Guitar Hero

From the ubiquity of Amazon to the heart of old-world craft.

Illustration by David Plunkert

My two oldest boys are out of the house now, so, like many folks, I hear about them much less than I hear about Amazon. 

But this day was particularly permeated by the retailer. Amazon was all over my news, owning it really, selling me everything I need and, of course, selling me stuff I don’t need.

Just before noon a large package arrived from Amazon. In it was a bag of cross country spikes for my 15-year-old son, strings for my acoustic guitar, eight plastic baseballs, six magnetic “student driver” car placards for the aforementioned teen, and the most expensive item—this cell-phone battery charger thing that I didn’t intend to purchase but looked shiny and was shaped cool. 

At lunch, I perused the Washington Post, in which it seemed every other business story disclosed that the paper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, and owner of Amazon, also owns the business being reported on in the story. 

A headline in the local newspaper yelled about the chance of Amazon’s second headquarters, hiply monikered “HQ2,” being built on the tech-driven urban eastern side of Loudoun County. Amazon, the story explained, will be building a $5 billion complex, employing an estimated 50,000 people and offering smokin’ incentive deals. 

Bully for Northern Virginia, sure, but by mid-afternoon, I was too Amazon-weary to cheer. I was feeling trapped in some techno-consumerist dystopia when I got a call from Marty Fair.

“Your guitar is ready,” Fair said. “Plays well. Come on up and get it.”

Perfect timing. In the grips of an Amziety attack I was invited by a master luthier to the anti-Amazon, a little shop in the woods along the Blue Ridge where you can ruminate about hide glue and the 1946 Martin D28 in the corner that was run over by a van, and the luthier’s chasing-a-rainbow obsession to craft a pile of wood into the vessel of the most beautiful guitar sound ever heard.

“God bless you. I’m on my way right now.”

So up Harper’s Ferry Road I went, past two 1830s churches and the Neersville Apiary to the intersection with Bittersweet Lane. Then down a pot-holed gravel farm road back a half mile past a little red barn until I came to a log house with a two-story workshop tucked down in the trees. Smoke hung in the green canopy from the woodstove in the shop. 

I climbed up the wooden stairs into the frame building, and the smell of wood smoke faded into the fragrance of sawn wood and wood shavings. Unfinished guitar necks laid here and there among woodworking tools beneath shelves crammed with random bits of everything that make up a banjo, bouzouki or guitar. I saw and smelled wood in all directions, and I noticed then that my breathing had slowed and deepened.

“I’m up here,” Fair yelled from the workshop in the loft. “Just come up.”

At the top of the stairs I was met by two quaking black labs begging for kisses. I slipped past them, past my old Guild D40 prostrate on a workbench and over to see a guitar body Fair was making for a music teacher over in Winchester.

Fair estimated he had spent 40 hours so far on that guitar, and that it would take maybe 80 hours more to finish it. Then he rethought his estimate. “I tend to obsess. …. I just get really into making each piece just right or trying something a little different,” he explained. “Sometimes it takes a lot longer just because I can’t let it go.”

I first heard of Fair from a music-shop owner in Purcellville. When I asked him who could fix the popping frets on my Guild, he guided me to Fair, a “master craftsman” and “guitar god,” who had been building incredible guitars with native Virginia wood from around his place since the ’90s. The guy sounded so cool I immediately began in my head a theoretical bromance unrequited only because he had yet to meet me.

I called Fair, explained the problem with my guitar, and he told me to bring it in.

Next to numerous decrepit-looking instruments—including a few treasured WWII-era Martins—was a 1953 Gibson J50 that Fair had just finished restoring. He showed me pictures of the guitar when he first found it in a barn several years before. It looked like the only sound it would make again was crackling in a bonfire.

But here it was somehow in perfect condition with all its gorgeous crazed and buckle-rashed vintage surfaces unmolested. He picked it up and played Bill Monroe’s classic, “Big Mon,” and I was soon fumbling for words to describe the beauty: warm, clear, bold, creamy? Vintage, soulful, classic. If Amazon made a sound, this was the opposite of that. 

What’s the secret to building a great guitar, I asked. Fair paraphrased a quote from a renowned luthier: ‘“If you want to make good guitars, you need to be a better person.’ 

“I take that to mean that you have to have that burn to keep at it until you have it just right. You have all these pieces you’re bringing together and the more things you do well along the way and the more you pour yourself and your personality into your work, the better the instrument will look and sound. Sound follows good work,” he said.

I picked up my guitar and laid some cash on the workbench and started down the steps.

“Just call back if anything needs adjusting,” he said as I left. “Have a great day.”

“Already did.”

This article originally appeared in our December 2017 issue.

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