Luthier Ed Claxton in his Santa Cruz home, where the guitar-building magic happens. This photo appeared in the book, From These Woods: The Guitar Makers of Santa Cruz County by Jim MacKenzie and Renee Flower.
Ó2013 Renee Beville Flower
Ed Claxton Guitars | Santa Cruz, California
Now based in Santa Cruz, California, Ed Claxton started building guitars at the University of Texas in Austin. “I was going to the university and majoring in draft dodging, basically,” he says. “I met two philosophy majors who’d taken over a corner of UT’s arts and crafts center. They were making ouds and medieval instruments—things you’d see in Homer, in the Odyssey—weird lyres and stringed instruments made from horns, shells, goat skins. They took me under their wing and I worked with them for a period of about two years. I was playing guitar, so I decided to make a guitar. I got a Martin D-28, looked inside, and basically copied the Martin.”
Claxton worked the local music scene, which is a big deal in Austin, and sold his guitars to local musicians and people passing through. “I made a couple of guitars for Jimmy Buffett,” he says. “Eric Johnson had one. I made a guitar for Billy Gibbons and members of Jerry Jeff Walker’s band, Guy Clark, Americana guys. It was kind of easy for me to start out being a professional guitar maker because there was basically no competition at the time, as opposed to nowadays, where everybody in the world is a guitar maker.”
A parlor-sized guitar with fanned frets, the Composer is Claxton’s newest model. The back and sides are Brazilian rosewood and the top is Italian spruce from the Dolomite region. Claxton constructed the guitar’s case with Port Orford
cedar and ebony.
Claxton took a 10-year break from lutherie and built wooden boats and furniture in Maine before relocating to Santa Cruz about 25 years ago. “After a while, I got sick of the cold and we moved to Santa Cruz,” he says. “I put out my shingle again and started making guitars full time. At the time, Santa Cruz Guitars was around, and also some other handmakers and classical guys, but it wasn’t over-saturated like it is now. It was pretty easy. I networked. I went up to Gryphon Strings in Palo Alto, introduced myself, and they said, ‘We’ll sell some guitars.’ Word got around and it wasn’t that big a deal.”
According to Claxton, the scarcity and demand for tonewoods has dramatically increased their price. “When I started making guitars, my first few guitars were $300 or $400,” he says. “But back then, a set of Indian rosewood was about $15. A prime set of Brazilian from Michael Gurian was $60, and at the time, nobody was ordering Brazilian because they thought the price was too high.” That, combined with the 2008 financial crisis, has made the acoustic guitar market more challenging. “With the financial collapse a decade ago, there were like 10 million boutique guitars on the market for sale. I think that is still affecting guitar sales, because there are still a lot of used guitars on the market.”
Ed Claxton has a separate shop for storing and prepping wood, but he does all of the building out of his home with hand tools, rather than powered equipment. “I use planes and chisels, which is way more enjoyable,” he says.
Claxton constructs his instruments using hand tools. For a long time, he built about a dozen guitars a year, but he’s slowing his output to six. “About five years ago, we built a little studio for me to work in behind our house,” he says. “I have a 1,400 square-foot commercial space on the other side of town that I keep my machinery in. I build the guitars here at home, but I use my other place to prep wood, for thickness sanding, cutting out neck blanks, that stuff. I bring those parts home and I do 100 percent of the building here. Once I started working at home, I didn’t have immediate access to those tools, so I use hand tools a whole lot more. I use planes and chisels, which is way more enjoyable. Carving a neck with a CNC machine is not that much quicker. It still takes a while to do—you have to program the machine, which I could never figure out.”
This Ed Claxton Jumbo Model features Brazilian rosewood on its back and sides. “The wood is very old and was recycled from architectural timbers in Brazil,” Claxton says.
Claxton also doesn’t spend much time tuning tops. “When I bought wood—which I don’t buy anymore because I’ve got so much of it—the quality of wood that I bought over the years was so consistent in the characteristics, the weight and thickness, that I almost don’t have to do a lot between guitar and guitar. If you keep the quality of the tonewood in this little envelope—and if you build guitars like you always do—it’s almost guaranteed that you’re going to have a really nice-sounding guitar. I don’t use floppy tops. If you do, you have to do some serious modifications to the thicknessing, sometimes the bracing, but if all your woods have a similar high quality, then it’s guaranteed you’ll get a nice guitar.”