Guitar And Mandolin Maker
By Robert C. Buckingham
Southwest Virginia is one of the most beautiful places on earth if you are into that rugged, rural beauty. It is not a place for the faint of heart. Opportunities are often self-made and the result of much effort. Employment often involves driving for over an hour, unless you are fortunate enough to find work locally.
Thirty some years ago, Gerald Anderson graduated from college and started to look around. He was playing guitar and was interested in bluegrass and old-time music. He knew about Wayne Henderson, as everyone seemed to know about the guitar player/builder if they had been paying any amount of attention to music. Anderson worked with Henderson’s former wife during a summer job in college and found himself hanging out at Henderson’s shop, learning about guitars and bluegrass guitar. His interest in music piqued there and the obsession began. He didn’t have a job, so he just hung out at the shop.
At first, all he did was sweep the floors, but after a while, in September of 1976, Henderson put him to work doing repairs. About 1977, Anderson built his first guitar, a copy of a Martin D-28. He averaged about one guitar a year those first few years. He made his first mandolin in 1980. Now, Anderson mostly makes new instruments and does a few repairs on the side. Anderson also discovered that he, Henderson, and Carson Cooper, renowned banjo player in the area, were all related. It turns out that all of their great grandmothers were sisters. This speaks to the deep roots of the people who live this area. They all lived in Rugby, Va., with a shared ancestry.
When Anderson heard the album Will The Circle Be Unbroken, by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Doc Watson on it, he knew what he wanted to do on guitar. It was then Wayne Henderson taught Anderson how to really play guitar and make instruments. Anderson so followed Henderson’s lead that he also worked for the United States Postal Service just as Henderson had done. Anderson credits his time with Henderson well spent for teaching him all he knows about woodworking and instrument building and ninety percent of what he knows about guitar playing. Anderson recalls, “When I was in college, we played mostly chords. When I started learning from Wayne, he uses that pinch picking style with a thumb pick and two finger picks. I learned that style from him. And now that’s the only way I can play, with finger picks and thumb pick. I can’t operate with a flat pick.”
In 1980, he began making mandolins. Anderson recalls that there were not many instrument makers back then. “There was Wayne making guitars and Albert Hash up on the mountain.” Henderson was making some mandolins and he had a guiding hand in Anderson’s development as a mandolin builder. Anderson quickly realized that since Henderson was really known for making guitars and Albert Hash was making fiddles, there seemed to be an open niche for a mandolin maker, and Anderson decided to fill that niche. He relates the story of his first mandolin. “The first mandolin I built, I had no customer for it at all and wasn’t sure anybody would even want it. I had just barely gotten it done and probably the next day a guy comes into the shop. He had an Indian Rosewood D-28 and he was looking to trade this Martin guitar for the mandolin I built. Everyone loved Martin guitars. Those old Martins were what everybody wanted. I could turn something I made into a Martin guitar, so I thought that was great.” When he realized that he could trade a mandolin he made for his first Martin guitar, Anderson got more interested in making mandolins. He changed his emphasis to making mandolins. He didn’t really make that many at first, but increased his output over time while still doing mainly repair work.
In the spring of 2005, Anderson moved out of Henderson’s shop into his own shop in the current location in Troutdale, Va. At this point, he started making more guitars as well as the mandolins he had been building. He focuses on F-style mandolins, making A-styles as well, but the demand he sees is for his F-style. His efforts are to capture as much of that Lloyd Loar design of the Gibson F-models from 1922 to 1924 as possible. He has made some F-4 and A-4 oval-hole models as well. Lately, Anderson has even been using some Carpathian spruce for tops. This spruce comes from Romania, and Anderson feels that the sound is better than with the Red Spruce and Sitka tops that he had been using. So far, he has made 157 mandolins and 97 guitars. Before leaving Henderson’s shop, he had made only 12 guitars.
“I worked in Wayne’s shop for about 28 years and Jon Lohman of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities had an apprenticeship program and he asked me if I could do that. The person I ended up taking on was Spencer Strickland. He was a young fellow from Carroll County who was a great mandolin player and was real interested in making mandolins. His folks had gotten him a mandolin when he was about 12. I had built it for them. So I knew Spencer well and he did not want to quit making instruments. He wanted to do it full time and Wayne’s shop was just too small. So we turned my basement into a shop and Spencer helped me here for about five years. About two years ago, he started his own shop in Carroll County in Lambsburg. I kind of felt that is something I should do. Wayne taught me and I taught Spencer. And that’s the way those things go.”
While most of his guitars are based on a Martin design, he has found that a lot of folks like having one made from local woods. Walnut, maple, and spruce from this region, rich in hardwood forests, make a fine instrument. While these are not the traditional bluegrass guitar woods, these guitars are popular with folks who want an instrument made of local woods. On tone woods, Anderson has this to say, “Rosewood tends to be bassier sounding and mahogany is brighter. Walnut falls in between these two and the maple tends to be bright sounding. Curly maple makes a real beautiful guitar. That’s what I make my mandolins out of, and it is really good wood.”
