Jimmie Rodgers was already a major recording star by the time he appeared in the short film The Singing Brakeman in 1930, but this early talkie was the first time many folks had a chance to see and hear “the Father of Country Music.” As Rodgers picks bass lines between gently strummed chords and vocals full of longing, it’s easy to be drawn to the iconic name inlay on the fingerboard of the highly ornate 1927 Martin 000-45 he plays in the scene. If you didn’t know who Rodgers was before you saw him with that guitar, you sure did once the pearl fingerboard lettering and special Blue Yodel headstock inlay came into focus. These features helped make this custom 000-45 the most expensive guitar Martin had made up to that point, and Rodgers’ promo materials claimed that it cost an unlikely $1,500 (around $22,000 in today’s money). After Rodgers’ early death from tuberculosis in 1933, his widow loaned the guitar to future country music legend Ernest Tubb, who used it for the next 40 years before returning it to the family.
And while that special 000-45—which is a star attraction at the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian, Mississippi—helped to kick off the long-running tradition of namesake fingerboard inlays, it’s just part of the legacy of players and makers using personalized inlays to add individuality to their acoustic guitars.
While few players opt for large, Elvis Presley-style displays across the fingerboard (see the King’s 1969 Gibson Dove) these days, contemporary inlay artisans continue to find new ways to add unique touches to a player’s guitar—from a relatively simple idea like an owner’s name inlaid at the 12th fret to larger works that make the most of the guitar’s shape. In a phone interview from his shop in rural Northern California, celebrated inlay artist Larry Robinson suggests that a personal inlay can add a unique touch to even a custom instrument. “If you spend $25,000 on an awesome guitar, you might spend a little more for a nice inlay to go with it,” he says.
For many players, these personalized inlays are not about having a flashy stage guitar, but about adding embellishments—whether wild or subtle—to a special instrument that makes a guitar their guitar. There are many inlay artists crafting designs from small, shapely bits of shell, wood, metal, or whatever they can fit into a delicately carved pocket. I spoke with three visionary artists working in the inlay medium—Robinson, William “Grit” Laskin, and Kathy Wingert, who works closely with her daughter Jimmi Wingert on inlay projects—about the beauty that can result from a close connection between a player looking for something unique and the person who can make it happen. And more than existing as a beautifully shaped piece of glass or something to hang on a wall, these guitars are working art—tools meant to be played and enjoyed at home or on the stage.
“In my world, it’s all bespoke; it doesn’t matter how small it is,” says Robinson, best known for his incredibly elaborate work on such showpiece instruments as the Millionth Martin. Still, the majority of his work is adding smaller inlays that cost customers less than $300. “Many people don’t realize that I will do stuff on their instrument, because they see some of my bigger jobs for famous companies, but I do. I’ve survived for 40 years because I do one-of-a-kind items.”
For those seeking to add a new design to an existing instrument, personalized inlays are a surprisingly affordable way to memorialize a lost loved one, replace the standard fingerboard dots with something special, or just add a little bling. Robinson says, “Like jewelry, it’s something you can personalize your guitar with.”
For other inlay artists, the work can take on a more conceptual approach, using the acoustic guitar as a canvas to tell a story with an expanding palette of materials that goes beyond the traditional materials of shell or wood. Kathy Wingert, who is based in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, says that she and Jimmi—who does inlays both for her mother’s guitars and for other makers—“hardly ever do what we call ‘a thing on a thing,’ where it’s just a picture or a flag dropped into a headstock. Jimmi generally uses the headstock as a window into a much larger design.”
For Grit Laskin, the innovative Canadian guitar maker who designed the built-in armrest and co-created the side soundport seen on many custom guitars, the inlays that excite him have a visual narrative and tell a story. “It’s an art form, and for me, it’s not decoration,” he says. Getting to the stage where he can sketch out a storyline in materials often involves many long conversations and email exchanges with each client in an effort to understand what is meaningful to the person commissioning the artwork—and in the case of Laskin and Kathy Wingert, who only inlay into guitars they themselves are building, the people who are also having those artists build the custom guitar. “My phone bill is astronomical because I like to talk to my clients,” says Laskin.
