“Whoa oh, fare ya well, never see, a you no more.” – Howlin’ Wolf
Hal Hammer, a guitarist, wood-joiner and luthier with credentials sufficient to have made guitars for at least one rock god (Keith Richards), recalls meeting Steve Cripe:
“I don’t remember why he first contacted me. I think he told me that he made guitars and asked if I would I like to see them. I said, yes, of course. When I talked to him I asked him if his guitars were marketed anywhere, are they in any magazines or pictures? He said, ‘No. But you know Jerry Garcia, right? I built one of his.’ Yeah, I know him!”
Hammer would go on to advise Cripe about many aspects of his work going forward including the business of guitar-making, but over the course of their brief friendship he was called upon for an extremely important and basic task:
“Steve would build a guitar and bring it to me with this big grin on his face, this look of anticipation: ‘All right, Hal, tell me—does it work? So, I’d plug one in. For a guy who didn’t play, he built the greatest guitars in the world. Every one would just play wonderfully. He never really knew until that moment. He’d always be so happy. He nailed it every time.”
Hammer adds, “I still miss him, terribly. Except for an unforeseen scheduling change, I would have been standing at his side when the workshop exploded.”
Cripe met Pat O’Donnell of Resurrection Guitars at a spring 1996 guitar show in Orlando.
Pat recalls, “I was strolling around the show when I passed a booth that had these amazing guitars. It turned out to be Hal Hammer’s booth. I asked who owned the guitars and Hal told me they were Steve Cripe’s. Then Cripe showed up, and we struck up a lengthy conversation that went well into the night.”
Tim O’Donnell, Pat’s son, says, “They both had similar backgrounds in the boat and woodworking business. They left the show and weren’t seen for the rest of the day. Pat was amazed at the woodworking and artistic skill in Cripe’s guitars, and Cripe was amazed that Pat could make a five pound guitar sound so good with massive sustain.”
Steve and Pat talked by phone over the next few weeks and planned to attend NAMM [National Association of Music Merchants] together, but it never happened.
“I might have been the last person who ever spoke to him. Steve told me it was an overcast, drizzly day there, not a good day for working on guitars. He said he’d go to the other shop and build some bombs. He did tell me he was working with some new material he wasn’t familiar with.”
From the St. Petersburg Times, reported on May 22 and 23, 1996 by Nancy Weil; Jeffrey Brainard:
Tuesday afternoon, the 42-year-old guitar maker died in a fiery explosion. Authorities think he might have been working on M-80 firecrackers to sell for the Fourth of July.
Cripe’s parents said their son was a stickler about safety, and always forbade anyone from smoking near his workshop.
Investigators found about 25 casings for fireworks inside the trailer. Filled with gunpowder, the finished products would have been used to make a loud blast, not an aerial display. They probably would have been more powerful than a commonly sold, loud firecracker known as an M-80. Authorities didn’t know for sure what set off the explosion.
Neighbors said they had heard him igniting smaller firecrackers that morning at his property.
Neighbor Jack Smith had been to Cripe’s workshop Monday and admired a guitar that was almost done. Cripe was using black wood, and Smith said he was struck by never having seen wood quite like it before. “He was working on a guitar. It was a beauty.” Smith said that he enjoyed hearing Cripe talk about making guitars and liked to visit his neighbor in his workshop to chat.
“I hate it,” Smith said. “I lost a friend.”
We all did. While the explosion obviously made the news, the authorities didn’t put much into the investigation. As it happened, Steve’s assembly of the fireworks was perfectly legal—he held a federal license to manufacture star-shell fireworks for professional pyrotechnic displays.
And he had a good order for the shells that he needed to fill. Guitars, fine guitars like from the hands of a luthier like Steve Cripe, didn’t come off an assembly line, and his dream of ramping up the business of making them still had many steps to fulfill the promise the endeavor held. Fulfilling an order from New Jersey for star-shells to explode on the 4th of July in two months made more sense on a rainy day in Florida than working with wood.
Only one problem with the weather: Steve didn’t know it but the phosphorous (or perhaps sodium) powder he was about to use, a new can, had been given to him by mistake—a powder with a reaction point to water.
Cripe had been proud of his small but productive new workshop in Trilby. He been looking forward to showing it off to Hal Hammer, among others. What Steve didn’t know was that a tiny leak in the roof allowed water to begin dripping into the workshop, where it reacted with the powder.
McFarlane recalls that Steve had gotten off the phone with Hammer, who begged off his planned visit, and went straight out into the workshop. He looked at her out the window one last time, as she remembers, and then the explosion came seemingly right afterwards. He didn’t suffer; it was over quick.
Leading up to the time of the accident Steve had been formulating plans, big ones: According to Hammer, Cripe wanted to get married to his girlfriend Theresa; form a corporation to aid in ramping up his burgeoning guitar-making brand; make high-quality photographs of his process and finished work for use in a marketing plan; and above all, he still wanted to learn to play the damn things.
Also, Hammer says, Cripe felt an urgent need to get his affairs in order—a will, or as his friend suggested to him, a living trust. A premonition, perhaps, in the way he had been concerned for Jerry Garcia the previous summer?
Speaking of Jerry, Steve’s unfinished plans included a guitar called Masterpiece, under construction at the time of Garcia’s death, and which was also destroyed in the explosion. Steve had been making Masterpiece on spec as yet another guitar for Jerry—hell, they were all for Jerry, at least on some level—but when the fat man died, the instrument had languished all-but completed.
The charred remains of the instrument were salvaged from the burned wreckage by a shocked and traumatized Hal Hammer. “Steve would work on Masterpiece here and there, when he felt like it,” Hammer said. Hammer asked Steve’s parents for permission to complete several unfinished guitars that weren’t damaged in the explosion, including one intended as a gift for his luthier friend, as well as the high quality photography project, but for reasons unknown, they declined.
As for the what was left of Masterpiece: “I displayed it for a time at my music store, now put away somewhere among my mementos.” Needless to say, losing his friend was painful for Hammer and others who cared for Cripe. “His life was just beginning. It shouldn’t have ended that way.”