Guitar slinger

Ben Wilborn builds handmade guitars here in Reno

Self-described wood addict Ben Wilborn builds a guitar in his studio.

Self-described wood addict Ben Wilborn builds a guitar in his studio.

Photo By Allison Young

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“I need to join a 12-step program,” Ben Wilborn says a little sheepishly, while perched atop a stool in his industrial studio. The “problem” Wilborn is confessing to have is not a common addiction, and there’s no chance of lung cancer or liver failure from it. What Wilborn is referring to is his favorite part of the process involved in the career he’s been pursuing for the last four years.

“Cocobolo Rosewood from Central America is my favorite,” he says. “It’s got a crystalline sound and smells amazing.”

Wilborn’s self-described addiction is to wood. And the selection of it is the aspect he finds most rewarding in his guitar-building profession as a luthier. It’s the satisfaction derived from the challenge of getting the wood to sing just the right note his client is looking for. And, as it turns out, there are plenty of different kinds to choose from—as the stacks of thin planks lining the back of his studio’s wall confirm.

“There’s spruce, cedar, red wood—those are the best top woods,” he says, explaining that, ideally, he looks for soft wood sourced from coniferous trees.

Wilborn’s acoustic guitar designs are the Dreadnought, L-style, Orchestra, Parlor or custom. Thanks to word of mouth, as well his recent success at the three-day guitar festival Healdsburg, in Santa Rosa, Calif., at which he sold six guitars on the spot and took down orders for four more, Wilborn currently has a five-month waiting list. And that’s saying something because base-price for his guitars is in the $3,500-$3,800 range.

The passion Wilborn has for his art, which is a better word than “job” to describe his profession—is obvious. Childlike excitement exudes from him, and he carries a relaxed ease that is hard to find in most adults when you get them talking about work. But Wilborn says he wasn’t always this way. In fact, he describes his former self as anxiety ridden and high-strung.

So what changed? He restrung his own strings—and today he plays to a different tune, thanks to the decision to quit his former job as a carpenter. Building kitchens and bathrooms had only stressed him out, with the constant worry of meeting unrealistic deadlines and construction demands. The job, which he held for 10 years, was never something he envisioned for himself—he just sort of fell into it as a means of financial support in order to pursue his first love of music. The lifelong musician, who’s been playing stringed instruments such as violin and guitar since he was six, was the leading member of local Americana band Lazy Eights.

Wilborn always knew music would be involved in his life, he just didn’t know what form it would take. He went to college at Berklee School of Music in Boston to pursue film scoring, a path which he ultimately decided not to take any further than a diploma, but which led to connections he found beneficial. In Boston, he met fellow student and notable musician Gillian Welch, when they played in Polka Masters together, a bluegrass band. Welch later became Wilborn’s first celebrity endorsement.

“I love my Wilborn Guitar!” her quote begins. “Ben is a truly artful maker, with a brilliant eye, a gifted hand, and an exquisite ear. You could not ask for more in a handmade guitar.”

Guitar hero

After college, Wilborn came back to Reno, his hometown since the age of 2, and immersed himself in music by means of the Lazy Eights until the group disbanded in 2001. It was then that Wilborn fell back on his second natural talent of construction—after a friend asked him to help out with a recently purchased building’s renovation.

“I accidentally got into it,” Wilborn says of his past life. “My friend asked for my help because he said I was ’handy and could make things.’”

That natural knack—potentially inherited from his father who was a wood worker and cabinet builder himself—made the decision to follow down the construction path the practical next step. But Wilborn always felt like something was missing.

“Part of me went dormant until I figured out I could bring my craftsmanship and passion together full circle,” he explains.

The discovery came about with the birth of his first child. With the need to be quiet around the house with a sleeping baby, Wilborn searched for a hobby he could do quietly, and so he bought a book on how to build a guitar. Since then, he’s been hooked.

“I was completely smitten,” Wilborn says. “I knew it wasn’t a hobby. I wanted to do it full-time.”

And as for that first piece of art, he sold it for a couple hundred dollars to someone looking for a “beater” guitar. That customer has since become one of Wilborn Guitar’s biggest fans, and he views that “beater” as a collector’s item.

“This is his very first guitar,” says Brad Jones, Wilborn’s first customer. “I’m keeping it as an investment because if he keeps going the way he’s going, that guitar is going to be worth something someday. It’s a goal of mine to get every model I can from this builder.”

Jones isn’t the only customer to believe Wilborn has yet to reach his career pinnacle. David Grantham thinks Wilborn is working towards a lifelong achievement award.

“I feel like I hit a gold mine with Ben,” Grantham says. “He asks what my needs are and can deliver incredible instruments. I struggle with tendonitis, so I need a guitar I can play without getting tired from muscle strain. He built me a speed machine. I can play effortlessly and for long durations. … He’s building at a very high level of quality.”

The quality of Wilborn’s guitars isn’t simply the aesthetic and attention to detail (aesthetic in terms of the natural colors of the wood—there are no skull and crossbones etched into this woodwork). The crafter leaves his mark on each one.

“There’s some part of me in that instrument,” Wilborn says. “I can pay attention to the construction of the instrument in a way that is not possible in a factory. It’s a genuine thing. … It’s the difference of buying something off-the-rack or having it designed to fit you.”

With his art still in the relative beginning phases, Wilborn says that financially, he may just be “making ends meet” at the moment, but he’s yet to regret the life-changing decision.

“I get to hang out with my kids—and it’s simple, honest work,” Wilborn concedes. “I make ends meet, but I feel very rich.”

As for his advice to others that need to find a little inner peace in life? Wilborn says to quit your day job. But be forewarned, that doesn’t mean hanging out on a golf course.

“This wasn’t a half-assed venture for me, I work a lot of hours,” Wilborn admits. “But you’ve just got to go for it—if it works it does, and if it doesn’t you do something else.”