The axeman

When Jim Williford isn’t playing guitar, he’s fixing them for others

HEAVY FRETTING Whether he’s in his Stringed Instrument Works shop…

HEAVY FRETTING Whether he’s in his Stringed Instrument Works shop…

Photo By Tom Angel

A customer with an electric guitar comes into local guitar repairman Jim Williford’s shop wanting his frets filed down. Sometimes certain strings buzz when he plays chords, he says. Williford tells him the cost and warns him, “You will lose some of your fret wear.”

Then he gently steers the man toward considering what he really believes to be the problem—that the guitar needs heavier-gauge strings instead of lowered frets. The customer ends up taking the guitar back home with him, agreeing to try the heavier strings.

After the fellow leaves, Williford explains that the man has big hands and is a novice player, so he probably plays a little heavy-handedly, and the light-gauge strings just move more than they should, causing the strings to buzz. “I don’t try to give too many opinions,” he tells me, but adds, “I don’t have qualms about telling someone ‘You’re dead wrong.'”

I’m at Williford’s newly remodeled shop in the heart of Chapmantown. To get there, I walked through the side gate into the back yard of the home he shares with his wife Christy and 15-year-old daughter Hannah. His new Stringed Instrument Works is above his old, much smaller shop. The 55-year-old Williford—his light-brown, tousled hair and happy manner give him a youthful appearance—is busy moving everything from down below to the new space. Today is the first official day of the new shop.

By day, Williford is the most sought-after guitar repairman, luthier and inlay artist in town. In my own case, he once repaired my upright bass after its bridge crazily flew off in the middle of a gig.

At night, he’s busy playing guitar, regularly performing with his lively soul-funk band Blue Paradise at local casinos.

Williford could have just taken the aforementioned big-handed man’s money and done the fretwork. But, his experience as a working guitarist himself—plus the fact that he is fair, observant and holistic in his thinking—helped him look beyond the customer’s diagnosis and come up with a more likely scenario.

“So far I’ve talked more people out of work today,” Williford jokes. “You know, I’ve got enough work. I really don’t need any more work.”

or on stage at Feather Falls Casino with his band Blue Paradise, Jim Williford is never without a guitar in his hands.

Photo By Tom Angel

Williford was an Army brat born in Houston, Texas. Just six weeks into his life, little Jim moved with his family to Germany, where he lived in a number of towns during the post-World War II years of 1949-1954.

Williford relates a story his mother told of how she was kicked to the ground during this time, Jim in her arms, and spat upon for being the wife of one of the occupying soldiers. But he also has praise for the German culture, which he feels has long been more tolerant of different kinds of music. “Music, it’s different over there. They’re used to more dissonance, I think. Jazz is a lot more accepted over there,” he explains.

All this to say that Williford’s very early experiences of tolerance as well as the lack of it seem to have planted the seed of the calm and “go-with-the-flow” attitude that he has cultivated and evidences today. Also, that this early cultural influence sparked his eclectic interests. These include musicianship in various styles of music, from jazz to funk to country; the making of stringed instruments from guitars to hybrid baritone sitars (pieces for local Sekund Naycher sitar man Bobby Seals and those endorsed by the Richie Havens, I might add); repairing instruments from banjos to guitars to harps (not harmonicas—real harps!); and the fine mother-of-pearl inlay work ("one of my specialties") he does on stringed instruments and on burial urns. By the time he moved back to Texas in 1954, Williford was speaking “Italian, French, German and a little English, and wearing lederhosen.

“Texas is very unforgiving,” Williford points out. In other words, they gave him a rough time—more lessons in tolerance and patience.

After a brief stint in Texas, the family moved to Massachusetts, then Oklahoma, Virginia, New York and then back to Texas again.

Williford initially came to California in the early ‘70s, just to help his parents move, “but I kinda liked it,” he says, “so I hung around.” He’s been in business in Chico now for about 24 years, since learning how to reset his first guitar neck, “on a 1942 Martin 00-17” from the late old-time fingerpicker Richmond Talbot, who played in a band at one point with Janis Joplin and Jorma Kaukonen.

“You know, the thing about Chico … I have such great customers. … The diversity…” he muses. “Chico just has some great people.”

There is no shortage of people who think Williford is pretty great as well. In the couple of hours that I recently spent with him in his new shop, he had a number of phone callers and visitors who either wanted to talk to him about repairing their instruments or, in the case of singer Marletta Logan, needed to talk to him about an upcoming gig they had together.

Williford spoke with Logan while he was busy working on the Taylor acoustic guitar that a customer had just dropped off.

NEVER STRUNG OUT Jim Williford did most of the work himself building a more spacious workshop, giving him more room to meet the demands of his popular guitar repair business.

Photo By Tom Angel

Williford also gets constant referrals and requests from a number of music stores and pawn shops in the area. Herreid, Sound Source, Gates Resale, Broadway Pawn and Houser’s Music in Oroville all refer musicians to him.

“Lately, in the past three years, I get on an average of 10-15 people [coming in for repairs] a day. Crazy days you get more,” he tells me.

Local bassist Greg D’Augelli had just returned from taking one of his upright basses to Williford’s shop to have the action lowered.

“He filed it, and then I tried it out, and then he filed it some more. He told me to take it home and play it and bring it back if it needs more. … He works with you. He doesn’t just say, ‘Leave it here.’ And he cares. … I’m glad he’s around.”

D’Augelli used words like “above decent” and “sweet” in the course of talking about Williford, and K. C. Cardoza, the manager of Broadway Music Center (part of Broadway Pawn), agreed. “You know, I’ve never had anyone complain about him. … He’s just a great guy in general.”

Cardoza swears by Williford’s talents. People often come to her, asking for advice on where to take their broken violin or guitar for repair or where to go to have a bow rehaired, and she always sends them to Williford.

Add to the numerous requests for his repair work the many requests he gets to build instruments: “I have orders for custom archtops that I haven’t been able to fill.” His newly-expanded shop will provide the needed extra space for extra equipment that will enable Williford to accommodate such orders.

In between customers and phone calls, Williford shares stories about his life and his work. He tells me a funny one about the time, years back, when he was managing the old Rich Sound and Music on Nord Avenue and “a kid came in with $5,000 and asked, ‘What do I need to get to become a better guitar player?’ I told him, ‘Go to [local guitar legend] Charlie Robinson [for lessons]. For that much money, he’ll probably let you move in with him!'”

Williford also speaks with fondness and pride of two of his very good friends, both local guitarists, both now deceased—Harry Alto and Joe Dominguez. Alto played with early jazz guitar greats Tal Farlow and Charlie Christian and toured with famous vibraphonist Red Norvo for four years. He also was named “'best classical guitarist in America’ in his day” by Frets magazine, Williford tells me. As for Dominguez, “I learned more from him than anybody [about playing the guitar]. He never played anything the same way twice. … He never played the tune straight. … He was phenomenal!”

Williford is not name-dropping. He’s just being interviewed about what he does, and he cannot talk about his work without giving credit to his influences—two people whom he loved and who perhaps haven’t gotten the recognition they deserved locally.

The phone rings, and our interview is over. Williford has work to do.

“Stringed Works, this is Jim," Williford answers soothingly. He listens attentively, then, "That’s OK, bring it over."