For Laskin, these conversations lead to pages of notes that he uses to create a narrative that flows like a novel or film and has a beginning and an end. “People give me disparate aspects of the things that have meaning in their lives,” he says. “I stare at all of the notes and think about how to link them and make them work. It has to flow—I insist on that—and I won’t budge until I figure out a way. For me it is turning my own creative crank.”
Some clients have very specific ideas about what they want and what materials should be used, while others might offer a vague idea or one-word prompt, like peace, before letting the artist follow their muse on a theme. Creating an elaborate artwork for a custom-made guitar requires a high level of trust between client and maker. “I start with a drawing at the beginning and about 40 percent of the time, they don’t even want to see a sketch,” Laskin says. “Sometimes they tell me they want to be surprised. I only do it on my guitars, so they’re already spending a chunk of change to get a handmade guitar that is probably customized in 50 other ways. It’s great that they give me so much trust—never mind that I’m getting paid to have fun.”
When developing an inlay, Wingert often acts as an intermediary between the client and Jimmi, guiding the process on what is possible and what isn’t. “Sometimes I get stuck in the middle, which can slow me down when I’m trying to work on a guitar,” she says. “And sometimes I’ve had to work with both sides to find solutions that are doable for me or Jimmi within the confines of the materials available.” Occasionally, a person will have an idea for a material that just doesn’t exist, like using a shell in a color not available in nature, and a compromise has to be made to the material or the idea.
For all of the collaboration that may go into the commission of a personalized inlay, there comes a point when the discussion has to end and the artist has to put their jeweler’s saw to the abalone. “It’s collaborative up to a point,” says Robinson, of the lines that must be drawn to stay on schedule and budget. “If they have a specific design in mind, I will make it inlay-ready for their particular needs. For instance, a vine has to work within the parameters of a particular scale length, because people want them to have identifiable markers in specific places—they don’t want them to be random. As far as the materials go, most of the time they leave me to my devices, but once they tell me to go ahead, they have to back off and leave me to my palette of materials.”
Within the last two decades, several fabricated materials, including dye-stabilized wood, acrylics, and engineered stone have dramatically added to the traditional materials of shell, wood, and bone. Each of the artists became excited to talk about the new colors and textures. “I still use all of the traditional materials. I use nine or ten species of traditional shells, legal ivories, metals, and many of the traditional materials,” says Laskin. “But now there are something like 105 flavors of reconstituted stone and it’s incredible—it’s like my palette has quadrupled with all of these colors and grain patterns.” Even traditional materials like abalone are now available in sheets that allow artists to work in sizes never before possible. Still, Robinson is quick to point out that there are limits. “It’s launched some more creativity, to a degree, but it’s not as varied as what a painter can do by making finer shades and blending different areas.”
So, what makes for a satisfying collaboration on a personalized inlay? For Wingert, it’s the process of discovering what the client wants and working with both sides of the relationship to create the final work. “I love getting that satisfying email or phone call when someone gets a guitar, I love working with Jimmi, and I love it when people get what they want,” she says.
And, what many of the people who turn to inlays want is not just something tailored to them: “It’s personal to them in a way that produces something that is profoundly antithetical to our modern, digital world,” according to Laskin.
Does it add anything beyond a personal touch? “Oh yeah, it’s a talent booster,” cracks Robinson before turning back to the point of a personalized inlay—the human factor and the uniqueness of each project. “When people buy things from me, they know that they are going to get the only one there is, and that means something to them. I’ve had people tell me, ‘I enjoy that CNC stuff and it’s nice to see more inlay on things, but your stuff has character.’”
Shells on the Shelf
Looking for inspiration for a custom inlay job? Check out these sumptuously illustrated books, which showcase a stunning range of possibilities within the medium, while providing insights into the minds of the artists.
The Art of the Inlay by Larry Robinson
Grand Complications: 50 Guitars and 50 Stories by William “Grit” Laskin
A Guitarmaker’s Canvas: The Inlay Art of Grit Laskin by Grit Laskin
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The Invisible Line: When Craft Becomes Art by Larry Robinson
Martin Guitar Masterpieces by Dick Boak
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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.