Books, Guitars, & Hi-Fi

I'm still using a Mac mini as a music server, using iTunes on this host server to stream music to my listening-room system via the Apple Airport Express WiFi hub. However, as the Airport Express is limited to CD-quality music, I tend to use them for nonserious listening, when I am involved in some other activity. One of those activities this past week or so was reading a new book from erstwhile Stereophile record reviewer Allen St. John: Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument (hardcover, 288pp; Free Press, New York, $25).

Retired Virginia mailman Wayne Henderson makes guitars—or rather, he makes variations on one guitar, the pre-WWII Martin steel-strung acoustic, which is felt by many to typify all that is excellent in wooden instrument making. The difference is that Henderson makes his guitars the way the Nazareth, Pennsylvania–based Martin company would make guitars if it weren't a corporation but a single craftsman with minimal tools, a keen eye, a steady hand, and an almost mystical relationship with wood.

The back story of this passionately written book—it echoes William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways in how it renders magical what might be thought mundane—is Eric Clapton trying out a Henderson guitar in 1994 and asking for one to be made for himself. But Henderson makes guitars when he feels like it and has the time; while he'd certainly heard of Clapton, he saw no need to rush. In 2001, Allen St. John decided to jumpstart the process and get two guitars built for EC, Nos.326 and 327 (one was to be auctioned for charity) and, as a bonus, to persuade Henderson to build a guitar for him also.

Along the way, the reader is ushered into the worlds of the American acoustic guitar, of bluegrass picking, of wood and woodworking, and of rural America. Most important, the reader is exposed to how a guitar can be made by someone who echoes Michelangelo by merely removing the excess: sawing, scraping, whittling, and sanding away from a pile of raw lumber everything that isn't a guitar.

"It may have seemed that [the two guitars Henderson built for Eric Clapton] were built fast and easy," Allen writes, "but they were also built right, balanced defiantly on the razor's edge between being as responsive as bamboo-fly-rod and ready to implode like an old Las Vegas hotel. I'm sure that's what it was like in a little violin shop in Cremona in the seventeenth century."

What can be the connection between this book and audio? Merely that, as I read St. John's prose, I was reminded of something that Art Dudley had written in his December 2004 report on the Blue Circle Galatea Mk.II preamplifier, that the ethos underlying Wayne Henderson's craft is also to be found in high-end audio. When I visit and talk with speaker builders such as Jim Thiel and Richard Vandersteen, or amplifier designers like Nelson Pass, Dennis Had (Cary Audio), Charlie Hansen (Ayre), Tim de Paravicini (EAR), and the late Julian Vereker (Naim), or mechanical engineers like Bob Graham and Allen Perkins (Immedia/Spiral Groove), I feel as Allen St. John did during a visit with Wayne Henderson, who was finishing the internal braces of Clapton's guitars with as much care as he had applied to the outside of the body: "Every Henderson guitar is a self-portrait of its maker. And it's a measure of the man's character that he does this level of work knowing that no-one will ever see it."

About as good a description of the best high-end audio has to offer as you are likely to find.

Talking of craftsmanship, if you ask musicians of a certain age which was the greatest live album of all time, many will point to Donny Hathaway Live, a Top Twenty album that the singer-pianist recorded in 1972 for Atlantic Records, with a small band at the Troubadour in Hollywood and the Bitter End in New York. Hathaway's soul-drenched high tenor soars on Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," and John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," but for this musician, the power of this album is the way the band, which includes the incomparable Willie Weeks on bass and Cornell Dupree on guitar, locks into the tightest of grooves, illustrating how the music's forward momentum can be maintained by the notes not played. One mystery: the drummer was not credited on either the original LP or the CD. Anyone know who it was? (I subsequently learned that it was Fred White, later to find fame with Earth, Wind & Fire.)

I first heard this album when I was touring the UK with psychedelic rock band Kala in the spring of 1973, and it got so that I had to start every day listening to Hathaway and his musicians work out on "Voices Inside (Everything is Everything)." But you know how it goes—you move on to music that superficially seems more interesting, and once you move on, you keep moving on. It wasn't until I recently bought the CD (released by WEA International in Germany in 1998) and ripped it on to my iPod that I remembered what Live had meant to me 30 years ago.

You can find more information about this extraordinary CD here. It's now also available as a hi-rez download from HDTracks. Buy it and raise a glass to the memory of Donny Hathaway, who died, apparently by his own hand, his potential unfulfilled, in January 1979. He was 33.

This article was originally published in the Stereophile eNewsletter for May 2006.

Reed's picture

This is one of my favorite albums.  I have it in new vinyl.  I only wish there could be more like it.  Raw music from guys who just seem to ooze talent and a love for their craft.

I have a Chris Botti Concert DVD where Sting gets up from a table in the crowd and sings "We Small Hours".  You can tell he is really into it and at the end they have an exchange that obviously says " Dude...that was so awesome...we nailed it".  I imagine the musicians having that kind of awesome fun and enjoyment when I listen to this album.  You would think this would be more prevalent, but the albums that convey it sonically are few and far between.