What made you choose lutherie over a
career playing guitar?
I bought into a guitar shop when I was 21,
so for five years I was doing guitar repairs.
When I was a little kid, and all through my
formative years, the first thing I’d do when
I got a guitar was take it apart to see how
it worked. Then I’d put it back together,
fix this, tweak that. I started doing repairs
for my customers—and I had all these guitars
to work on—so I learned to be a luthier by
hands-on training, trial and error, doing it over
and over again. So it was on-the-job training
that got me interested in lutherie. When I was
26, I was so tired of playing guitar for a living. I
didn’t want to play in another restaurant. I really
lost the bug for that. So I decided I’d call Dick
Boak at Martin—because he’d been sending
me parts for my repairs—and ask him to send
me all the parts for a guitar. I put together my
first 10 guitars from what were basically Martin
kits, which you can still buy from Martin today.
And when I finished that first guitar, I was so
surprised at how well it turned out that I put it
in my store and sold it. After I got up to eight or
10, I figured it was time to go on to getting the
wood and cutting it myself. So I got all the saws
and planers and jointers and sanders and stuff,
started building four at a time, six at a time,
eight at a time. Within 15 years, I was doing
46 at a time, all by myself in my workshop. I’m
down to about 30 a year now, because I’m getting older and slower and busier with life. When
you’re 26 and single, you work all night and
nobody comes looking for you.
fascinating: Plug a nylon-string into an amp,
and you don’t turn it up loud, but you can turn
it up to where you can be heard. So that’s when
I met Chet and—bang—the rest is history.
Chet Atkins took one of the guitars you
made for him to Gibson, and they started
building those guitars there.
That’s the way it happened with Chet when
he found a guitar maker he liked, because
Chet was always affiliated with a guitar com-
pany. He started with Gibson in the ’80s, so
from 1980 on it had to be a Gibson. When he
found a guitar he really liked, he would just
have Gibson make a replica of that guitar and
add it to the Chet Atkins line. When I’d go to
Nashville, I’d drop by Chet’s office and fix gui-
tars for him, and we became friends. I came
up with a design for a hollow, nylon-string
electric with a thin, classically braced top and
no soundhole. It was good for standing up
and playing with a strap, and that was exactly
what Chet was looking for. He was looking for
an NSE that had two things: He wanted more
of an acoustic sound, which we achieved by
making it hollow and bracing it like a classical
guitar, and it had to be lighter, because the
Chet Atkins model he’d been using for 10
years was very heavy. It was solid wood—it
weighed the same as a Les Paul.
So you started with steel-string guitars?
I did. Even though I’d studied classical guitar
for many years and loved the sound of nylon
strings, my first entry into guitar building was
with steel-string acoustics. And after about
20 or 30 flattops, I started building classicals,
too, because they’re pretty easy to do. If
you can build a steel-string, you can build a
nylon-string—it’s not that different. But the
steel-string market is so much bigger, so it’s
easier to sell a flattop than a classical.
I got up to about 80 guitars and then went in
the direction of the nylon-string electric (NSE)
guitar, because I really love nylon-string guitars.
I love to play them, I love the way they sound.
And I thought the amplified part of it was
When he saw my NSE, he said, “Man, this is
fantastic. I want you to make me one just like
this, but I want you to use my pickup and preamp.” Which was Gibson stuff. I didn’t realize
at the time he already had it in his mind that he
was going to have Gibson make this guitar. So
I made him one, and by golly the first day he
got it, he went down to Gibson. I got a call from
Mike Voltz at Gibson saying, “Well, Chet just ran
in here with this guitar and he wants us to add it
to his line, so how do you do it?” So I proceeded to make them one that came apart, the top
came off the body so you could see inside, the
neck came off. They started making that instrument exactly like mine, and they did a pretty
good job, too, for a factory. They were making it
there in Nashville, and that factory really wasn’t
geared up to make acoustic guitars.
How many guitars did you end up building
Chet Atkins with his second Sand guitar circa 1993.
Photo by Dave Wolfram
I wound up making him four guitars over that
10-year period. I’d make him one and he’d
play it a year or two, and then I’d entice him