When Collings Guitars lost its iconoclastic leader, Bill Collings, to cancer in the summer of 2017, the internet—or at least a tiny corner of it—was abuzz with gear nerds wondering whether the unimpeachable good quality of the company’s instruments would begin to suffer. The same thing happened, albeit to a lesser extent, in March of last year, when Collings announced the retirement of its first employee, Bruce VanWart. Having joined Collings in 1989, VanWart personally selected the woods and voiced the tops and backs (i.e., determined the precise thicknesses for optimal tone and response) for each of tens of thousands of instruments. These would be no small shoes to fill.
What few people knew was that Collings’ director of manufacturing, Steve Nall, had been working closely with VanWart for months to learn the ins and out of this crucial role. Nall, who is in his early 50s, has himself been with Collings for decades, working in all aspects of production from buffing to neck setting and designing instruments. But in absorbing the many nuances that go into choosing and making the best use of the wood for a given model—and there are so many of them in the Collings lineup—he only recently began to understand the guitars in all-new ways.
I first met Nall at a NAMM show several years before he had transitioned into his current role and was struck by the depth of his knowledge of all things guitar, and his modesty regarding the role he has played in the development of what are widely regarded as some of the finest modern production guitars. When I caught up with him late last summer, he was pleased to have mastered the last part of VanWart’s job that he had assumed—and in his telling, the most nerve-wracking. After several weeks of careful watching and waiting, he had successfully overseen the kiln-drying of a year’s worth of rosewood for the backs, sides, bridges, and fretboards of hundreds of instruments.
Nall was palpably relieved as we chatted about his new position, how he got there, and what he learned along the way from his mentors Collings and VanWart.
What was it like to work with Bruce VanWart before you transitioned into your current role at Collings? What are some of the things that you took away from the experience?
Bruce announced that he was leaving, and the next week it was decided that I would be the one to replace him. So, I followed him around for a week, watched what he did and asked a million questions. The very next week, he had me doing his job; he was just looking over me, which allowed me to learn what I didn’t know, and gave us space to talk about the whole process along the way.
It started with wood selection—going through what’s good for, say, a D2H versus a D2H T, as well as layouts. When you look at a piece of spruce or rosewood, there are so many possibilities for where the guitar’s top or back is in that wood. Bruce had hard-and-fast rules about what a layout should look like. When I would try to pizzazz it up, he would slap my hand and say, “No, no, no—don’t try to get cute!” It’s a huge deal, because if you do get cute with it, it doesn’t look like a Collings anymore. So I just got deep in Bruce’s head, and he was so good at sharing the information. We worked together full-time every day for eight or nine months, and by the end, he was just kind of checking in on my voicings and layouts.
I saw Bruce every day for 20 years, and I love him. His leaving was a huge loss for us, but the good news is I feel like I’ve got this thing under control. I want to make sure that my guitars are no different than Bruce’s guitars, and that nobody notices any difference, because a Collings is a Collings, and I’m not trying to put my little thumbprint on it.
It’s interesting that you learned so much from VanWart in a short time after already having worked with him for 20 years.
Right—I had looked at the layouts on 25,000 Collings acoustics. But I’d never actually thought about why they were like that. And now as I’m walking by the buffing room— boom!—my eye goes right to the layout of a guitar, even though I’ve already seen it a half dozen times by the time it gets to that department, because I’ve had to thickness it and voice it and all that stuff. I have the same job, but it’s a brand-new career at the same place.
In the Feedback section of AG [September/October 2020], you once wrote that Alex de Grassi had inspired your journey into lutherie. Can you revisit that period?
I played guitar from the time I was 13 or 14 in early ’80s, learning Dio and Yngwie [Malmsteen] and Iron Maiden and Scorpions and all that stuff. My parents had a Windham Hill CD that I put on one day. It was Alex de Grassi, and it blew me away because I didn’t even know that this stuff existed. I started buying his albums, did a little research and found out what instrument he was playing. Later, I was shopping for a new acoustic and came across a Lowden in Houston—a mahogany dreadnought with a cedar top. I sat down and played that guitar and it spoke to me like no other guitar ever had. I bought the Lowden, and I still have it. The top is quite thick, and the neck has these funny stripes in it, so I had to know what made it different. That led me to guitar-building school, at Roberto-Venn, and the rest is history. It’s those two strange butterfly effects that led me here to doing what I’m doing, which is just crazy, because I’m unsuited to do anything else.
How did you end up at Collings, and can you talk about some of the different roles you’ve had there?
After graduating, in ’99, I wanted to work for one of the smaller acoustic builders. I applied to 19 different places and got rejection letters from all of them. But I was at the top of my class, and the school got me a job in Boulder at Woodsong’s [Lutherie] doing repair and restoration. About six months in, [Collings general manager] Steve McCreary [profiled in the December 2015 issue of AG] called Roberto-Venn, asking for a name, and thankfully they gave him mine.
I showed up on my first day wearing pleated khaki Dockers and a black collared shirt that was starched, because my vision of Collings was all these fancy boys in lab coats making these beautiful guitars. And Steve came out and said, “Man, you’re overdressed!” I started in buffing, just like everybody did at the time. And then as needs arose, if you were a good guy, they’d pull you to go work somewhere else. So I worked my butt off in buffing and moved to bridges and pickguards, and then to the front end of the neck department to neck set.
Bill really liked me in that department, so I was his neck guy for 12 years or so. I loved it, because there’s a lot to making necks, and it kept me interested. Bill liked you or he didn’t. And if he liked you, he spent a lot of time and investment in you to make sure that you got what was in his head, because it was such an important part of the designs.
