Ernest Combs grew up in the Vilas community of Watauga County. With woodworking skills learned from his father and help from famous instrument builder Albert Hash, he developed his craft of making and repairing instruments. “Albert Hash is the one that influenced me,” he says. Over the years, Ernest has built a banjo and fiddle, and dulcimers and guitars, and he does repair and set-up work for guitar and banjo players from the area.
“My dad was a carpenter, so I picked up a lot from him,” he says. “I guess it just goes in the family.” Using his woodworking skills and interest in traditional mountain music, Ernest built himself a framed banjo when he was a young man. “I just put it together on my own,” he recalls. He played banjo and some guitar, and he wanted a new guitar. He was acquainted with fiddle maker Albert Hash from visits he made with a fiddling friend. “I saw what Albert did, and I asked him to make me a guitar,” he remembers. “Albert saw the banjo I made, and he told me, “If you can make that, you can make a guitar.'” So, with occasional help from Albert, Ernest made his first guitar. “After that, I just kept going on my own,” he says.
He continued working on instruments, building more guitars and then several dulcimers. “I got into dulcimers for a while,” he says, noting that he probably built about seven of them. Ernest has made about five guitars, including one with his father, and he also put together a fiddle. Today, he spends most of his time repairing and setting up instruments. “I work on more banjos than about anything,” he says.
Ernest also enjoys playing music at home. He really got interested in playing in the 1950s, inspired by local musician Cleatus Potter. “I guess he influenced a lot of us back then,” he says. He has also played a lot of music with one of his favorite local musicians, Jim Perry. He notes that Jim is excellent on the banjo and guitar, though he mostly plays piano in churches these days. Ernest also plays banjo and guitar. “I like to hear a fiddle,” he says, “but I never did fool with playing one.”
He has worked as a painter, wood carver, and custodian. In addition to building instruments, Ernest and his son have done woodworking in his home, building a set of wormy chestnut cabinets. Now that he is retired, Ernest enjoys continuing to work on instruments and doing repair work for local musicians.
Ernest Combs is available for instrument repair and set-up work, and he may also consider taking an order for a complete instrument.