In the mid-1970s, William Eaton, then a recent business school graduate coming from a long line of bankers, opted to pursue a decidedly unconventional path. He teamed up with fellow guitar enthusiasts John Roberts and Bob Venn to form one of the first guitar-making schools, Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, in Phoenix, Arizona—all while living in the desert in his Citroën station wagon. Eaton also started building his own unusual instruments, like a harp guitar and a double-necked quadrophonic guitar. He would throw the latter—along with a Honda generator, a few amps, and a handful of 100-foot cables—in his car, drive out to remote locations, and play for hours, the canyons and wildlife serving as his only audience.
While Eaton has made a bunch of similarly unconventional instruments in the decades since then, some even displayed in museums, he has helped students learn how to build much more straightforward guitars at Roberto-Venn. Graduates from the school have gone on to work in virtually every part of the guitar industry, including the highest ranks—to name just a couple, Mike Voltz, former vice president at Gibson, and Steve Nall (profiled in the January/February 2023 issue), director of manufacturing at Collings Guitars.
Eaton has also been musically active over the years, having released more than two dozen albums inspired mainly by the natural world, and earning four Grammy nominations. He plays solo, frequently collaborates with Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai, leads the William Eaton Ensemble, and performs with the Wisdom Tree Ensemble and the Electric Harp Guitar Group.
I spoke with Eaton over the phone to learn more about his unique background in the guitar world. In our conversation below, he reflects on how he got into lutherie, the evolution of Roberto-Venn, and his ongoing passion for unconventional instruments.
What is your history with music?
I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and started playing ukulele when I was seven years old. Not long after that, I took up tenor and standard guitars. I played in bands in high school, but when I went to college, I sold my instruments for some reason. I wish I still had my stereo Gibson ES-345, as well as my burnt red-orange Fender Jaguar—both would have been very valuable instruments at this point. But I missed playing the guitar and my parents sent a little Goya parlor. Then I wanted a larger guitar. I went to store after store for four or five months, and I couldn’t find one that I liked. None of them were easy to play, as they just weren’t set up properly.
How did you get into lutherie?
At Arizona State University [ASU], where I was studying business, a guy was going door to door showing a guitar he had made. I almost bought it on the spot, just because it was set up properly. He had made the instrument at Juan Roberto Guitar Works, not too far from the university, and I thought I could find a guitar there that was even better. I remember going in and just being transfixed by the smell of rosewood sawdust and the sight of all the guitars hanging in this old Quonset hut.
That’s where I met John Roberts. He thought I was there to sign up for his guitar class—right on the front of the building there was this little sign that read “Juan Roberto Guitar Works: Build Your Own Guitar.” And I said, “No I just came to see if there are other instruments for sale.” I remember going back to my dormitory and thinking, “When will I ever have a chance to make a guitar? I should do this.” And that’s when I decided to make my first guitar; it was 1971, and I was 20. If I had bought any one of those instruments that I saw at Juan Roberto Guitar Works, I never would have been interested in making one. I loved that guitar, and I played it every day. I thought it would be a one-time experience. I couldn’t imagine myself being a guitar maker or having anything to do with that.
How did it turn into something other than a one-time experience?
After ASU, as an MBA student at Stanford University, I was in a new enterprise project management class, and we had to write a business plan. Just two nights before I got that assignment, I had this very vivid dream about building another guitar. I remember getting up early in the morning and making a drawing of it. When I got the assignment to do a business plan, I thought, “Well how about a guitar-making school?” I figured I’d go down to Phoenix, build the guitar that I saw in my dreams, and gather information from John Roberts and Bob Venn, who had come to work with him by that time. I put together a 60-page business plan and handed it in for my assignment. Later that spring, I decided to really do the guitar-making school, and John and Bob both were all for it. So that’s how it all started.
Did you have any other lightbulb moments?
