Wayne Henderson is a true American original. He is a world-class guitar builder. He is also world-class guitar player. And that makes him unquestionably the lone member of a club of one: Stradivari and Paganini in a pair of glue-stained Carhartts.
Wayne Henderson was born in 1947 in Rugby, Virginia, a tiny town tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, just a few hundred yards from the North Carolina border. The population of Rugby is seven, and legend has it, always has been. As Wayne tells it “The town’s so small that we have to take turns being the mayor, the preacher and the town drunk.” (Henderson is also a master storyteller as well.)
Wayne grew up on a farm just down the road from where he lives now. His dad Walter raised subsistence crops as well as tobacco, the cash crop of the day. His mother Sylvie raised the kids and tended the animals—including a pet turkey named Smedley. A good life, yes, but a hard life too. The other economic engine of the area was moonshine liquor, with the moonshiners knowing they could outrun the local authorities through the twisty back roads across the state line.
One of the constants of life in the mountains was music. Walt was an accomplished fiddler (his old time band won a ribbon at the very first Galax Fiddler’s Convention) but like most farmers stopped playing when he started raising a family. When his youngest son learned to play a few chords of backup, that encouraged Walt to pick up his fiddle and play with young Wayne. Wayne’s introduction to guitar making was similarly organic. He saw the big, shiny ’49 Martin D-28 that was owned by local music legend E.C. Ball (a guitar that has become one of his most precious possessions) and wanted one just like it.
With the hubris of youth, and a fair bit of natural talent (as a small child, he would carve his classmates initials in their pencils in trade for an apple) a teenaged Henderson set out to make his first guitar. He snuck into the house and removed the bottom of his mother’s dresser drawer. He took it down to the creek to soak off the veneer and returned it before she noticed it was gone. Working in a shed on the farm and using a few other parts cannibalized from his brother’s Silvertone, Wayne cobbled together a reasonable instrument, with one fatal flaw. He had used rubbery black glue that his dad had used for sealing the weatherstripping on the truck. One hot day in August, the guitar literally exploded, like a morning glory, as Wayne recalls.
Walt found out about the guitar project and sensing Wayne’s disappointment promised that on the next rainy day he would take him to see Albert Hash, a local fiddle maker. Hash gave Wayne a piece of mahogany from a door and helped him order a few parts from an instrument maker’s catalog and sent him on his way. When the youngster returned with Henderson #1, a guitar that Wayne still owns, Hash said “If I knew you were going to build something this good, I would have given you a better piece of wood.”
And thus began a life of making guitars and playing them, at least when Henderson wasn’t running his 82-mile rural mail route that was his day job. It’s important to remember that while there are literally hundreds of individual luthiers in the U.S. making steel string flattop guitars in small numbers largely by hand, when Wayne started in the mid-1960s there wasn’t really any such thing as a guitar maker. The best instruments were made in factories by Martin and Gibson, and there were only a few classical and archtop makers. It’s not an overstatement to say that Wayne Henderson was a pioneer of an important American craft movement.
Henderson’s notoriety has increased over the years–played all over the world and in 1996 won a National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor bestowed upon traditional artists. But he’s still the same old Wayne, wearing the same ball cap and blue jeans whether he’s playing at Carnegie Hall or the pot luck supper at the Rugby Rescue Squad. He still makes every guitar completely by hand in the style of the great guitars built by C.F. Martin & Co. in the 1930s and 1940s. His favorite joke goes something like this: “How do you build a guitar? You get yourself some good wood, some nice rosewood or mahogany, and a nice Appalachian spruce top. And you get yourself a sharp penknife. And then you cut away everything that doesn’t look like a guitar.”
But while Wayne’s craftsmanship is second to none, his business practices wouldn’t pass muster with a Harvard consultant. The combination of his peerless instruments and all-too-reasonable prices has resulted in a waiting list that’s a decade long. But The List only exists in Wayne’s head, and on any given day, he’ll work on whichever guitar strikes his fancy. Knowing this, his friends (and virtually all of his clients become friends) have taken to bribing him with lemon pies or nudging him with daily postcards. Wayne Henderson doesn’t build guitars so much as he bestows them.
And even his most famous clients don’t get special treatment. In the mid 1990s, Eric Clapton became smitten by a Henderson guitar and ordered one. But because Clapton doesn’t bake pies, that guitar was among those that Wayne never quite got around to. And only after it was proposed that he build two identical guitars—one for Clapton and one to be auctioned to benefit local music charities—did Wayne finally get around to completing Clapton’s order. The doppleganger of the Clapton Guitar was auctioned off at Christies in May 2006 for $31,200, a world record for a guitar built by a living American luthier. Wayne’s guitar shop has become something of a social center—some would say a halfway house—where friends gather to watch, talk, and play music. And especially play music. It seems that almost everyone plays an instrument or sings, and everyone knows the same two dozen tunes. So whenever a few friends get together in the shop, it doesn’t take much encouragement for a jam to break out.
And in this context Wayne is a musical chameleon, straddling the very different aesthetics of bluegrass and old-time music. Henderson has the chops of the very best bluegrassers playing with blazing speed and almost surgical precision. He picks the lead clean and fast, always with a distinctive bounce that’s a result of his unique playing style, using metal fingerpicks and a thumbpick instead of a flatpick. But like his old-time friends, he eschews flash for its own sake, preferring instead to just play the tune.
But as fine as his ensemble playing is, what’s truly unique about Henderson’s guitar playing comes out when he’s playing solo, as on Made & Played. When you just hand him a guitar, or better yet, listen to him play a guitar he’s just completed, Wayne opens up his box of influences wide. Using those two extra fingers to great advantage, he’ll fill out the sound with syncopated strums in the style of Maybelle Carter. He’ll inject some of the banjo rolls that Merle Travis first applied to the guitar. He’ll toss in some rockabilly riffs, or jazz things up with “one of those chords with numbers.” His playing is both fun and fearless. It’s a whirlwind tour of American Guitar Styles but it never sounds like Wayne’s showing off, because he’s not.
Allen St. John
Author of "Clapton's Guitar"