Virginia’s luthiers hold their own against the best, producing high-end instruments that have the attention of musicians worldwide—from Clapton to Carpenter. In 2007, Ames Arnold visited famous luthiers around the state. A look back:
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Brian Calhoun with Adam McNeil and Runty at Rockbridge guitar shop in Gordonsville.
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Wayne Henderson in his shop in Rugby, near Mouth of Wilson.
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Huss and Dalton’s workshop.
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Matt Eich of Huss and Dalton sets a neck angle.
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A Merrill guitar.
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A Henderson guitar.
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The staff of Huss and Dalton. Standing, from left, Tim Nelson, Adam Smith, John Calkin, Ken McAlack, Matt Eich, Brian Dickel and Stephen Winslow. Sitting, Kimberly Dalton, Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton. Not pictured: Jeff Hill, Ben Critzer and Dean Jones.
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Jim Merrill, son Jordan and Don in the cab o f the truck.
Photos by Robb Scharetg
To a tool-challenged guy, it’s a stretch to imagine taking assorted pieces of wood and shaping them into anything, let alone a box that has the potential to make beautiful sounds. But there are numerous craftsmen across Virginia who make a living and earn respected reputations as makers of handmade acoustic guitars.
Some are schooled, most are self-taught. Most work in the garage or basement with a partner or apprentice, while some labor in larger facilities with a few employees. Some must meet rigorous production schedules, while others build guitars when time allows. A guitar could cost many thousands of dollars, or it might come down to a barter deal. But, for all luthiers, it’s a matter of pride and technique as they set out to recapture the vintage ring of classic pre-World War II Martin and Gibson flat-top guitars.
Wayne Henderson is possibly the best known acoustic guitar maker in Virginia. He’s been making guitars in southwest Virginia, near Rugby, for more than 40 of his 59 years, and his guitars have a top-notch reputation among bluegrass players as well as acoustic pickers worldwide. Clients include Peter Rowan and Norman Blake. Eric Clapton ordered a Henderson guitar after seeing one in 1994—and took delivery on it almost a decade later. A near-identical instrument sold for $31,200 at a Christie’s auction in May 2006.
“If you’da come yesterday,” Henderson remarks, “you’da seen ol’ Doc.” That’s ‘Doc’ as in Doc Watson, the legendary flatpicker who came up from North Carolina to buy his custom-built “Wayne guitar”—the nickname fans have given the Henderson guitar.
Orders take anywhere from a couple of months to several years to fill, depending on Henderson’s personal timetable and what’s ordered. There’s no regular crew in his roadside workshop next to his home, but folks are always dropping by to pick or lend a hand. One fellow drives up from Florida regularly to help around the shop. Henderson’s telephone rings frequently with orders, and he generally completes about 26 guitars a year. The shop is a cluttered hodgepodge of wood, half-finished guitars and empty guitar cases, but Henderson knows where it all is and where it all will eventually go.
In addition to making guitars, Henderson is a noted picker and plays select gigs around the world. He sponsors an annual festival—this year’s outing is June 16th—to raise scholarship money for Appalachian kids. In 1995, he received a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, honoring his and other folk artists’ contributions to American culture.
Like all craftsmen, Henderson has honed his skills over time. He admits that his first attempt to build a guitar “blossomed like a morning glory” when the binding glue failed. No matter: Many pickers now assert that Henderson guitars are among the best around.
Over in nearby Volney, Gerald Anderson and Spencer Strickland craft handmade Anderson and Strickland instruments that ring with the old-time, vintage sound. Anderson, 52, worked in Henderson’s shop for 28 years. “All of my guitar skills, if any … I owe to him,” Anderson says.
