We meet up with Bill Collings – famed US luthier behind Collings Guitars – in Sarzana, Italy, to talk about the latest range of acoustics coming out of Austin, Texas: the Depression-era influenced Waterloo Guitars.
There’s something of the Texas outlaw about Bill Collings. Maybe it’s the half-amused glint in his eye; a cunning ruse to lull the unwary into thinking he won’t suddenly reach for his six-shooter and plug you before you can blink.
Fortunately, the old medieval fortress of Sarzana in Italy, where our posse catches up with him, only resembles the Alamo via the occasional bullet hole in the wall. Bill’s here at the annual Acoustic Guitar Gathering on a more peaceful mission to promote his latest project, in the shape of the new “Waterloo” line, and represent a brand which has come to epitomise an unlikely notion: that it’s still possible to deliver, top-notch, hand-made quality while increasing production to factory-output levels.
Bill eases into the guitar chat slowly. He’s just as keen to talk cars, his other great passion, and the fact that he really wouldn’t mind being out on the West Coast right now working on a hot-rod with his old pal, Bobby, who’s had to settle for Jeff Beck’s help, instead. Cars, guitars…in a way, they’re all the same to Bill Collings. He comes from a long line of engineers; great uncle Alexander Winton built and sold the first $1,000 car in the US and used to beat the young Henry Ford in races, if not in historical significance. It’s in the blood. Collings is an avid collector of not just vintage cars, but classic British motorbikes, from BSAs and Triumphs to rare Nortons and Velocettes. It’s clearly a rough gig all round but then, Bill’s doing it so that we don’t have to. He can trace a line of inventors, bridge builders and chemists right back to Edinburgh in the mid-1800s; explaining the whole familial raison d’etre with a precision-engineer’s economy – ‘we like… stuff’. Collings claims his “I’ll build anything” second-nature grew from the fact that ‘it was just so easy because I was always around it’. And as a kid growing up, what could be cooler than those twin, iconic symbols of 20th century American design culture? ‘Cars and guitars? Oh, yeah. Working, cutting the grass? Not cool. See, this really isn’t work for me.’
Collings’ first explorations in guitar making took him from Ohio to Houston in the mid-1970s. While “gainfully employed” making oil-field parts in a local machine shop, he started building a banjo on his kitchen table with a few limited hand tools. From there, having accumulated a few parts from the newly-established Stew-Mac emporium (just round the corner) he got his hands on some Brazilian rosewood and set to work on a guitar that ‘took about a year in my head but only a few weeks in real terms’. If all that sounds a mite primitive, it certainly didn’t deter the likes of Lyle Lovett (who once interviewed Collings as part of his college journalism course) and it soon turned out, as is so often the way, that he was in the right place at the right time. The artsy, downtown, Montrose area of Houston had begun to attract a new bohemian crowd whose leading lights such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith et al were about to embark on their soon-to-be stellar musical trajectories. Collings wandered into a club one night and button-holed the renowned local player, Rick Gordon, telling him, ‘I’m a guitar maker’. Gordon asked Bill how many he’d made so far. ‘Oh, about 50,’ came the instant, only-forty-nine-off-the-truth reply and Collings justifies the ploy with the perfectly reasonable, ‘I needed some credibility, fast’. Gordon called in at the kitchen, played Bill’s (only) guitar and bought the next one “off the production line” by agreeing to pay for all the building materials. Word soon spread. Within days Collings had 10 orders. Rick Gordon, meanwhile, still owns and plays that first ever “made for sale” model.
Before long, he’d befriended the Austin luthiers Tom Ellis and Mike Stevens, and moved on, to what was the next burgeoning Texas music scene, to share their workshop space (and expanded tool-kit). Nonetheless, Bill reckons the late-70s weren’t good years for acoustic guitar music; ‘it was all that electrified, synthesiser stuff’. Alongside which, the small companies risked being swamped by the Martin/Gibson monopoly – people wanted “the names” – and he’s happy to credit the rise of Taylor guitars with the change of mind-set that, by the mid-1980s, allowed him to take the big leap into building flat-tops, arch-tops (and a big reputation) out on his own. By 1989, established in a 1,000-square-foot shop, and having taken on a staff (of two), Collings felt the wider world was finally starting to take notice. Big names like Joni Mitchell and Pete Townshend were extolling the virtues of his guitars and the original, kitchen-based operation just carried on growing like a Texas hogweed, so much so that the 2005 (and current) Austin incarnation, features a raft of CNC technology, 50-odd full-time employees and new lines in ukuleles, mandolins and electrics, all of which, Bill insists, carry that same stamp of hand-finished, craftsman quality that marked his earliest output. Otherwise, as he maintains, ‘what’s the point?’