I remember seeing a documentary about Harry Partch, an American composer who designed and built some very unique instruments, mostly percussive and a few stringed instruments [many from found objects], and he was one of the first 20th-century composers to work with microtonal systems. [Partch invented an octave with 43 pitches. —ed.] After I saw the documentary, a lightbulb went off for me, and I wanted to make stringed instruments that were completely different. So, I built a quadrophonic guitar—a 12- and seven-string double-neck.
What were things like for you in the early days of the school?
I would’ve been 24 years old when we started the school in June of 1975, and that’s when I graduated from Stanford. I was as attracted to starting that business as I was going to live in the desert. I had zero money, and I remember making $100 a month for the first four months, so it was economically efficient to live there with my vehicle, just outside of Phoenix. It was a very fertile period in my life of understanding the biosphere and understanding how to live in a space. I learned all about the desert flora and fauna and what you could eat, surviving on everything from cactus fruit to mesquite husks and mesquite beans. I was content with my little knapsack and a sleeping bag, and that’s how I existed for a couple years.
What was your role at the school at that time?
I was the person handling the business aspects; I didn’t want to go in the red, so we didn’t borrow money. What I brought to the school was budgeting and marketing. Using a pen name, I wrote a story about the school that Guitar Player magazine published [in 1977]—back in those days you could just submit an article—a long feature with photos. That kept students coming to our school for years.
What shaped the school’s evolution?
Well, if you look at the start of the school, you see something that comes into shape almost by accident. John Roberts brings his wood to Arizona and starts an import hardwood business. Meanwhile, Ron Carriveau and Carl Samuels are two guitar makers in Phoenix. John meets them independent of each other, and they both tell him, “You’ve got this amazing stockpile of wood for guitars, Nicaraguan rosewood and mahogany.” We ended up using these woods for more than a decade during the early school’s foundation. So just starting from the resource, you have something that’s almost self-guided.
John had never imagined being a guitar maker and by that time he would have been in his late 50s. Bob Venn worked with Semie Mosely of Mosrite guitars. Bob knew Leo Fender and was early on in a career of making electric guitars and repairing guitars. So, the school was shaped by two unique individuals. And then a third person, myself, comes along that knows enough about business to make it into the administrative side of the school.
So the shaping of the school was by three individuals who had a connection with one another and found their way to what a school is. And what has also shaped that experience still to this day is the requirement that students build one acoustic and one electric guitar—and nothing from a kit. They see each instrument right from the beginning, from the wood milling and understanding of where the trees come from.
It sounds like knowing the sources of the woods is an important part of the work.
When you cut open a tree, you have a whole different reverence for the experience of that. I started the Wisdom Tree Institute, a resource site where I’ve collected information about how trees communicate with one another, the lives of trees, and responsibilities for guitar makers in understanding some of those relationships.
Tell me about your work as a player.
I can’t say I’m a very good technical player. I studied classical guitar for a while, and I was pretty good, but I wasn’t a Christopher Parkening or a Julian Bream. And when I made that first unusual stringed instrument I thought, “Hmm, I can make stuff on my own and it’s just going to be what it is.” It was mainly for the love of sound and sound texture and tone poems and improvisation that kind of created a career in music and performance, which I never really imagined—I’ve made around 27 albums now.
My latest album is called Spiral Rendezvous. My good friend R. Carlos Nakai plays Native American flute on it—he came up with that title. It was serendipitous because he didn’t know that I’d been working on a spiral-shaped instrument. I ended up using it on the album, and if you listen to the title track, where there’s a modulation from C major to C minor, you can hear the strings on either side of the fretboard. It’s kind of sitar-like, but when you strum those it’s a very rapid cascade of notes. Because of how close the strings are, it sounds like a sitar.
Are you still building instruments, and if so, what’s on your workbench?
I’ve always got one on my bench. I’m currently working on a spiral Fibonacci instrument. There are six banks of strings, with six to eight strings on each bank, and when you pluck a bank you get a kind of chord cluster. I’m kind of anxious to get finished, because it’s a different concept altogether.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.