Collings makes some of the best acoustic guitars in the world and counts Lyle Lovett, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, and Joni Mitchell among his customers. His company, located outside Austin on U.S. 290, is famed not only for the high quality of its instruments but also for its refusal to make bargain versions, the way Martin, Gibson, and Taylor do. The average price for a new Collings acoustic is $5,000, but as fans will tell you, it’s worth it.
It’s taken me more than forty years to figure out what makes a great guitar. I started playing when I was a teenager in Ohio, but I would usually just stare at the instrument, thump it, listen to it. I’d ask, “Why does that steel-stringed guitar sound different than the nylon-stringed one?” Why did the sound of some guitars haunt me while others didn’t?
I come from a family of engineers, and after college, I worked for five years in a machine shop. We made everything, fixed everything. All that time I was thinking of making guitars. In 1975 I moved to Houston and got a job with a pipeline and oil field equipment company. At night I worked on my first guitar. I based it on a combination of a Gibson Dove, a Martin D28, and a Guild D25. The sixties and seventies weren’t exactly the golden age of guitars, but it was a start. I used Brazilian rosewood and made it on my kitchen table with a handsaw, hammer, chisel, and plane. It was okay, but the sound didn’t take off.
My second guitar I based on a Gallagher. I used German spruce and Indian rosewood. I don’t know if it was the wood or the design, but this one sounded great. I sold it for $450. Not too much later, I saw a guy named Rick Gordon play at Theodore’s. He was really good, and I said, “I’m a guitar maker and I’d love to make you a guitar. You buy the wood, I’ll make it.” The wood cost $225. After he played it the first night, I got ten more orders. I made about fifty guitars in Houston. Lyle Lovett, who was in college, had seen Rick’s guitar and came to interview me for the school paper. I handed him the guitar, and it blew him away. He bought number 29.
Well, by this time I was thirty, had girlfriend problems, and wanted to see what else was out there. I was on my way to San Diego, but I stopped in Austin and never went farther. Tom Ellis, a mandolin maker, said I could share his shop. I had enough work doing repairs and making guitars—I made one a week—to party all I wanted, but in 1985 I had a midlife crisis: I realized I could make great guitars if I took it more seriously. I quit partying. Two years later, I made 25 of them for George Gruhn, a vintage-guitar collector and seller in Nashville. They had his name on them, but magazines started calling me, and then stores: “Can we sell that guitar?” I made a baby guitar for Walter Hyatt. More stores called. At that point I was putting my own name on the headstock.
I ran a small operation in Austin for four years with five employees, but we were busting at the seams, so in 1991 I bought an old mason shop west of the city. By then celebrities were buying my guitars. Paul Simon. Joni Mitchell. Eddie Van Halen—I can’t tell you how many people came through him. It was a word-of-mouth thing. In the late nineties we made Keith Richards a baby guitar to take on tour. He did a commercial for VH1 on his jet, playing my guitar. I got calls from all over the country.
I now have about 85 employees. Every day we make six or seven acoustics, three electrics, two mandolins, and two ukuleles. There are three things that go into a great guitar: the design, the craftsmanship, and the wood. If you have great wood but not a great design or great craftsmanship, you’ll get a dead guitar. If you have bad wood, your guitar will be okay but never great. Our wood comes from Alaska, Virginia, Germany, Italy, Fiji, Brazil, India, Bosnia, Cameroon, and Central America. We use mostly ebony, Indian rosewood, mahogany, and quilted maple. Master-grade wood is expensive: a slab of quilted maple is $500, and that’s for one guitar. Quilted maple grows in only a handful of places in the world, primarily in the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest, where the salt in the air gets in the trees and makes this amazing pattern.
Every day we evaluate incoming wood for qualities like mass and stiffness. It has to be seasoned, so we’ll store it for at least a year, usually more. The final three months, we keep it in a climate-controlled room to get its moisture content down to 7 or 8 percent; only then is it ready to be a guitar. The wood goes to the mill, where the top, or soundboard, is cut, sanded to thickness, and given the rosette around the sound hole. The top is then braced with pieces of Sitka spruce. The back and sides of the guitar are cut, and the sides are bent into shape with heat and moisture. These parts go to the body maker, who fits and assembles them before sending the body on to be finished. Each guitar gets twelve coats of nitrocellulose lacquer, sanded down between coats for the best sound and durability. That alone takes eighteen to twenty hours.
The neck and the fingerboard are carved by machine, then finished by hand. We assemble the neck, install and dress the frets, and sand everything down. The entire neck takes about eight hours before being set to the body. Meanwhile, the machine does a lot of what we call nuisance work, turning out parts like the bridge, the truss rod, and the nut. I don’t want to spend time with these little things. I focus on what matters: sanding, rubbing, putting love into the guitar. We do this all day long. Sand, carve, and fit.
Finally, we add strings and see how the guitar sounds. By this point, twenty people have worked on it for more than 35 days. They’ve put about fifty hours into that guitar. In the end, it takes us about the same amount of time that it took me working by myself. And we still turn out each guitar one at a time.