Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Guitar Heroes: San Antonio’s Custom Instrument Builders Produce One-of-Kind Axes That Can Sell for Thousands — or Just Scratch a Creative Itch


  • Jaime Monzon
At the October meeting of the San Antonio Luthiers Group, a relatively new club for custom musical instrument makers, a couple dozen members — primarily middle-aged men — wandered through 10BitWorks, a south-of-downtown maker space, inspecting each other’s latest creations.

One showed off acoustic guitars produced from locally sourced wood, while another touted his collection of sleek electric basses. A third plugged a cigar-box guitar into a small amp and summoned bluesy licks as onlookers nodded approvingly at the instrument’s tone.

“It’s a combination of history, art, science and craftsmanship, all in one creative process,” Luthiers group member Jay Higgs said, explaining the appeal of building an instrument by hand.

Higgs, a physician, plans to devote himself more fully to crafting violins once he retires in December. He’s built just seven over 30-plus years, and is eager to step up his game.

Until the Luthiers Group formed in late 2017, it wasn’t clear how many folks were turning out handmade instruments in San Antonio. Builders were operating alone, most only aware of a handful of others.

Turns out, there are several dozen in the San Antonio area, from hobbyists just getting started to pros crafting instruments prized by touring musicians.

James Roadman, a guitar-repair professional, formed the group so local luthiers — the broad term for anyone who crafts stringed instruments — can share knowledge and experience. Its monthly meetings feature demos on anything from the finer intricacies of woodworking to basic design elements.

“It really is a solitary endeavor,” Roadman said. “So, without a group to bring people together everybody just stays on their own.”

Electric Slide

If interest in handcrafted instruments is up, that bucks a larger trend. Electric guitar sales dropped by 23% over the past decade, according to data from Music Trades, which tracks instrument sales in North America. Consumers bought 1.1 million guitars in 2017, down from nearly 1.5 million in 2008.

On top of that, top guitar maker Gibson filed for bankruptcy last spring, and Fender — another iconic brand — is struggling to climb from under years of accumulated debt. An extensive Washington Post report on the state of the industry laid the blame on pop music’s move to electronics and away from guitar heroics.

But custom builders have both proliferated and gotten more ambitious, Roadman said.
  • Jaime Monzon
“The initial draw to doing this is to make a tool that’s both beautiful and can create music,” he said. “I don’t think it’s dissimilar from the reasons people make music. As a musician, you want to be successful, but you understand that the odds are very much against it.”

Even so, the guitar’s relative absence in today’s pop music serves as a stumbling block for San Antonio’s custom instrument makers. Sales of high-end instruments is still largely a word-of-mouth affair, and nothing raises one’s profile more than a hitmaking client.

“If you don’t have a hero playing your guitars, nobody will know about them,” said DC Olson, who makes about a half dozen custom basses per year.

Pricing custom-made guitars is also tricky, Olson points out. Buyers demand high-quality materials, but it’s easy to overspend and price yourself out of the market. He points to the venerable custom house Alembic, whose price tags of $10,000 or more make them a rock stars-and-millionaires-only proposition.

“But if you don’t charge enough, people won’t think your guitars are worth it,” Olson added.

Slow Build

Even for San Antonio’s upper tier of custom instrument makers, success isn’t an overnight proposition.

Indeed, making a viable business took a few decades for Mark Piper — arguably one of the Luthiers Group’s most successful members. His sole proprietorship Redentore Guitars makes 20 to 25 instruments a year for clients such as Joe Don Rooney of top-selling country act Rascal Flatts.

But Piper’s journey began 40 years ago in Nashville, when he started repairing guitars after he realized his playing wouldn’t pay the bills.

“I moved there thinking I was a hot guitar player,” he said. “Of course, I was wrong.”

Piper spent years at repair shops and doing work for Gibson and Guild before relocating to Kerrville and striking out on his own. He augments his guitar-building business with repair jobs and contract work lacquering guitars for other instrument builders.

With price tags between $3,000 and $6,000, Piper’s axes aren’t the kind of thing folks will find hanging on the wall at the local Guitar Center. Roughly half of his customers are successful musicians.

“The other half are professionals,” he said. “You know, doctors and lawyers.”

While he’s not seen stats to prove it, Piper says business for custom guitar crafters is on the upswing. The economy is stable, and plenty of Baby Boomers are willing to part with disposable income to dabble in the rock star dreams of their youth.

Pushing Limits

Even so, like any kind of artistic endeavor, custom guitar building isn’t likely to become a moneymaker for most practitioners. The market is small, and it’s nearly impossible to break into the crowded retail side of the business.

Most local builders, even the ones who aspire to turn their hobby into a profession, say they’re fully aware of the hurdles. But, they add, they’re able to innovate and push creative limits in ways companies producing factory-made instruments can’t.

Environmental concerns and overharvesting have limited manufacturers’ access to mahogany, Brazilian rosewood and other woods long used in producing stringed instruments. That, members said, enables custom builders to be at the vanguard of trying new materials.

“Some of us haven’t been doing this for very long, so we don’t know any better,” group member Manson Cersley said. “We’re not afraid to experiment.”

To that end, Bandera’s Neil Peterson produces acoustic guitars incorporating recycled and locally sourced wood. Nearing the milestone of completing 100 instruments, the cabinetmaker has grown his Peterson Acoustics into a sideline business with a following among local folk and country pickers.
  • Sanford Nowlin
In addition to incorporating wood recycled from the sounding boards of old pianos, he’s also crafted recent instruments from Texas mesquite — a wood more associated with brisket than breakdowns. Even so, mesquite has been a big selling point for his Lone Star State clientele.

“Once they hear it, they say, ‘I never dreamed a mesquite guitar could sound like this. I’ve got to have it.’”

Even if the guitar work always stays in the shadow of his cabinetmaking business, Peterson finds fulfillment in the quest to improve at his craft.

“That’s my goal,” he said, turning over one of his guitars to show off the elegant striations in the polished wood. “You want every guitar to be a little bit better than the last.”

New Blood

The Luthiers Groups membership heavily skews male and 40-plus. Most who join already have a history with woodworking, guitar repair or some sort of engineering, Roadman said. Still, he strives to make the club accessible to those who don’t.

One of the group’s recent additions, 36-year-old Melody Packard, had none of those three things in her background.

She and friend Liz Flinn, 27, attended a meeting after assuming the name meant its members made lutes. After being exposed to the medieval instrument via the video game Skyrim, wanted to own one. She showed up as members were kicking off a group project to hand tool guitar necks.

“I walked in and someone was like, here’s a neck, let’s get going,” she recalls.
  • Sanford Nowlin
Now she and Flinn have competed a pair of electric guitar necks and are working on bodies to go with them. Based on the experience, Packard is confident she’ll be able to start work on a lute next.

Both she and Flinn said they’ve felt welcome, even if their ages and gender make them outliers.

“It’s been like working with a bunch of dads. It’s been fun,” Flinn said. “Any time you have a question, here come a bunch of guys in cargo shorts.”

Piper, the veteran guitar builder from Kerrville, said he’s satisfied to be one of the old timers passing on knowledge and encouragement.

“Someone once said if you don’t pass it on, you’re disrespecting the craft,” he said. “I’m more than happy to share.”

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.