There are few things that make a man cooler than being able to play guitar. You can talk about the rise of EDM all you want, but when you watch a DJ like Diplo pogo around a stage like a Tiddly Wink, it’s hard not feel like he’s overcompensating in some way for the fact that he isn’t actually playing a real instrument like a guitar. When you watch and listen to a virtuoso guitar player—whether it’s an old school bluesman like B.B. King, a classic rock god like Keith Richards, or a more modern star like Gary Clark, Jr. or John Mayer—there is a soul and a character that comes out of each note that they strum, pick, or finger.
In most cases, those characteristics are given voice because the same level of soul and character was put into the construction of the instrument itself. That is certainly the case with the guitars that Bill Collings crafts. Based in the music mecca of Austin, Texas, Collings first began building instruments in the early 70s. They were almost instantly prized not just for their clear and voluminous sound, but for their minimal aesthetics that recalled guitars from the 1930s, an era of great appeal for Bill. A Collings acoustic starts at around $4,000 and can go up to five figures, but they are built to last and to maintain their tone and style over time.
Even if you’ve never strummed a chord, you can look at some of the details on a Collings Guitar and instantly understand that it was crafted by artisans who put a ton of care into their creation. Musicians, especially the better ones, can be a finicky lot. A great guitar player can pick up on subtle differences in sound that escape mere mortals. So the fact that Collings creates instruments that appeal to such a wide swath of players, from Richards to Patti Smith to wunderkinds like Julian Lage, is further testament to his craft. We spoke with Collings to find out how he got his start, the similarity between guitars and hot rods, and the music he likes to play.
How did you first get into making guitars?
I just thought about it and then figured it out. I am self-taught. There were a few books and they gave me an idea, but information wasn’t available like it is today. By 1972, I had made a banjo and some other things. I was working in a machine shop and I’d make parts there, neck parts and dovetail parts. I’d worked with metal and it translated to wood, so by ‘75 I was making guitars.
Where did the interest come from?
The interest in guitars came from not knowing what they were. The rabbit hole is still going on for us. Many times I thought I really knew what was going on, like “Oh yeah, we got it.” But we never really got it. We had a way to make guitars that worked and they were reliable sounding. Now we’re still trying to work with tone and what players want and that’s after 40 years. I like the craft. The business side? Not so much. I have 100 people working for me and I sell guitars all over the world, but that was never really my plan.
How did you develop your style of guitar making?
It’s an interesting thing. I was talking the other day with a good friend of mine, Lyle Lovett, about my early sound and why it worked. In the 70s, there wasn’t much choice as far as a “good” guitar. To me the good stuff was the clarity and voice of the guitars from the ‘30s. Those were simple guitars. But they started getting heavier and heavier. Well, my guitars had strength but I put in clarity so you didn’t get muddy sounds. You strummed the guitar and you got more volume, clarity, and articulation than any other guitar of the period. It caught on fairly quickly because of that. They were crafted better than anything else. If it didn’t attract you because of the looks, the sound would pop and give you more than any other guitar.
What is unique about the craft of making guitars that is different from building other things?
You can’t make the same guitar twice. It doesn’t happen. There’s so many variables. The interesting thing is that in my shop everyone is a guitar player. At any moment during the building of the guitar, they’re really after what’s making that a better guitar. But if you go to [guitar factories in] third world countries, there aren’t any [players]. Having a huge percentage of guitar players has made it much easier for us. But it’s also made it slower because we’re not worker-type people, we’re artists. That’s OK, and it shows in the product. It’s never made us really profitable, but it’s kept us selling our guitars. And that’s fine.
Do you still make guitars yourself?
If you make one start to finish, you’re going to slice the wood, weigh it, flex it, join it, and bend it. I do lots of parts of guitars but someone else may have bent a hoop or roughed the neck in. As far as 100 percent start to finish, I do that with our prototypes. I go through the whole process to work it all out. Because no two guitars are the same and no two woods can be the same. We make one guitar at a time. Someone else would say this month we’re making 300 of this model and 500 of this model. We make six high-end guitars a day.
When did you start playing guitar?
I started playing guitar when I was 14 years. A lot of people in the 60s were taking up guitar, not like today. People would say you’re really the best amateur I know that isn’t a professional. But I sucked. I still play today. I play a couple of bars every day. I’m playing country blues now which I always liked even back then. A lot of the people that played back then in the 60s are my friends now. It’s a funny circle.
Who are some of the artists that play your guitars?
If you start with The Who, Pete Townsend buys lots of stuff. Another would be Keith Richards. Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell. Tons of people. Anybody that played guitar that wanted something nice bought a guitar at one time or another.
What’s it like to hear one of these great musicians playing an instrument you made?
You can’t beat that. It’s just the best.
You also make hot rods. Does your approach to cars differ from guitars?
We don’t build anything that’s not a total job. It’s gotta be all the way or no way. It’s kind of like the guitars. If you want me to work on it, I get to do it all. The last one we finished took us a little over a year. We got it in and it was a running, driving car that someone else built. The owner wanted me to paint it and I said, “I can’t do it, I gotta start over.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said there isn’t a thing that I can do to put my signature on it. Anyhow, he went for it, and it’s one of the best processes that I’ve ever gone through. We’ve got the best body guy, an upholsterer that is out of this world, and a fabricator that I’m training. Then a friend of mine comes in and helps out. He was Dale Earnhardt’s aerodynamics director. He put all the bodies on the car and did the aero work so Dale could go so fast.
Have you made the perfect guitar yet?
No, but we’ve made some damn good ones. No one guitar is going to do it all. You’ve got have a few guitars to fuel your arsenal. I know that. But you can have a guitar that you’re not going to let go.