Collings SoCo Deluxe Custom with a flamed maple top, Brazilian rosewood fretboard with “broken glass” inlays, and a Bigsby B7 vibrato.
We live in the Golden Age of the acoustic guitar. Boutique builders and small shops are popping up all over the place, and they’re fashioning amazing guitars with great looks and fantastic tones. One of the pivotal figures of this era is the enigmatic founder of Collings Guitars in Austin, Texas. Bill Collings is a man with a peculiar genius for making things—and for making things work. That’s why players as diverse as Brian May, David Crosby, Alejandro Escovedo, Robbie McIntosh (John Mayer, Paul McCartney, Tears for Fears), Rodney Crowell, and Brad Whitford are big fans.
Taking what those who now work with him call an “Energizer Bunny-like” drive to create, Collings built his first guitar in 1974 after leaving medical school and taking some time off to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He was working in a machine shop when the bright idea of making guitars came up. Naturally, his parents thought he should continue with school and become a doctor.
“I liked the science part of that,” says Collings in a recent interview, “but I like the science of manufacturing or making things more. So working on a motorcycle or a car, building a guitar, whatever it might be, that’s more my thing. And to this day, I just love that part of it.”
Collings’ quest gradually became about more than just making guitars one-by-one on his own. His long-time business manager, Steve McCreary, explains it this way: “We have a great crew that works every day to accomplish Bill’s original challenge—which was to have a production shop that builds the finest, handmade-quality instruments. It’s quite a challenge, let me tell you. Our guitars are based on his guitars when he was a one-man shop, and they weren’t really designed to be production guitars, so it’s a tremendous amount of work.”
Starting Small, But in a Big Way
Songwriter Lyle Lovett, one of Collings’ strongest supporters, recalls their first meeting in 1978. Lovett was at a Houston club listening to a songwriter by the name of Rick Gordon, and he was intrigued by Gordon’s flattop. “He was playing a guitar that looked unusual to me, it looked like nothing I’d ever seen. It was a Martin 000-shaped cutaway with wood binding, and I thought, What kind of Martin is that?”
Lyle Lovett onstage with his 2008 cherry-sunburst D2 flattop. “Bill’s guitars just get better and better. You can’t pick one up that you don’t like.” Lovett also plays a 1992 CJ. Photo by Michael Wilson
The plain headstock didn’t help, so Lovett made it a point to ask Gordon about it during his break. That was when he first heard the name Bill Collings. Having a Martin D-35 in need of a fret job, Lovett contacted Collings to do the work. “Bill said, ‘Sure, come on over,’ just like that.” Lovett continues, “He was living and working in Houston at the time. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment—one bedroom was where he lived and the other was his workshop. I remember getting to his apartment at about two in the afternoon, and I didn’t leave until about nine that night. He fixed dinner for me, showed me every piece of wood he had in his shop, showed me guitars he was building and working on. And before I left that day, I ordered my first Collings guitar.” It was a dreadnought with a German spruce top and Indian rosewood back and sides, and it was his main stage guitar for years. Lovett also played it on all of his early recordings. “It turned out to be #39, the thirty-ninth guitar Collings ever made, and I still have it.”
Jerry Jeff Walker at ease with his sunburst 2008 CJ. “The worst one he’s gonna make is still gonna be wonderful,” he says of Collings’
instruments. Walker’s first Collings was a 1992 13-fret C10, and he also has a sunburst 2009 01A in his collection. Photo by Rick Patrick
Another early fan was Jerry Jeff Walker, a songwriter and road warrior who encountered his first Collings guitar in the early ’80s in a Houston guitar shop. “Bill came in and he had this little 0-style guitar that he made to show his mother what his work was like, and it was the most amazing guitar I had ever played. I couldn’t believe the sound that was coming out of it. It was just a little bigger than a baritone ukulele, and it sounded like a D-28.” Walker recently gave his son his first Collings guitar because, as he laughingly tells it, “I’m 68 years old—I don’t need to be collecting guitars!” He kept the two new ones made for him in 2008, though.
The All-Important Boat That Didn’t Float
In the early ’80s, Collings decided to move to California but only made it as far as Austin, and that’s where he’s been ever since. He shared shops with luthiers Tom Ellis and Mike Stevens for a few years before moving to a small, one-stall garage shop on his own. In 1989, he hired his first employee, Bruce Van Wart, who is still with Collings. Among other responsibilities, Van Wart chooses all the wood for the flattop guitars and the ukuleles.
The funny part is that Van Wart initially connected with Collings over a boat. “We had a mutual friend, and he said, ‘You need to meet this guitar builder, because he wants to know about building this boat’—because I used to do that. So, I went over to the shop, he showed me his boat plans, and we talked. He never built the boat, but we had fun.” Van Wart didn’t see Collings again until one of his guitars needed some work. “I worked for a weekend or two in trade for him doing a neck reset on my Martin, making some stairs going up into the loft in the shop, helping him build a spray booth. I was doing house remodels at the time, and that was pretty slow down here. He said, ‘Hey, do you wanna work for me?’ and I said, ‘Okay!’”
Collings and Van Wart worked together for several months, “Then, all of a sudden, there were five people. So it got pretty exciting.” Van Wart explains, “Everybody had their routine and we had to kind of dance around each other because it was a real small shop. The first shop I worked with Bill in, the spray booth was in the building next door, so when it was raining you had to run with the guitars with plastic over them to the other building. That was kinda fun.”
The exterior of the Collings Guitars workshop in Austin, Texas.
Collings moved his operation once and expanded twice before moving into the current building. Now, approximately 70 employees work to build flattops, archtops, mandolins, ukuleles, and electric guitars.