Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Visit with Wayne Henderson - Master Luthier

Wayne Henderson with Early Henderson Guitar

 We drove west along the Crooked Road through Galax and into Grayson County as the road narrowed and houses became less and less frequent, crossing the badly misnamed New River and beginning to climb into the highlands of Grayson County, headed towards Rugy, VA (pop. 7) including Wayne Henderson. I had wisely asked Wayne for a physical address the Friday before our trip there, because it isn't a place one just happens upon, but the trusty GPS took us right there, despite our reservations. We found the shop around noon, the time when Wayne customarily gets to work, and walked into a beehive of activity.

Crooked Road Way-Sign
Independance, VA

Way signs like these are scattered all along the Crooked Road, (U.S. Highway 58) providing a history of local music and people from the early days of recorded music, often with sound samples played over low range FM radio and broadcast to your car. Independence was chosen as the county seat of Grayson County when two other towns competed for the honor. Wayne Henderson's shop is located in the Grayson Highlands.  The four highest peaks in Virginia are also located in Grayson County, as well as rugged country and hills carpeted with Christmas tree farms,which have replaced tobacco as a cash crop.

The Grayson Highlands

Wayne Henderson's Shop

Wayne Henderson has emerged as, perhaps, the greatest guitar maker in this golden age of contemporary luthiers. His designs, based upon the legendary work of the pre-war (that is WW II) guitars built by C.F. Martin and Co. in Nazereth, PA, are hand built in his small shop in Rugby, VA. He has built over 500 guitars, as well as assorted mandolins and the occasional ukelele. Wayne Henderson guitars are prized instruments owned by the likes of Eric Clapton (who waited several years for his first guitar) just like everyone else, including country singer Zac Brown, Doc Watson, Peter Rowan, and many others. He recently delivered two guitars to Eric and Leigh Gibson made from the same piece of wood and dubbed "The Twins." Wayne has a reputation for maintaining relatively low prices for his instruments, although they are in high demand and there is a long waiting list to obtain one. A physician located in New England waited seven years for his recently delivered Wayne Henderson D-18, and is said to have cried for joy when it arrived. There is a lively aftermarket for Wayne's instruments which sell for three to ten times their initial cost, but, should an owner decide to sell his, chances of getting another are nil. Other noted luthiers from the region (Jimmy Edmonds, Caleb Smith, Gerald Anderson, Spencer Strickland, and more) all credit Wayne's theories of design and approach to building as having been significantly influential in their own work. In 1995, Wayne Henderson was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in a White House ceremony. Here's a more extensive article providing additional information about Wayne Henderson and his guitars.

Wayne at Work on a Baritone Ukelele

Wayne Henderson is no local genius working in solitude to build his wonderful and widely sought instruments. His shop is a lively place, filled with friends and visitors come to talk about guitars and gossip about local matters while Wayne keeps on working in their midst, a center of calm concentration surrounded by activity. While we were visiting, Wayne was working on a wedding, a gift Baritone Ukelele, an instrument he hadn't built before. He measured and remeasured to reassure himself that he was placing the fretboard and bridge in the precise places to produce the finest sound. He consulted with design books, checking and re-checking while consulting with others in the room before cutting and placing the diamond shaped inlays on the ebony fretboard. It was only after such constant attention to detail he glued the small, blue diamond shapes pieces in place. 

Consulting with Don Wilson & Harold Blevins

Cutting the Inlays

...and Gluing Them in Place

Herb Key

Herb Key, an employee in the shop, was described as the most knowledgeable Gibson repair man around. Here he works on a thirties era Gibson guitar.


Wayne's Filing System

Harold Blevins Sings "Irene, Good Night"
on His 1939 Kalamazoo Archtop 

We found Wayne Henderson not only interesting to watch working, but a warm and welcoming personality with an impish sense of humor and a wealth of stories to tell. I'd really like to go back and record more of his seemingly endless collection of  stories and reminiscences. While he has never strayed very far from the valley he lives in, where he grew up and his ancestors settled, he is a world renowned artist who's work has been recognized both in awards and in the prices his used guitars command.  There isn't an ounce of pretense in him as he seems to have remained the same down home guy he's always been, having continued as postmaster in his small home town for years after it would have paid him handsomely to make guitars full time, as he does now.

Wayne Henderson's First Instrument
...Saved by His Mother

Early Hendersons

National Heritage Award

Photo with Hillary Rodham Clinton

Irene off for a Ride with Wayne
in His 1957 Thunderbird 

When Irene and Wayne came back from their ride, Tom and Gail Watts had appeared bearing a delicious pot of chili with all the fixins'. There was plenty for everyone, and we had a very pleasant time visiting as worked stopped for a while. We said our farewells and headed down out of the mountains on a twisty, steep road I'd have liked to stop to photograph, but there were no pull-offs. We had a wonderful day, and hope to get to return.

 Wayne Henderson's Shop