From the October 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY E.E. BRADMAN
Scott Baxendale has had a helluva peripatetic guitar-repair career. After dropping out of college in 1974 to join Mossman Guitars in Winfield, Kansas, he did a brief stint at a repair shop in Kansas City, worked at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, owned Mossman Guitars in Dallas, and gained widespread renown in Denver. These days, he’s happily ensconced in Athens, Georgia, where he plays, records, and builds custom guitars. Most of his energy, however, goes toward remanufacturing old guitars, especially Harmonys and Kays—in a conversion process centered on replacing ladder-style bracing with his proprietary scalloped X-bracing—and running a luthier academy where updating vintage instruments is an essential part of the curriculum.
What inspired you to remanufacture old guitars?
In the early 2000s, when my son decided he wanted to learn guitar work, I had several Harmonys in various states of disrepair. I knew that if we rebuilt one, he’d be doing a neck reset, a planing refret, a nut, making a bridge and a saddle, figuring the neck-angle geometry and the intonation—in the context of one guitar, we’d cover 80 percent of the repairs he’d need to know. Once we took it apart, I decided to put in the bracing I used on our custom guitars. The guitar sounded great when it was done, and I started doing more of them. They basically sold themselves.
What’s the curriculum at your luthier academy?
It’s a six-month, all-day class, three days a week required, but most guys come in all five days. I take two 3/4-size Stellas, show them how to do something on one guitar, and have them do it on the other. By the time they get through the course, they’ve done 15–20 neck resets, 15–20 refrets, and 15–20 bridges and saddles. Most schools make neck resetting some sort of mythical procedure, but we get right into refitting dovetails on day one. After you’ve gone through my program and had a good year’s worth of experience, you can pop open a Martin or a Gibson without any problems and put it back together. By the time my students build their first acoustic guitar, the only things they haven’t mastered are bending the sides and carving the neck.
Where do you get inventory for rebuilds?
I do a six-for-one trade that works well for musicians who don’t have a lot of money: They bring in six of these cheap old guitars, which they can find for under $50, and I rebuild the nicest one for them in exchange for the other five. That builds up my inventory so I don’t have to be constantly looking on eBay.
Do your students work in the shop when they’re done?
Once they reach a certain skill level, the graduates start working on customers’ instruments. At first, graduates did basic repairs and a few rebuilds here and there, but then I started looking at the rebuilds as something special. Their tone is on par with the best of the Larson Brothers guitars.
For a lot less money, I assume.
Many of these rebuilt instruments, especially the ones made between the late ’30s and early ’50s, sound as good as or better than Martins that cost $30,000 to $40,000. When you’re done with those mahogany Figure 8s with spruce tops, they’re easily as good as a 1934 000-18 or an OM-18, and I sell them for $2,000. You can get a guitar with 80-year-old wood that has the mojo, the patina, the sound—everything that excites you about picking up a ’30s Martin or Gibson—for a fraction of the price.
Who are your customers?
Mostly touring musicians. The remanufactures look cool and sound cool; they don’t look like everyone else’s instruments, and if something happens to them on the road, you can get another one pretty easily. The wood in these Harmony guitars is extremely stable—they have very few problems with changes in environment, temperature, and humidity—and over the last 50 years, the necks have done all the warping and twisting they’re going to do; once you straighten them out and put them back on, you won’t really ever have issues with them. Young musicians who don’t want something shiny and new from Guitar Center like them, and pro musicians love that these guitars come with a lifetime warranty for structural and playability issues. If a person buys one and it needs a neck reset a year later, we’ll reset the neck and send it back. The customer just pays the shipping.
It’s upcycling for instruments.
I’m doing the greenest tech in high-end guitars. We’re repurposing old, endangered mahogany guitars with Brazilian rosewood fingerboards, and when we rebuild them, we’re using one little piece of rosewood for the bridge; all the other wood is non-endangered spruce. I’m focusing on marketing that aspect of it, as well as the mojo factor.
Do customers feel the mojo?
I have all these high-end guitars in my showroom and basically, they sell the Harmonys for us. I’ve got a ’53 J-200, for example—a good one, priced at $12,500—but if you take one of these early ’50s jumbo Kays and rebuild it our way, it makes that J-200 sound like a dead cardboard box. Once people get over the fact that it doesn’t say Gibson or Martin on it, it’s mind-boggling how insane they get over these guitars. At this point, we’ve done close to 600, and I’ve got customers who own five or six of them now.
You worked at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville in the ’70s. How was that?
