As Steve James recounted in an AG podcast recorded not long before his passing, he once stuffed a shopping cart full of prized vintage guitars—among them a Gibson J-45 and a prewar Martin—and headed to a recording session several blocks from where he lived at the time, in Austin, Texas. As James was setting up, the audio engineer apparently said, “Where’s that little black guitar of yours—why don’t you go get it?”
That little black guitar is the 1991 Collings Custom C10 (serial number 524) pictured here, James’ main flattop for three decades, and the one he considered his best. Listening to any of the many studio recordings he made with the Collings, including “Talco Girl,” it’s easy to understand why the engineer preferred the instrument, with its great clarity, balance, and punch, for recording.
James’ C10 is among a handful of several builds that the Austin-based Collings made for local singer-songwriters when the shop was led by its founding luthier, Bill Collings, with only a couple of other employees. Instead of the usual natural or sunburst, James’ example has an elegant opaque black finish, along with a snazzy pearloid pickguard and matching headstock veneer; and the interior bracing is straight, as opposed to the standard scalloped. “We made a similar one, but with a transparent blue finish, for another Austin performer, Champ Hood,” says Bruce Van Wart, Collings’ now retired master luthier.
When James’ C10 was completed, Bill Collings thought it would be good fun to surprise the guitarist with his new instrument at a gig. “I remember bringing it down to him one weekend when he was playing at the Waterloo Ice House,” Van Wart says. “He had a look that said, ‘Oh no, I owe them a bunch of money now!’ but took to the C10 right away.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.