Guitar Whisperer

Tom Bedell listens to the trees.

Share this article!

With all due respect to poet Joyce Kilmer, Bend instrument maker Tom Bedell never saw a guitar as lovely as a tree.

Bedell, 67, is owner and CEO of Two Old Hippies Guitars, a company that makes instruments under the Bedell Guitars, Breedlove Guitars and Weber Mandolins brands. 

Two Old Hippies pays homage to the lovely tree by sourcing only from salvaged or ecologically harvested timberlands.

But Bedell aims to do more than save the pristine old-growth forests that supply many of the so-called “tonewoods” used in the instrument industry; he is also deploying new software technologies that fine-tune the relationship between individual trees and musical quality.

“Trees have their own tonal profiles, a frequency response within the wood,” he says. “We are simply developing ways to listen.”

The company’s smart technology “studies each tree for target frequencies and variations, allowing us to craft each guitar to reduce variables. This is a big change from simple factory instrument making.”

Lest you think Bedell’s ode to tree spirit is “old hippie” speak — well, think again.

Sure, visitors to the company’s manufacturing center, which sits on two separate lots and covers just over two football fields, are greeted with a large sign that reads: “Peace, Love & Rock and Roll.”

And yes, Bedell sports a gray, Magnum P.I. mustache, along with a signature bandanna wrapped around his shoulder-length gray hair.

Unknown 2

But this old hippie can also show you the money, as he did on a tour of an unassuming warehouse on a recent Thursday afternoon.

Inside are the raw materials: flat-board precuts of trees sustainably harvested from around the world. Many of the trees in the vault were handpicked by yours truly, he says.

“You’re looking at about $40 million worth of guitars, retail value.”

Of course, any Oregon company called “Two Old Hippies” will have a pretty groovy backstory. Bedell’s career trajectory, which has taken him from small-town Iowa, to the corridors of political power in Washington, D.C., and the sweltering Central American rain forest, doesn’t disappoint.

In medias res, Bedell credits the freewheeling ‘60s for instilling in him an open minded, entrepreneurial and music-loving spirit, “especially when the Beatles arrived in America. It was an explosion of youth and creativity. Everyone wanted to learn how to play a guitar.”

The budding musician took lessons in his hometown of Spirit Lake, Iowa. But along the way he picked up a few business tips from his father, Berkley Bedell, who founded the Pure Fishing tackle empire in 1937.

“My dad was an amazing role model,” says Bedell, who by age 16 had already sold his first guitar. “I ordered guitars from around the world and ran a thriving retail business as a teenager, out of our basement.”

Many, if not all, counterculture figures feel the lure of mainstream. Bedell sold the original conception of Bedell Guitars just after high school.

After college he enrolled in Stanford Law School, then built a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C., that helped elect Democratic governors and congressmen (including a young Al Gore).

“One of my favorite mistakes is when I was asked to help run a presidential campaign for a little known politician from Georgia named Jimmy Carter,” Bedell recalls. “I told them, ‘Jimmy Carter? Why, he doesn’t have a chance.’”Unknown

Carter’s chief of staff, Jody Powell, approached him at a White House reception a few months after the election in 1976:

“So we don’t stand a chance, huh?” chided Powell. “Jody sort of rubbed it in my face a little,” laughs Bedell.

His family, business and political lives came full circle in in the late 1970s, when his father was elected to Congress representing Iowa’s 6th District.

“Dad came to me after a few years in,” he recalls.

“‘Son, I need you to take over the family business or I will have to resign from Congress.’ So I did. I sort of saved the company. We went from $2 million in sales to $20 million in 10 years.”

Filial business mission accomplished, Bedell retired from Pure Fishing in 2007. Within a few years, he was back in the music game.

He revived Bedell Guitars, bought Breedlove Guitars (including the guitar manufacturing plant) and Weber Mandolins, placed them all under the Two Old Hippies Guitars label. Then he moved the entire operation to Bend.

“I loved the area,” he says. “The lifestyle here is fantastic.”

The family- run business includes Molly, his wife and the second old namesake hippie, as well as his daughter Sami Mulhern, the company’s artist relations and marketing director.

Profile 02

About those eco-friendly practices: Bedell adheres to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement of over 180 countries that work to protect threatened forests and species of endangered plants.

All Two Old Hippies instruments are harvested from fallen or sustainably selected trees.

For example, the company sources from Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, where management practices have been shown to demonstrate the state-of-the-art in tropical forestry. (The nonprofit Rainforest Alliance helped connect Bedell to communities managing the reserve.)

“We selectively harvest precious woods in about 11 or so endangered or threatened forests around the world,” Bedell says.

“I’ve been to every one, except in India. And I’m going there next year.”

Porter Friedman, a Rainforest Alliance chain of custody staffer, says sustainable forest management can keep instrument makers like Bedell in business for many years to come, especially in tropical rainforests where the trees face pressure from many other industries.

“Responsible management can increase the confidence of instrument manufacturers that their supply chains will not be interrupted, while also protecting watersheds, soils and natural habitats,” Friedman says.

Another initiative aimed at keeping Two Old Hippies in business and on the cutting edge is the “sound profiling” software, developed by and licensed from Bryan Galloup, a master luthier out of Michigan.

The technology adapts the specs for each guitar into tonal and spatial measurements imperceptible to the human eye or ear.

In the manufacturing warehouse, Bedell shows off the setup: Sensors attached to a guitar frame translate the special frequencies onto a computer screen. Craftspeople — of which there are 50 in Bend — then saw, sand, and fit guitars and mandolins that match the variables and patterns.Unknown 1

“It’s a significant technology breakthrough,” Bedell says. “And it really works.”

Bedell says he is one of the only guitar makers using the technology. “I like to call it finding our unique niche within the industry.”

Enlarging the niche is Bedell’s launch of two new products, Breedlove Concerto Body Shape and the Bedell Revolution Series.

These boutique and custom guitars led the mid- to high-end acoustic guitar market into a 39% increase in sales since 2009, according to the trade group, National Association of Music Merchants. Two Old Hippies unveiled these guitar lines at NAMM Show 2017 in Anaheim.

“We did well,” says Mulhern, who, like Bedell, declines to reveal company revenues.

Bedell does describe a custom guitar his company is building for an unnamed rock star.

The top is a 3,000-year-old Sitka spruce tree Two Old Hippies unearthed following an avalanche in Alaska; the tree had been buried for 350 years. (Old-growth Sitka spruce trees are coveted by the industry because their tight growth rings have squeezed the wood free of cellulose fibers found in younger saplings.)

The bottom part of the frame is a CITES-approved harvest of a 500-year-old Milagro tree from a forest in Brazil. The final product will be sold to the unnamed buyer for $26,000.

One recalls Bedell’s rich life story: from political power player who ran a corporate empire to shrewd entrepreneur fueled by flower power — and those lovely trees.

“Much of the old growth being used to make instruments, houses and other everyday products through clearcutting techniques sat growing on earth when Columbus first got here,” he says. “It’s unacceptable for us. Because the world can never get back what is lost.”

A version of this article appears in the April issue of Oregon Business.