Bill Collings; On Making Guitars

My road to Collings guitars started about 15 years ago when the then product manager at Takamine guitars (Mike Markure) took me to the Collings booth at winter NAMM and introduced me to Collings’ GM, Steve McCreary. Over the years I would see Steve once a year at NAMM and walk away stunned by his soft-spoken passion for the instruments he was part of creating and the awe and respect he has for Bill Collings. The typical booth at NAMM will have a rep showing their wares. Most are passionate about music and what they represent but walking into the Collings booth takes you into another world of intimacy and respect for each hand-crafted instrument on display. There is an awe and love for the craft and instrument and you can feel it.  About five years ago I began my own relationship with Collings. I was working with a new guitar player in my band, the late David Glaser, who always sounded great on stage. Night after night, I preferred his sound to mine and I finally figured out why when he handed me a very unassuming guitar that knocked me out. You guessed it, a Collings.

Last year, while touring Texas I had the chance to meet with Steve McCreary and Mark Althans at the Collings facility in Austin, take a tour, and talk about the man behind it all, Bill Collings. Here is a part of Bill’s story and the story behind these guitars.

The story you may already know:

“Bill had an engineer’s mind, a designer’s eye, a machinist’s hands and an artist’s heart.”

Bill Collings moved from Ohio to Houston, Texas in the mid-1970s. More interested in guitars and engineering than in his pre-med program, he took a job at a machine shop and began building guitars on his kitchen table with just a few hand tools. Before long his instruments were in the hands of Texas talents, Rick Gordon and Lyle Lovett, which led more players to seek out Bill for custom guitars.

Bill was a true innovator, craftsman, lover of guitars and relentless perfectionist.”

After building about fifty guitars and a few banjos in Houston, he headed west to pursue lutherie in southern California. While on a detour in Austin, he befriended like-minded Austin luthiers Tom Ellis and Mike Stevens. Bill decided to stay and share space in Tom’s shop. By the mid-1980s, Bill was building flattop and archtop acoustic guitars in his own small shop.

“Bill was smart, funny, unique, intense, keenly observant, would take input and feedback and be willing to change to make something the best it could be.”

Soon, musicians such as Pete Townshend, Joni Mitchell and Keith Richards were playing Collings acoustic instruments and demand continued to grow. As the business grew and processes were refined, one thing remained the same: Bill Collings’ commitment to build the finest stringed instruments available.

Through his natural intuition for acoustic instruments and the careful refinement of his process, Bill became a master at what he designed and built. However, it was never his intention to do it alone. As he sought out materials and contemplated designs, his thought process would often manifest itself in colorful conversations with, and in the education of, his trusted employees. Over time, various tasks were delegated to the more experienced shop employees. Producing high quality workmanship had been the focus of the shop from the earliest days. Bill’s passion for taking things to the next level was infectious, and it became more deeply embedded in Collings culture with each completed instrument.

“Bill was a unique person, an amazing engineer with mechanical skills, a sense of design, passion and energy that was not “normal.” He was as funny as hell and a very intense person.”

One of the things I noticed while walking through the shop were pictures of Bill hanging over many of the work stations. I asked Steve about it and he told me,  “At Bill’s memorial these pictures were handed out to those who wanted them. Then they started to appear at the shop, brought back and put up by the craftsman who wanted to keep Bill’s spirit and energy overlooking their work.” He made a point of saying it was definitely not something they asked anyone to do. It happened organically and you can feel the presence of Bill and his continued influence throughout the shop.

Bill Collings succumbed to cancer in July 2017 but his spirit to build the best possible guitars lives on in every instrument that comes from the hands of the Collings craftsmen. He created a “culture of quality” in the shop that is as strong today as the last time he walked the floor and I believe I feel that energy and passion every time I pick up my Collings.

By Mike Aiken