When Wayne Henderson was a child, something caught his eye that would change his life forever. A neighbor, E.C. Ball, played a Martin guitar, and the young boy wanted one just like it. “I’d go over to Mr. Ball’s, and he’d let me play it a bit,” says Wayne. “I wanted one of those things so bad, but there was no way me or my family could afford something like that.” This was a Martin, after all, the Cadillac of guitars, and Martins weren’t cheap.

The 9-year-old decided there was only one thing he could do: get busy and make one himself.

Using his pocketknife, Wayne carved out a guitar neck, attached it to a small cardboard box from the general store, and tied on some fishing line for guitar strings. He would strum that guitar until the cardboard box fell apart, and then he would just put on another. “I got to where I could almost play a tune on it,” he says.

Wayne Henderson, now 69, still has that guitar, kept in a climate-controlled room in his small Virginia farmhouse. The guitar lies high on a shelf, and below it, hanging on the wall, is an amazing collection of Martins, the fine guitars Wayne longed for as a child. Hanging with them are a few of the guitars Wayne himself has made. But most of the hundreds of guitars he’s crafted? They grace the collections of players, singers, and guitar heroes worldwide.

Fine guitars and mementoes hang on Henderson's wall.

Fine guitars and mementoes hang on Henderson’s wall.

Humble beginnings. Henderson is a master craftsman, maker of some of the most sought-after guitars ever created. He has so many orders for guitars that he won’t have time in this life to fill them all. His daughter, Jayne, has apprenticed with him for years and has become a fine luthier (maker of stringed instruments) in Asheville, North Carolina. Wayne is counting on her to carry on the work.

The small farm Wayne grew up on didn’t have much, and working land in the mountains of southwest Virginia wasn’t easy. The family had no tractor, just horses. “We had a huge garden and grew everything we ate,” he says. And if the family didn’t have something, chances are they made it, because there was always wood on the farm. “Being a farmer in this area meant you had to be a woodworker.”

It was a hard life, but one with many joys. And nothing was more joyful than mountain music. “There was always music around,” says Wayne. “I cannot remember a time when there was not music around in my family and in my community.”

His father played the fiddle and could easily be convinced to get his fiddle out and play some old-time music. (“You could even get out of farm work sometimes doing that,” he says). His cousins would often come over to the house, and in the summertime, they’d all sit on the porch and play. At his grandparents, he says, “we’d sit around listening to the Grand Ole Opry and shell a dishpan full of corn to feed the chickens the next morning. All that stuff influenced me for sure. I’d just dream of playing on the Grand Ole Opry.”

Help from elders. But the people who helped Henderson with his woodcraft were just as influential—and encouraging. “When my guitar fell apart, my dad said, ‘Albert Hash can tell you how to fix that.’  Dad took me over to see him, and Hash went to a drawer, dug around, and pulled out a fiddle he had made. I was flabbergasted. I had never seen anything like it. It was beautiful — curly maple, with carving on the head. That gave me the idea that human hands can do something like that.”

Hash was a neighbor who built his own fiddle and did repair work on other instruments, and he gave Wayne guidance. He gave the young boy wood, told him what kind of glue to use, gave the child inspiration. The boy would take that back to his “workshop”— a lawn bench in the back yard with a vice screwed on. With a couple of files, some chisels, a rasp, and of course his pocketknife, Wayne   would get busy making a guitar.

By 1964 he had made his first real instrument. Doing repairs on a few Martins taught him how they were constructed, and by 1968, he had made guitar No. 7. The guitar actually looks like a Martin. As the years progressed, Wayne continued to hone his craft. He’d farm and deliver mail on his rural route for much of the day, then spend every spare moment in his workshop.

His skills have introduced him to many fine musicians, but probably none was more surprising than when he was playing in a music store once, finger picking an old Carter family song, the Cannonball Blues. He heard someone behind him begin singing, and the voice sounded familiar. “When I turned around I almost fell off the stool because nothing bigger could have happened to me,” says Wayne. There stood Doc Watson, the country flat-picking legend himself. “He said, ‘That’s good picking, son.’ I’ll never forget what he said.” Watson was a “hero guitar player,” as Wayne puts it. “He was certainly one of the best in the business.”

