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Wayne Henderson’s Hand-Made Guitars are the Perfect Collectible

by Wayne Jordan (01/23/13).

Wayne Henderson playing one of his hand-made guitars at the Folk Life Festival in 2012. (Photo: Jill Jordan)

Henderson guitars are certainly not the most expensive hand-made acoustic guitars. At about $5,000 (plus or minus) when new, their price pales in comparison to some other small-luthier-built guitars. They are not even the most well-known; but Eric Clapton owns one, and so does Tommy Emmanuel, Peter Rowan and Grammy winner Gillian Welch. Doc Watson played his often. Used Hendersons have sold privately for as much as $100,000 and sell regularly at auction in the $20,000-plus range. There is a 10-year waiting list to get one from the manufacturer. If orders for the guitars keep coming in at the current rate, and Wayne Henderson lives long enough to fill them, he may just live forever.

Henderson guitars may be the perfect collectible: they are high-quality, rare and in demand. They can sell for three to 10 times their initial cost as soon as they leave Wayne’s shop. He could sell his guitars for more, but Wayne says that more money wouldn’t improve his life any. Indeed, he seems to have found fulfillment building his guitars and playing bluegrass music.

Allen St. John wrote of the definitive tome on Henderson entitled “Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument.”

Allen St. John, author of the definitive tome on Henderson entitled “Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument” calls Henderson a “Stradivari in glue-stained bluejeans.” Imagine buying a violin directly from Stradivari in 1690, while he was still living . . . perhaps guitar collectors should take note of the frequency with which Henderson is compared to Stradivari.

Henderson is as noted for his guitar playing as he is for guitar building: his awards have included a National Heritage Fellowship (1995), more than 300 ribbons won at a series of fiddlers’ conventions and 12 first-place awards at the Galax, Va., Old Fiddler’s Convention. He’s toured the globe for the United States Information Agency, performed at the Smithsonian and Carnegie Hall. On the third Sunday in June, rain or shine for 18 years, he oversees the Wayne C. Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition at Grayson Highlands State Park in Mouth of Wilson, Va. He can be seen often playing at venues in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia.

It’s been said that one reason for the quality of Henderson guitars is that Wayne is a first-rate player as well as a luthier. He doesn’t have to rely on the suggestions of other players to improve his instruments after the fact; instead, Wayne can coax the “just-right sound” from the wood as he assembles his instruments.

Wayne is modest about his success. When asked about his approach to building guitars, he says “get yourself a piece of wood and a sharp penknife, and whittle away everything that’s not a guitar.” He’s not kidding about the whittling part: his first guitar, created when he was just 7 years old, was whittled using a pen knife. He got so good at using the knife that years later, working in the repair shop of world-famous Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, he ignored the well-equipped shop’s power tools and instead carved braces, linings and small parts with his penknife. Even these days he relies on his pen knife to perform some operations (even though he now has a well-equipped shop of his own, with power tools that he uses regularly).

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Wayne Henderson grew up in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia in the town of Rugby (Population: 7). Wayne explains that Rugby is so small that the residents have to take turns being the mayor, preacher, school teacher and town drunk. “The preacher isn’t too happy when I’m away,” says Wayne, “because that means he has to take two turns being the town drunk.”

Wayne was Rugby’s postmaster for most of his adult life. He loved building guitars and spent his evenings and weekends making instruments for himself and friends. Eventually, he became the Superman of bluegrass guitar picking and guitar maker to superstars.

The first value component of any collectible is quality, and Henderson guitars are unmatched in that regard. All Hendersons are hand-made by Wayne himself, from start to finish. There are no other workers or apprentices employed in his shop, so Wayne controls the quality of the instrument from wood selection to finishing. Fine musical instruments require top quality woods, and Wayne keeps a good supply on hand: rosewood for sides, Appalachian red spruce for tops, ebony for bridges and fret boards, and abalone and mother-of-pearl for inlays. Each cut, glue joint and fitting is done by Wayne, by hand.

The challenge for any stringed instrument maker—whether piano, guitar or violin—is to create an instrument in such a way that each note is as clear as every other note: none can be louder, brassier or mellower; the intonation (“in-tune-ness”) must be even throughout. Otherwise, as a player performs, some notes will stick out above others to unpleasant effect. The evenness of the Henderson guitar is what attracted Eric Clapton to the instrument.

A 1988 Dreadnaught “Lighthouse” model with Koa back and sides at luthierscollection.com.

The green abalone inlay of a lighthouse. The listing indicates that interested parties should “call for price.”

“I think it’s great, especially on the top strings,” said Clapton of his Henderson. “It’s easy to bend; it’s got a good ringing quality and the fingerboard is incredibly flat.”

Although Wayne is most recognized for his guitar making, he also makes mandolins. Doc Watson said of Henderson’s mandolins: “That Henderson mandolin is as good as any I’ve had my hands on, and that’s saying a lot because I’ve picked up some good ones.”

Another collectibles value component is rarity. If the demand for an item is greater than its supply, prices are driven up. The reason that Henderson guitars bring such high prices is that there are not a lot of them around. Wayne will make only one guitar per person, even if that person is Eric Clapton. Once someone owns a Henderson, they hang onto it; very few are offered for sale. Although he’s been making guitars for more than 35 years, there are only about 570 Henderson’s in existence. When Wayne worked fulltime for the Post Office, he made only three or four guitars per year. Since he retired from delivering mail, his production has increased to one guitar about every two weeks, depending on his performing schedule. Hence, the 10-year wait for a new Henderson. And, everyone waits; there is no buy-in to get one sooner. Even Clapton had to wait for his.

As of December, there are only three available for sale online: Gruhn’s Guitars has a 1996 Henderson D-28 with Indian rosewood back and sides, herringbone trim, with the neck reset and refretted, at a price of $17,500. There is an OM28 available on eBay for a buy-it-now price of $20,000 or an opening bid of $18,000, and there is a 1988 Dreadnaught “Lighthouse” model with Koa back and sides, spruce top and green abalone border listed at luthierscollection.com. That listing indicates that interested parties should “call for price.”

A Henderson guitar was auctioned off last year to support the Junior Appalachian Musicians program designed to help aspiring traditional musicians. The winning bid was $21,200.

Wayne regularly contributes guitars for charitable causes. A Henderson guitar was auctioned off at the Heartwood Artisans Gateway in Abingdon, Va., last year to support the Junior Appalachian Musicians program (JAM), an educational program designed to help aspiring traditional musicians.The winning bid? A whopping $21,200. Also, each year’s winner of the guitar competition at the Wayne Henderson Festival is awarded a new Henderson guitar. Would-be Henderson owners who are short on cash should arduously practice their flat-picking and enter next year’s contest. But, be forewarned: the competition is fierce, but the reward is great.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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