Luthier John Catches with Florida Folk Festival
Strings of the Heart
When Pensacola native John Catches was a boy, he was always building tree houses or fixing his toy boats. Woodworking came naturally and by the time he was a teenager he had a contract to build stereo cabinets. In the late 1960s, a book about building classical guitars inspired him to make his first guitar. After all, music was almost as much of a passion as woodworking.
“No one was around to teach me about building an instrument, so I had to figure it out,” he says.
Making guitars was put on hold while John pursued his degrees in geology at the University of Florida, but in the early 1990s he set up a shop at his High Springs home and made steel-string guitars. He has attended the Florida Folk Festival since 1979 and began participating as a luthier about 10 years ago. It was at the 2003 festival where he noticed a brochure about a banjo-making workshop.
A few months later, his mother called him to say she was on her way to that banjo-making workshop. He couldn’t resist dropping in to take her lunch and see how she was doing. He proudly displays her first gourd banjo along with the ones he later learned how to make.
“I can truly say that building gourd banjos was passed down through the family although it was a short pass,” he says with a laugh.
Today his gourd banjos begin at $500 and sell as fast as he can make them. When he participates in folk festivals, however, his mission is more about educating the public about the banjo’s unique history.
“The banjo can be traced to a West African instrument known as an akonting,” he explains. “Traders often would let captured slaves bring the gourd instruments with them. Tribal elders warned young people to avoid playing music near the river or they would disappear forever.”
Now a resident of Ponte Vedra, John says having a Sunshine State of Mind means appreciating Florida’s rich cultural heritage and enjoying the natural environment. When he’s not working as a geology consultant, he goes to the beach for some paddle boarding. But his true passion remains making musical instruments.
“Although I do other things, I’m a Luthier at heart,” he says.
Meet John at the Florida Folk Festival, May 24-26, in White Springs, Florida.