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A theater dies, a guitar is born
Buford artisan creates music using reclaimed wood from the Georgia Theatre in Athens
Buford musician and artisan Robbie Smith had to wear an asbestos mask to go into the theater and get the wood.

Someday soon, somebody's gonna rock with the pieces of a rock and roll icon: Athens' Georgia Theatre.

When he heard about the June 2009 fire that gutted the theater, a venue where bands including R.E.M., The B-52s and Widespread Panic got their start, guitar maker Robbie Smith of Athens felt a lot like hundreds of other music fans, disappointed by the news.

"I was completely shocked when I heard the news of it burning down," he said. "I was always going to concerts there."

Smith, 20, found a way to help with the building's restoration, which is now under way.

"I was working on a guitar, then, when I heard the news, and decided, ‘Oh, if I could make it out of the remains,'" he said.

"That's when I heard that they might be rebuilding, so I knew they'd probably want donations."

But it wasn't an easy task.

Smith got in touch with Wilmot Greene, owner of the theater, and arranged a visit to the charred building.

The first visit was cut short, so he came a second time, and stayed for five hours in search of the perfect materials.

Smith had to wear a gas mask during the search, because of "all the ashes, and they didn't know if there was asbestos" in the building, since it dated back to the 1880s.

"Everything was pretty charred. I just sort of had to go through all the stuff and see if I could find any pieces that I could use," he said.

After the search, Smith came home with a piece of the theater's bar, glass from its windows, hardwood flooring remnants and other elements that eventually would go into the guitar.

"I found a table in there that was only half burnt," he said. "And the columns in the lobby were completely black and charred, but I pried them down and inside there was wood that was usable."

Smith even collected some knobs from the theater's almost-melted mixing board and an old-fashioned bathroom sink knob from the bathroom near the projector room.

And that was just the beginning.

After Smith's trip to the theater, he spent months working on the guitar, fitting time in here and there between his day job at Quik Trip and classes at Gainesville State College.

Signatures from members of R.E.M. and Widespread Panic, which Smith expects to get soon, will make the guitar complete.

While an auction date isn't set yet, Smith said the announcement will come via the Black Smith Guitars Facebook page, so if you want to make a bid, just ask Smith to be your "friend."

Smith, who grew up on a farm, began creating guitars when he was 13.

"I always made random things, like skateboard ramps and things like that - stuff that I needed but couldn't just go out and buy," he said.

Smith said it was some leftover wood that gave him the idea to make an acoustic guitar.

"One day, my mom was going to get rid of some boards that we had out in our shed, and she asked me if I wanted to make anything out of it," said Smith.

"I couldn't really think of anything because it was pretty thin wood, so I just randomly had the idea while playing guitar that, hey, I should make a guitar," he said.

After examining an old guitar given to him by his grandmother, Smith said he figured out how to make one for himself.

"After that, I decided, ‘No, I can do better than that,' and made another one," he said.

Then things began to get interesting.

Smith went to a pawn shop and laid down $5 for an old Stratocaster-style electric guitar.

He said he "completely took it apart and looked at how it was made, and sort of made my own design using the same concepts."

After a while, other guitar players began to notice Smith's talent, asking him if he would make a guitar for them.

"That's sort of how I got the idea that maybe I could start a business," he said.

Smith already has created about 10 guitars and plans to go full time with the business after college.