By Brian Sewell
Wayne Henderson, a renowned musician and luthier, spends most of his time in the workshop beside his home in rural Rugby, Va. Some of the finest acoustic guitars in the world are made in that small space. Today, he’s working alongside a few of his closest friends and his daughter, Elle “Jayne” Henderson. As Jayne learns the craft from her dad, they are working together to build a more sustainable guitar.
“I think the name that he’s made for himself as a luthier is so significant that it shouldn’t end with him,” Jayne says. “He is a master at it and I’m his only kid. I think it’s really important to carry on a tradition like this.”
Taking a break from pursuing a career in environmental law, Jayne has carried her environmental ethic into the workshop. She wants to build instruments that move away from the traditionally favored exotic but unsustainable woods. For centuries, instrument makers — also called luthiers — have sought out woods like Brazilian rosewood and Honduran mahogany to craft their superior instruments.
“I can go to my Granny’s land a mile away and cut a walnut or Appalachian spruce or gather some that’s already fallen,” Jayne says. “That movement is happening with our food, why not try and make this more sustainable too?”
Wayne Henderson admits that it hurts to think that one day he may not be able to find Brazilian rosewood to build his near-perfect guitars. But he acknowledges the highly sought-after materials are being phased out.
“[Rosewood] makes the finest sound you can get and has properties like no other wood has,” Wayne says. A piece of walnut can come pretty close, and with everything that goes into building a guitar, shaping pieces of wood, checking the tone and everything, you can make it come very close.”
If anyone can come close, it’s Henderson. He is known in the guitar community worldwide as one of the most celebrated luthiers working today. Music writers and acoustic aficionados have called him the “Stradivari of the Blue Ridge” and the greatest luthier alive, titles he does not recognize.
“I figure I might be the best one in Rugby,” he says proudly. Rugby’s population is seven.
But, modesty aside, some of the best guitarists of any period delight in the fact they own a Henderson guitar. Australian finger-picking legend Tommy Emmanuel won’t even play his on stage because of his aggressive style. Another player waited 10 years for his, some British bluesman named Eric Clapton.
Each year, thousands show up at the Wayne C. Henderson Music Festival, most to watch the guitar competition. The prize, of course, is a Henderson guitar.
From a young age, Wayne developed the passion for making guitars that he is now passing on to his daughter.
“I’ve always had that drive,” Wayne says. “When I was a kid all I wanted to do was be out in the woodshed making something.”
His life-long affinity for Martin guitars also influenced his love of music and his lifelong explorations of the sound that can come from just a few pieces of wood.
Nearly 50 years later, Wayne shares his knowledge by teaching workshops at the invitation of craft schools, traveling and playing music. Back home, he doesn’t always have the time, or the workshop space, to help young people along the path. When he does, he likes working with Jayne and those closest to him.
“She does great work and I’m proud of it,” Wayne says. “I think if she would stay at it and have the interest I’ve always had, she would be as good as anyone could get. She’s made some great guitars and she’s watched me enough that she can do it just like I do with some practice.”
By his count, Wayne has built 549 guitars, 116 mandolins, 104 fiddles, 15 banjos, 14 ukuleles, five dulcimers and two dobros in his career. Jayne is working on two ukuleles and her fourth guitar, a cutaway model with koa sides and a spruce top, as gifts for her cousins. With each one, she comes closer to her goal of a sustainable guitar of the quality her dad is known for.
“My dad knows how tones should sound and what densities get the best instrument,” Jayne says. “I think with his knowledge and my concern for the environment we’ll still make a really good instrument structurally and tonally, but also one that didn’t have to come from Africa or the rainforest. I can meld my two passions that way.”
Jayne intends to carry on the tradition her father began, even if she never reaches his ability.
“There aren’t many luthiers in the world and even fewer that can do it the way [my dad] can,” she says. “I just want to make sure I learn what I can.”
“I’ll never be Wayne Henderson,” she says, as if thinking aloud. “I’ll never be able to make the things he can.”
But Wayne remains humble and, leaning back in his rocking chair, interrupts, “I don’t see a reason why not.”
When thinking of Appalachian music, most Americans would imagine the twang of a banjo. What some might not know is the path the banjo has taken throughout history.
– Music historians believe the xalam, an instrument that might have originated in ancient Egypt, is the earliest ancestor of the American 5-string banjo.
– The ngoni, a simple instrument fashioned from a gourd, wooden neck and three strings, is still popular in West African music.
– The first instruments that came to be known as “banjos” were created by slaves in Colonial America who drew inspiration from similar African instruments.
– In the early 1830s, Joel Walker Sweeney, a minstrel performer, learned banjo from local African-Americans in Appomattox Courthouse, Va.. He was the first known person to play a banjo on stage.
– Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s “Blue Grass Boys” in 1945, developing and popularizing the three-finger “Scruggs style” picking, now a cornerstone of Bluegrass music.
– Durham, N.C., locals formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops after attending the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., creating one of two known African-American string bands. Their album Genuine Negro Jig, won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2010.
– Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck went on a a pilgrimage to West Africa, and brought the banjo full-circle by exploring the instrument’s roots and playing with musicians in Gambia, Mali, Tanzania and Uganda. The 2009 documentary film Throw Down Your Heart was filmed during the trip.