Guitar Town

Using raw wood, delicate precision and an artist's eye, St. Louis luthiers conjure gorgeous handmade guitars

I'm an instrument builder," John Higgins, guitarist for the Flying Mules, tells me. "And I've been playing guitar for 35 years. I'm 43. Having a guitar in your hand for 35 years means you should have some degree of intimacy with the instrument, should know the sounds. Being a musician gives me some insight into building for different players. It lets me deliver something to someone that's very close to what they want to hear. When I was 20 I had my first shop, doing repairs. I built my first acoustic guitar when I was 18, based on Irving Sloan's classical-guitar book. Back then, 25 years ago, there wasn't much information. Wood was limited; you had to make your own tools; plans were limited. And so I had to learn, slowly, everything that goes into bringing an instrument to fruition."

The history of guitar-making in St. Louis is a private affair of individual builders working in the secrecy of their home workshops. There have been many notable violin makers in Missouri, and for decades the Schwarzer Zither company in Washington, Mo., crafted some of the finest zithers -- a cousin to the autoharp -- to be found anywhere. "Builders come and go over the years," Higgins tells me. "Skip Goez, Ed Fusz, George Arder, Rich Worthington, just to begin with. But then somebody will just show up and say, 'Look at this guitar I made.' You just never know how many builders are out there."

Originally trained in painting and printmaking at Washington University, Rich Worthington has been building guitars since 1971. Six years later he sold his first instrument. "For me it was an interest in the form and the sound. I wanted to see if I could create a beautiful tone on my own, which turned out to be a deeper hole than I thought. Wood has its own nature. It's not always amenable to what you want. It was only five years ago that I realized what I was looking for. It's something that goes back to earlier times, the turn of the century. Those makers were building a different instrument than the factories. Everything was lighter. The tops were paper-thin compared to the overbuilt stuff today. It's somewhere between the flamenco style and the classical style. The sound is percussive, more breathy, more lutelike. A modern instrument, on the other hand, is more highly disciplined. You might say I'm working the other way, testing the limits to find that line where if there's any less discipline the guitar will self-destruct. It's like architecture: If you build something that holds up under stress but you add any more stress, it will fail. Finding the lightness is a risky thing."

He points to a small, nearly complete classical guitar on his workbench. "That guitar -- if you punch the top pretty good you'd put your finger through it, and yet it's strong enough to handle 200 pounds of pull. If you play it, it will give you notes that you're not even playing. It has its own little world and will do things a more harmonically rich guitar won't do. It's a natural consequence of the lightness; everything is more responsive to the lower frequencies. It's just a part of the physics of intervals, that kind of thing."

Worthington traveled around the country for a time in the '80s, restoring sculpture, cleaning and patinating the bronze. "I worked on Daniel Webster in Central Park," he says. He is now respected by his fellow luthiers as one of the finest builders and restorationists in town. He has, quite literally, brought guitars back from the dead. Recently he has constructed guitars of wood taken from a historic St. Louis church; to please another client, he built an instrument from the cherry wood of a Missouri chicken farm. "Working on guitars in St. Louis can be terrible," Worthington says. "In the summer it's almost impossible. August through the winter is pretty good for building, but the summer is like working in El Nino."

Worthington restores and builds because it is his vocation -- like any other, I suppose -- but also because craftsmanship forms his identity: "It's in the nature of the relationship you have with what we might call the 'real world,'" he says. "That relationship is one of physical relations -- putting things together, sort of like advanced blocks in kindergarten. Other people may look at guitar-making and see it as mystery, and run screaming from it. That person sees the world but does not observe it. And so they've learned nothing. They keep the arts as a mystery, because they don't physically connect with all the things you have to struggle with to create. Some people have someone come to fix their doorknobs or repair their harness. Those things are in anyone's ability, if you've observed the world. And building is a gradual thing. It's not a soundbite; it has no quick satisfaction. There are incremental improvements over long periods of time, both the skill and the understanding. It's not in the nature of our society to encourage that. It's like learning to draw on a computer; that's not the way to go."

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