How do you make a guitar? “Well you get a pile of really nice wood and a sharp whittling knife,” I heard Wayne tell one of the fiddlers backstage. “Then you just carve away everything that isn’t a guitar” Allen St. John, Clapton’s Guitar Simon & Schuster Inc. 2005 p.6
“It’s lovely,” he said. “I’ve never heard anything about this guy before” With those words Eric Clapton set in motion the events described in Allen St. John’s new book Clapton’s Guitar. From the time one of the world’s most famous pop guitar players uttered those words until ten years latter when the author delivered a completed guitar to a London Hotel, Mr. St. John provides us a window into the world of the art of the acoustic guitar.
With Wayne Henderson, luthier, and his creation of guitars numbered 326 and 327 as the resonator, Clapton’s Guitar reverberates from repair shops, to history, and back to the small building in Rugby, Virginia (population 7) again where Mr. Henderson turns wood into acoustic magic. Why was the Martin guitar of the thirties and forties period so superior to the latter models? What’s the difference between Brazilian and Indian Rosewood? What makes Appalachian spruce so special for guitar makers?
These and other pieces of guitar arcane are explored as we sit in the comfy confines of Mr. Henderson’s cluttered and homey workshop. You might think it impossible for someone as renowned as Eric Clapton to become inconsequential to a story about a guitar being built for him, but we soon forget about him as we are drawn into the strange, nearly mystical world of guitar creation, and the man who creates what many consider the finest guitars in America.
In fact, in this book, most humans end up playing second fiddle (so to speak) to a series of instruments that have more character, history, and personality than half the people you’re liable to meet in your life. From the guitar that A. P. Carter cradled on stage with the Carter family and wrote such classics as “Wildwood Flower” and “Keep on the Sunny Side”, to vintage Martin guitars of the 1930’s and 40’s and their modern descendants, everyone of them is as distinct as its maker and the tree that bore their wood.
But if the guitars are the characters in this story then the writer is Wayne Henderson. As individual as any guitar ever made he lives and breathes guitars. Whether playing, making, or repairing them Wayne has been around guitars since he was young. He made his first guitar when he was just a teenager, and hasn’t stopped since.
Wayne has played stages across America from Carnegie Hall to the local V. F. W. hall and treats all concerts the same. The same applies to the guitars he builds, whether it’s for Eric Clapton or his neighbour he works at his own pace and on his terms. Eschewing the modern equipment of most factories in favour of his own hand made tools, and using vintage guitars as his blueprints one gradually realizes that each instrument is a labour of love and he would be building them whether the wealthy and famous wanted them or not.
America is probably dotted with people like Wayne Henderson; characters who have stories about the people they’ve met and can do the seemingly impossible when it comes to craftsmanship. But even among that dying breed he stands out. The more we read about the intricacies of guitar making, how fine a line it is between mediocre and magical, the more we realize that this is genius at work.
It’s his own deceptive casualness and seeming half hazard approach that gives the impression of nothing special happening as he bends sheets of rare Brazilian Rosewood into the familiar S-shape sides of a guitar. It’s only by paying watching closely, which the author does, is it understand how much attention to detail is taken in the process.
Almost ten years from the time when Mr. Clapton said he would like a Henderson guitar, Wayne was still waiting to find just the right pieces of wood to make the instrument. Finally when all the stars are aligned he begins the process of building twin guitars. One of the guitars will go to Eric Clapton as planned, the other will be auctioned off to raise money for a music program for kids in the surrounding area.
From the cutting of the planks to the last coat of varnish and their first playing, we see through the eyes of Mr. St. John the way a guitar comes together under the hands of a Master. Every maker has their own unique ways of building and Mr. Henderson is no exception.
What’s especially nice is that Mr. St. John has sufficient knowledge of the process that he is able to offer commentary and ask questions that give us some insight into what makes a Henderson guitar so special. From the hand tooling of the interior bracing to the dovetail joining the neck to the body every millimetre of the guitar is examined and analysed in language that anybody can appreciate.
It’s as if the author has imbued the book with the attitudes of Mr. Henderson. Nothing is ever complicated or overly technical. In some ways reading this book is like being privy to a casual conversation between two friends talking about a subject they love. Playing a guitar, let alone creating one, is something of a mystery to me, yet after reading this book I feel like I now know more than if I sat down and read an encyclopaedia.
The information sort of creeps up on you slowly; until by the end of the book what was an arcane language at the beginning, reads like the plainest English. Somewhere along the line we have broken the code and been initiated into a world of wood and sound where success is determined by measurements the width of a piece of paper.
This is a book that is obviously written with love and appreciation, and one can’t help being caught up into the world of guitars and those who play and worship them. Even those like me with no foreknowledge of the guitar can’t help appreciating the stories recounted (Les Paul made the first solid body electric guitar by strapping a neck to a railway tie and threw on the S-curves just to keep people from looking at him like he was insane) and the tidbits of information imparted throughout the course of this journey.
Allen St. John’s quest to get two guitars made for Eric Clapton by Wayne Henderson takes him and us on a journey that roams far and wide. Along the way we meet characters both human and wooden that make this one of the more worthwhile trips you’ll take in a long time. I know that I will never look at a guitar the same again.