Business Profile: Bill Collings Interview (Part 2)

July 5, 2017

Within a few minutes of meeting the passionate polymath Bill Collings, you quickly come to understand why the best of the best guitar luthiers around the world know him as "the Steve Jobs of guitar makers." (Though a comparison to Antonio Stradivari might be more appropriate.) Collings is wicked smart, obsessive about tiny details that will blow past most people, well read, and he possesses a razor sharp sense - a gut instinct - on what works of design and engineering are "insanely great," and what is not. He's spent the last 42 years setting the benchmark for superior guitar making in an industry built upon obsession over minutia. Collings is a maker of things first and foremost, with an artist's dedication to finding the perfect sound from the manipulation of wood...and an almost spiritual devotion to crafting exquisite sounding machines that will outlive us all.

This is Part 2 of a 2 part interview. Part 1 was featured in the June 2017 TMO Newsletter. 

TMO: Has wood sourcing to build the guitars become more difficult? I noticed a few years ago the federal government was cracking down on wood sourcing...

Collings: “Well that was theft. The guys that did that at Gibson, they were buying the wrong wood. They (the gov’t) were trying to find a way to get them for a long time. They were buying 'hot' wood from Madagascar, from a German distributor, and they couldn’t really nail them on it, but they nailed them on something that we had the same paperwork with, for the last 30 years…and that was: they got them for (getting) fingerboards from India.

"The original ISO number says, this is supposed to be a quarter of an inch thick. Well you can’t do that. You can make a 3/8th board and we can turn it into a 3/8th. So those documents had been crossed out, and written in with 3/8th for 30 years. We all had the same exact paperwork, but they busted them for it. Since then, nobody in India wants to fix the law, because it’s them, not us. It’s their law.

"Our Indian Rosewood is on the hit-list, the lazy hit-list, which is a processed wood. It’s grown to grow, and grow, and grow, and made in rows to make instruments. I never knew, in my lifetime, that I could go to jail for the wood I used to make guitars…I know there’s a lot of other (explitive) I could go to jail for, but not wood.

"And then there’s poaching of wood, which is really nasty. They go into the forests and they steal it, and there’s a huge fine. Huge fine. A lot of the meth addicts up in Washington and Oregon were doing that. And it’s like, 'What the Hell?'”

TMO: Oh…they were poaching the old growth trees?

Collings: "So there’s a lot of illegal wood out there, and I’m glad they’re trying to take care of it. Because they’re not gonna ever get (all of) it. Where there’s money, there’s creeps. You ever notice that?

"Our creeps are just the meth addicts that ruin it for us."

TMO: To digress a bit. You mentioned previously that if you were to start a luthier school, or even if you just had some advice for aspiring guitar makers, it sounds like the things you might recommend might not even be guitar related?

Collings: “Yes. (I'd want them to consider) their milling. Their understanding wood more. Their understanding the process, what it’s doing. It’s a bigger thing. And you can get a good bite on it. And there’s some people doing it pretty well. There’s a guy named Bryan Galloup that has a school. I don’t want to do a school, but if I did, I would have a loose school (feel) to do it. And I was thinking I had room up in one of those buildings (on our campus). I was gonna do it. And I was thinking, ‘Hey, if we could find someone good (among the students), we can just hire them.’

"I was gonna get some friends of mine that had been through music business to come down. And every week we’d have a little talk with someone else. And it’d be $1,000 or so for the course...just to cover the costs for a few months. It’d be a bargin. Aboslutely, it would be great, but I can’t say that I’m going to do it. I’d love to do it. But time is an issue."

TMO: Any wood instrument that you haven’t tackled yet, that you have your eye on to build in the future?

Collings: “I want to make a violin…and a fiddle. They’re different. And I want to know the difference. I do. And I’m gonna do it with old school techniques, the whole way."

TMO: That’s fascinating, because some people say they’re the same instrument. But just that the fiddle is found in Americana music and the violin in orchestral music...

Collings: "They’re different. The violin is pretty tame. Even sounding.

"But the fiddle. You gotta get a pop somewhere in that fiddle. There’s six brands of violin that are $30,000-plus."

TMO: Ever made one?

Collings: Nope. But there’s the quest. Once you start, you go...(he makes the sound of getting sucked into a black hole vortex). So making one doesn’t do a lot. You gotta make a few. Then you say, 'Oh I see what’s going on here...’  and then you keep going. Then you realize, ‘This is a bigger hole than I thought.’ Like guitars, which was a much bigger hole than I thought. And it’s getting bigger everyday. There’s more to it that we can add (as guitar makers).

"We don’t want 'shiny' from China. Shiny ends up in your wastebasket. We want 'warmth' from the United States. Built by someone who knows it, and loves it, and gets it. And it ends up being your instrument for the rest of your life.

"So you can have 99% 'shiny' out there in the world - that’s too much finish, too much this, too much that - and it will never make an impact on anybody as a guitar. It will be a guitar-shaped object that makes noise. And to some people, that’s just fine. You can’t take it away (from them). But there’s a whole other world out there of good guitars."

TMO: Any musicians that have been playing your instruments, that have gotten such great sounds out of them that it even surprised you?

