I'm always searching for the perfect guitar," says 49-year-old John Thomas, a Yale Medical School professor who plays finger-style blues and loves to visit guitar shops while traveling. A few years back, he found what he was looking for when he spotted one of Kim Walker's guitars in a Nashville store.
That Thomas saw one at all was a stroke of luck—Walker makes only about 20 guitars a year, and there is currently a four-year waiting list to get one. Impressed by its sound and craftsmanship, Thomas contacted Walker in the fall of 2000 and placed an order for an L-00 model made of Adirondack red spruce and Honduran mahogany. Two and a half years and $5,100 later Thomas received the guitar, and has already ordered another one. "The trebles on it are huge," says Thomas, speaking of the L-00's tone. "I've never played anything that tickled my fingers and ears like a Walker guitar."
That sort of praise is universal about Walker's flattop and archtop instruments. Other premier American luthiers like Bill Collings of Austin, Texas (see sidebar), started as one-man shops and then grew to produce upwards of 1,000 guitars a year. Walker still prefers to work alone in the 800-square-foot basement of his house in North Stonington, Connecticut.
How Walker became a master craftsman is the story of many American guitar makers. "Most American luthiers are self-starters," says Tim Olsen, founder of the Guild of American Luthiers. "Most of them got into it during the hippie days of the 1960s out of curiosity and rebellion. A lot of them never thought of it as a way to make money."
Walker certainly fits that profile. An avid model maker as a kid, he loved the electric sound of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton until he saw acoustic flatpicker Doc Watson perform at a suburban Philadelphia club in 1969. "That wooden sound was so cool," says the 53-year-old Walker, "that I got addicted to acoustic instruments." While he was attending the University of Tennessee he met a dulcimer maker who lived up in the Great Smoky Mountains and started learning his craft on the simple folk instruments. A year later, Walker read an ad in a guitar magazine that George Gruhn, the legendary owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, was looking for a repair person.
Working at Gruhn was "like going to grad school," says Walker, who over the course of eight years there worked on instruments owned by Hank Williams Sr., Gene Autry, Eric Clapton, and the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Working 14 to 16 hours a day, Walker repaired and restored what are considered the equivalent of Stradivariuses in American musical instruments—vintage Martin and Gibson guitars, as well as D'Angelico archtops and Gibson mandolins. Today, these so-called prewar instruments sell for a small fortune. A 1941 Martin D-45 guitar, for example, goes for well over $100,000.
Walker's guitars are more modestly priced: They now start at $6,000 and can climb to over $20,000. But despite being new, they have "that prewar growl," says Ted Blankenship, a 43-year-old dispatcher for Red Cap Transportation in Detroit who owns a $15,000 Model 000 guitar made with Brazilian rosewood and elaborate mother-of-pearl inlay.
Walker is able to get that sort of tone precisely because "he has had the direct, hands-on knowledge of working with prewar Martins and Gibsons," says George Gruhn. "He has gotten to study all the truly classic pieces inside and out, and there are very few people in this industry who have ever had that kind of background."
Walker often has customers visit his shop to discuss the sort of sound they are after. He then fine-tunes each guitar to that customer's taste. "Most people know the style of guitar they want, and then we refine from there," he says, noting that he has lengthy discussions about choices of wood, bracing design, string gauge, and body size in order to produce the desired tone. Walker makes seven different flattop acoustic models—from a small-body "0" style to the 17-inch Jumbo, based on the famous Gibson J-200 of the late 1940s. Customers can choose from a variety of exotic woods, including Brazilian rosewood—which is increasingly rare and expensive, and was used in prewar instruments—as well as cutaway designs and decorative inlays. Walker also makes four different archtop models, favored by jazz musicians and other players who prize them for their clear midrange tone, which can be easily heard in an ensemble. These designs are so highly regarded that one was included in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. The Juilliard School lends one of Walker's Cremona models to its most outstanding student to play during the student's senior year.
For now, customers must put down a $500 nonrefundable deposit to even secure a spot on the waiting list. Walker also sends two to four guitars a year to Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island, New York, which has 11 people on its waiting list. "We consider his acoustic flattop guitars the most in demand of any guitars that we sell," says the shop's owner, Stan Jay. "Walker guitars are on a whole other planet in terms of quality, workmanship, and artistry," says Jay. "The sound that comes out of a new Walker is nearly the same as that found in instruments that are 50 to 60 years old. How does he do it?"
By appointment only. At 314 Pendleton Hill Road, North Stonington, CT; 860-599-1907; www.walkerguitars.com.
Can't Wait Four Years?
If you want a truly unique guitar, a handful of small U.S. makers craft exceptional fretted instruments. All offer standard models, but for custom choices of woods or inlays, expect to wait several months. Prices start at $2,500 and can top $15,000, depending on the design. These makers' Web sites list authorized dealers.
Lyle Lovett owns several COLLINGS GUITARS, which are made near his home in Austin, Texas. Bill Collings is considered one the best builders today. His acoustic flattops are based on traditional American designs, and he's a master at sunburst finishes. He makes two to five archtop guitars a year, and his mandolins are highly coveted as well (www.collingsguitars.com).
FROGGY BOTTOM, in Newfane, Vermont, started building guitars in 1970. Today it makes around 100 instruments a year, and unlike others who base their designs on traditional Martin and Gibson construction, Froggy Bottom has designs that are crafted specifically to each player's needs (www.froggybottomguitars.com).
Virginia-based HUSS & DALTON makes flattops that have the same traditional deep bass tone as Martins—perfect for bluegrass musicians (www.hussanddalton.com).
SANTA CRUZ GUITAR COMPANY of California builds the Tony Rice signature model—based on the famous 1934 Martin D-28, with its enlarged sound hole. It also makes a small-body 13-fret guitar that is surprisingly loud for its size (www.santacruzguitar.com).
JAMES GOODALL, a Hawaii-based luthier, makes guitars that "have a bell-like quality; string to string the tonality and clarity never diminish," says Denny Ryan of New York's Mandolin Brothers (www.goodallguitars.com).