Visiting guitar-making father and daughter, Wayne and Jayne Henderson, in Virginia and North Carolina and watching amazing guitars being created.
Everything starts somewhere.
This project owes its genesis to Wayne and Jayne Henderson, a father and daughter in Virginia and North Carolina that both make incredible guitars. I first heard of Wayne in 2016 through coming across a book by Allen St John called “Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument” , published in 2006.
Still being relatively new to all things guitar, I had never heard of Wayne Henderson. But of course, Eric Clapton is one of the world’s best-known guitarists, starting out in the 60s and continuing to produce fine music to this day. The very first music album (or LP as they were known then) I bought as a teenager was “Wheels of Fire” by Cream, released in 1968, and I listened endlessly to Clapton’s amazing guitar playing, getting lost in the long meandering solos of the live part of the album. One of my favorites was “Crossroads”, and I think every note must be etched on my spinal column.
I didn’t know it then, but Clapton and my other rock heroes drew heavily from traditional blues from the American south. Crossroad was originally written and performed by Robert Johnson, one of the best known of the Delta bluesmen from the first half of the 20th century. But more on that another time.
The story told in the book by Allen St John is that Clapton encountered one of Wayne Henderson’s guitars, really liked it, and said he’d love to get one. Wayne is a one-man operation in a tiny town called Rugby in Virginia. His guitars are so sought after that there is a 10 year waiting list if you want him to build one for you.
Clapton probably didn’t know this, and Wayne didn’t view the order as any different from any other – hence it went to the end of the queue.
Allen St John relates how Wayne was persuaded to fast-track this particular order and make not just a guitar for Clapton but also an identical one to be auctioned for charity. The book essentially follows the process of building these guitars from the original pieces of wood through to the completion of magnificent instruments – a process Wayne modestly describes as simply putting penknife to wood and carving away “everything that isn’t a guitar.”
At various stages in the book, Wayne’s daughter makes fleeting appearances, but we don’t hear much about her. The book also ends with the completion of the guitar, and somewhat frustratingly doesn’t go on to say much about what happened to either Clapton’s guitar or the one put up for auction. I was interested to find out more and did some Google sleuthing. The fate of the guitar that went to Clapton himself is little known, but a post on the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum by Allen St John in 2006 stated:
“Wayne Henderson #327 aka Clapton’s Guitar was sold this morning at Christies Musical Instrument Sale for $31,200. That is believed to be a world record for an auction sale of a flattop guitar by a living American luthier. All proceeds of the sale will go to the Wayne C. Henderson Scholarship Fund, which provides musical education to students, including many at-risk children, in the Appalachian region.”
While I was searching for information about the guitar, I also discovered that Wayne’s daughter – the one who had flitted in and out of the book – was also now making guitars. After studying Environmental Law, she discovered that she was not really enjoying that line of work. She asked her dad if he could make her a guitar that she could sell to pay back law school loans, but wily Wayne said he’d help her build one herself. Jayne found that she actually really liked the process and eagerly learned from her dad. And she got pretty damned good at it too.
She started making her own guitars and then ukuleles, first at her dad’s shop in Rugby and then also in her own workshop in Asheville. She brought her environmental background with her into guitar making, and has mostly focused on using non-traditional local woods and on smaller-body guitars that can use smaller pieces of wood.
I decided to get in touch with Jayne for a number of reasons. I loved the story of how she took up guitar making and her focus on the sustainability aspects of the process. I also admired her for taking up guitar making as a woman in a mainly-male dominated activity, something I have been aware of in my career in Science. When I was an undergraduate my lecturers were predominantly male. When I moved to Australia, the organization I joined had 125 scientists, only 5 of whom were female. Fortunately, things have changed a lot, and for the past decade my research group has included more women, all amazingly talented, than men. Things seem to be changing slowly in the guitar world too, with an increasing number of young talented women guitar makers on the scene.
And finally, I was keen to find out if there was a Scottish background in her family – Henderson is a Scottish clan, and my wife Gillian is a Henderson. Jayne very graciously replied to my email and we connected pretty much straight away. And, yes, she did have Scottish ancestry and had even played in a pipe band!
A brief aside: Jayne’s full name is Elizabeth Jayne, and she is also known as “Elle” to some folks. Her instruments are made as “EJ Henderson Guitars and Ukuleles”, although she tells me she is definitely not ever called “EJ”. In another connection back to Scotland, “EJ” was a famous osprey that came to breed in the RSPB Abernethy Forest reserve in the Scottish Highlands. This was the place where ospreys first recolonized Scotland in 1954 after they had disappeared at the start of the 20th century. The first colonists were carefully guarded, and eventually a remote camera was installed on the nest to keep an eye on things. This camera provided an intimate look at the ospreys and their lives, and is now available on the web. EJ was the star of the show for many years, arriving every spring between 2003 and 2018, and providing a long-running soap opera of suiters and mates, including Henry and Odin, and raising many chicks. Her failure to return to the nest in 2019 marked the end of an era at the Osprey Center.
