Fortenbery, 58, became a luthier, someone who builds stringed instruments. He has owned his business, Fortenbery Guitars, for about seven years.
Look around his basement shop. It is evident this is more than a business. It’s a faith experience.
“As I create on the outside, I am created on the inside.”
“My mission is to create instruments that inspire musicians and stir them to connect more deeply with their Creator.” — signs in his shop
And that’s exactly what he does. Many of his instruments are built for and used by worship leaders in churches around Cincinnati.
A search for fulfillment
For 19 years Fortenbery worked his way up the ladder of a Fortune 200 company, from sales to executive sales to sales management.
He liked the work and he was good at it. But gradually he burnt out on the corporate world, and he wanted more control over the way he spent 40 to 60 hours of his week. So in 1998, at the age of 42, he left to start his own company, selling loyalty-rewards programs. While the move worked out financially, his contentment didn’t last long.
“About five or six years into having my own business, I really started waking up spiritually,” Fortenbery said. “As a result of that, what seemed important to me started to change.”
Fortenbery estimates how much of the braces to shave off.
Money, the size of his house and the car he drove seemed to get less important, while the things that he was investing his time and life in became more valuable.
“I was in the world of money, and that’s where all my energy was going. I just thought, ‘Man, there has got to be more to life than making money and helping other people make money,’ ” he said.
Somewhere along the way, Fortenbery said his wife, Peg, bought him a nice guitar.
Fortenbery describes beliefs that motivate him in his work.
“After about a year, it started to need some work, like a car will need a tune up,” and he couldn’t find anyone to do the work and turned instead to himself.
“I thought, well gosh, I’m an engineer wannabe,” Fortenbery said. “I like detail stuff and precision stuff and doing stuff with my hands. I’ll just figure out how to fix this guitar myself.”
With no professional training, Fortenbery did research on the Internet and talked to people who knew more about guitars than he did.
In an attempt to better understand the mechanics of a guitar, he built one.
“Man, it was incredibly life-giving,” Fortenbery said. “That’s the best way I can describe it. I enjoyed it immensely.
“And somewhere between finding how much I enjoyed that and growing increasingly dissatisfied with the work that I was doing,” he said. “I dared to think, ‘Well what if I actually spend more time doing what I enjoyed doing?’
A time to make a change
Fortenbery knew what his decision would mean for both he and his wife of 25 years — less disposable income, less travel and a dramatic change in their standard of living. Most luthiers make no more than $40,000 a year.
He had no debt and had saved well.
His wife, Peg, supported his decision.
“When he spent time working with his hands, he was more connected with God, more centered, and overall a happier man,” she said.
Fortenbery has sold around 42 guitars. Worship leaders, professional musicians, doctors and lawyers have bought them. His guitars can be found in North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
“I only build custom guitars,” Fortenbery said. “I sell them and build them. I don’t build them and sell them.”
ry explains how he connects with his customers.
Before he begins working on a guitar, Fortenbery meets with customers to learn about them and their musical history.
He wants to know what they’re going to use the instrument for.
He said he’s not only building a guitar; he’s building a relationship.
Fortenbery made instruments for two siblings, Gene and Su Ahn, who help lead worship at Vineyard Cincinnati in Springdale, Ohio. While their relationship started out as client and seller, it became something more.
“He knew I wanted to use this (guitar) specifically for worship, and he helped bring out a lot of my personality into the guitar, making it especially special to me,” Gene said. “What I appreciate about my guitar, more than any other guitar, is that the sound and tone of it just screams, “Me!”
Su’s experience with Jeff was just as personal as her brother’s.
“Even after the guitar was finished, we met up to come up with different, non-traditional ways of amplifying the guitar to maximize the wood’s tone,” Su said.
Jim Zartman, who led worship at the Vineyard for a time, is another customer of Fortenbery’s. They got to know each other as Fortenbery was launching his first batch of guitars, and over the years they have become very close friends.
“He actually listens and taps on the guitar and moves the braces so that they’re on the right place on the wood,”
Zartman said. “The natural resonance of the wood comes through.”
Fortenbery was making Zartman’s guitar at the same time he was building Su’s, and he took into account the playing style of the two guitarists. He made the top of Zartman’s guitar two ounces heavier in order to stand up to the more forceful way that Zartman plays.
“One of my favorite things about Jeff’s guitars is when you play them, it’s almost like you can feel the entire instrument vibrating against your body,” Zartman said. “Jeff’s guitars seem to just meld into who you are as a player.”
Not only has Zartman played his Fortenbery guitar while leading worship in front of thousands of people at the Vineyard, but he’s also used it on albums and movie soundtracks.
“Thousands of people have heard that guitar,” Zartman said.
“To me it’s really special as an extension of our friendship, as well as a really great guitar,” he said.
And that’s how Fortenbery uses his job to fulfill his various personal mantras and missions.
“I learn all kind of lessons about me, about life, about work, about God while making guitars,” Fortenbery said. “That’s why I’m kind of hooked. I’m somewhat addicted.”
Fortenbery describes the fulfillment he gets from his work.
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