Monday, September 26, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Clapton's Guitar - by Allen St. John

By Allen St. John

Reviewed by Tom Carrico

This paperback caught my eye as it sat in the middle of the non-fiction new release table at the Short Pump Barnes and Noble for one reason and one reason only.  There is a spectacular looking acoustic guitar on the cover.  Although at first glance it appears to be a vintage Martin, the headstock does not have the usual squared off end.  Additionally, the name across the headstock was not Martin, but Henderson.  What’s a Henderson guitar, you ask?  Well, read Clapton’s Guitar to find out.
            Wayne Henderson is a retired rural postman in Rugby, Virginia.  Rugby is in Grayson County, south of Marion and has a population of 7.  Wayne has been building guitars out of any and all available materials since childhood.  His guitars are built one at a time and on no particular timetable.  Wayne is an artist.  He is very eccentric, but he is an artist.
            The story of the book is that Eric Clapton, who has defined rock guitar wizardry since the 1960s (The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, etc…), played a Henderson guitar in a collectible guitar shop in New York City and fell in love with its tone and playability.  He had to have one.  He placed an order with Wayne and, about 10 years later, Wayne got around to building him one.  He actually built two almost identical guitars, one for Clapton and one to be auctioned for charity.  Enter Allen St. John, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend section and guitar freak.  He is a friend of the shop owner who introduced Eric Clapton to Henderson guitars and promised to deliver the instruments once Wayne had actually made them.  The author then travels to Rugby and observes the master luthier at work and records his observations.
            The resulting book is not about Eric Clapton.  Nor is it just about Wayne Henderson, although the reader gets to know Wayne and his neighbors, fellow musicians and friends very well.  The book is really not just about guitars, either, although there is a wealth of guitar history included here, and many details regarding the proper construction of an acoustic guitar.  No, Clapton’s Guitar is really about craftsmanship, attention to detail, pride in doing things the right way and not taking short cuts.
            Humor abounds in Clapton’s Guitar.  Wayne Henderson has a disarming sense of humor and a humbling simplicity to his life.  When Eric Clapton suggested that it might be difficult for him to come to Rugby to pick up his guitar because of the crowds which he would attract, Wayne replied: “Aw heck.  I didn’t even know who you were till last year.  And there’s only six other people in Rugby and none of ‘em even like your kind of music.  I suppose that we could walk down Main Street buck naked and I reckon nobody’d care.”  Wayne's guitar shop is frequented by what he refers to as “General Loafers”.  If they do something which particularly annoys him, they are busted to “Colonel Loafers”.  Wayne tells the author that he doesn’t put much stock in religion and refers to himself as a “Buzzard Baptist”.  He only goes to church when someone dies.  There are practical jokes throughout as well, including Wayne's pride and joy: a remote control flatulence machine which he hides around the shop to surprise visitors.  Wayne is over ten years behind on orders for his guitars and people will do anything, it seems, to move up on the list.  Wayne is susceptible to bribery and homemade pies seem to get your guitar built quicker than just about anything else.  After reading this book it would appear that many more dogs live in Rugby than people.  There’s always someone’s dog in the shop or running around the yard.  Even though Wayne is an expert guitarist, has performed all over the world (including Carnegie Hall), and sponsors his own guitar festival and competition each June, the author notes that he is “only truly at home in the guitar shop, where the cast of characters is familiar and most problems can be solved with a band saw, a penknife, and the right piece of wood.”  The author includes some fascinating anecdotes surrounding vintage guitars which themselves become characters in this book.  One pre-war Martin made its way through several famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) guitarists in the 60s and 70s being pawned, sold, given as a gift and finally residing with a collector.
            The author defines a little recognized new disease.  He defines it as G.A.S., or “Guitar Acquisition Syndrome”, a disorder which I readily recognize in myself.  A victim of G.A.S. “sees a guitar, and immediately becomes fixated on it the way a two-year-old obsesses about Naughty Diesel from Thomas the Tank Engine.  Somehow, possessing that guitar will bring joy to his world (victims are almost always male), cure him of his ills, and make him whole”.  Admitting that he is also a victim of this malady, Mr. St. John states: “We seek a better guitar in the vain hope that it will make us better players.”
            The real reason to read the book, however, is to gain an appreciation for a man who takes genuine pride in his artistry.  Wayne Henderson takes no short cuts.  He bends his own guitar sides, inlays his own abalone into his own fabricated fret boards and hand carves each strut which supports each specially selected and hand cut top.  He tests each piece for resonance.  The end product is much better than the sum of many very excellent parts.  That is the magic of a Wayne Henderson guitar.  Mr. St. John goes further than this, however, noting that the quality of the musical instrument reflects the quality of the individual who built it.
            This book has something for everyone.  It is part Appalachian home-spun humor, part guitar building 101 and part paean to a time when musical instruments were constructed by master artisans who took genuine pride in their creations.  This book was a hoot to read.  I learned a lot, I was entertained, and would I ever love to be on the list of people waiting for their own Henderson guitar.
Clapton’s Guitar by Allen St. John is available in trade paperback from Free Press.  There are several excellent web-sites which make the book even more enjoyable including the author’s own ( which contains links to Wayne Henderson recordings.  (Note:  This book is best read while listening to “Unplugged” by Eric Clapton or the soundtrack to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”.)

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