In 1994, Eric Clapton came across a Wayne Henderson guitar in a recording studio and decided on the spot that he had to have one. Rarer than Stradivarius violins, these musical works of art are built from near-extinct Brazilian Rosewood, Appalachian spruce, black ebony, and fine mother-of-pearl. With Henderson's keen ear for the vibrations of each piece of wood he uses, each note that comes out of them has the power of a cannon and the sweetness of maple syrup.
In Clapton's Guitar, Allen St. John recounts how a perfect acoustic guitar comes into the world and how an artist gauges perfection. Wayne Henderson, master luthier and genius in blue jeans, will tell you that he simply puts penknife to wood and carves away "everything that isn't a guitar." This is the story of a master artist, set deep in the mountains of southwestern Virginia in a brick, one-story guitar shop, as busy and chaotic inside as it is simple outside. The space is well-lighted, cluttered with power tools, air hoses, and guitar bodies in various stages of completion. It is in this modest shop that Wayne Henderson crafts some of the most highly coveted acoustic guitars on earth, including one very special instrument he built for Eric Clapton.
Normally, there is a ten-year wait for a Henderson guitar, and St. John finds there are no exceptions even for an iconic figure like Clapton. But seeing it as a shortcut to getting his own guitar done, St. John jump-starts the process, and then takes readers with him on a mesmerizing journey into the heart of high-end instrument making with the man The Washington Post calls the "Mad Scientist of Mountain Music." Henderson, a small-town wise man, is not only the star of this book as a master guitar maker but also is the star of any stage he sets foot on as a master guitar player, equally at home at Carnegie Hall or the local VFW hall. Around this drolly humorous man circulates a small coterie of colorful characters and inspired musicians, who welcome you for an all-too-brief visit. By book's end, you too will want to be Wayne Henderson's friend.
In a rich tapestry of folklore and folksiness, St. John tells the story of building the Clapton guitar in loving detail, from the centuries-old forests where great tonewood grows, to the auction floor of Christie's where one of Clapton's guitars commands over $700,000. It's also a loving look at Wayne's corner of the world, the Blue Ridge mountain hamlets where American traditional music was born, and of Wayne's hometown of Rugby, Virginia, population 7, where the winding roads have kept progress at bay.
Whether you love old-time music, unplugged rock, traditional American craftsmanship, or simply gifted storytelling, Clapton's Guitar is an engaging work that you will want to savor and share with friends.
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October 11, 2005
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Excerpt from Clapton's Guitar by Allen St. John
Chapter One: The $100,000 Guitar
I think it's great," said Eric Clapton as he looked first at his host, and then at the magical instrument on his lap. "Especially on the top strings. It's easy to bend. It's got a good ringing quality."
And so begins the legend of Clapton's guitar. The scene was a recording studio in New York City in 1994. Tim Duffy, a recording engineer by trade, was showing Clapton his facility, hoping he'd sign on to cut an album there. And while the legendary performer was suitably impressed by the audiophile-quality recording gear, what captured his imagination was Duffy's own acoustic guitar.
"It's flat," Clapton continued. "It's incredibly flat."
"The tone " Duffy asked, somewhat puzzled.
"The fingerboard," Clapton replied. "Or is that in my imagination "
Clapton noodled a bit, playing some of the sweet and soulful blues riffs that had earned him Grammys, gold records, and even gold-plated guitars.
"It's lovely," he said. "I've never heard anything about this guy before."
The guy was Wayne Henderson, and it's no surprise that even Eric Clapton, one of the world's certifiable guitar freaks, didn't know anything about him. Henderson lives in rural Rugby, Virginia, population 7, where until recently he split his time between building extraordinary guitars and delivering the mail to his neighbors. He has built maybe three hundred guitars over the last thirty-five years, as many as the popular C.F. Martin factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, can finish in a busy afternoon. But in just a few short moments with this guitar, Clapton had discovered one thing. Wayne C. Henderson might just be the greatest guitar builder who ever lived. A Stradivari in glue-stained blue jeans.
"You want one " said Duffy, sealing one deal, perhaps in the service of sealing another.
"Yeah I'd love to get one."
"What size "
"The same as this."
That's the first story about that guitar. Here's the next one.
A few weeks later, a man entered Duffy's studio and approached our engineer.
"I want to buy your guitar," he said.
"Well, it's not for sale."
"This is the guitar that Eric Clapton really liked, right Well my daughter is a big Eric Clapton fan, and I want to buy it for her."
"It's not for sale."
"Yes, it is."
Duffy explained how special this guitar is, and how long he waited for it. He'd taken it to Africa when he was eighteen.
"I've been on camels with it. I've been on dhow boats with it. I've dated girls with it," he said. "I've been everywhere with this guitar."
The man listened patiently, and when the ranting subsided, he extracted a checkbook from his pocket and scribbled. "Is this enough "
Duffy squinted. The check was made out in the amount of $100,000.
"Is this some kind of a joke "
"Would you prefer cash I'll go to the bank if you want."
The money wouldn't go to buy the engineer a Mercedes. Duffy, you see, wears another hat as well. He is the head of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that's devoted to providing the basics for indigent blues musicians. When he went out to do field recordings of great players like Guitar Gabriel and Etta Baker, he was shocked to see the choices forced upon them by their financial situation: food or diabetes medicine; rent or a winter coat; eyeglasses or bus fare to the optometrist. So he started the Music Maker Foundation as a way to give a little something back to these remarkable, but unknown, musicians. A six-figure check would buy a lot of groceries. That's what Duffy was thinking.