Bill Collings is acutely conscious of any possible accusation of quality-control being lost as a small-build company expands its output (his operation currently produces around 1,500 flat-tops a year, plus 500 mandolins, 1,000 electrics and most recently, a thousand Waterloo models – his latest pet-project). ‘That’s a fear,’ he admits, ‘and it mustn’t happen. But…you can’t pass work up so it’s a tough deal.’
What’s retained is a determination not to compromise. Collings is convinced a lot of small builders would love to make more instruments but the trick is in the “how” – without losing what drew the buyer in the first place. He insists, for Collings Guitars, that’s been easy. For him, ‘the hard part is playing the damn things.’ Making things is what he does. Bill’s genius is (simply?) in making things as he reiterates in his endearingly non-magical mantra – ‘it’s just what I do’.
From somewhere deep within the turbulent waters of this hand-made versus machine-produced debate, emerges the latest Collings line; the Waterloo and Bill’s keen to explain the overall philosophy behind what will inevitably be regarded as his budget range but which he’s adamant will forge a particular brand respect and affection all of its own. Basically, it’s all down to his enduring fascination with Depression-era guitars. Collings is convinced many of the cheap (and cheaply produced) guitars from that period were fine instruments that, nowadays, suffer reputation-wise from both the dubious evidence of limited recording techniques and the fact that so few of them have made it, intact, into the 21st century. They were made very quickly and boasted few frills; everything stripped-down to keep costs likewise. Collings believes their sound is characterised by a certain “unruliness”, an unrefined, yet-to-mature quality (the teenagers of the guitar world, then) with that dry, airy attack so specific to the ladder-braced instruments of the period. He’s even reviving the hand-brushed varnish approach, delighting in the shock-horror reaction that’s bound to receive from the finish-Nazis. ‘Companies virtually gave those guitars away just to stay in business but the woods were good, as were the construction methods.’
He chose the name not, sadly, to reflect the demise of Napoleon (who passed through Sarzana himself on many occasions) but because it carries an echo of Kalamazoo, the one-time Gibson off-shoot that provides a stylistic template for the new line, and because he discovered, after toying with the name (and how serendipitous is this?) that his headquarters town of Austin was actually called Waterloo before changing its name in 1850.
Collings may well have his timing spot-on, once again, with the Waterloo range, as so much of the current acoustic guitar world is in thrall to the dusty delights of lo-fi, David Rawlings-style Americana. Seekers after the roots music truth crave that raw yet eloquent sound the old fingerstyle blues, swing and country players served up between getting thrown off trains and into jails and Collings believes the pared-down aesthetic is something guitarists ‘just naturally get’. He’s been quoted elsewhere as saying, ‘I wanted to bring back the voice of some of these old depression-era guitars in an instrument that will actually play.’
They look good, too; vintage, sepia-photograph Stellas, re-born. Nonetheless, it took him a while to convince his employees of the artistic merits of this new/old direction. They were, naturally enough, worried that the hard-won Collings brand name might suffer. In fact, something of the opposite seems to have happened. With so much faith already invested in the Collings reputation, the Waterloo line has been bestowed with an instant credibility that Bill himself is determined won’t be taken for granted. One indicator of this non-negotiable ethic is his insistence that none of the production will go overseas. It all stays in Austin, sticking to that Sears-Roebuck catalogue, Kalamazoo aesthetic running alongside the boss’s guarantee that Collings will always be a one-at-a-time maker, no matter how far the range expands. The trick for the man himself will be to avoid any of the tweaking, top-shaving and brace-altering that would interfere with the more-affordable Waterloo’s strictly back-to-basics mission statement. For an obsessive mechanical meddler like Bill, who just can’t keep his hands off ‘all that stuff’, it won’t be easy but the player can always rest assured that if it leaves the Collings factory it’s as good a job of work as he can make it. And as Bill points out, with a proper craftsman’s lack of pretension, a brand new Collings isn’t really a guitar yet, anyway – ‘but you can be pretty damn sure it soon will be’.