TinkerTar guitars created by Charlottesville VA Brian Calhoun

Brian Calhoun, Creator of the Famous TinkerTar

Meet The Founder of TinkerTar and Chickapig

Charlottesville area native, Brian Calhoun is perhaps best known to local families as the creator of the popular game, Chickapig. Others may recognize his name as the co-founder of Rockbridge Guitar, a company that has crafted instruments for artists such as Dave Matthews and Keith Urban. Calhoun’s latest creation is a line of special (and cute!) TinkerTar guitars for children, designed as a one-string guitar to make learning how to play easier. CharlottesvilleFamily caught up with Calhoun to  learn more about his story and how his latest creation, TinkerTar Guitars came to be.

The Inspiration for TinkerTar Guitars

Brian Calhoun with TinkerTar

What was the inspiration for TinkerTar, your beginner’s guitar for young kids?

I wanted to combine my passions of building guitars and creating things for kids. I started building instruments as a teenager, and in 2002, I co-founded Rockbridge Guitar Company – an artisan business crafting high-end acoustic guitars. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to build guitars for numerous high-profile musicians, including many of the guitarists who inspired me when I was growing up. 

You founded the Rockbridge Guitar Company when you were just 20 years old. What was that like?

I started learning guitar when I was 9 and it just grew from there. I was a senior in high school and needed an independent study course, so I started one on mandolin building. I eventually had apprenticeships with John Schofield, a mandolin builder in Rockbridge County, and Sam Compton, who was building violins. But I didn’t play either mandolin or violin, so neither of these instruments made perfect sense to me. I’d gotten into bluegrass flat-picking as a teenager and even studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. I was able to parlay the skills of those early efforts at mandolin and violin building with my understanding of guitar into a partnership with Randall Ray.

Brian was too modest to say who he has made custom guitars for, so we’ll brag on this amazing local artisan for him!

Some twenty years later, Rockbridge Guitar Company has become one of the premier boutique guitar companies in the world, turning out custom-built instruments for the likes of Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, Brandi Carlile, Amos Lee, Keith Urban, Sara Bareilles and many more.

What makes your Brian Calhoun TinkerTar guitars different from other guitars for kids?

The TinkerTar only has one string, they come in non-traditional guitar shapes, and they have a color-coded fingerboard that corresponds to songs in our music book. It has also been designed for smaller hands of course. To non-musicians, an instrument with just one string might seem silly, but you can play an infinite number of melodies on one string. With just one string you don’t need to be as precise when pushing the string down and changing the pitch. The first TinkerTar was a four-stringed dinosaur. I took it to a four-year old’s birthday party, and everyone wanted to play, but that just meant vigorously strumming the strings. No one could coordinate holding chords or fretting and plucking individual notes.

It occurred to me that violins are melody instruments, while guitars are typically chord-based. I went back to those same kids at the party with a one-string guitar, and they had no problem pushing down the string and changing the pitch. They were making melodies!

What do you love most about teaching kids music?

If you’ve ever seen a young kid pick up a ukulele or a children’s guitar, you’ve probably noticed they can’t actually play music on them. But with just a one-string guitar, kids can play songs right away. Kids (and adults) tend to stick with things when they feel like they are accomplishing something, so my favorite thing about teaching kids music on TinkerTars is seeing how excited they get when they play a song. The TinkerTar really does give the kids quick success and helps them grow in learning to play music. I think it is a great way to start learning music.

Tell us about a memorable toy from your childhood in Charlottesville, VA?

Blocks. I’ve always loved building things.

You’ve also created the Chickapig board games and books for kids. Tell us more. 

I love music, but it isn’t my only passion. In 2014, I invented a board game called Chickapig, an animal-hybrid strategy game, and it made me realize that I love creating for kids. Making instruments designed for kids was a way to combine my passion for guitars and kids’ products.

TinkerTars can be purchased locally in Charlottesville at Shenanigans Toy Store and Alakazam. 

TinkerTar guitars and books


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