Why did Todd Cambio become a guitar builder? "I was impatient, I was broke, and I was a carpenter," he says. "I guess necessity is the mother of invention."
Or, in Cambio's case, the necessity of reinvention. In his north-side shop, Cambio quietly cranks out museum-quality, hand-built six- and 12-string guitars that replicate those played by the American acoustic blues masters of the 1920s and 1930s. Orders for the instruments come to his Fraulini Guitar Co. from all over the world.
The sun is streaming in through an open door when I visit. The shop's afternoon hum is broken only by the sound of his chickens gossiping out in the yard and the occasional woof from his hound, Hamilton. Cambio has calm, brown eyes, and his movements are unhurried. He comes across as someone who lives in a different time zone. That's fitting, since he makes a living creating guitars that keep the past alive.
No one on the Bristol, Wis., farmstead where he grew up was musical. "When I was 13, I started playing harmonica," he says. "I got a Muddy Waters album. It changed my life."
Then came James Cotton, and soon Little Walter albums were added to the pile on the floor of his bedroom, where Cambio stayed, locked away, playing harp with those records "for two years." For perspective, this is when the rest of the teenage world was listening to Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer."
His uncle lived on the South Side of Chicago. When other kids went to the high school football game on Fridays, Cambio hopped in the car with his parents and went south, immersing himself in the Chicago blues scene, with his uncle as a guide. Eventually, at age 15, he began joining the musicians on stage.
Cambio's obsession with electric blues flipped to Delta acoustic guitar music when he was 18. That's when he moved to Madison and heard acoustic artist Catfish Stephenson. He performed with Catfish for eight years, eventually teaching himself string bass. He didn't learn guitar until he was in his 20s.
Surrounding himself with musicians who loved the same old-time music he did, he noticed something about guitar players. They were always broke, and they were always selling their instruments. "I always had a straight job as a carpenter or something. I would say, 'I'll buy it.'"
Those guitars inevitably needed work. "I was always too intimidated to work on instruments," says Cambio. He became friends with guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart at an Ohio music festival. Hart's wife, Heidi, was a luthier, and Cambio asked her to work on his guitar.
"She said, 'Why do you want me to work on the guitar?'" says Cambio. "'You're a carpenter. You're perfectly capable of working on that guitar.' She's the one who convinced me I didn't need to be afraid to work on it. I mean, that's the key to most things in life, you know? You just have to power through that stuff."
Cambio quit his job and spent a summer building an exact replica of Leadbelly's oak 12-string. The money ran out just as the guitar was finished. He took it as an example of his work to a job interview at TDS Construction and was hired as a project manager. He worked several years there, saving money to eventually make the jump to building guitars full time.
During that time, Cambio built a 12-string for Hart, whose world tours served as an international billboard for the fledgling Fraulini Guitar Co. Orders started streaming in from Australia, Europe and beyond.
Cambio says his instruments' primitive ladder bracing and all-domestic woods satisfy players looking to re-create the old blues sound. They want instruments just like the masters of the form used. "I'm a traditionalist," he says.
Cambio has made at least 120 guitars in 12 styles, which are named after female members of his Italian family. Ben Harper owns two. Hubby Jenkins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops plays a Fraulini six-string. The late Mike Seeger played a Fraulini whose top and sides were built of white oak harvested from a Wisconsin farm field.
Cambio says making guitars for his musical heroes is the greatest part of his work. The list of heroes includes people he listened to growing up, people many of us have never heard of. They are keeping an important American art form alive on Fraulinis.