Woodrow Thomson: Luthier

  • Name: Woodrow Thomson
  • Job Title: Luthier
  • Job Description: Makes and designs custom guitars.
  • Age: 32
  • Location: Los Angeles, CA

Tell me about the path that led you to where you are today.

It began in two places.

First, I was a drummer for a long time. I’ve been playing since I was ten years old and I was always surrounded by other musicians. Almost everyone in my family plays guitar so I was always around music.

Second, my dad is a woodworker and a contractor so he taught me how to build things. In 10th grade I decided to build a guitar so that I could start a band with my brother — it wasn’t a very good one though so I didn’t think much about it. Then I got into college and I wanted a better guitar but I didn’t have any money to buy a nicer one so I tried to make a better one than my previous guitar. From there it just kind of snowballed and I kept making them. I worked in production and TV for 8 or 9 years but continued to make guitars on the side. I probably made two or three a year until I decided to do it full time.

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So it’s full time guitar making now?

Yes. If I have a TV project I might go do that for a few weeks but that doesn’t happen often. I loved making TV but I would come home from work and make guitars all night. This is my passion. This is what I’m all about.

It seems like television production could be dramatic while guitar making seems more therapeutic. Tell me about that transition.

When you’re making a television show you have all these different creative forces coming together. You have actors, writers, editors, and they are all creative jobs and my job as the producer was to combine all of those things so that you end up with a product that is an accumulation of all these different creative forces. With that you compromise a lot with what you think it should look like because you want to incorporate everyone’s opinion — you want everybody to have a say. That can be extremely stifling at times so I would come home and make a guitar. It was just me. I make every single choice. I make every single design decision. The guitars are my thing.

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You mentioned you would go home and build them. Do you have a shop in your house?

I do have one in my house. I also have another one in Silver Lake that has power tools. But I work with my hands a lot; I like to do things traditionally. I shape all my necks and do all of my inlay work and planing by hand.

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Are they made to order or do you have a storefront?

I do sell a few out of a shop in Santa Barbara. It’s a really great boutique called Guitar Bar in the Funk Zone. I also do custom guitars if someone wants something specific but they are typically all modifications off my own design. I’m not really interested in making a Taylor Guitar. It’s a Woodrow Thomson guitar but if you want it to be a certain color or play a certain way then I can do that. I’m making a guitar right now for a guy named Nick Long who is in a group called Dark Waves. We go way back so we’ve always wanted to collaborate on a guitar. I have a shape that I really love so we are starting with that as the foundation and then he’ll tell me the color, look, the pickups he thinks will sound best. Not all musicians have that information, not all musicians know what kind of pickups they use, they just play guitar — that’s where I come in and help with that kind of information. I’m trying to make them something that they don’t already have while still making it something that can be used all the time.

How long does it take to make a guitar?

Depends on the kind of guitar. An electric guitar can take about 2 months. One of my archtop or flat top guitars can take up to 3 or 4 months.

Walk me through the workflow.

I start with the wood — there are certain elements you look for in the wood in terms of residence and species of wood. Primarily I use American wood. Then comes the design. I make sure I know what I’m building then I create the body. Electric and acoustic are very different but I always build the body first and then I start the neck. I then join the two and do all my finishing touches in terms of shape on the neck so that it’s comfortable and has the best feel. Once that is constructed I start the finishing process, which can take almost as long as it take to make the guitar. I do two different kinds of finishes. I use a lacquer spray on finish for my electric guitars and then french polish for my archtop guitars, which is applied by hand and tends to be very painstaking and obnoxious — it’s a very traditional art that I am terrible at but I seem to make it work.

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Is there a team of people you work with or is it just you?

Just me. A team would be interesting but every single guitar maker does it differently. I’m by far no master. There are guys that have been doing this for 60 plus years, but still, the amount of knowledge that I have is not really something that would be economical to try to pass on. That being said, it’s really fun to collaborate on guitars.

How many do you usually make per year?

It depends. This year I will probably have made between 6 and 8. But I did get married this year and that took some time (laughs) so not really a full year of guitar making.

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How do you get the word out? It is through your website or more word of mouth?

It’s everything. Anyone who can afford one. It’s not a guitar for a beginning player. It’s for someone who really loves the instrument and has the skills to connect with it. I’m trying to make a guitar that is inspiring. As cheesy as that sounds, it has to be something that makes people want to pick it up. I think when you walk into any guitar store you have to be visually attracted to the guitar, especially when you are in a big room full of guitars, you know? You aren’t going to walk up to the ugliest one. How it feels and sounds are what keep you there but it needs to be attractive to get you to pick it up. That’s what I’m trying to make.

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It seems like craftsmanship, design, and quality materials are all key factors. What do you think is the important element in becoming a successful guitar maker?

I think design and aesthetic are underrated in the guitar world. There are three really important factors: sound, feel, and look. Like I said, I think the look is very important. As superficial as it sounds, you have to be attracted to it. But the other two (sound and playability) are far more important long-term. I think a really great guitar maker is able to balance all three of those equally.

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Do you have any formal training?

No formal training. It all comes from books, videos, and then meeting other luthiers and talking to them. Doing has been my biggest teacher; trying, failing, and then succeeding — experience is the best resource.

I’m guessing you own a lot of your own guitars.

I do. To my wife’s dismay, I am sitting in a room full of guitars. I only own one guitar that is not one that I made. It’s a really old Gibson L-3 from 1912.

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Favorite guitar you’ve ever made?

The guitar that has the most meaning is one that I made for my wife a few years back when we first started dating. I think I captured some of her it in somehow. I didn’t know it at the time but now I know that guitar will be in our family for generations.

Question from the last interviewee: Do you see yourself doing this in 20 years?

Absolutely.

Do you see it being different than it is now?

It better be. It better be bigger and better.

What one question do you want the next interviewee on People With Cool Jobs to answer? 

Are the bad days at this job still better then good days at any other job?

One thought on “Woodrow Thomson: Luthier

  1. I knew you were special when I first met you. After reading this, I’m in awe. To know your passion, and to embrace it, makes you an intriguing person indeed! I hope I get to hear you play when I’m visiting Diane sometime.

    Like

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