts.”

Around that time, he began working with a Lexington piano technician named Clair Davies, a nationally known figure in piano rebuilding.

Ben’s skills improved under Davies’ tutelage, and in 1982 he took his first step toward becoming a registered piano technician.

He had to pass three exams on tuning and technical work before being certified.

The experience wreaked havoc on Ben’s nerves. After tuning pianos for 12 years, he thought he’d earned his wings.

“That’s one of the scariest moments in my life. You know, I’d already been tuning for 12 years for money, and here you are all of a sudden with all these other piano tuners deciding whether or not you’re a piano tuner.”

He passed his exams, and by 1990 was tuning and servicing pianos in Central Kentucky and for colleges and universities. He was the technician at Kentucky State University, where he earned a performance degree and met his wife of 28 years, Patricia. He also tuned at Georgetown College, Transylvania University, Centre College and the Norton Center. 

Starting in the late 1990s, Ben scaled back on his tuning work and focused on getting more reconstruction skills.

In 2000, Ben was reading a piano magazine that had just arrived by mail.

“In the classifieds section I saw an ad for selling out this shop of piano tools,” Ben said.

It was his old mentor, Davies.

“I saw that and called him up immediately, right on the spot, and said, ‘Clair, I want to buy your tools,’ and I didn’t have this building at the time. So not only did I buy his tools out, but I had to build this shop.”

Three friends helped Ben build a new shop next to his home. 

“It took me about nine months from the time I said yes to him before I brought in his tools.”

With Davies’ tools, Ben tested his skills. A key tool was a pneumatic soundboard press, which Davies invented. It’s vital to giving life to musical notes.

 “The most you can do without a soundboard press is just to repair soundboards, which is good work. But a soundboard on a piano will lose life and it will lose its oomph. You won’t find that, even in a repaired soundboard, when the piano gets to be 60, 80 years old. It will sound flat. The tone is just really kinda dead.”

Since rebuilding pianos in his own shop, Ben has successfully rebuilt five. He was working on his sixth for a woman in Lexington when he spoke to The State Journal.

“It’s getting close now to being fixed and shipped back to its owner,” he said, noting that the piano has been in his shop for 15 months.

“Luckily, she has lots of patience.”

Ben usually spends about a year rebuilding a piano at a rate of about two per year. Right now there are eight pianos waiting to be rebuilt or repaired in his basement.

He charges roughly $18,000 to $20,000 per rebuilding project. The only thing he doesn’t do is pick up and deliver.

“That is the one work I don’t do,” he said with a laugh.

Music runs in Ben’s family. His wife, Patricia, is a concert-level pianist. His older daughter, Treva, 25, is getting ready to teach violin privately in Florida, and his youngest daughter, Carrie, 22, still plays piano at her leisure while pursuing a physical therapy degree at Morehead State University.

For Ben, playing piano is a daily ritual.

“I play every day,” he said. “If I’m tuning, I’ll play a little bit after I tune every piano. But if I’m in the shop, and I have a shop day like today, I’ll take a break every now and then and go play music. 

“So you know, you add up 10 or 15 minutes here and there and it adds up to about half and hour or an hour every day.”

After tuning a piano, Ben will play a song for his customers just to test it.

“A lot of times, particularly if that person is a church-goer, I’ll have a church-going tune and a non-church-going tune. You know, a lot of people are church-goers, so I’ll play ‘How Great Thou Art.’”

For the non-church-goers, Ben will typically play something jazzy like “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Billy Strayhorn.

It’s no surprise that Ben’s love for music pushed him to pursue a career in tuning and later rebuilding. 

“I’ve played music all my life,” he said. “I have to play music. It’s just part of the thing that keeps me going.”

 

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