He was supposed to go to medical school. He was supposed to go to California. But Bill Collings only got as far as Austin, and what he does, with roughly 70 highly skilled employees in a shop past the Y in Oak Hill, is build guitars. Really, really great guitars. You don't need to ask him how great they are; he'll tell you: "There's no better guitar made."
The Michigan native is not the only one who feels that way. Order a Collings and you'll pay anywhere from $3,500 to $6,000 or more, a lot more for super-custom models — and, with the current load of orders, you could be waiting months. Acoustic guitars are currently back-ordered until October, electrics until July. The company this year is on track to build roughly 1,400 acoustics, 900 electrics, 500 mandolins and 350 ukuleles. Acoustics take about three months from the time workers make a card detailing the guitar's specifications and custom features to the time it heads to one of Collings' networks of dealers, including Hill Country Guitars in Wimberley.
"The quality is beyond all that I know of," says that shop's co-owner, Dwain Cornelius. "They're powerful, powerful guitars. Their projection is just unreal."
And like every fine instrument, their character and tone develop over time.
"It's a guitar made to grow," says Collings. "You have to play it out."
They're played and treasured by the likes of Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Conan O'Brien, Lyle Lovett, Steep Canyon Rangers, the Eagles, Zac Brown, Robert Earl Keen, Jim Lauderdale, String Cheese Incident, Little Feat, Brian May of Queen, Joni Mitchell, Moody Blues, Rodney Crowell, Robert Plant, Joe Walsh, Aerosmith and John Sebastian. Local devotees include Bruce Robison, Alejandro Escovedo, Ray Benson, Jerry Jeff Walker, the South Austin Jug Band, Sarah Jarosz and Redd Volkaert.
"Even their cheapest thing is heads, hands and feet above anything else," Volkaert says. "It's world-class, kick-ass , does exactly what it's supposed to — or more. The Collings guys are trying to make a better wheel. I'm sure it costs them more money, but I kind of think they don't care."
It has been so since Collings Guitars began as a one-man shop in the mid-'70s. Once upon a time, Collings was a pre-med major at the University of Ohio at Athens. He dropped out to work in a machine shop and started repairing and building guitars. An older machinist mentored him. He later moved to Houston, then Austin. It wasn't until almost 1990 that Collings hired his first employee, Bruce Van Wart, who is still with Collings and chooses all the wood for all flat-top guitars and ukuleles. A company founded to make guitars in part inspired by Martins of the 1930s and '40s has expanded into electric guitars, mandolins, mandolas and the aforementioned ukes. The approach is always the same: to build instruments in the same way Collings did in his one-man garage shop, but in a production facility.
Collings, who's married and has a grown daughter, isn't wild about the term "production facility" because it implies his shop is a factory, which it certainly isn't. It is astonishingly hands-on, his crew — pretty much all of them guitar players themselves — working at the intersection of art and carpentry.
"Getting to see the atmosphere where they work, a lot of care goes into it," says Wimberley folk prodigy Sarah Jarosz, who got her Collings mandolin — paid for with her own money — when she was 12 or 13, and who's coming home from school in Boston soon to play two shows May 22 at the One World Theatre. "With so many manufacturers putting out hundreds of instruments a day, it's special to see the luthiers at work. Every instrument is special. They've gotten so popular but maintained their special Hill Country vibe."
"Nobody does it better," says general manager Steve McCreary, who's been with the company more than 18 years. "Nobody does this. It's just too much work. We basically sell labor — blood, sweat and tears."
And tears there sometimes are. The spray room where the electrics are painted is the source of "a lot of heartache," Collings says. McCreary adds, "It's really difficult to make a piece of wood look like a piece of polished glass. Our finishes are five one-thousandths of an inch thick. It's easy to get a speck of dust or grit from sandpaper.
"We have lots of people who want to work here. It's pretty hard. You need a unique skill set to work here. You have to have a thick skin. The learning curve is steep. The shop owes a lot to the people who work here. It's a very artisanal endeavor."
And some people just can't hack it. Collings, who comes from a family of engineers, tells a story of a guy who was hired to set necks to acoustic guitar bodies. He worked on a single guitar for a solid week, called in sick the following Monday, and that was the last they heard from him.
Collings is a joshing and jovial boss — and his staff gives as good as they get. Among the staff are Steve Doerr from the LeRoi Brothers and a former bouncer at the Armadillo World Headquarters. One-half of the ukulele team was an accountant in Israel.
The jocularity lightens what could otherwise be a pressure-cooker environment. Collings Guitars has a reputation for quality and consistency because its instruments are the product of a great deal of highly skilled labor. That's why customers are willing to order an instrument without having played it. But the cost of a mistake is high.
It starts with the wood, every piece of which is different, even from the same tree. They take pains to get the best wood they can from sustainable sources — mahogany from Central America, rosewood from India and Brazil . The wood is stacked, dried and kilned, which takes about a year and a half — and in that time the company isn't making back any of the money spent on raw material, because the wood hasn't been transformed into guitars for paying customers yet.
In the mill, rough shapes emerge — necks, solid bodies for electrics such as the I-35 or 290 (both named, of course, for area highways), tops, backs and sides for acoustics. Those components get stacked according to model name or number in a climate-controlled acclimating room where it's always 72 degrees and 49 percent humidity. Parts spend three months to a year there.
Employees stain, seal, glue and scrape, work that requires sure hands and keen eyes. They affix ivoroid binding and fretboards. Look inside a dreadnought (large acoustic guitar), Collings says, and you'll never see an errant bead of glue holding the bracing — the system of struts — that reinforces the top and back of the instrument and affects its tone.
"I always only wanted to do something great, do what I did on my own but with a group of people." says Collings, 63, who started out repairing guitars and wound up disassembling vintage instruments to unlock the secrets of their sound. "If there's a better way, we'll do it. But there isn't. There's never two guitars the same. That would be a factory. You want to think of them as individuals rather than a pile of guitars."
A fair number of high-end guitar makers started making ukuleles when the economy went south, but Collings said he'd been thinking about getting into that market for close to a decade before the company started making them in late 2008 — just as orders for other instruments were dropping.
"When we started making ukes, it didn't save the company, believe it or not," he jokes. "But it was a whole lot more fun than laying people off. We don't make money off of it, but we love 'em."
For part of 2009, to make it through the tougher economy when sales slowed, the company started what McCreary calls a "work share" program in which employees worked short weeks and collected unemployment for the hours they were short, which allowed workers to stay on the job and not lose their benefits.
When Collings isn't messing with guitars, he's focused on his other passion: racing cars. There's a trailer with a Miata he races behind the shop. His office has a sign saying it's "Hillbilly's Hot Rod Shop" and there's a 1940 Ford convertible in the office. You read that right. Had Collings gone on to med school, it's easy to imagine him being a forensic pathologist. The guy just likes to get his hands dirty.
"I'm an absolute gearhead," he says. "I don't know if that's cool or not. But I don't care."
What he does care about, to the level of obsession and beyond, is the quality of the instruments with his name on them. And in a town whose music community is a big part of its identity, the instruments coveted by most any player are a key component.
"Without Collings, it would be less of a great music scene," says Asleep at the Wheel's Benson, who plays the Collings he gave his son when he's in the studio. "To have a world-class guitar-maker in town is just so cool."
Visit Collings' website: www.collingsguitars.com .