The Guitar Doctor is in

Jim Anderson is the man to turn to when your guitar needs a bit of intensive care

Jim Anderson is the head surgeon at the Notorious Guitar Hospital.

Jim Anderson is the head surgeon at the Notorious Guitar Hospital.

Photo By David Robert

Jim Anderson is the man to turn to when your guitar needs a bit of intensive care

The sign outside the shop in a Sparks strip mall reads “Notorious Guitar Hospital.” A notice taped to the door (next to a flyer for a bluegrass festival) advises potential customers that Jim Anderson sees clients by “appointment only.” I knock on the door.

Anderson, on the phone, opens the door. He’s talking to Neil Smith, owner of Vegas Guitars in southern Nevada. Smith called with a question regarding a particular guitar’s buzzing bass string. Anderson solves the problem by telling him to cut a piece of metal about the thickness of a soda can and use a bit of it as a shim under the instrument’s saddle.

Anderson, who has been working on stringed instruments for more than 40 years, finishes his call and acknowledges me. We walk to the work area, past a poster: “No Yelling/Screaming About Unfinished Work.”

The first thing that hits me is the smell—varnish, sawdust, a trace of machine oil—then what seems a visual cacophony of guitar effluvia: necks of various widths and lengths; rolls of fret wire; machine heads and string pegs; screws, nuts and other hardware—"I have more than 1,500 Fender parts alone"—and boxes of wood. Wood from old guitars, wood from antique furniture and old gift boxes, wood from scrap yards and from dealers in premium wood for instruments. In fixing guitars, as in human transplants, you need as close to an exact match between patient and donor as possible.

“I’ve taken as many as 75 pieces from just the body of an acoustic guitar and put it back together,” Anderson says.

Marianne Maytan, general manager of Maytan Music in Reno, has known Anderson since the early ‘70s. Her respect for his skill is obvious and sincere.

Photo By David Robert

“We refer work to him that takes a master’s touch,” she says.

When she sends a quality instrument to Notorious Guitar Hospital for repair, Anderson makes it like new, she says. “You can’t tell the difference.”

It’s a refrain I hear over and over again: When Anderson’s done with an instrument, you can’t tell where the repair has been made.

“If I’ve done my job properly, you’ll never know it,” Anderson says. “You can’t see it, and I don’t sign it.”

“Look who he does warranty work for,” says Rick Sterling, a friend of Anderson’s for 17 years. “That should tell you how good he is. Martin, Takamene, Taylor, Ovation, Guild. He’s been authorized for Gibson, Fender. He considers himself a luthier. He’s the best craftsman in the business.”

The night before our interview, Anderson had invited me out to his ranch for dinner and some jamming. Anderson has decided to move his operation from Sparks to a ranch he owns some distance outside of Reno. For various reasons, including the death of his mother two years ago, he’s become more reclusive than ever.

“You wouldn’t know it about me,” he said, “but I’m a shy person who puts on an outgoing persona to deflect the shyness.” He and his desert redoubt are a good match.

We jammed on blues progressions until well past midnight and talked. Glasses of wine and shots of Early Times relaxed the atmosphere.

Photo By David Robert

“My father was a brilliant man,” Anderson said. “He taught thermodynamics and heat transfer and was dean of the College of Engineering at UNR. He also taught me the most important lesson in my business life: ‘Never get behind in your job or your paperwork.’ “

That, in a nutshell, encompasses the second reason Anderson is moving his business out to the ranch. Right now, his reputation is such that he has far more repairs and modifications than he can hope to complete.

“This move is going to give me a chance to finish all the work I have, and I’m not accepting any new work until the old work is done,” he said.

Then, Anderson launched into the story of what he called the “Swamp Axe"—the guitar from hell. The guitar’s owner told him it had been “extremely submerged” in salt water, which had ruined its finish, among other things.

“I took the job not knowing what I was letting myself in for,” Anderson said. After stripping, sanding and reproducing the guitar’s sunburst finish (a process that took more than 10 hours), he set it aside to dry. The next morning he discovered, to his horror, that a band of “baby-shit brown” color had mysteriously appeared between two of the color-bands. Again, he stripped, sanded and refinished, only this time, “thousands of tiny bubbles had appeared in the lacquer itself.”

Over the next several months, Anderson tried everything he could think of to make the guitar look new: He baked it, dried it and even blew it out using a compressor to force the moisture from the very cells of the wood. He tried different varnishes, sealers and lacquers, and each time he had to call the owner to tell him his guitar wasn’t ready yet.

Finally, he thinks he got it right. At least, he returned the guitar to its owner and hasn’t heard from him yet.

“You should call him and ask him about it,” Anderson told me with a mischievous smile. “I’m not sure I want to, myself.”

Photo By David Robert

Back in the shop, Anderson closes the door behind us and turns off the ringer on the phone. He hands me a beer from a cooler, takes one for himself, sits on a tall stool.

He’s dressed in a pink Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, a pair of huarache sandals and a long carpenter’s apron. A halo of white hair frames his ruddy-cheeked face with handlebar mustache.

Hanging from the ceiling, like sausages in a New York deli, are dozens of guitars, as well as a banjo and a mandolin or two, in various stages of repair.

Some require patching, some need refinishing. Some merely need their necks adjusted, while others demand a complete overhaul. Some electric instruments have been brought to the hospital for modification, rather than deep healing.

Serious musicians will often take a brand-new instrument, such as a guitar, to a specialist like Jim Anderson to have it “set up"—customized—to meet their individual tastes and playing styles.

This can include recommending string gauges, adjusting fret, nut and saddle heights, adjusting the instrument’s “action” or amount of stiffness when played, as well as myriad other adjustments that turn an off-the-shelf guitar into a natural extension of the musician who plays it.

Laura Bright, a former Reno singer-guitarist, has had Jim Anderson set up several of her instruments.

“He sets up your guitar to your preferences,” she says. “He’ll have you sit on a stool, and he’ll watch you play. He’ll notice how you hold the instrument and how hard you strum or flat pick. He’ll see how you barre your chords and how much pressure you put on the strings. Then he’ll work on it, and it may take four or five tries until every string rings true and it plays like butter.

“Oh, and then after you’ve been playing for a month, he’ll have you back to look at the fret wear and pick marks.

“He really is the ‘guitar doctor.' The name of the shop is exactly what it says."