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Guitarist Ted Ludwig Talks To Master Luthier Wyatt Wilkie

Ted Ludwig

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Canadian luthier Wyatt Wilkie is using time-honored techniques and tools to create beautiful instruments that are cherished by collectors and performers alike.

Wyatt Wilkie’s handcrafted archtop guitars and mandolins are made from some of the finest materials including woods from his home province of British Columbia. Wyatt’s unique career has taken him through the workshop of legendary luthier Bob Benedetto, a stint with the Calton Case Company, and to many places around the world.

JGT: How did you get started in a career of hand crafting Mandolins and Archtop Guitars?

It was in 1993 when I started working for Al Williams at Calton Cases of Canada in Calgary, AB.  I was lucky to have this job during the time many call the Golden Age of Lutherie.  It was there I became familiar with the work of builders like John Monteleone, Linda Manzer, Jimmy D’Aquisto, and Bob Benedetto, to name only a few, through making cases for their guitars.  These were custom-fitted cases, so we worked with measurements and tracings mostly, sometimes having to draw out the profile of the guitar to get a better idea of how to pad the inside of the case.  It was a small company back then, usually only 2 or 3 of us making the cases but we were serious about it and often got to talk to our customers on the phone.  It wasn’t unusual for the phone to ring and have Ricky Skaggs or Earl Scruggs on the other end.  We were very busy but had a lot of fun as well.  Some of you probably knew Al Williams and knew what a great guy he was.  He passed away about a year ago.

Also during this time, Judy Threet had her shop within ours, and she was the first guitar maker I ever got to know.  After several years of making cases, I left Calgary for Indonesia where I played mandolin in a Malay music group for the next two years. For a long time, I planned to be a musician like my father, but I guess I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of guy.   It was on a small island in Riau province, where my band was playing, that I met a Gambus maker, and I seem to recall that was the first time I thought, “I can make that”.  A Gambus is a large, lute-like instrument that you see a lot in the Sumatran archipelago. It was in 1999 that I made my first instrument, a mandocello while working at a cemetery in Albuquerque, NM. It was terrible but playable and most importantly it got me started. It currently sits in my wife’s garden as a kind of scarecrow.  I like to see it out there as it reminds me of how far I have come. For 5 years starting in 2001 I worked out of a tiny shop in the town of Aberywtwyth, Wales and from there I was able to make several trips to London, Paris, Helsinki and even a couple of trips to Tokyo to sell my instruments. I became obsessed with making mandolins inspired mainly by an asymmetrical 2-point model made by John D’Angelico.   I have always been determined to do things my own way and never was interested in making Gibson copies. I made my own designs inspired by guitars and mandolins from luthiers of the past whom I admired.

Ed Cherry with his Wilkie guitar from a recording session

JGT: Tell us about your working relationship with Bob Benedetto?

I consider myself lucky to have Bob and Cindy Benedetto in my life. I got a job with Bob shortly after he opened his shop in Savannah, GA as his apprentice and also had the title of Master Craftsman of the company.  I started out making Bob’s high-end guitars with him in the beginning then on my own later on.  Having the opportunity to make so many archtop guitars under his guidance really brought things into focus for me.  During this time I started to really understand how the archtop guitar works and developed an idea about the relationship between the top and back, how bracing affects the sound, etc.  The main thing I learned, however, is how good they have to be!  I was back in touch with Bob again last year when he was developing his new carving plane for guitar makers and needed another set of hands to try it out before releasing it to the public. This new plane of his is a gift to the carved instrument community!

JGT: Are there other luthiers who have influenced your style?

