One of the reasons I relocated to New York City in 1990 was Tom Humphrey. He was that compelling kid with the crazy guitar talk and a slanted soundboard design that changed the world of lutherie and the way a guitar responded in a player’s hands.
He was a charming, intense and brashly confident artist who put everything on the line to pursue his heart and his truth. Whether in his dreams or his boundless imagination, his design ideas were pouring out incessantly. He had so many irons in the fire my head would spin every time we would hang. Tom was a profoundly generous and deeply caring friend. He contributed on a human level to such a degree that every player he knew (and even those he didn’t) was remarkably changed by the quality of his spirit.
My visit to his house on April 10 was not planned. My ‘98 Millennium needed new frets for an ongoing recording and I called him out of the blue. He always made me feel like family. Every visit was a homecoming and unique reordering of the guitar universe. He stopped doing everything else in the shop and worked on that Guitar for two days. We spoke and shared volumes while he decisively glued a crack on the back, and pulled twelve worn frets out of the fingerboard. “You might want to go for a walk while I hammer these new ones in- it’s not pretty.”
I took his little dog, Pepe, on a stroll down the river and I could hear the mallet banging away in the distance. I walked for hours taking in the beauty of that evening as the darkness set. The river behind his home spoke deeply and gently in long currents reminding me of that rare gift of friendship. As I climbed back to the house the hammering had stopped and I walked in as Tom dusted shellac crystals and deliberately rubbed the moist cloth in circles on the shiny back of my guitar: “Ric, you’ve totally worn out the finish on this thing- you’re down to the grain.”
I had played thousands of hours on that guitar. It had been my weapon of choice for ten years. I had poured more soul juice into that thing than any other guitar I owned. The next day Martha’s coffee was especially thick, and our breakfast was truly memorable. Her hospitality and friendship was always about sincere joy and heartfelt emotion.
I played on my new guitar unabashedly for hours while someone always listened. Didi worked on her homework and Martha would sporadically come in and intensely focus her ears and eyes on a phrase. Tom’s brain would cue in and absorb every musical thought I could produce into his intent, analytical stare as he lay sprawled on the couch, pursing his lips. I knew that even in his sleep, his soul kept a line open while you played.
While I sat on the bus on the way to La Guardia early next morning, I thought about how lucky I was to have seen my friends. It was not until I performed on Wednesday night that I found out about Tom’s passing. Life has an uncanny sense of timing and we are not aware what will happen next. A chance to say goodbye and have my instrument repaired was a rare gift from the Cosmos. I know in my heart that Tom is up there somewhere still listening.