(The following article appears in the latest issue of Collectible Guitar | Then and Now magazine.)
By Gabriel J. Hernandez
Deciding on a college major is a life-defining moment. Personally (some 30 years ago), I didn’t have a clue what my major was going to be until I walked by the open front door of the campus newspaper’s office. Hung on it was a piece of paper that read, “Wanted: Sports Reporter.”
From that point my choices were pretty clear: continue trying to figure out the Pythagorean Theorem and how it was going to fit into my life, while also seeking the right words and moment to tell my parents I’d just dropped Calculus … for the third time; or write about sports.
It wasn’t even close. I loved sports. Plus, I liked to read, I enjoyed my English classes, and at the time I was keeping a journal (of sorts) so I knew how to construct a basic sentence. And – of course – I assumed (incorrectly) that being a sports writer would allow me FREE access to sporting events. So, into the campus newspaper office I walked with sign in tow and applied for the job.
It wasn’t much of an interview:
Editor (I can’t remember his name): “Can you write?”
Editor: “Can you cover the baseball game this afternoon?”
Editor: “Ok … you’re hired.”
And just like that, my journey to a degree in Journalism began rather unceremoniously … a journey that still continues to this day, on a course that still involves (to some extent) my training as a writer, investigator, etc., etc., etc.
But then there are people like Elizabeth Jayne Henderson, who currently resides in Asheville, N.C. She had it all planned out. Raised to be conscience of environmental issues, she didn’t think twice about pursuing a Master’s Degree in Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School in South Royalton, which she earned in 2009. She then sharpened her passion for all things environmental by working for an Asheville-based nonprofit, before heading back to Vermont for a brief stint in government work with the United States Forest Service’s Eastern Region office in Rutland.
In a nutshell, Henderson’s future was set … written in stone … signed, sealed and delivered (you get the point).
“The degree I earned is very similar to having a law degree,” Henderson said recently from her home in Asheville. “It deals with environmental law and working as an environmental advocate, which is more like working alongside lawyers as opposed to actually being a lawyer. But what mattered most to me was that the focus was on the environment and making it better. My ultimate goal was to work in some capacity within the Federal Government, and helping to better the environment.”
To that end, Henderson vigorously pursued a handful of positions within the Federal government, including several with the Environmental Protection Agency. Her dreams, however, were somewhat stymied by the weak economies of 2010 and 2011, and the resulting Federal Government cutbacks – some of which eliminated positions she had applied for at the EPA.
In 2011, faced with the possibility of not landing a Federal job – though still “very thankfully” employed by the small environmental nonprofit in Asheville – Henderson began to worry about her looming student loan payments. And that’s when she turned to her dad for help. Her dad – by the way – happens to be none other than world renowned luthier, guitar player, and guitar festival organizer Wayne Henderson of Rugby, VA. If you don’t know who Wayne Henderson is, all you have to know is that he’s played guitar all over the world (including Carnegie Hall), and built mandolins and guitars for the likes of Eric Clapton, Tommy Emmanuel and the late Doc Watson (among many, many others). He’s even been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the White House (1995) in recognition of his extraordinary instrument-making skills.
“I went to my dad and asked him to make me a guitar or two so I could sell them to help pay off my school loans,” Henderson said. “He told me he’d definitely help me out, but that I’d have to build them myself.”
At first, the idea appealed to Henderson because it meant she’d be spending time with her dad. Her parents, you see, divorced when she was very young, so growing up Henderson would spend only weekends with her dad … competing for time with her father with all the visiting guests from around the world that would come to play and buy the elder Henderson’s instruments.
“I wasn’t necessarily driven by the need to make a guitar,” Henderson said. “Hanging out with him was very important to me, and it’s the main reason I started doing this. Now, I’ve come to find out that I’m pretty good at making guitars. Working with my hands comes very natural to me, and that’s why I started making more guitars.”
So, today – and for the last three years – Henderson is now the sole proprietor of EJ Henderson Guitars and Ukuleles in Asheville, NC. There she makes a handful of completely handcrafted instruments using some of most unique combination of woods of any other luthier in the country. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that she does so under the guidance and watchful eye of her famous father. But don’t be fooled … Henderson has made it a point to carve her own niche, and has fast become one of the most talked about instrument makers in the business.
“I really want my guitars and how I build them to stand out on their own merits, and not behind the accomplishments of my dad and what he’s doing,” Henderson said. “Don’t get me wrong, he does check things out for me from time to time, but I do all the work.”
Henderson continued, “I really like experimenting with different types of woods. I like to find woods that no one else is using, so I’ve made guitars and ukuleles out of woods like white ash, sassafras, red and white oak, and of course maple and walnut. I also really love using Hawaiian Koa, and I kinda wish I could go there one day and see and find it for myself.”
Don’t we all?
Many of the tops for Henderson’s guitars are constructed from Carpathian Spruce, which she says, “…has a very uniform and beautiful grain, and some very tight grains because it comes from very cold climates. I also love using it because it’s a very sustainable wood, which means there’s lots of it. My dad has been using it for a while as well.”
So, Henderson does – in fact – use her environmental background when building instruments, just not in the way she envisioned it. In just three short years she’s almost completely paid off her school loans, plus managed to get her guitars into some pretty famous hands, including the late Doc Watson, Vince Gill, Zac Brown (he’s on her waiting list), and a few others. She’s also amassed a waiting list approaching the two-year mark. What other luthier/guitar makers do you know that just started out and have a two-year waiting list for their guitars?
But in the eyes of her father (and many others) Henderson’s most important accomplishments and innovations to date involve the new level of creativity and unconventional vision she’s brought to some of the industry’s most time-tested and centuries-old traditions.
“I don’t have to show her much anymore because she understands wood vibrations better than most other people I know,” the elder Henderson said. “She’s come up with some very innovative ways to properly tune a top, and make and form the bracings. She’s learned to make adjustments to the tops until they’re all are in near-perfect tune, so all of her tops sound very consistent. I used to do all of this stuff by ear, but I’m getting older now and it’s a lot easier to do things the way she does it. And it makes sense. She’s very good at what she does and I’m very proud of her.”
Judging by the names on her nearly two-year waiting list, apparently others are, too!
Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/bluesvintageguitars.