Artist builds handmade, custom guitars

Scott Baxendale doesn’t build guitars for people. Well, he does, but he doesn’t build guitars to put in a shop window. He builds guitars for the person he’s building them for.

“If somebody commissions a guitar, for instance, most people ask what color do you want it, or what wood, what inlay,” Baxendale said. “I’m more interested in like, what’s the first guitar you ever played or what music inspired you to play the guitar.”

Since moving to Athens from Colorado in March, Baxendale opened Baxendale Guitars on Winston Street, building a name not just on the instruments he creates, but on the passion he puts into each one.

“A lot of small boutique guys, they try to repeat the same guitar and make it more efficiently. They build jig setups to do one thing perfectly every time,” he said. “I’m trying to make each guitar have an individual character and quality, so I take each guitar and make it personally piece by piece.”

No, not the most efficient, capitalist-minded of methods.

But Baxendale is not making a tool — he’s making a piece of art to create more art.

“In the long run it takes longer to make ’em,” he admitted. “But each guitar is more like a piece of art, and it’s more inspirational that way, I think, to the person I build it for.”

The dedication and love that Baxendale has for his work as a luthier (noun; one that makes or repairs stringed instruments) has earned him a national reputation. Guitars he has built have been owned by big names such as John Mellencamp, Joe Walsh, Travis Tritt and Carl Perkins.

Oh, and he’s repaired guitars too, for, you know, whoever: Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Hank Williams Jr..

No big deal.

Baxendale’s ties to Athens stem from a six-year relationship with another familiar name, the Drive-By Truckers. Several Truckers own Baxendale customs, including front man Patterson Hood.

It wasn’t peer pressure that ordered all those guitars. It was the quality.

A month or so after delivering a guitar to Hood, Baxendale’s phone rang.

“He called me up and told me this long story about how old-timers used to say, ‘That guitar’s got a lot of songs in it,’ and he said he’d never bought into that,” Baxendale said. “Then he goes, ‘Since I got this guitar, I’ve written 33 songs. This guitar has a lot of songs in it.’”

To fully appreciate the whole luthier thing, a little history courtesy of the man himself will help.

It starts with what Baxendale calls “the Guitar Boom.”

“The guitar boom started with the folk boom in late ’50s — Pete Seeger — and it peaked out around Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock, then flattened out when disco hit,” he said.

Other than a few very small time specialists, custom guitars were extraordinarily rare at this point.

“In terms of building guitars to put out on the market and sell, there were virtually no guys doing that until 1970,” Baxendale said.

It was about 1970 that Stuart Mossman was opening a small factory for custom guitars in Winfield, Kan., just 182 miles from Lawrence, where Baxendale was attending the University of Kansas.

He was playing music, and considering pursuing career musicianship when his mom sent him a clipping from the Sunday paper detailing Mossman’s unheard of idea.

“Next thing I know I was dropping out of college and moving to Winfield, Kansas,” Baxendale said.

Despite his mother’s direct role in the plot, Baxendale decided to keep this exploit quiet.

“It didn’t seem like the logical thing to do for a kid my age to quit college and go to work for $2.36 an hour in a little factory,” he said. “So I did it without telling ’em so they couldn’t stop me.”

Studying with Mossman, a revolutionary in the renaissance of luthiers in the United States, Baxendale earned a degree of skill that eventually took him to Gruhn Guitars, a world-renowned vintage shop in the de facto home of guitar playing: Nashville.

“We had volumes of vintage pre-war Martin and Gibson guitars that we restored and worked on and fixed, and that’s all we worked on — we didn’t work on customer repair at all,” Baxendale said.

His position at Gruhn allowed him to not only to master the restoration process — still a major part of his business today — but also to study what gave these guitars their distinctive, powerful tone.

“I began my quest at that point, trying to figure it all out,” he said.

Over the course of 40 years, Baxendale has built and restored guitars for clients all over the country, including guitars played by Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley for Hard Rock Café.

He has created his own models for acoustic guitar structuring. He’s even found some time to keep playing music.

It was 2009 that the concept of planting new roots came to be. Weighed down by repairs and a crowded luthier circuit in Colorado, the open market and friendly atmosphere he’d taken part in with the Drive-By Truckers in Athens looked pretty good.

“It just seemed like time to change directions — focus more on building and less on full-service customer repairs,” he said.

Upon moving, Baxendale found not only ample business, but also a music community which he quickly began to take part in, playing and networking.

“Here, everybody goes and supports everybody,” he said. “There’s a lot more artistic support … people seem less intimidated by talent and more welcoming of it.”

And the connections he’s made haven’t hurt business either.

“I really think it’s worked out way faster than I thought,” he said. “I knew we’d have enough business to keep us busy, but I’m wondering how we’re gonna get the work done now.”

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