So yes my main influence would have to be Bob Benedetto.  I can’t imagine where I’d be without him and all the help I received from both him and Cindy.  Judy Threet was an early influence and I was lucky to be able to watch her in the early days of her guitar building career.  I remember when I started out on my own 20+ years ago I received a letter of advice from her that was several pages long.  I referred to those pages for many years and she was spot on with all of it.  It would be a crime if I didn’t put Orville Gibson on the list.  It’s truly remarkable what he accomplished in his lifetime and the archtop guitars that came out of his company have become the gold standard.  I suppose you could say Orville invented the archtop guitar. Some others who influenced my work are John D’Angelico, Albert Shutt, Sam Koonz & whoever the guy was who designed the Lyon and Healy style A mandolin. From the more modern era, there is Richard Hoover and Michael Heiden.

JGT: What types of woods and materials do you prefer to use on your instruments?

Over the last several centuries it has been established that a Spruce top and Maple body is where it’s at for arched instruments.  It’s no different when talking about the archtop guitar and mandolin.  I believe pretty much any conifer will work for the top but I like the softer spruces most of all because I can always brace them stiffer if I want but it might be impossible to take a piece of stiffer spruce or cedar and make it looser.  Walnut and Koa work well for back and sides but they lack the warmth of Maple.  I’m lucky to live in BC where there is an abundance of Sitka and Engelmann Spruce, Cedar and Bigleaf Maple.  All great guitar woods!  I also seek out European varieties of Spruce and Maple and love them because they tend to be softer and are also very traditional, being used by the old Italian Masters as well as the early archtop guitar pioneers.

JGT: What are your thoughts on using power tools vs. hand tools in crafting your instruments? 

I started out with hand tools and it seems that every few years I will add a new power tool into the mix.  The first one was a bandsaw.  Cutting open a block of Maple for a bookmatch with a handsaw gets old pretty quick. For 18 years I carved my tops and backs from 1″ slabs using only handplanes.  I always wanted to do it that way because I enjoyed it but it also allowed me to get to know the wood I was working with.  A couple of years ago after going through cancer surgery and chemotherapy, I needed some help with carving so I finally got a copy carver.  Now that I’ve made all the patterns that I should ever need, this machine, which I’ve named Sandro, has really saved my career.  It will rough out the shape leaving enough wood to allow me to change the shape a bit if I want and make whatever graduations are needed. I know a lot of guys use a CNC router for their tops, backs, and necks.  I wouldn’t say that I’m against the technology but I can easily say it has no appeal for me.  There is nothing I like more than shaping wood and for me, that is where all the satisfaction comes from.  I can’t help but think they’re missing out on a lot if they use one of those.  When I finish making a guitar I feel almost as if I have chiseled it from a single block of wood.  It is a great accomplishment and when put into the hands of a great guitarist…well, I live for that stuff. 

JGT: I see that you offer a variety of models and custom options. Can you tell our readers about your instrument line?

My main two models are the 17″ Paramount and 16.25″ Northern Flyer.  These have proved to be the most popular of all the guitars I make.  The Paramount is my take on the traditional archtops of the past made by Gibson, Stromberg, John D’Angelico, and Bob Benedetto.  The Northern Flyer was first a mandolin, inspired by some of the guitars I was making for Bob, and soon after turned into a more modern-looking archtop guitar. I also have a sweet little 15″ I call the “Petit Fleur” which is an oval hole, non-cutaway guitar, and the 18″ Atlas which I first made for the great jazz guitarist Ed Cherry and that one was inspired by the Super 400.  All my models are really just starting points as I do a lot of custom work, sometimes even creating a whole new design for a single-player if that’s what I need to do.  It’s something I’m good at and I really enjoy doing it.  

JGT: What advice would you give a young luthier entering the world of guitar making?

The first thing that I would stress is HEALTH. You only have to glance at the obituaries in the Guild magazine to see how many of us die far too young. When we’re young and seemingly immortal, we tend to not think about long term exposure to chemicals and fine wood dust. But, the hazards are real. If I could start over, I would take these things more seriously. You owe it to yourself and your family to use proper protective equipment and ventilation when working in a shop environment. Any other advice I could give would pale in comparison. 

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