Anderson was lucky enough to procure some local red spruce from White Top Mountain. It tends to be a little wider grained due to the altitude where it grows. He also gets red spruce from West Virginia and Maine.
Perhaps the most famous of the folks Anderson has built a guitar for is Mumford & Sons. When asked how this came about, he had this to say. “I got asked by the Virginia Tourism Corporation in Richmond to make a guitar for a band from England called Mumford & Sons. I didn’t know much about their music. So I looked them up on the Internet and they are a really popular band. I looked them up to see what kind of guitar he was playing on their videos. Most of the time he was playing a regular D-size Martin kind of a guitar, so I thought that was what I would build. The Tourism people were interested in showcasing Virginia, so I decided I would make it out of the local woods. Local maple and spruce from right around here. I made him the equivalent of a D-18 with some fancier ornamentation. I put his name, Marcus Mumford, in the fingerboard. The weekend that all of this was to happen was also the weekend of the Galax Fiddlers’ Convention. So I went down that Friday for their big show in Bristol and as the day was going on, I didn’t know about it, but they wanted another guitar for the banjo player because he plays some guitar in that band too. I didn’t have another guitar to take to him. There was a guitar at a place called Heartwood in Abington, which is an arts center that displays crafts and instruments made by Virginia makers. They had one of my guitars there. So Mumford & Sons bought that one, too.
Well, I met Marcus in Leah Ross’s office. She is in charge of the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, and I gave him that guitar. The tourism folks made a video of me and Spencer and Jimmy Edmonds, a local fiddle maker, working on that guitar and playing some music. They showed the video to Marcus and he got real emotional because he didn’t know that this whole deal was happening. He was getting emotional and the tears started welling up in his eyes. I handed him the guitar, and he did not take to bawlin’, but you could tell he was real emotional. Tears were coming out of his eyes for sure. He said he had never had anyone give him a gift like that before and he was real appreciative of it. He played it a little bit and I played it a little bit and Dorie Freeman, Scott’s daughter, sang a little bit, and he actually sang along with her, and that was pretty cool. He really liked the guitar. The next day, the tourism folks interviewed him and it’s on YouTube, Mumford and Son Guitar in the Making. The whole thing turned out really good, and he is no doubt the most famous person I ever made a guitar for.
“Most of the instruments I make are for local folks in Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. I have sent some out to Washington and Oregon. In the past few years, we have traveled overseas to Scotland and England some and I have taken instruments and sold them over there. Spencer, Jimmy, and I went over and we took four instruments for customers.”
Besides Spencer Strickland, who played number 53 on the road with Kenny & Amanda Smith, Scott Freeman with Skeeter and the Skidmarks plays Anderson mandolins. Spencer Strickland still works with Anderson and does some pearl and inlay work on Anderson’s instruments as well as the spraying of varnish finishes. “He has very good setup for that. After last year’s Reno Festival where we did a set with Jimmy Edmonds and Wayne Henderson, someone put it on the Internet and called it the Virginia Luthiers. So we have been playing some gigs under that name.” Everybody plays instruments that they have made except for Anderson when he switches over to the bass. He says, “I never made a bass because I never found a piece of wood big enough.”
When asked what other projects he might have up his sleeve, Anderson said, “A couple of months ago, the four of us made a video for the tourism folks at the Carter Fold. We did four songs. They asked each of us to do a song that was special to us. Wayne did ‘The Carter Family Medley’ because Wayne is a big fan of the Carter Family. Jimmy and Spencer each did a fiddle tune and I did a tune that Dale Morris and I had written together called ‘Home.’ The tourism folks are using the video for promotions.
“The director of The Crooked Road now is Jack Henshelwood. He occasionally asks me to go down to Charlotte to promote The Crooked Road. The Crooked Road is a tourism thing having to do with Route 58 that goes through several counties in Virginia where music pretty much thrives and has always been going on. The name describes this area that has eight major venues like the Carter Fold, the Rex Theater in Galax and that sort of thing. Then there are smaller venues where you can drive through the area and hear live music on any night of the week. It starts at Ferrum College and goes West to the Ralph Stanley Museum. Along that route there’s Ferrum College, the Floyd Country Store, the Rex Theater, the Carter Fold, the Country Cabin, and several more. The tourism people and the Crooked Road people hope to promote the state of Virginia by getting folks to visit the area. It has been a real successful thing. The Scotland tour we did was partially sponsored by The Crooked Road. They had a Crooked Road fiddlers’ convention in Abington and they made me one of the judges for that. They are just trying to promote the music and culture of Virginia.”
In a beautiful part of the world where things don’t always come easy, Gerald Anderson has made a living while making a life as an instrument builder and musician. He has made more than 25 recordings and has won over 200 ribbons from musical competitions. The most prestigious of these competitions is the ribbon for first place guitar at the 2003 Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, Va.