I decided that I’d like to experience the process of having a guitar custom built for me and asked Jayne in early 2016 if she might put me on her waiting list – roughly 2 years wait at that stage. Again, she very graciously agreed. It so happened that I was going to the Ecological Society of America conference in Florida that August, and I hatched a plan to tack on a visit to Virginia to meet Jayne in person. My visit coincided with the Fiddlers Convention in Galax (pronounced Gay-lax, so I soon discovered), Virginia and so I went to that first – an amazing affair featured in the movie “Fiddlin” which celebrates the traditional music being kept well and truly alive in the mountains.
From Galax, I took a drive along part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping to take in the wonderful scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains and to visit the Blue Ridge Music Center. This has an exhibition on the origins, history and current state of music in the region.
There in a case was an early guitar built by Wayne Henderson. I felt I was very lucky to soon be visiting the very place it was made.
I loved one of the passages in the displays:
“The guitar is a paradox, one of the easiest instruments to play, but one of the most difficult to play well. There is good reason for its enduring popularity: the guitar is the most forgiving of instruments. A would-be crooner who has learned but three guitar chords does not sound half as bad as a beginner fiddler. And in the hands of a master player, the guitar becomes a small orchestra”
I know more than 3 chords, but am a long way off making the guitar sound like a small orchestra!
I eventually made my way to Rugby and I got to hang out in the workshop while Jayne worked on a guitar top. Wayne was away playing a concert somewhere, and would not appear until later. The workshop was an amazing place, replete with machines, benches, tools and guitars in various phases of construction. Jayne now has her own shop in the basement of her house in Asheville, North Carolina, a few hours drive south of Rugby, and she normally splits her work between the two – but at that stage she was making her guitars entirely in the Rugby workshop.
I got to see the Wayne Henderson’s famous filing system for back orders – a wall of pigeon holes stuffed with all sorts of bits of paper. I got to see the various tools needed for every stage of making a guitar. Turning a bit of tree into a fine instrument involves hundreds of different steps, each involving skill and judgement and a knowledge of how to use an array of tools and machines. The bigger companies have automated parts of the process, but individual builders like Wayne and Jayne pretty much put each guitar together by hand, albeit with the help of power tools such as sanders and band saws. I’ve never been one of those people who looks at a thing and wonders how it’s made – and I’ll bet most folks when they pick up a guitar don’t give much thought to how it’s designed and constructed. But watching Jayne work on the guitar top really brought home to me what a complex and skilful job it is. You have to be an engineer, artist, sound tech, materials expert and process manager – and more – all in one.
Jayne writes a blog – The Luthier’s Apprentice – and sometimes focuses on the ups and downs of guitar making – the intense satisfaction of stringing a guitar up after months of work and hearing how it sounds. The frustration of making a mistake and having to figure out how or if it can be fixed. The fascination of working with many different pieces of wood, no two of which are exactly the same. And the pleasure of watching the reaction of the person for whom the guitar was built when they get to see and play it first.
A big bonus of going to visit Rugby was that I got to look at the different woods available and choose the materials for the guitar that would be built for me. We’d discussed options, and Jayne, recognising my interest in local alternatives and sustainable options, suggested a piece of local white oak for the back and sides, and local spruce that had been salvaged from a downed tree for the top. Even in raw form, you could see that the oak had some amazing figuring in it – I couldn’t picture how that would look in the finished guitar, but I got the feeling that Jayne could both see and hear what it might be like. We also settled on a small body size – 00 – and Jayne would do some oak-themed inlay on the headstock and fretboard (inlay work adds another dimension of detail and skill required – and this is one of Jayne’s specialities).
Wayne returned from his road trip later in the day and we all had dinner before he went off to work in the shop – he’s often in there until the early hours of the morning. I left the rural tranquillity of Rugby and headed down the crowded freeways to pick up my flight from Charlotte that started the long trek home to Australia. It had been a true pleasure spending time “at home with the Hendersons”.
The finished instruments – Asheville
Before I left, I started discussing plans with Jayne for a return trip the following year to collect my guitar in person. We’d also agreed that Jayne would make a matching ukulele for my daughter Katie. So it was that the idea of a great American road trip started taking shape – 2-3 weeks touring the southeastern US on a music pilgrimage that also took in Civil War and Civil Rights history. I’ve spent a lot of time in the US – including 3 years living in California – but had never spent much time in the southern states. Picking up hand-made instruments was the perfect excuse – and even better, it could be a dad-daughter road trip!
More on that another time. Suffice to say for the moment that Katie and I found ourselves winging our way over to New York and on to Charlotte in October 2017 with the prospect of visiting Jayne again and picking up our new instruments. This time, Jayne was in Asheville and was fitting out her new workshop. In the period between my visit to Rugby and this trip, Jayne had been in regular contact about progress with the guitar, micro-decisions about materials and so on. We had planned my visit to give her plenty time to get the instruments finished – and it certainly was a huge thrill when we found them in their cases in her spare bedroom. And an even bigger thrill to open the cases and find the finished instruments – both exquisite to look at, lovely to listen to and wonderful to play.
