Wayne Henderson lives in a town with a population of eight, two more than the number of strings on the guitars made in his red brick rectangle of a workshop a few feet from his red brick house in Southwest Virginia. I came to know about Wayne a few days ago when I was hired by the Appalshop to take some photographs for their documentary on the world-class luthier and guitar finger-picker.
Wayne made and sold his first guitar at age 17. Now 61, he’s produced around 400 guitars. It should be noted that these are guitars with a capital ‘G.’ Henderson was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship for his work both as a luthier and as a musician. He has put instruments in the hands of friend and old-time picker Doc Watson and superstar rocker Eric Clapton. The wait list for a Henderson guitar is, famously, ten years. (“Slowhand” only had to wait nine for his, proving again that being a rock star has its perks.)
Henderson made and auctioned off another guitar identical to Clapton’s to support Henderson’s scholarship fund, helping “young, local, traditional musicians in continuing their music exploration and education.” That instrument fetched $31,200 — the highest price ever paid for a guitar made by a living American luthier.
Instead of using his star connections to inflate the prices of his instruments, though, Henderson charges in a range that’s affordable for most working musicians and serious amateurs, and he donates many guitars to charities, too.
The workshop, like most I guess, smelled of lacquer and sawdust. For a photographer, the clutter was beautiful. Everywhere I looked was a still-life scene, each representing a tiny piece of stringed-instrument-making history: a collection of clamps, guitar molds, sound-holes from previous projects, a can of screwdrivers, odd little metals tools whose purposes I couldn’t imagine. These photographs were taken in one evening in May, 2008.