Henderson and daughter Jayne inspect one of the guitars she's building.

Henderson and daughter Jayne inspect one of the guitars she’s building.

The two soon became good friends. Doc Watson became a mentor to Wayne, and when Doc wasn’t traveling, he’d often come to Wayne’s woodworking shop and the two would sit and play. Wayne’s daughter also became close to him. Jayne was making a special guitar for Doc Watson and was just two weeks away from being finished when he died unexpectedly in 2012. Doc’s guitar hangs in Wayne’s room, along with the Martins.

Sharing the skills. Wayne no longer farms, and he no longer delivers mail. When he’s not traveling and conducting picking seminars, he’s in his workshop, working well into the night, still passionate about crafting fine guitars. He’s working on guitar No 700. Often asked how he makes guitars, Wayne’s quick answer is this: “I take good wood — rosewood, mahogany and spruce — and I cut away everything that doesn’t look like a guitar.”

It would take too much time for him to just tell someone how to make a guitar. It’s a complex, time-consuming process, requiring extraordinary patience and skill, especially when it comes to the intricate details, the inlays, the fine, smooth finish. But Wayne is more than happy to show how he does it, just as others shared with him when he was a young boy. Wayne has tutored many, and the fine luthiers he’s taught have helped make this area renowned for makers of stringed instruments. Daughter Jayne runs E.J. Henderson Guitars and Ukeleles in nearby Asheville, North Carolina, though she still returns to her father’s shop to work.

Wayne’s success is reflected in the prices his work brings. He’ll sell a new guitar for $5,000, but the wait for a Wayne Henderson guitar is long — Brad Paisley and Zac Brown are still waiting for theirs. On eBay you might find one for $50,000.

Eric Clapton, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, discovered one of Wayne’s guitars in a recording studio, started playing it, and immediately said he had to have one. Wayne built one just for him. Country singer Vince Gill also has one. “There are a lot of builders out there that are great luthiers, and can build beautifully hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind instruments,” he says. “Wayne has always been at the top of the heap. He makes magnificent instruments.”

"There are a lot of builders out there that...can build beautifully hand-crafted instruments," says musician Vince Gill. "Wayne has always been at the top of the heap."

“There are a lot of builders out there that…can build beautifully hand-crafted instruments,” says musician Vince Gill. “Wayne has always been at the top of the heap.”

Gill got his Henderson guitar when he played at the annual Wayne Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition (waynehenderson.org) outside of Galax, Virginia. Wayne sometimes trades one of his guitars as an incentive to bring in a big musical name to play at the festival. He remembers how important it was for him as a small child that someone bothered to help, and that’s why all of  the money raised at his festival goes to music scholarships for young people. This past year, the festival raised $23,000. The festival, held the third Saturday of June, rain or shine, has featured some great talents. Doc Watson played the first one.

Played by greats. As a boy, Wayne never could have imagined that he would do all the things he’s done — met the people, seen the sights, had the experiences he’s had. A fine flatpicker in his own right, Henderson has played Carnegie Hall and has traveled the world.

Wayne still lives in the community where he grew up, Rugby, Virginia, population 9 and no longer on the map, right on Virginia’s famed heritage music trail, The Crooked Road. He could talk about the stars he’s met and played with, or how badly Eric Clapton wanted one of his guitars. But he’d rather talk about how young people are carrying on the tradition of this old-time music. “It’s so wonderful to see how good these young folks are,” he says. “There are a few of them that are really prodigy players. I think our music itself is safe with them.”

And if he sees a promising young player who cannot afford a good guitar, just as he couldn’t afford a Martin when he was young, Wayne has a simple solution: “I might just give them one of mine.”

As Wayne’s friends will testify, he’s been known to take his pocketknife and make them one.

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