You started playing guitar when you were 6 years old, right?
Yes. I was a little kid playing guitar, following Peter, Paul and Mary, the New Christy Minstrels, and the Kingston Trio. And I was glued to the television whenever I saw Tommy Smothers playing his big Guild dreadnought. I was just fascinated by guitar. I don’t remember even thinking about doing anything else my entire life—that was it! When I was 6, I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life mastering this instrument. I’m not kidding you, I remember going to bed and having my guitar lying next to me. Especially if I got a new one, I did not want to put it down.
I’ve been there.
I’m still there. I build in batches, so I’ll build a batch of 16 in one group, and when I get done with them, each night I’ll take one home and I’ll sit on my couch and hug it and play it and kind of fiddle with it, just looking for any little thing I can tweak before I send it off. Man, I’m like a little kid.
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.
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 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 company. 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 guitars 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.
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.