Axes from scratch

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The body is old-growth Brazilian rosewood and red spruce, finished in a gorgeous sunburst and trimmed with abalone, its insides braced with Adirondack spruce. Koa wood binds the Honduran mahogany neck. The scale is 25" and the nut width is 1 3/4".

Adam McNeil (right) and Randall Ray (left) make Rockbridge guitars by passing them around studios in Gordonsville, Lexington and Los Angeles. Want one? There’s a year-long waiting list. Want to see one? Check out Dave Matthews at the Pavilion this weekend.

There is no pickguard. It starts just shy of $4,000. And the Rockbridge Small Jumbo is Dave Matthews’ new favorite guitar.

“Man, they make an incredible guitar,” Matthews—who will play the locally-made acoustic at a charity show with Tim Reynolds this weekend at the Pavilion—said in an interview published in the Huffington Post last year, after he first played a Rockbridge. “I haven’t even told them yet if I am going to keep it, but it is an astounding instrument,” he said, before buying five of them.

It all starts with slabs of rare wood piled on racks in a Gordonsville basement. Last week I visited one of the company’s studios, just off a road called Lovers Lane in Gordonsville. You walk around the side of a brick house, down a few steps and… this is it?

Inside, Adam McNeil, who has worked for the company since 2006, etched detail into the back of an unfinished neck with what looked like an X-Acto knife. Bracings for various shapes—dreadnaught, 000 and Small Jumbo models—hung from the wall. A small, side room where guitars are finished was covered in a thin, white film. A few botched tops hung from a nail in the wall.

Most high-end acoustic guitar companies try to make their instruments sound like vintage Gibson and Martin acoustics, from the so-called first golden age of luthiery. “We’re not really doing that,” Brian Calhoun, a Lexington native and cofounder of Rockbridge Guitars, told me by phone before my visit. “Our guitars sound like a Rockbridge.”

“When you enter the realm of high-end acoustic guitars it becomes a subjective thing,” Calhoun said. “It’s hard to say one’s better than another—it’s just better for you. We just had something a little different from what people were used to.”

That may be what sold Matthews, who has a taste for unusual guitars: He has been known to play a Chet Atkins model Gibson, a plucky acoustic-electric that lacks the resonating soundhole that’s the hallmark of most acoustics. On later records, starting with Everyday, Matthews went low with a baritone. But his go-to for the last decade has been a Taylor 914, which is very nice and very trusty, but not flashy or weird.

Calhoun got his start building instruments as a high schooler in Lexington, where he apprenticed building mandolins. In 2000 he met Randall Ray, an older luthier who ran a small business with his wife, but spent evenings learning the craft through books and trial and error. “It was just like taking classes at night,” says Ray. “I would get home from work, and go until about 10 building guitars upstairs.”

McNeil joined the company after meeting Calhoun in a bar. The trio came together at the right time to ride the crest of what Ray calls a second golden age of guitar-making, which has been dampened by the recession. (Other regional guitar boutiques include Huss and Dalton, in Staunton, and the famous Wayne Henderson, of Southwest Virginia.)

Today the Rockbridge trio is spread across the country. Ray is in Lexingon; McNeil is in Gordonsville; and Calhoun is in Los Angeles, where his wife, a fiddler, just joined a new band with Mick Jagger—no big deal. That means before guitars get finished, most of the roughly 40 they make per year have spent time in shops at either end of the country.

During my visit, McNeil went to the back of the shop and emerged with an enormous cardboard box, covered in generations of packing tape and filled with fitted pieces of styrofoam. “The Post Office lady hates us,” he says.

But guitar players don’t. In addition to Matthews, they have sold guitars to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, The Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who, I hope, resisted the urge to smash his Rockbridge.

“A lot of people around here think we’re selling to local guys, or just building guitars and sticking them in consignment shops,” says Ray. “I don’t think they understand the scope of what we’re doing and who we’re selling to.”

Those who buy Rockbridges seem to get it. “These guys made a guitar that is absolutely stunning,” says Craig Baker, who has been Dave Matthews’ guitar tech for more than three years. “The craftsmanship, the work that went into it—Dave’s words were that it’s the most beautiful guitar he’s ever owned.”

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