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."
"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.
What he said was, "Let me think about it." Wayne Henderson guitars are one to a customer. If he builds you one, you can pretty much forget about getting a second. So the engineer called Wayne himself and told him the story.
"That could solve a lot of problems for me," Duffy said sheepishly.
"It's your guitar," replied the ever-practical Henderson with a laugh. "If you want to throw it out the window it's okay by me."
So stashed in a dusty cubbyhole in Wayne Henderson's workshop is a Xerox copy of the $100,000 check Duffy got in payment for one of Henderson's guitars..
"I still miss that guitar every day," said Duffy ten years later.
"I wish I still had it."
In addition to making superb instruments, Wayne Henderson is a gifted guitar player, or as he refers to himself, "a pretty good picker."
The first time I met Wayne Henderson, in the winter of 2001, he was holding court in his own modest way in the Haft Auditorium at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, greeting friends who had come to marvel at his playing and to remind him gently about the guitar that he had promised to build them. Henderson, fifty seven when I met him, is a bantamweight with a full salt-and-pepper beard, a reddish complexion, a slightly wary smile, and an omnipresent baseball cap. He is also that rarest of commodities, a man who is a virtuoso in two separate yet related fields: Paganini and Guarneri rolled into one.
As he demonstrated onstage an hour earlier, Wayne Henderson is a guitar player's guitar player. He doesn't have the name recognition of, say, the bluegrass legend Doc Watson. But when it comes to the sheer ability to send a torrent of notes tumbling from the soundhole of an acoustic guitar, and yet make it seem like no big deal, Henderson has few peers. But on this night, he was the token guitar player, playing boom-chuck backup behind a collection of fiddle players from all over America. This is roughly the equivalent of having Curt Schilling pitch batting practice. Despite his limited role, which he happily accepted, a good chunk of the audience showed up just to see him play a tune or two. He didn't disappoint. To open the show, Henderson started with a few jokes about his hometown -- "it's so small we have to take turns being the mayor, the preacher, and the town drunk" -- and a slightly off-color story about the old lady and the elephant:
"With only seven people not too much happens in Rugby, but one time a circus was coming through town on their way to the big city...Mouth of Wilson. But they got to going a little too fast around one of the turns on the mountain road and they broke a wheel off one of those big old circus wagons. It turned over on the side of the bank, and spilled out all kinds of circus animals. We had lions, tigers, giraffes, zebras, things like that running around. And that stirred up an awful lot of excitement because we were used to rabbits and squirrels and possum. Old Farmer Jones who lives down the holler was pretty disappointed. He had found the hippopotamus and put it in his hog lot. He thought he was going to have bacon for the next ten years.
"But the strangest thing was that they lost the elephant. They could not find a thing as big as an elephant. They searched high and low. And someone gave word to the sheriff's department that they had seen it near this old lady's farm. And since she didn't have a phone, the sheriff himself went out there to check on it and asked her if she had seen the elephant.
"Turns out that she didn't know what one was. She didn't have a television and she had never even seen a picture of an elephant in a book. So he tried to describe what it was and asked her if she had seen it.
" 'Why, yes, I did,' she told the sheriff. 'Just this morning, there was a big old animal like that around here. And you know what? That thing was in my garden pulling up every one of my cabbages with its tail.'
"The sheriff scratched his head and asks, 'Pulling up cabbages with its tail? What in the world was he doing with them?'
"And the old lady said, 'You wouldn't believe it if I told you.'"
The New York audience roared. Wayne delivered the punch line with the same kind of knowing these-are-my-people wink you get from Woody Allen or Richard Pryor, and that's what made this joke worthy of Letterman instead of Hee Haw.
When the audience settled back down, Henderson demonstrated timing of a different sort. He picked up his guitar and ripped through "Lime Rock," a fiddle tune so intricate and complex that Yo-Yo Ma, who recorded it on the cello with Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor, has marveled at its difficulty. But Henderson sashayed through this fingerbuster with a casual flair that left both his fans and his fellow musicians slack-jawed.
The only question among musicians is whether Henderson builds guitars better than he plays them. Each Henderson guitar has been built by hand, one at a time, made to order, from start to finish by the man himself. When you order a Henderson guitar, you can be sure that it's been built by Wayne Columbus Henderson. He charges an almost ridiculously modest $1,500 for one of his guitars -- other builders charge ten times as much -- or he might barter for something like a new interior for his 1957 Thunderbird.
Wayne uses exotic materials on some of his guitars, all-but-extinct Brazilian rosewood for the sides, indigenous Appalachian red spruce for the tops, piano-black ebony for the bridge and the fingerboard, and abalone and mother-of-pearl for the jeweled inlays around the edges.
But the magic in these guitars comes not from the ingredients, but from the chef. Wayne's personal guitar is built from plain, unfigured mahogany, and to the untrained eye, this battered instrument looks like something that would command $25 at a garage sale.
Pick it up, or better yet hear Wayne play it, and you will appreciate the difference. Every note seems to explode out of the soundhole, with a volume that's almost shocking, yet each note is still sweet and smooth. In guitar parlance, it's a cannon.
Copyright © 2005 by Big E Media LLC, Allen St. John principal