[Editor’s Note: One of the world’s most respected names in acoustic guitar making, Bill Collings specialized in building heirloom-quality instruments at his company’s Austin-based shop. Collings went from crafting guitars at his kitchen table to a company of 85 employees. His customers included Joni Mitchell, Keith Richards, Robert Earl Keen, Joan Baez, and Lyle Lovett—who bought the 29th guitar Collings ever sold. Collings passed away on July 14, following a brief battle with bile duct cancer. He was 68. Below, Collings’ friends and colleagues pay tribute.—Whitney Phaneuf]
Steve James, guitarist and AG contributing editor
I first met Bill Collings back when the Texas state capitol building was still a prominent feature on the Austin skyline. I was paying a visit to Tom Ellis to see what he had to say about building electric mandolins. As I got there, Bill, who had bench space for his custom archtops in Tom’s ample shop, rang to say he was headed up from Houston, about 170 miles away. A scant two hours later, we were sitting around the kitchen table when the sound of a sports car engine told us he’d arrived. “I thought you said you were in Houston!” exclaimed Tom. “I was,” said Bill drily, and ambled off to work as we did the math.
Bill Collings’ love of things that performed well in high gear was coupled with an uncanny understanding of what made them do so. This sixth sense is a big part of what made the musical instruments he designed and manufactured so extraordinary. A frequent visitor to Collings’ ever-expanding workshop facilities, I would quiz him about instruments like my custom C10, an icon of sound, playability, and physical durability. “Want to know how to tell a good guitar?” he asked one day, directing my attention into the soundhole of a new flattop to see how the back braces were let into the kerfing around the inside edge of the sides. He posited that there shouldn’t be space for a human hair to fit into that joint.
Finely honed tolerances were part of the Collings persona, and the Austin guitar gossip line would occasionally buzz with apocryphal tales of substandard guitar smashing and on-site rock star ego deflation. Bill would characteristically neither confirm nor deny these rumors; he’d simply smile and say “Sounds like something I’d do, doesn’t it?” A classic plainspoken man, he was once asked how musicians were supposed to afford Collings’ prices and responded: “If I had to sell guitars to musicians, I’d be sleeping under a bridge!”
In reality, however, Bill Collings was committed to placing instruments in the hands of people whose musicianship he admired, whether they could afford them or not. There is a legion of players who can attest to this aspect of what will now, sadly and rightfully, become part of a Collings legacy; who have heard that voice saying: “Get on out here. We’ve got something we want you to hear.”
George Gruhn, Gruhn Guitars
In the ’70s and into the late ’80s, Collings and Santa Cruz Guitar Company both were building many guitars which might be viewed as Martin clones. But it was a time when Martin’s workmanship, by many players’ standards, was not up to what they wanted and certainly not up to the standards of the so-called “good old days.” Bill Collings produced guitars that were meticulously clean, set-up well, played well, and sounded good, and often enough offered features that were significantly different from new Martins.
I was impressed with his work enough that in ’88 I asked him to make some special Gruhn design models with my name on the peghead, but his name on the label. He agreed to do that and it was the biggest order he had ever received—it was two dozen instruments. At that time he was not a major maker on the scene, he was beginning to get recognition. The shop was just him and one part-time helper, so he was staggered by the order. But, he did it and I had six different models: round- or slope-shouldered dreadnoughts, which were shaped similar to a Gibson J-45, not a Martin. I had others that were shaped like a Gibson J-185 and each of those I offered the option of rosewood or maple, and on the mahogany ones, I did them with less fancy ornamentation, but the rosewood and an inlay pattern similar to Gibson’s Advanced Jumbos, which they were not making back then.
I didn’t make much money selling them, but what it did—since his name was on the label and I openly acknowledged it—he got flooded with calls from other dealers who didn’t want to buy one through me, but they wanted to buy Collings’ guitars. It was extremely helpful to him to get started. By the mid-1990s, he had a small factory and he was using equipment that was far more state of the art than most would ever have and even better than some major manufacturers. And that was something he was known for all along: very neat, very clean, very well-engineered.
Dick Boak, director of the museum and archives at C.F. Martin & Company
I became friends with Bill Collings through the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA), which I co-founded and put on the symposium’s guitar-making conventions. Bill was emerging as a significant player in the guitar-making field and I invited him very early on to speak. He was not comfortable as a speaker or being a public figure, but he did a fantastic job—he was funny, like Johnny Carson. He was always a fairly quiet, private individual and a complicated person, but brilliant in his approach to guitar making.
I work for Martin and Collings is a competitor, but the interesting thing is that his interpretations of Martin designs inspired us to recognize the importance of our own vintage guitars and to pay more attention to that. With the Vintage series Martin guitar and the Golden Era and Authentic instruments, we have to acknowledge that Bill Collings spurred us on to those areas, which have been very successful for us and certainly equally successful for Collings.
Beyond that, every year I go to the Woodstock Invitational with Michael Gurian, Roger Sadowsky, Matt Umanov, Jay Hostetler, myself, and Bill Collings. We rent a house together and we’re all very good friends. There was never any weirdness about competitiveness or turf, it was just people who shared the same passion for guitar making.
And, then beyond that is Steve McCreary, who has been Bill’s right-hand man for many, many years and Steve has a heart of gold and is an incredible friend. I’m sure that the legacy that Bill developed with his instruments will be carried forward by Steve. We will miss him.
Get stories like this in your inbox
Walter Carter, Carter Vintage Guitars
I’d say Bill Collings led the way for a lot of independent makers to become companies. He started off as a small maker in Texas and ended up as someone who could be considered as one of the major companies. He was one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met about guitars and was passionate about it until the end, whether it was guitars, mandolins, or cases.
I met him in 1989—I was the one who drew up the contract between him and Gruhn, that was for 20 guitars—and Bill always said since then that this was the step that put him over the top, allowing him to hire another employee and become a production shop instead of a one-man custom shop. He was able to do all of this with a bolt-on neck, which is taboo—still—but it sure works for him.
They were a little bit different from Martin because of the neck, but how I describe them is that he was the guy, in the first guys, who made a better Martin than they were making at the time. The foundation of his guitar company is to build great guitars and Bill seemed to do it more consistently than anybody. Collings was the one that was really pushing.
Jim D’Addario, CEO of D’Addario & Co.
As I sat at the memorial for Bill Collings on July 31, 2017, what I already knew about Bill was confirmed over an over through the words of friends, family, artists, competitors, and employees. The reputation Bill Collings and his team have earned, fret by fret, neck by neck, brace by brace, instrument after instrument, is living proof that Bill was not just an incredible human being, but a remarkable genius. Smart, innovative, funny, a bit crazy and inspirational — all true. But Bill was also that rare human being capable of taking his vision, merging it with a beautiful aesthetic, functional design, and impeccable craftsmanship to create something none of us has ever seen (or heard) before. With the passing of Bill Collings the guitar community lost a hero, a friend, and yes, a true genius.