At Henderson’s shop, he met Strickland, now 22, and they soon began making guitars and mandolins under their own names. A Virginia Folk Life craftsman award allowed them to set up their own shop in Anderson’s basement. Since then, their reputation has spread throughout the States and Canada. Like Henderson, Anderson and Strickland are also musicians; the duo played some gigs in Scotland, where they sold guitars and took orders for more. The Virginia Tourism Department also asked them to make guitars as part of a statewide Crooked Road Music Trail promotion. These don’t come cheap—a guitar will cost several thousand dollars, depending on what a buyer wants.
Even though the Anderson and Strickland instruments have not been around as long as some other makes, Anderson says they are definitely a part of an important tradition and the country’s cultural history. “My life’s been pretty much making instruments. It’s the sort of thing that gets passed down from generation to generation.”
On the Northern Neck in Kilmarnock, Jim Merrill, 51, has made acoustic dreadnought guitars, a large-body style popular with bluegrass and flatpickers, since 2000. Merrill also admits to a laid-back style, building about four guitars a month. He, too, is self taught, starting as a teen repairing guitars for bands. “Everybody needed instrument work. I was just real practical,” he says.
Merrill’s dreadnoughts strive for that classic, woody Martin sound. But he also puts a twist into his product line, as one of the state’s only makers of the harp guitar—his style features a second, wide, curving neck with 12 strings. The extra strings can be used sympathetically with the regular six strings or plucked to add more single notes. Noted guitarist Stephen Bennett plays Merrill’s guitars worldwide. The instrument has a unique sound, and one will set you back about $7,000.
Randall Ray and Brian Calhoun run Rockbridge Guitar Co. as a partnership, but Ray works in a Lexington shop while Calhoun is found in his Gordonsville basement shop. Started in 2000, Rockbridge guitars combine the strongest features of vintage Martin and Gibson guitars, Ray believes, although the bracing of the top and a slightly larger sound hole make their product unique.
“Once you enter the world of a high-end instrument, it becomes a personal thing,” Calhoun explains.
Ray, 43, says that when he graduated college, “I didn’t have any goals in life except to be a mediocre bluegrass musician and live in the mountains.” He slipped into his luthier career because “I just wanted another guitar and couldn’t afford one.” But there’s nothing cheap about the guitars he and Calhoun make—their client backlog is one year. Their customers pay $3,200 and up depending on wood and inlay. Inlay is one of 26-year-old Calhoun’s specialties. “Brian is the inlay maestro.”
According to Ray, the owners of Rockbridge guitars include picking master Larry Keel and members of the Ricky Skaggs and Dixie Chicks bands. Bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent has three.
“I think it speaks for our guitars,” Calhoun says.
In Staunton, Jeff Huss, of Huss and Dalton, recently displayed a larger and different approach to custom guitar making. The small company, founded in 1995 by Huss and Mark Dalton, employs 13 working in assembly rooms on two floors of an 800-square-foot shop. All the guitars are sold through nearly 50 dealers in the States. They make about 12 models, but these can vary, depending on what a customer wants. Huss and Dalton’s customer list is an impressive one that includes Paul Simon, Mary Chapin Carpenter and, as Huss says, “some guy that plays in Pink.”
The guitar backlog is about six months, and prices start at about $3,000. What helps Huss and Dalton keep the waiting time down is a computer-operated milling machine that speeds the making of parts. Huss says the designs are made and construction done by workers, but the computer helps make part production “faster, cleaner, more efficient.”
Much about custom acoustic guitar making is rooted in tradition, and there are similarities in construction and components. But each maker has a distinct personal investment in his craft and product. Huss sums up the luthier bottom line well: “In the end, it just comes down to what works for you.”
Visit These Makers
Anderson and Strickland String Instruments shop, Volney, AndersonStringInstruments.com
Huss and Dalton Musical Instruments, Inc., Staunton, HussAndDalton.com
Rockbridge Guitar Co., Charlottesville, RockbridgeGuitar.com
Merrill Guitars, Kilmarnock, Facebook.com/Merrill-Guitars-180574655333046/
Wayne Henderson, Mouth of Wilson, WayneHenderson.org