Wayne C. Henderson has lived most of his days within a few square miles in the tiny burg of Rugby, Va., population 7. But the work he does there, crafting some of the most beautiful and sought-after guitars in the world and then playing them with his unique three-finger picking style, has taken him all over the world.
He made his first instrument out of a plank, a cardboard box and some fishing line, but moved quickly to finer materials. When still a teenager he sold one of his guitars for $500.
“I thought up the most ridiculous price I could imagine because I really liked that guitar and didn’t want to sell it,” he told us.
He took most of that money and spent it on better tools and another piece of wood, and a career in crafting guitars and, later on, mandolins was born. His instruments are played by some of the biggest names in country music, though perhaps his best known is owned by Eric Clapton. The story of that instrument is told in Allen St. John’s 2005 book, Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Make the Perfect Instrument.
Henderson hates the title, saying, “there’s no such thing as the perfect guitar.” At the same time, he’s clearly proud of the work and of the fact that an identical, sequentially number Henderson guitar sold at auction at Christie’s for more than $30,000, this highest price ever paid at auction for an instrument by a living artisan according to Henderson.
Such responses to his instruments inevitably draw comparisons to the world’s great instrument makers, and Henderson has set a personal goal that reflects the comparison: “I’d like to make as many instruments as Stradivari made.”
The Italian luthier made about 1,100 violins, cellos, guitars, harps and violas during his lifetime (1644-1737). Henderson has made a few more than 650 so far. Of course, the retired mail carrier notes with a chuckle, “Stradivari didn’t have to carry the mail for 32 years!”
Henderson makes all of his instruments in a simple brick garage next to his home which sits on a hillside overlooking a neighbor’s farm. Musicians and instrument makers up and down the Crooked Road drop in the visit and play. Henderson pointed out a cushion on the chair next to him and told us it was for Doc Watson‘s bad back. Henderson’s daughter, Elle, is learning the trade from her father and was working on a guitar for Watson at the time of his death earlier this year. She completed it just a few weeks after he died. (On her blog she tells a great story that ends with the Watson guitar being played by John Mayer.)
Elle wasn’t home when we visited with her dad so we’re going to have to go back to Rugby, where the music of the Crooked Road is rolling along to another generation.