Love Begets Love
While the wood choice at Collings may be on the traditional end of the spectrum, the process part of the equation is pretty dynamic. Never one to push paper or do more talking than working, Collings spends most of his days working in the shop, often in areas that have been struggling. “Last month I started working in the finish department, because they’ve been having a hard time for about a year. In fact, we were going to rename them the ‘unfinish department.’ So I went in there and found out that I had a hard time doing the job; every time I’d buff this guitar out, it’d get kicked back! And then I noticed that the inspectors had much better lights than we had, so I said, ‘We gotta get on the same playing field!’ So I tried to help them, to see why they can’t do the job like we’d expect. So that was a great month. Now I’m going to do the same thing in bodies.”
Dedicated Collings workers buffing acoustics (left) and electrics (right).
The single most important thing to Collings is the love of the work. Lovett, Walker, Guest, and National Fingerstyle Champion Pete Huttlinger are all impressed with how much every person in the Collings shop is crazy about guitars. “Well, that’s the deal,” Collings says emphatically. “You go over to China, and I know that factory isn’t run by guitar players. But that’s the reason they’re not ever going to rise to the top. Because your employees have to have the same feeling. They really do. It’s like making art without artists—how’s that going to happen? It’s not. Having the love, that’s going to help it get there. That’s pretty much it.”
Pete Huttlinger with his 1997 OM1. “When I sit down and grab any one of these guitars, I can find the music in there,” he says, “It’s always there for me.” Huttlinger’s first Collings was a mid-’90s OM2H, and he also uses a 2008 D1A.
Never Afraid of a Musical Adventure
Collings built his first archtop in 1976. “The guitar thing,” he muses, “you want to do it all at once when you start. You want to do everything and you don’t know which direction to go.” His mile-wide curious streak led him down a few blind alleys as well. “There were banjo parts, and a finished banjo back in the early ’70s. I can’t say I’ll never do that again—make parts of it, maybe—but that’s actually not my deal.”
Mandolins seemed an obvious addition after carving the archtop guitars, and Collings says they make about 500 mandolins a year. At this point, they’re really happy with that number. Ukuleles, a more recent addition, were another obvious choice—especially from a historical perspective. “We started making ukes in a depression year,” he explains, “when we didn’t have enough work on guitars. I’ve heard that, many times in history, companies would do that. Martin did it, Gibson did it. When the economy was slow on guitars, they filled in with ukes.”
Ukes, however, are not nearly as easy to make as they look. “It’s a real instrument. You can buy a uke for $150, you can buy a guitar for $150, or $59, or $39. You can buy a uke for the same thing. There’s really no difference in the bottom line.” Collings shifts in his chair and pauses. “Actually, the same amount of work goes into a uke as goes into a guitar, so there you go—it’s almost the same. When we first started making ukes, they were a lot more than a guitar. The first 50 ukes took us more time than 50 guitars.”
According to Van Wart, that’s because ukes are a little fussier to make than guitars. Any mistake is magnified, because they’re so much smaller. “They take a lot of figuring out. It seems like you could just throw one together, but they take a lot of figuring. They’re really finicky.”
Most recently, Collings decided to try his hand at electric guitars. And, as always, he had in mind that careful balance between tradition and innovation. “If I came out and had a brand new thing—my own design that’s totally unique—it’s not going to make it, because the public won’t accept it. There are certain things they’re going to look at in certain areas. Say you have a Gibson influence, we make something on those lines, but we change it. We can’t drift that far from the spirit of that, because people want to relate to it. They’re going to relate my City Limits guitar to a Les Paul, but they’re not going to do it to any Les Paul—they’re going to do it to a vintage Les Paul. So we’ve got to put that style in there. Make the guitar around 8.25 lbs., make it play really great, have great humbuckers, and not be hollowed out, and blah blah blah. So you’ve got to pick the right wood, you’ve got to make it all work, and hope it’s accepted!”
As you might’ve surmised by now, a vintage vibe is important to Collings. “To me, vintage—good vintage—is the stuff. That’s what I like, and hopefully that stuff is on my guitars.” He’s also got a pretty clear idea what people expect from the Collings brand. “If we had started with my 360 [solidbody] model, I don’t think it would have worked as well. But now, that little 360, people like it because it’s different than anything else.” (PG liked it too—we gave it a Premier Gear Award in the July 2009 issue.)
When the conversation is steered back to the recent economic downturn and how it has affected the company, Collings says it actually hasn’t hurt much. “Right now we have so much work. We’re just trying to get it out and keep our dealers somewhat happy if we can. But we’re so behind at the moment. We’ve just been slammed the past four to five months. Slammed. We did have three months where we weren’t slammed, but we noticed in late September and October it was back, big time.”
As for where his tendencies toward tireless tinkering will lead him next, Collings isn’t sure. “Usually things just happen,” he says. “We don’t plan it. We don’t do the model-of-the-month club and we don’t do anniversaries. We don’t do any of those things.” When nylon-string guitars come up, his interest is piqued. “I’m gonna do some of that. I should have done it already, but I haven’t. So you reminded me—thanks!”