Pete Kanaras tried his hand at guitar for the first time when he was 14. Born in 1957, he came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, putting him squarely in the crosshairs of the drug culture-a personal history he acknowledges but shies away from explaining in detail-and he gave up music for about three years to get clean. In that time, he revisited the family tradition of working in restaurants, which brought him to the Culinary Institute of America, which in the early 1980s planted him in Manhattan for an externship. The day Kanaras picked up an instrument again was the day his favorite musician died.
"I got the bug to start playing again," says Kanaras, a slight grin forming at the corner of his mouth as he recalls Feb. 17, 1982. He headed to 48th Street, found a jazz bass and a practice amplifier, purchased them both, and "trudged back in the sludge and snow" to his apartment. He turned on KCR radio and, as he recalls, listened to a straight hour of tunes by Thelonious Monk, the famed American jazz pianist.
"I was like, 'Uh oh,'" Kanaras says. "I started playing music on the very day he died. And I took it as a sign."
It was the start of a dramatic career change, one that saw Kanaras become a full-time road musician, a job he relished for almost 23 years until, all burnt out, he settled in Baltimore's Greektown neighborhood in fall 2006 to return permanently to a line of work he did off and on throughout his touring days: repairing guitars.
Kanaras now gigs from a work bench, hammering new frets into old necks, fixing pickups, and assessing battery drainage in aging electric boxes. Just before Thanksgiving-with a plump turkey thawing in his kitchen sink-Kanaras has five or so guitars he's in the middle of repairing, including a circa 1956 Guild Aristocrat, a shrunken-down archtop jazz guitar that's completely hollow in the body. He'll soon retrieve the guitar of Buck Owens, the late country legend who fronted the Buckaroos and co-hosted the country-comedy television show Hee Haw.
"It's an honor, a big-time honor," says Kanaras. Even at age 56, the thought of getting his hands on Owens' old guitar seems to light up his eyes as brightly as a child's on Christmas morning. "It's a historically important instrument, and the only guitar he ever owned, apparently."
How Kanaras got his paws on a Buck Owens box, extraordinary though it is, becomes less of a mystery once he gets into the details of his own winding career as a musician. Traversing the country put Kanaras in touch with a Rolodex of respected blues musicians, including harmonica icon Steve Guyger; guitarist Mark Ross of the Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band, a regional band that routinely sold out shows in Washington, D.C. venues in the 1980s; and Tom Brumley, the original pedal steel guitar player in the Buckaroos, and the reason Kanaras now has a Buck Owens guitar to tinker with.
Kanaras has had more than 5,000 gigs to his name in places as far away as Asia and Europe, and in every state in the U.S. save Alaska. He has fronted his own bands and served as guitar or bass player in others, most notably for the Washington, D.C.-based blues and roots band the Nighthawks, for whom Kanaras played nine years before leaving at the top of 2004.
And it was always the blues, "not blues rock," says Kanaras. His first serious band, Rockinitis, intentionally played the obscure stuff: "Papa" Lightfoot, George "Harmonica" Smith, "Rockin'" Tabby Thomas. Kanaras counts as influences Jimmie Vaughan (older brother of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan), Anson Funderburgh, and Freddie King-all musical evangelists in their own right, playing the sort of deep, guttural blues that kids today might mistakenly associate with John Mayer.
"You gotta know the history of your instrument," he says. "Don't be a mimic, and don't be a parrot-but what better foundation can you get than the guys who made the sound?"
Kanaras was beginning to slow down after he left the Nighthawks. He played in another band called the Shambells that he formed while living in Silver Spring, Md., a two-year project that "ultimately blew up in a haze of cigarette smoke and Glenfiddich," he says. Shortly thereafter Kanaras moved to Baltimore to follow a girlfriend he was dating at the time, only to go back on the road again for 10 months with the Rockin' Jake Band.
"That was some ball-breaking touring," he says. "We were out for three and a half months at a clip. All the way out West to three hours above Seattle, then we'd work all the way back across the country to Maine."
He still plays music-he anchors the first Thursday and third Sunday nights of every month at the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point. But being off the road, and therefore needing money, Kanaras eventually came back to repairing guitars, a skill he acquired in 1986 at Rainbow Music in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Since 2010 repair work has occupied the bulk of his time. A master luthier cousin in New Jersey has coached Kanaras along the way as he's slowly developed his talents, and although the body of work displayed on his House of Wounded Guitars website looks impressive, Kanaras is much more humble than the history of the guitars he has worked on.
"I am not a pimple on a luthier's ass," he says. "I am a repairman. I'm a musician first and foremost, but I am a repairman, and very proud to be one."