Wildfire Word of Mouth
Once the company was set up in Austin, things really took off and Collings began to get a reputation as a quirky genius. It’s not just guitars that Collings loves to work on. He’s got a real thing for cars and motorcycles, too. McCreary says he’s notorious for being out working on a car and coming into the shop for something, getting distracted and starting to work on a guitar with his hands still covered in oil from the car. “We call him Collings, the One and Oily. To him it’s all kinda the same thing—it’s all ‘How do you get the most you can get out of this thing?’”
Jimmie Vaughan and his AT16 Custom archtop (left) with Bill Collings and his 1932 “five-window” Ford.
McCreary says they’ve never really done any marketing, and not much advertising. “We’ve always been kind of under the radar. We’ve never been able to make more than we can sell, so we’ve never had a marketing department. It’s all been pretty organic, the growth over the past several years.” Subtle things have added to the buzz, though. Things such as actor/director/ musician Christopher Guest’s character using a Collings guitar and mandolin in the wonderful “mockumentary” A Mighty Wind. Guest also recently used a Collings to perform music from both A Mighty Wind and This Is Spinal Tap on the Unwigged and Unplugged Tour with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. Guest’s Collings addiction seems to be fairly serious. “I got my first one . . . I guess it was about 20 years ago. And then I bought a mandolin, and then another guitar, then another mandolin, then another guitar, and then another guitar. And I’ve been playing them since then.”
Collings’ guitars gained a reputation for being simply spectacular, and if not perfect, they started to come as close as humanly possible. “You can’t do it anyhow,” says Collings, “so you just try to come as close as you can. Can you pick the perfect piece of wood? No, but you can get really close. Can you make it the perfect thickness? No, but you can get really close. Can you scientifically do it? No, but you can get close. So we do it all—buy the best wood, intuitively making a judgment on it, weighing it, banging on it, and roughly coming to the right thickness. We do whatever we can.” And he’s adamant in that quest for perfection. “Every day we try to make a better guitar, every day. And every day there are tops sitting in bins that will be braced soon, and they will all become a better guitar than yesterday. You’re trying to reach for more, trying to do better, not trying to do the same. A lot of companies are trying to do the same, and that’s okay—that’s their deal. We’re trying to stretch that. Our goal is a little more.”
The Art and Science of Wood Selection
Wood selection is Van Wart’s area, and his philosophy is a mix of exacting standards, intuition, and the experience of having thousands of board feet of wood pass through his hands over the past two decades. “What you’re trying to do is maximize the piece of wood that you have. It’s not a perfect world and every piece of wood is different, so you’re just trying to make that piece of wood as excitable as you can get it. You have to do it individually, each piece is different.” As far as top woods are concerned, “I’m not looking for so many grains. You can have a piece of wood that has pretty wide grain that can be just as good as a piece of wood that has really tight grain. Sometimes if the grain gets too tight, it adds too much weight.”
Like many acoustic builders, Collings has tried some different woods in recent years, but he feels pretty strongly about staying close to traditional woods. “Every time we think they will work for us, there’ll be a reason to not use them. Say, ziricote–you get it to the right thickness and it’s cardboard. You get into all these alternatives and, well, there’s a reason they aren’t traditional woods. The reason is that they’re not as good as what we were using. Cocobolo—man, that is the worst guitar wood on the planet! I can’t understand why people use it! It’s heavy, everything’s wrong, but people use it. Is it good guitar wood? No. Not to me. I’ve tried to find different woods that will work. Cherry will work, it’s okay. Walnut? It’s okay. Maple? Real prevalent, always made a good guitar—not the best for acoustics, but good for archtops and violins. And it’s real accessible, real re-growable. Good wood. Traditional wood. We use it. There’s a market for different stuff, but that’s really why we kind of stick to a certain little group—because it works and it’s going to last.”