Makers of music
By Ralph Berrier Jr.
Part 4 of a six-part series
Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times
Guitar maker Wayne Henderson looks over his first "guitar," made from fishing line and one of his grandmothers old snuff boxes at his house located in
Wayne Henderson is considered one of the greatest instrument makers alive.
RUGBY Yes, Wayne Henderson finally finished Eric Clapton's guitar. So you can stop bothering him about it.
The story has reached near mythic proportions in these parts: Rock guitar god Clapton ordered a custom-built Henderson acoustic guitar 10 years ago, but the laid-back Grayson County instrument maker could never quite find the time to build it.
Oh, he built guitars all right, more than 300 since he made his first one out of a plank, some fishing line and a cardboard snuff box nearly 50 years ago (he still has that "instrument" and can play a mean "Wildwood Flower" on the lone remaining string). He built guitars for friends, neighbors and big shots. Clapton just had to wait his turn.
"He never bugged me enough, I reckon," Henderson said while standing among the various skeletons of guitars in the small brick workshop he built with $10,000 he received as a National Heritage Award winner in 1995. He was honored as a master of the traditional arts. He received a cash prize and, as he put it, "got to hobnob with Hillary Clinton."
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That was almost as good as when he played Carnegie Hall in 1990. You see, his artisanship doesn't stop with building guitars. He's a pretty mean picker, too. He employs a distinctive three-finger style utilizing picks on his thumb and index and middle fingers that has earned him top honors at the famed Galax Old Fiddlers Convention.
Henderson, 58, is steadily busy. He is besieged with orders for his guitars, whose designs are based on the famous Martin Co. models of the early 20th century. They're the quintessential bluegrass guitars, boasting a big sound with deep, rounded tones from high to low. He is in demand as a performer, too, having toured the world over.
In fact, when our Roanoke Times Crooked Road traveling party stopped by his shop in May, his friend and protege Gerald Anderson informed us that Henderson wasn't home. He was on tour in France.
Photographer Kyle Green and I caught up with Henderson later as he was working on a ukulele in his rural Grayson County shop.
The phrase "rural Grayson County" is about as self-evident as "urban Manhattan." If there are prettier places in the commonwealth, I've managed to miss them . The trees are lush and green, the peaks crowned with fog as U.S. 58 snakes its way toward majestic Grayson Highlands State Park, home of the state's highest peak, Mount Rogers, and the annual guitar competition and festival that Henderson hosts.
When we arrived, Henderson and his friends Anderson and Spencer Strickland were working on instruments, chiseling interior braces and sanding finishes. Fine sawdust hung in the air and coated everything in the shop like October frost. He used the tail of his "Wayne C. Henderson Guitar Competition" T-shirt to wipe the dust off his glasses.
He returned to work on a guitar, using a band saw to cut the bridge from a piece of ebony . The smell of burning wood rose like chimney smoke from the blurring blade. For the bridge's saddle the smooth part against which the strings rest and are aligned he used an elk bone a friend sent him from Washington. The shrill sound of blade against bone made me grimace.
"Does that remind you of the dentist?" Henderson said. The sawed bone gave off the smell of raw meat.
"I let the dog chew on it awhile to get the nasty off it," Henderson said.
Here, in a region some call the rooftop of Virginia, Henderson plies a trade he learned from legendary fiddle maker Albert Hash and has passed on to others like Anderson and Strickland. His guitars are owned by the likes of Doc Watson, Peter Rowan, Gillian Welch and now, finally, Eric Clapton.
A friend of Henderson's introduced Clapton to a Henderson guitar during an interview in 1995. Clapton proclaimed he had never heard of the guitar maker, but would love to own one of his instruments. Henderson never quite set his mind to the task until writer Allen St. John persuaded him to finish the guitar last year so he could document the story in a book.
"Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument: Clapton's Guitar" will be out later this year.
"I'm still ashamed about that title," said Henderson, who's far too humble to claim he can create a perfect instrument.
Still, that's been the goal since he started making guitars as a boy. He always loved to whittle, making his own toys, wagons and ball bats out of scrap wood. He made his first real guitar at age 12 when he traced the design of an old Martin owned by storekeeper E.C. Ball, a neighbor who influenced Henderson's playing.
Henderson pilfered a piece of walnut veneer from a drawer to use for the sides. He spent a summer working on the instrument, until the humidity finally caused the glue to separate and the sides to bow outward "like a morning glory," he said.
His father, sensing young Wayne's disappointment in the results of his project, took him on a 12-mile trip across the state line to meet North Carolina fiddle maker Albert Hash. Wayne's father played old-time mountain fiddle and knew Hash, who showed Wayne how to bend heated wood properly and what glue to use. He gave the 13-year-old an old door to use for wood. Wayne worked on the guitar for a year, and when he finished he took it back to Hash.
"Boy, if I'd known you'd done such a good job, I would've given you better wood," Hash said. Henderson still keeps that guitar.
Henderson learned much from Hash, a noted craftsman and fiddler who led the Whitetop Mountain Band until his death in 1983. Henderson has passed his knowledge on to Anderson, who is now teaching Strickland, a 21-year-old mandolin player, how to build instruments. The passing of the art reads like Old Testament scripture: Hash begat Henderson who passed on to Anderson who passed on to Strickland. ...
It is the way of the mountains, passing lessons from one generation to the next. In Henderson's workshop hangs a pencil portrait by local artist Willard Gayheart. It shows Hash giving a fiddle lesson to a young boy, Brian Grim, sometime in the early 1980s.
In 1999, I took a few beginning fiddle lessons in Blacksburg. My teacher was Brian Grim.