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."

At least one St. Louis luthier has direct ties to the Old World time and craft Worthington holds dear. Peter Slama left Czechoslovakia 15 years ago, seeking freedom from communism. He says, "I played in a group in Czech, but the government did not like the music because it was from here: bluegrass, folk music. Playing it was like doing something against government. We would camp and play. It was so close to the traditional music there, acoustic guitars and fiddle. Now kids there, 18 or 19 years old, learn, word by word, old bluegrass records, and they sound just like the old man who sings it. I began building because I could not find the instruments over there. I could not buy a dobro like I wanted to hear."

Slama speaks with the distant sadness of an exile, remembering musical reunions in his homeland, instruments he has built that remain over there. He is a mechanic by trade, working on school buses for the county. He has built dobros for Bob Breidenbach of the Orbits and for Jerry Douglas, perhaps the greatest living dobro player. Slama's shop is simple, no bigger than a modest darkroom, with only a few power tools but many chisels and diagrams on the walls. He works with his hands, strong and graven as a stonecutter's, and with his eye for Old World detail and his imagination, wide enough to invent a dobro with the curling body of a classic Gibson mandolin. "You can work from plans, from a book, but I build from the feel," Slama says. "I have to feel my way." His instruments are glorious, dobros of maple with grain fine and wild, rolling with nature's wavelengths, like a flow of channeled flame around the backs and sides. "I build maybe one or two instruments a year. It's just a hobby. I thought about a career, but I'm afraid. Now I can make a dobro or archtop; I can make it right, take time. I'm afraid if I make it a career it will be just like working on a school bus. I could not make this archtop if I had to make a living at it."

Mike Boggeman has made luthiership a career. He has been working on guitars and violins for 20 years and recently founded the Midwest Guitar Repair and Building School, a large, sunlit space in an abandoned school in Kirkwood. His shop is one of 10 schools in the country that teach luthier work. "A lot of these other repair guys, this is the last thing they want me doing, teaching people to work on their instruments," he explains. "That's money out of their pocket. We're trying to get people to come in from around the country and study the trade, or for repair shops to send their repair guys here to improve and then go back and do the work."

Because the shop only dates back to September, and because Boggeman has been building for but two decades, a short span in luthier years, his work still has room to grow and, though handsome and sound in their own right, his guitars are marked by the human flaws that reveal the long steps toward mastery. "Unless a guy is willing to spend a couple of years, you're not gonna walk in here and then walk out a master. I've been building for years, but I'm not a master. I'm a journeyman; I'm still on a journey." A guitar builder must be a carpenter, a sculptor, a mechanic, an architect, a painter and, in his or her own way, a master musician. Fred Schmedeman worked for McDonnell Douglas for 26 years, retired in 1987 and began building in his home, across the river in Caseyville. He holds up a soundboard and taps it near the soundhole, then near the bridge, at the bouts, at the bottom, the wood shaved thin to translucence. Each tap reveals a different note, the sound of different stones falling into different wells. And yet Schmedeman can't play more than a few chords. He shows me pictures of a seven-string archtop he built for John Farrar and pulls out his first steel-string guitar: "This guitar took 200 hours to build. Any good craftsman or model builder can put together a guitar. But it's tuning the wood. The top, the soundboard, is vital -- the thinness and lightness."

He lets me play No. 1, his first guitar. The guitar feels alive against me. The wood vibrates long and loud, and the instrument sings like two or three guitars playing together.

"It kind of disgusts me when people look at one of my guitars and say, 'Did you build this from a kit?'" Schmedeman says. "No, they're handmade. I show them the raw wood, and then I show them the guitar." He loves the wood above all else, describing in detail the Canadian Engleman spruce, the Indian rosewood, the mellow mahogany, the Spanish-made inlays, the rare walnut and African ebony. "I would never use rosewood on the fingerboard. I put in too much time. Ultimately I prefer the classical guitar. They are a true acoustical guitar."

Because a hand-built guitar arises from the life of the luthier, takes a good portion of the craftsman's years, it is expensive, beyond the reach of most musicians. But such an instrument's music is a thing utterly apart. "A handmade guitar," John Higgins tells me, "if it's made well, the minute you pick it up you hear something in it. Different instruments will pull different things out of players. I work with musicians, find out what they're after and try to make that sound. The '90s acoustic-guitar renaissance has been terrific. There are a lot of small builders out there who can make 25 guitars a year and make a good living. I'd like to get to the point where I can build a half-dozen a year. But good companies like Martin or Gibson, they don't really know where the instrument is going to go. Those guitars are overbuilt, made to stand up to the unknown. But being a custom builder, you get to know the player, and it allows you to get the tolerances down. You can generate volume and tone that you can't get in a factory."

"There are very few guitars that are truly great," Worthington says, "Stradivariuses in their own right. In the end, abstract thinking doesn't help you when you're faced with a guitar. It's a complete system of relationships that have to be understood as a totality. When you're involved in any one aspect of building, it's codependent on every other aspect. You consider the rhythm, balance and geometry of the whole.

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