Making Friends For Life - A guitar maker’s journey to Charleston, South Carolina
Written by luthier, Jeff Whitehead, Charleston Guitars®
It was the Summer of 1999 and my first guitar festival in Healdsburg, California. Dr. Michael Kasha was speaking about the allure of the guitar and how creating one was akin to bringing a child into the world. He paused, and his eyes teared. I thought, what a courageous man. Not only has he forged a new path to the reinvention of the classical guitar, but he is willing to share his most personal thoughts and feelings with a room full of strangers. Then, I took in the people around me. Were we really strangers? At that moment, I felt like I was surrounded by siblings who were comforted by the idea that our world was a little bit better when we shared our fascination of an iconic instrument. Players, builders, collectors, enthusiasts, all encouraged and included. Friends of the guitar and, then, of each other.
Years later, Henry Rollins would write about the guitar, “It is an instrument that is easily enjoyed alone to preserve one’s sanity. It’s one of humankind’s best inventions.”
The guitar, with its human qualities of size, shape, and voice, may be one of the most inclusive and personal musical instruments in our culture. No two guitars are identical, regardless of origin, and no other instrument could be as dissimilar or diverse, and still be called the same thing. If a guitar can truly be a friend, there is certainly one for everyone. Whether you play only three chords or riff your way into a trance, the instrument can be equally rewarding and endlessly gratifying.
Just prior to the Summer of 1999, I visited Charleston for the first time. Having been living in San Francisco and witnessing the steady grind of the wheels of growth, systematically shutting out the sun and squeezing life to verticality, the coastal city of Charleston fascinated me as it strived to keep the balance between tradition and progress. The openness of the people I met, the pace of life and the reverence for the surrounding, natural beauty were as alluring as the sweet aroma of Southern Bar-B-Q. This is where I would feel at home. But, what could I contribute to bring me here? As it turns out, a reinvention of the electric guitar.
My heroes in California were guitar makers like Rick Turner, Lance McCollum, Ralph Novak, and Ken Parker, who incessantly pushed the envelope of guitar design and who were willing to share their knowledge freely and openly. If you were interested in the craft, they were instant friends. If you needed to draw inspiration to be courageously innovative, like Kasha, these were the people you wanted to meet. Northern California was at the forefront of luthier artistry and offered, through festivals, venues, and luthier organizations, invaluable networks of intellectual exchange. It also attracted world-class artisans like Bob Benedetto, who taught me to “try it!” and learn through experimentation rather than to simply adopt convention.
As a fledgling luthier, I explained to Lance McCollum that I wanted to build a guitar “like his” someday but with a different scale. Not only did Lance build a guitar for me with that scale, he showed me every step of his building process in his workshop. Then, sadly, while still a young man, Lance died unexpectedly from an aneurism. The guitar he made for me hangs in an honorific place in my home. I often think about how he, the guitar maker, became my friend and created a friend for me, in the form of a guitar, that will transcend both of our lives.
Like some “children,” as Kasha described, the guitar has a twin. Lance said he used an identical set of wood to make a guitar for Dougie MacLean in Scotland. Lance’s beautiful guitars, as progeny, spread across the globe.
Several decades later, I finally made the move to Charleston. While starting up a small, guitar workshop, I had a fateful call from Mike “Spike” Curtis, a college friend who was now an airline pilot flying long-haul trips around the world. His greatest pleasure when traveling was being able to play a guitar, but travel guitars could not provide the satisfaction of a quality instrument. He asked if I made a travel guitar and I said that, unfortunately, I did not. But I could not stop thinking about helping my friend.
At the same time, I met Eddie Bush. Eddie had just released a CD and hosted a show at the Charleston Music Hall to celebrate. His virtuosity on the electric guitar was stunning and I thought that if a musician like that could help me to play better, my guitars would greatly improve. I contacted him about taking lessons, explaining that I’m a builder and needed a better player’s perspective to get the instruments to the level I want, and he immediately exclaimed, “I totally get it. I am with you!” Shortly thereafter, a ritual started of technical instruction, long discussions of electric guitar nuance, and friendship.
Would it be possible to make a guitar that could satisfy Eddie’s demanding style yet give Spike the ability to travel? Yes, it was. It all came together in a reinvention of the electric guitar, made possible by years of encouragement and friendships that kept me moving down a path to discovery.
I created a guitar that was full sized, yet lightweight, compact, and had the tone and playability of the best guitars in the world. The guitar is handmade with traditional tools and techniques, yet of hi-tech design, so it was easy to arrive at the name, Charleston Guitars. What name could better express the balance between tradition and technology than Charleston?
Today, Spike and Eddie have new friends in the guitars that I have made for them. Spike has a travel companion and Eddie soars to musical heights. I know why Dr. Kasha’s eyes teared up.
The Charleston music scene continues to bring many new friends and reminds me of the culture of sharing that contributed to my happy life as a guitar maker. As my guitars find new homes, near and far, I like to think that they will be cherished as friends for many generations to come.