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Musical creations fit for the stars

As the founder of Ragtime Automatic Music, Ken Caulkins has done business with illustrious clientele.

Since opening the Ceres-based business in 1971, Caulkins has constructed over 10,000 automated instruments that have attracted the attention of renowned customers from over 50 countries. By using a combination of computer programming and pneumatic equipment, these mechanized musical constructions are played by what appears to be an invisible band.

“Basically, we sell products where the music is generated and recorded in two ways. One is on a roll and two is digitally, which is on a computer,” said Caulkins. “The computerized ones take twice as much labor to assemble.”

One of Caulkins’ first famous clients was the lead guitarist of The Beatles, George Harrison, who bought two automated guitars from the Ceres businessman. As per Harrison’s request, Caulkins built the two automated guitars and equipped them with approximately 200 Beatles songs.

“One went to his home in Friar Park in London, which was an old nunnery that he restored,” said Caulkins. “His widow Olivia still lives there and she still has it.”

Caulkins said that even after Harrison died in 2001, his wife Olivia Harrison continued to send Caulkins more customers, who—after seeing the automated guitar in her home—wondered where she got it. One referral from Harrison was Hollywood director and producer Richard Donner, who is best known for “The Goonies” and “Lethal Weapon.”

“He found out about me through Olivia Harrison and George Harrison, so his wife bought him an automated ukulele with accordion accompaniment for his home in Hawaii,” said Caulkins.

Caulkins also got to meet “Lord of the Rings” producer and director Peter Jackson, who paid for Caulkins and his daughter to visit his New Zealand home and set up his unit in 2002. Jackson, who was looking for a Christmas present for his wife, bought an automated band that played 25 songs from 47 acoustic and percussion instruments, including flute pipes, cymbals, triangles, tambourines, bass guitar and banjo among others.

“Peter sent tickets for me and my daughter to see the premiere of his movie, 'The Twin Towers,'” said Caulkins. “He’s a real nice guy.”

NASCAR racecar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is also a famous client of Caulkins. For his private saloon on his North Carolina estate, Earnhardt Jr. purchased an automated band that included guitar and banjo with bass synthesizer and 15 percussion sounds. This system has the capacity to hold over 30,000 programmed songs.

Additionally, Caulkins has produced several ragtime instruments for jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny. Metheny, who has won 20 Grammy awards, purchased 14 automated instruments from Ragtime Automatic Music for his 2010 world tour. Caulkins said that Metheny was capable of controlling other instruments while playing his guitar by sending out a musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) signal.

“I can’t get rich in this business, but I get to meet the most interesting people,” said Caulkins. “A lot of my customers are people who really change the world.”

Caulkins said that his interest in building automated musical instruments was sparked after he heard a woman on the radio who asked if anyone in the listener audience could fix her player piano. Caulkins, who was already fixing and tuning pianos at that time, decided to take on the project.

“I picked it up and started fixing it, and I thought to myself, ‘these player pianos are simple,’” said Caulkins. “I saw the inner workings of the player piano and I said, ‘I could build this.’”

Ragtime Automated Music is located at 4218 Jessup Rd. in Ceres. For more information, call 735-0767 or visit