Eventually I was tasked with helping re-design the mandolins, redoing the necks, because I was using the skills that Bill had helped me develop. Eventually I got promoted to production manager. If somebody was on vacation or honeymoon, because I’d been here for so long, I’d fill in, sand bridges, or set necks. So I kind of floated around for a while, and then when Bruce announced his retirement, we bumped the production coordinator to manager, and I began working full-time with Bruce before he left.
There are so many stories in the industry about what a character Bill was. Do you have a favorite anecdote?
I have a million anecdotes, but my very favorite is when I started working here, I was so intimidated by Bill. I came in one Saturday to impress him—he was always there working, whether on a guitar or hot rod—and he said, “Hey, man, I need you to move this angle iron that’s outside up to the mandolin room.” There were ten pieces of angle iron, so I grabbed as many as I could carry. Meanwhile, Bill had this stuffed rattlesnake that was coiled, as if ready to strike, that he had hidden in the grass behind the pile. I got to the last piece, saw that rattlesnake, screamed, jumped, and ran. Bill was around the corner, and he was purple he was laughing so hard. He had been sitting there the whole time waiting on the payoff. After that, he called me Snake for a year or two.
That was my first interaction with Bill. The next weekend I went into work, and he started showing me computer renderings of his perfect neck, line by line. He said, “Look, it’s not a heel, a shaft, and a headstock—it’s one continuous line. That’s what makes it my neck, and I don’t want you to mess this up.” That was just my second or third week, and we just continued on that, tinkering to try to make things better and better. It still goes on today with [director of engineering] Clint [Watson] and Aaron [Huff, head of electric guitars and archtops]. All of the guys that were here with Bill have that same thing built into us now, and we’re constantly trying to make the guitars better.
What does that look like?
You might have a guy like Julian Lage coming in saying, “Your standard OM is too much guitar for me,” and us going, “What does that mean?” Bill got it right off the bat, and we wouldn’t have done that without Julian. Another thing that I learned is that one guitar isn’t the end-all, be-all. And so, the Julian [OM1 JL, reviewed in the April 2018 issue] is different than the Traditional OM, and the Traditional OM is different than the standard Collings OM. Then we have all these great guitars that wouldn’t have happened if we had rested on our laurels. If you would’ve left it up to the young me, it would have been, Don’t mess with it if it ain’t broke. And that is just not the motto of this company.
It seems like Collings was much less a savvy businessman than a brilliant luthier and engineer—case in point, no pun intended, being the handcrafted cases you made in-house for a few years.
Bill was never concerned about the bottom line. There has never been another company our size that had five product lines going at the same time—none of which were profitable in a business sense. Bill wanted to make cases, and nobody ever looked at the books and said, “Well, we have to charge this amount and make that amount every week for it to be viable.” Bill just had faith that if he made the best cases we could, they would sell.
The initial impulse for the Waterloos was born out of Bill falling in love with an old Kalamazoo. And the idea was we could take the cull, or scrap, from the Collings line and use it on Waterloos [inspired by the Kalamazoo]. But once we designed the guitars, we couldn’t do that, because the neck and the angles were different from Collings. That didn’t matter to Bill; he wanted to make the guitar that he wanted to make. So the money always came after, and we hoped for the best.
Bill would just go, and you went along for the ride. It was a great ride, because it was fun to make cases, and it was fun to make Waterloos. It was fun to make ukuleles, which we started doing in 2007 or ’08, around the time of the Great Recession, when the guitar orders dried out. In Bill’s mind, we could make a ukulele in three hours, because that’s how long it took him. But in reality, a ukulele took just about as long to make as a guitar. Yes, there’s less material on it, but it’s a Collings, so it’s got all the same attention to detail. Ultimately, the ukuleles didn’t make money, but we sold them and they made just enough that we could pay everybody and keep the doors open until the guitar orders came back.
To Bill’s credit, we’re still here, and we’re doing the best that we can with what he left us, which is such a treasure. The crew we have is just phenomenal, and my job now—not just me, but all the guys that were here with Bill—is to pass on what we know, so Collings stays Collings for generations.
What has the company been like in the five years since Bill Collings died?
Well, the first year was scary, because we didn’t know what would happen. The public perception was that Bill was making every guitar, so we were afraid with his passing that people would think that the guitars would change. The other fear was about staffing; Bill was a huge draw because everyone wanted to learn guitar-building from him. Both of those concerns ended up being unfounded, and once we got through the weirdness that Bill wasn’t going to be walking through the shop anymore, it kind of went on business as usual.
Because we all agree what Bill would have wanted, there really haven’t been any disagreements about new models. He was a big enough personality and had such a huge influence on all of it that it’s been really easy with those tricky decisions of releasing guitars like the Waterloo archtop and the 470 JL [Julian Lage signature model electric.] Even though Bill didn’t have his thumb on those guitars, he is all over them. We are just kind of trying to move forward with whatever that means to us individually.
Given how deeply you are involved in guitar making, do you get a chance to play much these days?
I play every guitar that comes through every morning. As I voice the tops and backs, I take notes, which I keep in a little binder. If I’m particularly happy with a guitar, I write down the serial number and my thoughts on the top and the back. And then when that guitar hits final inspection, I look at my notes and get to hear how it turned out.
I don’t really get to play guitar at home, but I’ve challenged myself to learn a new song every day, which is so fun. Today it was “Rocket Man” and yesterday it was a tune by Alanis Morissette. Sometimes a guitar will hang out for a couple of days after it is set up, and I’m fortunate to get to hear it with fresh ears before it ships out. I listen to the guitars with my colleagues, and we all talk about our impressions and what we are doing right. But the very first thing I do every day is walk right into the inspection room, before I even put my bag down, and play those guitars.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.