On a Sunday last June, I couldn’t help but notice a strange wooden creation resting on a purple towel on Kathy Wingert’s workbench. It was the rough and elongated soundboard of a harp guitar, the historic instrument that Wingert and a select cohort of modern luthiers have been revisiting in recent years. “When a client first asked me to make a harp guitar, probably around 2007, I thought it was crazy, just an insane fad. But now I’ve made a bunch and figured out how to keep them from folding over time—so far, at least,” Wingert said, laughing.
Wingert is one of the great modern luthiers, celebrated for the sonic and constructional artistry of her steel-string acoustics, of which she makes 10 or fewer per year.
We were in the clean room of her shop, where she attends to the aspects of guitar construction that produce the least amount of sawdust. It’s tucked within her classic suburban ranch home in Rancho Palos Verdes, a coastal town in Los Angeles County. A pair of parakeets chattered incessantly in their cage as I checked out four guitar necks hanging on a wall. One of them, as it happened, was a new part for an old guitar. “A very nice client told me that he was never really happy with the neck on his instrument, and that he didn’t know how to articulate what he wanted when he originally purchased the guitar from me,” Wingert said. “I said, ‘Quit fussing, send me the guitar back, and I’ll give you exactly the neck you want.’”
Wingert is one of the great modern luthiers, celebrated for the sonic and constructional artistry of her steel-string acoustics, of which she makes 10 or fewer per year. She was a relative latecomer to luthiery—mothering was her full-time job for many years before she found this calling. But Wingert has been a guitar player for most of her life. She intended to pursue a musical education after high school, but became disillusioned by the quality of instruction at her school. “I started out at one of my local community college, and this being the ’70s, they really didn’t know what to do with me and my steel-string. So I just started picking out things quietly on my own, by ear—and years later it’s pretty much the same story.”
Though she says she’s never been a gear head, in the 1970s Wingert began buying guitars through local classified ads, sprucing them up, and enjoying them for a while before selling them for a profit. At that point, she didn’t really get into any heavy lifting in terms of repair work, but always left the instruments better than she found them. “I learned to finesse the finishes and do a little setup work. I taught myself how to do light fretwork using my grandfather’s sharpening stone; it wasn’t hard to figure out that a buzzing fret needed to come down.”
One day in the mid-1990s, Wingert found herself in a public library, wondering what to do with herself. She happened upon a guitar-making book and was intrigued. After digging into that tutorial, she checked out every other book she could find at her local library and before long had amassed a body of knowledge about instrument building. “One morning I woke up and realized that if you took all the books away, I could actually make a guitar,” Wingert says. “But I actually ended up roasting marshmallows on some of my earliest guitars.”
Wingert really cut her teeth as a repair tech and luthier in the mid-1990s, when, on the strength of a couple of her early instruments, she took a gig at the World of Strings in Long Beach, California. The owner, Jon Peterson, was the go-to repairman for all of the heavyweight upright bassists in the Los Angeles area. (The shop closed in 2013, but Peterson continues to do repair work.) “Jon was instrumental in helping me see the guitar in the long term,” Wingert says. “He always put me on repairs of the oldest instruments and some of the most damaged things. I believe he was picking things that would teach me a lesson.”
At the time of my visit, Wingert had taken on an intense project outside of luthiery, having brought a Berger Blanc Suisse into her home. She needed to check on the puppy and so we walked into a sun-filled living room, where he was intently watching news coverage of the Orlando nightclub shooting. The centerpiece of an adjacent den was a wall-mounted trio of three recent Wingert guitars, including a very cool-looking steel-string, the headstock of which was embellished with tiny gold rivets and gears beneath the surface. “That was a fun departure for me. It was inspired by some steampunk furniture I saw a few years back,” Wingert explained.
Wingert really cut her teeth as a repair tech and luthier in the mid-1990s, when, on the strength of a couple of her early instruments, she took a gig at the World of Strings in Long Beach, California.
We walked back into the clean room, where Wingert pointed out a corner workspace stocked with supplies and tools for creating the dazzling inlay art that some customers request on their instruments. She’s entrusted this delicate handwork to one of her daughters, Jimmi Wingert, since 2003. “I had become pretty disillusioned with the amount of time I was spending alone on guitar making, and I don’t think I would’ve made it this far if Jimmi didn’t work here,” the luthier said. “Not only is she an amazing artist, she has the amazing ability to work with clients and really understand what they’re trying to capture.”
“In the beginning, there was nothing scarier than working on a guitar that had so many hours invested in it already,” Jimmi Wingert later told me via email. “Even though I didn’t want to build guitars, I’m so happy I was lured into the field of creating for other people… I really enjoy being able to interpret what someone wants, even when they can’t quite explain it.”
Wingert wasn’t going to show me the other section of her workshop, formerly the house’s two-car garage, claiming it was not presentable. But she changed her mind and led me into this area where she makes lots of sawdust. Here were all her jigs, fixtures, and power tools—in fact tidily arranged—as well as her stashes of tonewoods. Like many guitar makers, she prefers to work with woods in the spruce and rosewood families. “Some of my woods are easily from the 1960s and earlier, and they get to be pretty well seasoned and stable in here,” Wingert said.
Back in the clean room on my way out, I noticed an antique case that looked out of place among the high-end modern models that come with Wingert’s guitars. I asked to see what was inside and Wingert pulled out a 1930s Gibson tenor guitar, explaining that she still takes on the occasional repair—if she finds it compelling enough. The top of the tenor had been worn through the wood and covered up with a bolt-on pickguard. Wingert had just finished restoring the soundboard with a graft and a color match that made the repair difficult to detect. “These beautiful old instruments have taught me so much about my own guitar making,” she said.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.