Ricky Hess: Passion for Making Music and The Guitars He Plays
By Kelly Ferguson
This article appeared originally in the fall 2021 issue of Frontiers Magazine.
From the coal mines of Virginia to Spartanburg Methodist College, Ricky Hess, the College’s maintenance supervisor, has always been a hard worker. Hess has more than 20 years of experience in maintenance, but his true skill is in learning how things work.
From air conditioning to guitars to flooring to amps and banjos, Hess can figure out just about anything given some time. Since he was eight, he liked to work with his hands. Over the years, Hess harnessed that passion to become an expert in building custom guitars.
Originally from Homemaker, Virginia, Hess came to South Carolina as a young man looking for work. Growing up, he played football, baseball, and the guitar. He planned to stay with his uncle until he could get on his feet, but it only took Hess two days to do that. He left Virginia on a Thursday and started working the next Tuesday.
After some time in construction, he made his way into college facilities work. Thanks to his skill, he was soon promoted to the head of maintenance of Presbyterian College. Hess worked there for 21 years before making his way to Spartanburg Methodist College.
For the past two years, Hess has been working to make sure the SMC campus is kept in great shape. As he said, “If it’s broken, we don’t let it stay that way for long.” That seems to be a good way of summing up how Hess goes about life.
As his passion for playing guitar grew, he dug in to learning how they work and started fixing his own guitars, which led to Hess building guitars by hand.
“I started playing guitar at eight years old. I played bluegrass, country, then rock and roll as a teen, of course. I liked fixing my guitars then and enjoy building them now,” Hess said.
As his skill for building grew, he began to develop a list of clients, who are impressed by his self-taught talent.
“Ricky is one of the smartest guys; he’s amazingly talented, and if he doesn’t know something give him a minute, and he’ll figure it out. His guitars are completely different than anything you’ve ever seen,” said Jamie Seymore, one of Hess’ clients.
The first electric guitar he made, in 1993, was built from the walnut of an old local church. Another of his creations was crafted from the wood of Doyle Hall, the oldest building on the SMC campus at the time, standing since 1880. Hess managed to salvage some old heart pine when it was torn down in 2018.
Each guitar takes about 30 - 50 hours to make. So far, he has made eight, but the number of guitars and amps he has repaired over the years far exceeds that. In 2021 alone, Hess has already worked on around 80 guitars for a number of clients. He said that one of his best customers is SMC president, Scott Cochran, who often brings his guitars to Hess for adjustments.
“Guitars are like cars; you gotta take them in to the shop for a tune up,” Hess said. “Just how your tires can get out of alignment, same with a guitar. You have to take care of it.”
Hess owns about 25 guitars himself, but his favorite is one he custom-made to fit his hands. Every guitar he crafts is completely unique and suited to the customer’s preferences. His wife, Tammy, does much of the detail work on the guitars, like inlaying mother-of-pearl designs and creating a logo for their Elise Belle brand, which is named after their daughter and Tammy's grandmother.
The guitars are more than unique for each customer; they also have a collection of antique parts, a specific radius fret design, laser sensor pickups, and stainless steel that make them high-quality instruments.
Hess is one for names. He lists them off quickly, easily recalling people he has worked with to build or repair guitars or amplifiers.
Hess has built guitars for a number of local artists, including Jamie Seymore, Larry Newman, Charles Shealy, Jesse Pearson, and more. He’s also worked with national musicians like Jack Mollete, a guitarist for Loretta Lynn and Earnest Tubbs.
Hess loves to play music as well, performing with a couple of local groups for more then 30 years.
Even when not playing with a band, Hess still plays every day. He jokes that the guitar is one of the worst addictions there is, and that he just can’t stop