It was amazing. We had six guys working in the shop, including Steven Gilchrist, Kim Walker, me, and Matthew Klein, who’s been at Gibson’s custom shop for years. We were at 410 Broadway, right between Freidman’s Loans and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and it was before Nashville was an overblown Disneyland. I worked on guitars for Elvis Costello, George Harrison, and Billy Gibbons, and I worked on the herringbone D-28 that Hank Williams recorded all his hits on; the one that Neil Young now owns. I worked on a lot of really famous guitars, which isn’t the whole thing—I’ve worked on a lot of cool guitars that weren’t owned by famous people, too. I did a lot of photography that George [Gruhn] used in his Guitar Player articles, and Tom Wheeler’s first book had a whole bunch of my pictures in it, including “the Loar quartet”—a Lloyd Loar-signed F-5 mandolin, an H-5 mandola, a K-5 mandocello, and an L-5. That’s what was amazing about being in Nashville: having those kinds of instruments at your beck and call.
What was the most important thing you learned at Gruhn’s?
George challenged us to figure out why a 1938 Martin sounded better than a 1939 Martin, and I asked myself why they’d change the bracing on these guitars if it was working so well. The reason they changed the bracing is that in 1939, what we call medium-gauge strings—.013–.054—were super slinkys. Back then, the only way you could get enough volume to compete with a fiddle or a banjo or a trumpet was to put heavier strings on your guitar; you didn’t have a PA, microphone, or transducer. Martin began getting a bunch of warranty returns because people were stringing their guitars too heavy.
Upstairs at Gruhn’s, we had this little drying room where we kept the wood, and when we finished guitars, we’d hang them there. When you closed the door and sealed the bottom, it was pitch black. We had dozens of prewar Martins and Gibsons, and I discovered one day that if you put a light bulb inside these guitars, you could see through the top like an X-ray.
What’d you notice?
On the ’30s Martins, the thinnest points of the braces all converged directly under the bridge. In 1939, they weren’t rear-shifting the bracing yet, but they moved the scallop down the length of the bracing, and the low point of the scallop was no longer under the bridge. The X-brace intersected the very tip of the bridge. On the older guitars, the scallop starts right at the X, but starting in 1939, there’s a straight part about an inch beyond the X where the scallop starts—the low point is like an inch south of the bridge, not under the bridge.
How did that change the way you thought about bracing?
Everyone talks about the scallops, but I began to realize that it’s more about the brace’s peaks and how they relate to the bridge. The peaks become somewhat like inertia capacitors: They absorb the inertia and allow the top to vibrate longer. Most guitar builders put one of those side braces—the two little braces, which some people call finger braces, that go off from the X-brace—right under the bridge. Well, those ’30s Martins had those spread out so they were an inch and a half on either side of the bridge. If you put the brace right under the bridge, it immediately zaps the inertia from the bridge to the sides of the guitar; it dissipates from the top. I can pick up any guitar and hear that in the sound—there will be a hole in the low mids or the upper mids, a scoop on the EQ. But it also drastically affects headroom and sustain. The saddle and bridge set the top in motion, and the goal is to keep the energy and inertia in the top for as long as possible.
How does your proprietary bracing deal with that?
I started looking at these peaks as inertia capacitors, and their position in relation to the bridge is everything. On my guitars and these Harmonys, you can count the center of those side braces as peaks; an ellipse encompasses the end of the bridge, where the bridge drives those peaks, and those peaks hold the inertia for a long time before it decays. On the bass side, you have a larger semicircle with the bridge at the relative geometric center, and around the treble side, you have a tight circle of peaks.
Has your experience since Gruhn’s proved that hypothesis?
For the last 40 years, I’ve been checking every guitar that comes in. I started building this into all those guitars during that time, and since then, I’ve gradually refined my design over hundreds of guitars. The biggest change has been the neck support brace, which is more about the torque of the neck. We’ve been using these Harmonys to refine that design, to refine the positioning, how high the peaks are, and how tall the braces are.
What do you like most about remanufacturing these instruments?
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The green factor. I think these Harmony guitars with my label in them will be collectible someday. Remanufacturing does several things: It allows people to buy high-quality vintage guitars at prices they can afford, it repurposes these old cheap guitars into professional-grade instruments that have a new life, and it produces guitars that look and sound great when they’re done.
What made those guitars from the ’30s so special?
Craftsmanship, in all aspects, was of utmost importance. From the days of Orville Gibson all the way up to Loar, the quality of the instruments got better and better, and then you had the Larson Brothers, which were the best of all of them, by far. You had a lot of craftsman who had spent their whole lives being craftsmen, and they were really good at it. These days, companies compete to see how cheaply they can make guitars, but back then, everyone was trying to outdo the other guys in quality, not in production speed or fewer labor-hours.
How do you split your time between building custom guitars and remanufacturing old ones?
Over the last couple years, I’ve become less interested in building my own guitars. It’s more interesting to remanufacture these and get them in the hands of true artists. I want these guitars to inspire someone to create art they wouldn’t have created if they hadn’t played that guitar. If you pick up a guitar and you’re immediately inspired to play something you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, that’s my definition of a great instrument.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.