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Making sweet sounding guitars

            Mike Williford got into the guitar trade when he discovered the square neck dobro. “I bought one at Guitar Center and just started tinkering around and putting parts in it and Wayne (his friend and mentor) said ‘Why don’t you build one?,’ and I said Psshhtt. Yeah right.”

            Well, one thing led to another and he built a guitar. He’s on guitar number 32 right now.

            There are a lot of difficult steps that go into making a guitar, one of which is the neck. The neck can be daunting to people starting out with guitar building and repairs. Williford didn’t do his first neck until guitar number eight, but just like making the guitars themselves, now he finds that daunting step to be one of the most fun parts of the process.

            It’s a process that Williford estimates takes 200 hours from start to finish. At the start he asks question after question to the customer: What’s it for? Where will you be playing? What kind of music do you play? 

photo/Alex Goble
Mike Williford shows how he prepares to make a new neck in his basement shop. He cautions it takes thousands in tools and supplies to make guitars.

            The answers to these questions will determine how the guitar gets made. “When you have an ear for music, then you start figuring out what makes these things tick,” Williford said. “For example, a thick back, a thin top, and sides that are kind of stiff, that’s going to make you a studio guitar.”

            On top of that, wood selection can be very important in the makeup of a guitar, something that Williford explained can be competitive and difficult, with the most sought-after woods and grains being snapped up quickly by bigger players before smaller operations like his have a chance. Old-growth woods are the most valued, in types like Brazilian rosewood for backs and sides, or red spruce, a type of tree that requires conservation efforts, for tops.

“The joining process is another intimidating part of guitar building, because you want it as tight as you can possibly get it,” said Williford. Here’s an example of one of Williford’s guitars in progress.

            Williford gets most of his guitar customers through word-of-mouth and Facebook, while also working on cars in a small garage he has near his house. 

            “It’s a slow growing business because people, they want to be able to trust you with their instrument,” Williford said. “There’s a lot of things you can hide and screw up on these things that nobody will ever know. Then you take them apart. I’ve found matchbooks in there used for shims and all kind of weird things. There’s all kinds of things you can do to cut corners, but you don’t want to do that because eventually it will come back.”

            This week he plans on really buckling down on guitars.

            “I’d like to come in here full time,” Williford said from his basement workshop. “I really would. I don’t mind the cars, but this, this is fun.”

photos/Alex Goble
            A selection of Mike Williford guitars hang on the wall in his Jasper basement.

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