From Green Beret to Guitar Luthier: Turning Passion into Purpose
Rob Gully grew up in the coastal mountains of northern California. He fell in love with the guitar early in his teenage years but felt the only sure path to getting a good education and living a life of adventure was through the military. After retiring from the Army, it wasn’t until much later that he started his own business, Ripcord Guitars.
“When I was an operational advisor, one of my friends nicknamed me ‘Ripcord Rob,’ after the cord that you pull to deploy a parachute,” says Gully. “The name stuck, and years later, that’s what I ended up calling my business.”
Gully joined the Army in 1988 at the age of 18. By the time he retired in 2012, he was a Special Forces Officer and the Executive Officer of the Military Freefall School in Yuma, Arizona. After retiring, he worked for another three and a half years for the government as an Operational Advisor in Afghanistan for the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group. During this time, he spent four months in Ukraine, where he met the woman who would become his wife.
In 2016, after returning to the United States together and starting a family, Gully decided he couldn’t be away for such long periods of time anymore. “I knew it was time to figure out what I was going to do when I was done galloping around the world,” says Gully.
As a longtime guitar player, Gully has always taken note of how each instrument was built and how it sounds. Long before he opened up his custom guitar business, he had a good idea of how design and material choices affect the sound of the instrument.
“There’s a sort of intimacy with knowing each wood and how it will sound,” he says. “When I started building guitars I knew that every part of it had to serve a purpose, with the overall priority being great sound, then ease of playability, and lastly, aesthetically pleasing.”
“Playing a lot, I started to learn the character of each type of wood...some harder, some softer, and some are more porous...it all affects the sound. Each type of wood has its own personality and quirks.”
Gully didn’t go straight into guitar building after retiring from the service, he eased into it after many years of playing, designing, and building in his spare time.
“It was a painful transition at first,” he says. “After retiring, I thought I would be able to get a job without a problem with my experience and success in the service and a master’s degree, but that wasn’t the case.”
Gully interviewed for and was offered several positions, including a police officer and truck driver, but eventually took a job in San Diego training Navy Seals to jump out of airplanes. Later, training Special Forces in military freefall solutions out in the desert. While he enjoyed the job, he still found himself away from his growing family more than he wanted to be.
“I loved my work in the military, especially the teaching part, but by that time, my wife and I had five children, and being away from home was making me depressed,” says Gully. “My wife, who knows my love for music, was the one who pushed me to start making guitars professionally.”
Gully’s children range in age from 11 to 24. Two of his sons are Sergeants in the Army, one of his daughters is a senior in High School and is contracted with the Air Force after she graduates, and another daughter is a nursing student. “My youngest is my partner-in-crime these days,” says Gully.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in more ways than one. All five of the kids play instruments or sing, and there’s even a dedicated band room in the house that stays permanently set up for when all the kids come home.
“We’re rockers,” says Gully. “I’m not saying Taylor Swift songs haven’t been played because they have, but generally when the boys come home, we rock out with some Iron Maiden - we’ve been doing that since they were little kids.”
With the support of his family and his friend and fellow veteran Jared Taylor, one of the owners of Black Rifle Coffee, Gully decided to push forward with his vision and began a six-month program in guitar building at the School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona. During that time, he was approached by Jason Kostal, an army veteran who retired in 2005 and had become wildly successful with his own custom guitar business. Kostal became integral in encouraging Gully to start his own business.
Inspired by his wife, Jarred Taylor, and Jason Kostal, Gully decided to stop “messing around” with repairing other people’s instruments and instead create and build his guitars from the ground up - finding the wood, cutting the pieces, shaping, and carving.
Though he’d been repairing guitars and building his own since 2016, Gully went all-in and opened his custom guitar company, Ripcord Guitars, in 2020.
In the beginning, Gully was using many different types of wood to build his guitars - but eventually started circling back to what has been traditionally used, like mahogany and maple. “There’s a reason older guitars are made out of certain woods,” says Gully. “They just create a great sound. I do a lot of experimenting though, and I always add a little flavor to each one I make. A lot of how I build is based on the nearly 40- years I’ve had playing the guitar, listening to music, and loving music.”
With only about a year officially open to business, Ripcord Guitars has been a huge success, with more orders coming in during this first year of business than Gully had anticipated.
“A lot of people start their businesses and fail, and I was afraid of starting something I wouldn’t be able to achieve,” says Gully. “The whole thing - starting a business - is a daunting task, and all my military successes gave me the confidence to go ahead and do it. There were a lot of things I had to learn, but I was able to use what I learned from my past and the support of other military friends to get me started.”
He says a take-away lesson he learned in the military is that there’s no single individual who is excellent at everything - that it always takes teamwork.
“A team is always stronger than the individual. In this new line of work, I’ve had to reinvent my idea of teamwork - the concept of my team changed, but the fundamentals remained,” says Gully. “I’m strengthened by the people around me who have expertise in different areas, and nine times out of ten, those are my veteran brothers. As a Special Forces commander, part of my job was to understand individuals, leverage their strengths, and minimize their weaknesses, because we all have them. My goal is to create a team that can make better guitars than I could on my own.”
“STARTING A BUSINESS IS A DAUNTING TASK, AND ALL MY MILITARY SUCCESSES GAVE ME THE CONFIDENCE TO JUST GO AHEAD AND DO IT."ROB GULLY