Interestingly, Jayne does not really play guitar – but she does play a bit of ukulele. When you think about it, there is no real reason that someone with the skills required to build an instrument should also automatically have the skills required to play it! That said, many guitar makers are also excellent players – Wayne Henderson is an excellent example. So it was apt that Jayne got Wayne to try out my guitar once it had been strung up, and she accompanied on the matching ukulele.
Dream Guitars and the other Henderson
We had a really nice visit with Jayne and got to sample some of Asheville’s delights too. I also had an additional bonus to the visit. One of the details we had discussed via email regarding the guitar was the need to have a good quality case that would withstand the rigours of taking it by air back across the world to Australia. Look on any guitar forum and you will find horror stories of what can happen to a guitar in transit. Some airlines allow you to take a guitar in the cabin with you, but many don’t, and it’s not guaranteed to happen. Some airlines actually take good care of guitars even when checked, but again it’s not guaranteed – so the last thing you want is to have to check in a guitar without adequate protection. Hence the need for a pretty-much indestructible case that will protect the guitar from random acts of carelessness on its way through the airline baggage system.
In her email addressing this factor, Jayne had mentioned that she’d been in touch with her friend Paul who lived nearby and would likely be able to advise and provide a suitable case. I was interested to find out who this Paul guy was, and it turned out that he was none other than Paul Heumiller who owns and runs Dream Guitars. This is, I guess, a guitar store – but unlike any other store you’re likely to encounter. Situated about a half hour drive from Asheville, Dream Guitars is really part of Paul’s house. Most sales are online and you can visit the “store” by appointment only. Paul is a seriously nice guy who teaches yoga as well as selling the finest high-end guitars you can find.
Visiting the Dream Guitars website unearths a treasure trove of guitars from top builders, and is extremely dangerous! The lure of wonderful instruments is overwhelming (The Dream Guitars t-shirt has “Yes, Honey, It’s Another Guitar!” written on the back). As I scrolled through the array of instruments currently available, what should appear but “1978 Henderson 000-28, Indian Rosewood/Spruce”. This was a Wayne Henderson guitar that had pretty much just gone up for sale. I was gobsmacked because I had heard that second hand guitars built by Wayne generally became available only seldom, and rarely spent long with a “for sale” label before being snapped up. I’d also heard that, although Wayne himself does not charge large amounts of money for his guitars, the second hand market sees some pretty astronomical prices being asked.
A rush of blood to the head made me start fantasising about how amazing it would be to have a guitar made by both Wayne and Jayne. Once a thought like that worms its way into your brain, it’s pretty easy to find all sorts of reasons to justify it. It seemed like too much of a coincidence that the guitar had become available just at the time I was finalising travel plans to visit Asheville. Wayne’s guitar, built in 1978, was his #51. The guitar that Jayne was building for me was her #49. So the guitars were made when Jayne and Wayne were at pretty much the same stages of their guitar-building careers. And, best of all, the guitar was not priced very astronomically at all – probably, I suspect, because it is a small body guitar (000), and most folks go for Wayne’s dreadnaughts which always appear at more astronomical prices (at least from the perspective of someone on a university academic salary).
Cut to October 2017, and I found myself on the way to Dream Guitars to meet Paul and pick up the Wayne Henderson guitar he’d been keeping for me. If visiting the Dream Guitars is virtual guitar heaven, visiting the actual Dream Guitars is true guitar heaven. Adorning every wall are guitars from some of the best known and most admired builders. Like a kid in a candy store, it’s hard not to pick them all up and give them a play – but if you want to, you can spend all day doing just that. Paul has a wealth of knowledge that he is more than happy to share. And he had my Wayne Henderson #51 cased and ready for me.
I couldn’t believe that I had just become the proud owner of guitars from both Jayne and Wayne Henderson. I felt like the luckiest person alive – not only to have the guitars, but also to have had the pleasure of meeting and visiting with both people and seeing where they made the guitars.
Meanwhile, back in Fremantle
Fortunately, both guitars survived the trip back to Western Australia with no incidents. Few people here have heard of Henderson Guitars, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in Australia with both a Wayne Henderson and an EJ Henderson.
Both are truly lovely instruments, but quite different. Both are beautiful to play and have great acoustic qualities. Wayne’s #51 has aged for over 40 years. Jayne’s #49 is bright and resonant. Wayne’s #51 is more mellow but beautifully balanced. Wayne’s is constructed with a classic traditional tonewood, Indian Rosewood, while Jayne’s is made from locally-sourced White Oak, which is visually spectacular. I love them both.
At this time of social distancing and home isolation, I spend a lot of time in my home office (which also doubles as my music room). The Henderson guitars live in there too. Having had a wonderful time visiting and “being at home with the Hendersons” in Virginia and North Carolina, I am now at home in Fremantle with the Hendersons here too. Every time I pick one or the other up, I think back to the truly enjoyable journey that led from reading “Clapton’s Guitar” through to being able to enjoy the EJ Henderson guitar built just for me and the Wayne Henderson guitar I was lucky enough to happen across through Paul and Dream Guitars. And best of all, Jayne and I remain in contact and, hopefully she will participate along the way in The Nature of Music.
UPDATE, 26 May 2021: A recent interview with Jayne: