In today’s column, I’m going to do something I’ve never done. I’m going to recommend a book I haven’t yet finished. The book is “Clapton’s Guitar”, by Allen St. John.
It was a birthday gift from my sister, and from the title, I expected some paean to some custom electric guitar for rock guitar god Eric Clapton. As an old Clapton fan, that sounded OK to me. But the cover jacket had a picture of an acoustic guitar.
As it turns out it is the story of the building of a custom guitar for Eric Clapton, but that fact is not central to the book’s theme. Instead, it is the story of a master luthier named Wayne Henderson. By St. John’s account, Henderson is a legend among guitar pickers, and is a champion competitive guitar picker himself. I had never heard of the guy.
Wayne Henderson lives in a tiny little town in Virginia called Rugby (population: 7), and his overall output is as modest as his price for a custom guitar. In decades of guitar-making, Clapton’s guitar is only number 327, and apparently, Henderson only charges $1500 for a new guitar. Each guitar is made by hand – Henderson uses a pen knife to carve the bracing, for example. St. John describes a rustic luthier shop nearly knee deep in sawdust, with guitar making often interrupted by nearby bluegrass festivals, picking contests and frequent local visitors.
The catch is, apparently, the average wait for a new Henderson is ten years, and that’s only if you pester him. Effective methods of pestering range from daily postcards, weekly visits and regular delivery of homemade pies. The fun story in the book is, although Clapton is not given to begging for his new guitar, the author wants Henderson to build him a guitar, too, and urges him (by most of the methods described above) to get those two guitars (#327 and #328) done.
The author really gets to know Wayne and his friends, and also did some really fascinating research into the bluegrass guitar picking culture, and the culture of lovers of fine instruments. He describes the guitar making process in great detail, but it never gets too techie. In fact, it makes me want to try building a guitar myself, but I know better than to fall into that miasma.
I have several friends who are skilled luthiers, and it’s still amazing to me that anybody can do such a thing. These people, like Wayne Henderson, know how to coax wood to do their bidding. It’s not just a matter of knowing how to cut shapes with precision. Every piece of wood, and every type of wood, has its own personality, and luthiers know how to speak “wood”.
The author points out that high-end guitar makers can, and do, turn out quality instruments in large quantities, but nothing sounds like an instrument that was truly made by hand, with woods chosen carefully by the builder, and carefully coaxed into being a musical work of art. Wayne Henderson says all he does is take a piece of wood, and using his knife, cuts away everything that doesn’t look like a guitar. But we know it’s much, much more than that. “Clapton’s Guitar”, by Allen St. John, published by Simon &Shusters’ Free Press. Check it out!