Luthier Ben Wilborn on Loving Your Instrument

Ben Wilborn of Wilborn Guitars in the northern Nevada city of Reno is an in-demand acoustic instrument builder with both practical and educational backgrounds in music. A builder for such artists as Gillian Welch, and onetime fiddler with the likes of Merle Haggard and Wille Nelson, Wilborn is a degreed Berklee film scoring major who also has a woodworking background. He found his place in life when he combined all those skills. “When I built my first guitar in 2009, I found the thing I had been looking for. I took a very deep dive into luthierie, and haven’t looked back since.”

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Wilborn is primarily a high-end builder who builds commissioned instruments almost exclusively. But no matter the playing level or price point, he says there are certain things to look for when buying a new guitar.

“At the beginning level, there is nothing more important than having a comfortable, playable instrument. A lot of cheap guitars are painful to play: sharp frets, razor-like edges, really bad action. Or they are so whacked they can’t produce sound uniformly. For a beginner, such a guitar is usually so discouraging that one’s resolve to learn how to play is sorely challenged. It’s important to feel a connection to your guitar, even if you are a total novice. The relationship has to be friendly! For a more accomplished player, it’s just a matter of finding an instrument that inspires you to play. It doesn’t have to be expensive, or look very good. But if you don’t feel an affinity for it, don’t buy it!”

Many musicians learn the hard way that, especially in western states like Nevada where the humidity and climates vary wildly, dry air can suck the life right out of an acoustic instrument.  

“If you have a solid wood guitar, drying out is a very serious concern. Most builders and manufacturers keep their shops/factories at around 45% relative humidity. This provides a bit of cushion so that the guitar can withstand some variation in humidity. But below 20%, and above 70%, things start to get bad. Moisture causes swelling which can lead to fretting out, radical changes in action and other bad distortions of the instrument. Fortunately, most of these are reversible by allowing the instrument to gently dry out. But severe dryness can ruin a guitar.

“Most acoustic guitars are built with a slight dome in the top and back, despite the term ‘flattop,’ and this allows the plates to dry out a bit, which will cause them to shrink, and flatten out. This flattening is the most obvious evidence that your guitar is dry. If you hold it at an angle to a light source, and move it back and forth so that the reflections play over the surface, you will easily be able to see if the top and back are a nice healthy convex, or a dangerous concave. If they get too concave, they will crack, and then, that is that. If you are moving to a dry area from moister one, an in-case humidifier is essential. D’Addario makes a system called Humidipak that will desiccate as well as moisturize a case, keeping it in the ideal 45% relative humidity zone. An inexpensive hygrometer [an instrument that measures humidity] will help you ascertain what is going on in your case, and outside as well. Try to keep the instrument in its case as much as possible, and keep an eye on the shrinkage.”

As far as traveling with your guitar, Wilborn has some words of wisdom. “If you must check a guitar on an airplane, and you want to see it again, I highly advise a flight case. Another type of option is an external clam-shell type case that your whole guitar/case assembly fits inside. These are, by necessity, pretty big and cumbersome, but they can also be used as a sort of suitcase for extra clothes, since there is extra space in them. In terms of car travel, well, the obvious one is don’t leave your guitar in the trunk. Heat will kill a guitar faster than anything. They are not fond of extreme cold, either. Treat them like a friend!”

Wilborn is a true believer in the old saw that the relationship between a player and his or her instrument can be a very intimate one.

“I believe an instrument should excite all the senses, not just the ears. It should sound good, feel good, look good and even smell good. An instrument that is a good match for its human can create a bond which is quite profound. I have an excellent, late 19th century conservatory violin. Over the years, I have spent countless hours holding that instrument. I have earned my living with it, and playing it has contributed to my conception of who I am. I know its smell, feel, sound and look intimately. This is a type of bond that does not occur with ordinary objects.

“When I build a guitar, it is almost always a commission, and I am thinking, as I build it, specifically of my customer and what I believe he or she is looking for. There is definitely an element of psychology in a luthier’s job. The fact is that an instrument is merely an object until it is played and valued by a person. The key lies in matching an instrument with a player, and allowing that almost metaphysical connection to blossom. As a builder, I know no greater satisfaction than when I see that I have enabled that relationship to take root.” 

Building a Masterpiece Guitar with Ben Wilborn Luthier from Sharktooth Professional Media on Vimeo.

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Behind The Song: “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield