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A Father-Daughter Luthier Duo Builds Souls Into Guitars

Jayne Henderson (right) and her dad, Wayne Henderson, test out a guitar and a ukulele in Wayne's shop in Rugby, Va.
Desiré Moses for NPR
Jayne Henderson (right) and her dad, Wayne Henderson, test out a guitar and a ukulele in Wayne's shop in Rugby, Va.

Wayne Henderson is a renowned acoustic guitarist who has played at Carnegie Hall, been honored at the White House and toured internationally. He's also an acclaimed instrument maker who has built guitars for the likes of Eric Clapton and his own close friend, the late Doc Watson. For the past five years, Henderson has shared his studio — and his trade — with an up-and-coming luthier: his daughter, Jayne.

Jayne didn't plan on becoming a luthier. She earned a degree in environmental law and was facing hefty student loan debt when she saw the going rate for her dad's guitars secondhand on eBay. She asked him to make her a guitar that she could sell to pay off her loans, but he had another idea.

"I told her, 'You oughta make it yourself,'" Wayne says. "And I said, I'll show you exactly what to do and give you my best wood and you make one of my guitars and then you can put it on eBay and sell it."

Jayne gave it a shot, and she ended up loving it. "It turns out it was so fun to have this tangible thing at the end of the day," she says. "Like, here's my work, here's what I've done. And that, I thought, was so neat. And I got to spend legitimate time with my dad."

She enjoyed it so much that she asked her dad if she could make another — and then another. "Every time, I'd come home and tell my husband about it," Jayne says, "and he would say, you know, 'Your face. When you're telling me about this, you obviously love this so much, and why don't you just do that?'"

So she set aside environmental law, and now she drives the three hours from her home in Asheville, N.C., to spend a couple of weeks every month building instruments at her dad's workshop in rural southwestern Virginia. Wayne's been making guitars and mandolins here in Grayson County, where he grew up, for 55 years — when he wasn't delivering mail for the postal service throughout the area's mountains and Christmas tree farms. It's something he says he wanted to do ever since he first played a guitar at the age of 5.

"I still get a big excitement out of stringing up a new instrument, even though I've done almost 700 of 'em," Wayne says. "It still seems like it's exciting as ever the very first time you string up a guitar and hear what it sounds like."

Among Wayne Henderson's more famous fans is country music star Vince Gill. Two years ago, Wayne asked Gill to come play the annual festival that the luthier puts on in his hometown. As payment, he offered Gill a handmade guitar.

"I got it when I went to the festival and played and just fell in love with him and his family," Gill says. "It felt like life used to when I was playing bluegrass."

That back-porch feeling is part of what makes Henderson guitars special — that and their volume and tone, which comes partly from the wood Wayne uses.

The waiting list to buy one of Jayne Henderson's guitars, like these two, is four years long.
/ Courtesy of Jayne Henderson
Courtesy of Jayne Henderson
The waiting list to buy one of Jayne Henderson's guitars, like these two, is four years long.

"The soundboard and the bracing is most always made out of spruce," Wayne says. "And the back and sides of the guitar, the most common thing is rosewood from South America or India. And mahogany from Central America. 'Course that wood is all getting scarcer and harder to come by now."

Since some of this wood is endangered, Wayne reuses wood when he can get his hands on it — he's made guitars out of an heirloom dining table and out of the countertops from Truman Capote's yacht. Jayne likes to use local woods when she can: walnut, maple and oak.

"I think you can use a lot of different materials if you just have an open mind," she says. "And I use the traditional techniques that my dad has taught me."

Her attitude impresses Gill. "The detail and the workmanship is beautiful like Wayne's is, and that's probably because he's taught her and she's gotten to watch such a great builder," he says. "Her blueprint of what to do is pretty astounding. So that's her normal, ya dig? And I love the fact that she experiments with different woods and tries different things. You know, that's pretty neat about a young person when they try to find their own way and do things that maybe aren't the norm."

Jayne's guitars are in demand. She's already got a four-year waiting list for her instruments. Her dad's is more than twice that long. The reason, she thinks, has something to do with what guitar expert, author and dealer George Gruhn once told her: that their guitars have a soul in them.

"It's not just wood and glue and metal, you know," Jayne says. "It's this really special instrument that's alive, and the player makes it come alive even more."

The result is more than just a guitar. According to Jayne, "it comes into a living, breathing thing." A thing that comes from sincere devotion — and a deep connection between a daughter and her dad.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Desiré Moses
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