Collings: Well, there’s discussions about sound like the one we had with Chris Eldridge of The Punch Brothers last week, musicians that are absolute virtuosos. I learn more from them. And they’ll define the difference between guitar buyers and musicians. And guitar buyers, I’m not saying they’re bad, but they may not understand the same nuances that a musician does, or wants…

"Chris Thile, Chris 'Critter' Eldridge, Julian Lage, those guys all hang and play Collings Guitars. And they’re just ridiculous. Now I don’t understand (technically) what they’re playing. It’s too much for me. (laughs)

"But, with Julian Lage, we’ve found this perfect space for him. But it took months, months of talking about it, and (experimenting with different) guitars. He told me, ‘the difference: yes, yours is a very good guitar. But I don’t want very good. I want less. I don’t want that thing that’s in all the notes. I want each note to be its own thing...’ Very interesting.

"So that thing we put in there was a chime that makes everybody love the guitar. It jumps right out. Over half of my clients, that’s it. It got them all on the stage. It got them through the ‘70s, the ‘80s, ‘90s, it’s the thing that works. No feedback. Sturdy. All this stuff. And this other thing (that Julian Lage wants) is just a little different.

"Lage's guitar will be harder to record. It will be harder to do all of this stuff. But it’s created more for the (specific) musician."

TMO: Any Texas musicians that you’ve worked with for months like that, figuring out exactly what sound they’re looking for in a guitar…?

Collings: "A lot of times what happens is, they’re not sure themselves. And a lot of times…well, let’s say it’s Willie. He wouldn’t give a rat’s ass because he’s got Trigger. And that’s his sound. And he could give a hoot. And a lot of seasoned guys that’ve been through it, that guitar doesn’t mean anything. But guys in the beginning that are looking for those guitars, those are the guys. We like to have several laid out there (when they come to visit Collings Guitars), and a couple of surprises in that package so they can listen, and go, 'That’s the one! I like that! Let’s do that again!' So…little changes."

TMO: One of the Texas-based virtuosos that I saw recently...I’m pretty sure that she plays your instruments: Sarah Jarosz (pictured on right). Her playing was so good it was ridiculous.

Collings: "...stupid good. She’s friends with the Punch Brothers and all those guys.

"She’s been playing on our stuff since she was 14."

TMO: Wow. Since she was very young. That's fascinating...

Collings: "But see, you wonder. Maybe it’s time for her to take a trip, and try some new stuff. And I’m good with that. And a lot of times, you’ll come right back. A lot of people, once they’re hooked in (to the sound they love), they’re hooked in. But for her, finding some vintage instruments is gonna be really cool. But her guitars are great. Mandolin might be a little bright, but she still plays (it like a pro).

"Then she has a Fletcher Brock...a Mandocello. Great venture on her part. So, you like seeing that curiosity. It’s very important stuff.

"You have to have the neck just right. You have to have the action so perfect that we never even talk about it. You have to have that stuff set so that they sit down and they’re comfortable. And they’re not glaring at this bright light. And it’s comfortable.

"Is it the 'shiny' that’s gone? They 'shiny notes' that’s gone? We want a lot gone. We can have some 'shiver' every now and then. We don’t have to have this perfect instrument. But, you want to create an instrument that makes the player just want to sit there and never want to put it down."

TMO: I remember the revelation of discovering the sweet spot in the middle of the neck on a bass...

Collings: "...try another guitar. Try a 'shiny' guitar: there isn’t any sweet spot! Or try this (figurative) one...that’s why I like the Precision Bass.

"That’s where music starts, when you’re noticing that space (in the sweet spot).

"I mean, I sat down on the guitar the other day, I was showing my friend who wanted to buy one for his son. I was like, ‘Holy (explitive)…this is my guitar here.' I was showing him some songs and (I got so excited about the sound), I was like, 'Woah, Oh my God.' I was sounding good. I was like, 'I’m taking this one home!’

"It hit me. And that’s all that has to happen.

"But you don’t find that inspirational sound in shiny guitars. No China. It won’t be there. It’s covered up. That sound was never thought to be in there. They're making the instruments in a place where they don’t even know what it is. At the Takamine factory, nobody played a guitar. They couldn’t set one up for the life of them."

TMO: Wow.

Collings: "Isn’t that funny. And they made more of those damn guitars than…I went over there, and I was blown away. Woah. You know. That ain’t a way to make a guitar. But so many people play them. Whatever. Whatever. There’s the difference. Being a bass guy, you see it."

TMO: See it, hear it, feel it. Speaking of...have you ever made a bass guitar?

Collings: "Yes. An electric bass. They’re OK. It’d take a while to hone it in. And then you fight being a Fender P Bass the whole time...and try to do something else. And you might think you had something good. And it might sound good to these doctors and lawyers, but would it work well for the bass players. How do you get it in those hands. You can’t buy that space. Well, people do. They play the (bad instruments), and they get paid (for endorsements). But their heart ain’t in it anymore.

"I’ve been thinking about these guitars since I was 12 years old. Always about making them, not about playing them."

Interview conducted by TMO Marketing Coordinator Marc Fort. For more info on Collings Guitars, or to schedule a visit to their central Texas factory, contact them at Collings Guitars and Mandolins.