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Mountain Guitar Maker Enjoys Worldwide Acclaim

Wayne Henderson
Wayne Henderson

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June Soh

Wayne Henderson has earned a reputation as one of the best acoustic guitar makers in America.  He has made guitars for some half a century in his hometown in the mountains of Virginia, about 570 kilometers southwest of Washington.  There is a long waiting list for his much-coveted instruments.  Even legendary guitarist Eric Clapton had to wait 10 years for his Henderson guitar to be ready.  Our producer visited Henderson's workshop, set deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and brought back this story.   

"That sounds really good now,  all that tone, ring and everything going on," said Wayne Henderson.

With his keen ear for the vibration of each piece of wood he uses, Wayne Henderson is known - especially among musicians - for his finely-crafted guitars.  

"Well when I am making these guitars, people always ask me how do you do it," he said. "And I just take this, a good sharp whittling knife like this and cut away everything that does not look like a guitar."  

Sounds simple, but it takes a long time.  Normally there is a five to 10-year wait for a Henderson guitar.

"Because you do this little process like I am doing right here right now so slow and it takes me long time to do everything," said Henderson. "And I do it slow and easy and try to do exactly right."

Henderson, who is now 63, says he started to make guitars as a young boy, out of necessity.

"My family played Old Time Music and my cousins and the people around house played but I couldn't afford a good guitar," he said. "I always made things so I thought I might be able to make one.  That is what really got me started."

Starting from this guitar made out of a cardboard box and fishing line, and this one, bearing serial number "one," Henderson has been making acoustic guitars for friends, neighbors and others for nearly 50 years in his hometown in Grayson County, Virginia.  He builds guitars from Appalachian spruce and nearly-extinct Brazilian Rosewood.

"Besides great material, they have to be put together right," said Wayne Henderson. "You know the thickness, tolerances of wood has to be exactly right for the right tone, and volume of a soundboard has to be measured exactly, and that's done mostly by ear. You can hear the wood sort of speaks to you while you are working on it."

So far, Henderson has built about 500 guitars.  He does not have regular assistants in his roadside workshop next to his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  But folks are often dropping by to lend a hand.  Don Wilson has driven up from Florida every few months since the early 1970s.

"It is a 500-some-mile [800 km] trip and in eight hours I am here," he said. "It is a vacation to me to be included.  It is not just a guitar.  It is the whole atmosphere of this shop. You never know who or what might walk through the door.  All of our guitar friends and the music and that [is what] I enjoy."

Friends and music lovers are always welcome in his cluttered shop and play mostly traditional Bluegrass music together.  Henderson says that is another reason why it takes long time for him to build a guitar.

"The music has just been a way of life for me for as long as I can remember," he said. "And not many days goes by when I don't hear music, or see music, or feel music, or some way or another have some connection to an instrument."

Henderson is also in demand as a performer. He feels equally at home at a local event or a prestigious stage such as Carnegie Hall.   He received a National Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1995 for contributions to American Culture.

He also toured the world playing traditional American Bluegrass music for the nation's cultural exchange programs.  

"I've been real fortunate to get to travel and play my music," said Wayne Henderson. "When I was a kid I never dreamed ... I'd never been out of this community right here.  I've lived right here in this community my entire life. "

Henderson also sponsors an annual music festival to raise scholarship money to help young musicians. 

"Wayne [is] just a very humble hero in this area," said Becky Ward, president of the Wayne Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition. "So we honor him in having a festival in his name.   We have a guitar competition in which the [top] winner wins a Wayne Henderson handmade guitar, which is a very coveted item."  

"I've really been blessed with being able to do what I like to do, and being able to sort of make a living at it, or being able to still be here," said Henderson. "I can't imagine doing anything different."

Beyond his great talent as a guitar maker and musician, Wayne Henderson is known as a friend to everyone and shares his talent and knowledge unselfishly.   Henderson says if he were born again, he would like to do exactly the same thing.

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