If you’ve ever attended a local music show, there is a great chance you’ve heard the work of Ivan Cernigoy, even though you’ve never seen his face.
Cernigoy is better known in the music world as Doc Sick Strings. He’s a go-to maintenance man for all things stringed. You bring it in and he can fix it.
LondonFuse caught up with the Doctor to talk about how he got into the business of making people sound and play their best.
A trip to his east London workshop reveals the depth of his talent and dedication of his customer base. He’s got electric and acoustic guitars, basses and even banjos in his care. His operating table is in the centre of it all – an unassuming workbench with a magnifying glass rigged up on a desk lamp base.
Watching him work is something else. Today’s special was a Fender Jazz Bass.
Within seconds of him putting his hands on the neck, he identified the problem area – a few raised frets where the neck meets the body.
Being able to eyeball problems took a lot of time, he explained, but it all comes with practice and training.
Cernigoy honed his trade through the Guitar Repair and Design course at Conestoga College, learning under an instructor with 40 years of experience. Because of his mechanical aptitude, he was able to pick it up quickly.
“I just got it,” he said. “I’m mechanically inclined. I like to build things and take things apart.”
Electric guitars are easier to work on, he said, because everything is up front and easy to see.
Acoustic instruments present a larger set of challenges, and require mirrors or an endoscope to get inside and see where the damage is.
Once the problem area is found in an acoustic, reaching it is another issue entirely.
“No two instruments are the same,” he explained. “Sometimes my hand won’t fit or my arm is not long enough to reach.”
The most common ailments Doc Sickstrings treats are guitar setups (string height, action and intonation), and electronic components such as jacks, pots (what’s under the knobs), and switches.
For acoustic instruments, fixing cracks, broken bracing, lifted bridges and installing pickups are regular problems.
On busy weeks, Cernigoy sees as many as 20 guitars go through his shop. His business operates almost entirely on word of mouth, as satisfied customers refer patients to the Doctor for repairs. He hasn’t changed his kijiji ad in years, he only reposts it every three months when it expires. Quality service has been the best promotion of all.
“I have a network of local musicians that I cater to, and you know… friend of a friend…” he said. “Once you make a name for yourself, you are your own best advertising.”
He’s been fixing guitars since the 70s, beginning with his own ES3 Chuck Berry copy. The guitar cost him a whopping $125.
He started operating under the Doc Sickstrings name in 2009, and began getting paid for it in 2010. In February 2014, once his home was paid off, he made the move to full time guitar health practitioner. His rates and hours of availability are unmatched by any competitors in the region.
The Doc takes patients of all kinds, free of judgment. Cernigoy said he’s definitely not a guitar snob.
“To me, all guitars are special,” he said. “I’m not an elitist.”
He treats every customer with the same respect whether they bring in a $100 beater or a $2,000 professional model. Like many kids starting out, he got his share of derision bringing a cheap guitar to a music store for repair. Treating lower-budget customer like an inferior was something he vowed never to do with his own business.
“I don’t believe in talking to people like that,” he said. “I sure didn’t like it.”
To Cernigoy, one of the biggest honours of his trade is to make musical friends, and be able to work on their instruments.
He’s even pulled the odd Frankenstein job, bringing guitars that are otherwise garbage back from the dead – including an old 60s Gretsch that he literally plucked from someone’s trash.
While the doctor is a great place to take your poor ailing guitar, there are some very easy steps you can take to avoid needing surgery in the first place.
“Keep your guitar clean. Keep your strings clean,” Cernigoy says. “Try to keep it in the house or a heated room as much as you can.”
Changing your strings regularly is another must to keep your axe pristine.
Not only that, but regular cleaning and string changing also gives you more hand and face time with the instrument itself. It allows you to spot problems that may otherwise go unnoticed.
For the problems that can’t be fixed at home, the Doctor is always in the house.
He is always accepting new patients, and can be contacted by phone at 519-777-6379 or through his facebook page.
Photos by Gerard Creces