Songs from the Workbench: Guy Clark

Singer and songwriter Guy Clark builds both melodies and guitars in the woodshop of his Nashville home.

Singer, songwriter and luthier Guy Clark in his Nashville workshop, where he crafts guitars and award-winning songs.

Singer, songwriter and luthier Guy Clark in his Nashville workshop, where he crafts guitars and award-winning songs.

by Megan Fitzpatrick

Songwriter, singer and luthier Guy Clark doesn’t like technology.

“I put away all my recording stuff, built this workbench, ordered some wood and started building stuff,” he says. The most high-tech machines on display in his workshop are a Delta band saw, a Craftsman drill press, a stereo receiver and a tape player.

A handmade workbench festooned with hand tools lines one wall; another wall is lined almost floor to ceiling with row upon row of cassette tapes. The late Texas singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt — a longtime friend of Clark’s – gazes over the scene from a photograph at the back of the room. A blueprint detailing the anatomy of a flamenco guitar doubles as decoration on the opposite wall. Steam rises from an omnipresent coffee cup, filled several times during our visit. A hand-rolled cigarette smolders in a skull-head ashtray (a gift from Emmylou Harris).

It is here in this cozy workshop in the basement of his Nashville home that Clark writes almost all of his music, and handcrafts traditional flamenco-style guitars.

You’ve likely heard Clark’s name lately. His most recent album, Workbench Songs, was nominated this year (2007) for a Grammy Award for Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. In 2004, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Foundation’s Hall of Fame, and in 2005 he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting by the Americana Music Association.

And, if you’re a fan of Jerry Jeff Walker, Ricky Skaggs, John Denver or Lyle Lovett, you’ve heard Clark’s tunes. “L.A. Freeway” was a breakthrough song for Clark as a songwriter when Walker hit the charts with it in 1972. Skaggs had a No. 1 hit with “Heartbroke” in the early ’80s. “Home Grown Tomatoes” was on several Denver albums; and “Step Inside This House” was the title song off Lovett’s 1998 two-disc set of Texas songwriters.

A Knife, a $12 Guitar, a Career

Clark’s three main tools are an old Stanley fore plane, a paring  chisel, and his favorite – a $10 Swedish-made beginner’s carving knife.

Clark’s three main tools are an old Stanley fore plane, a paring chisel, and his favorite – a $10 Swedish-made beginner’s carving knife.

Clark was born in 1941 in the West Texas town of Monahans, where he got his first taste for woodworking. “I got my first knife – a little pocketknife and a whetstone – when I was a kid,” he says. “I just started making things. It came naturally to me and I love doing it.” He went on to develop those early woodworking skills as a teenager when the family moved to the Gulf Coast. There, Clark had a summer job as a ship’s carpenter where he helped to build 80′ wooden fishing boats (an experience he drew on while writing “Boats to Build,” the title track from a 1992 album). In the late 1960s, Clark moved to Los Angeles where he worked for a time as a luthier in the Dobro Manufacturing Co., alongside the Dopyera brothers, inventors of the resonator-style guitar.

After a few years of dealing with the Los Angeles lifestyle (listen to “L.A. Freeway” to discover his thoughts on the subject) he moved to Nashville in the 1970s with his wife Susanna, a visual artist who’s painted album covers for, among others, Willie Nelson, Nancy Griffith and, of course, Clark himself. They’ve lived there ever since.

 Clark’s workshop, in a converted basement bedroom in his Nashville home, is decidedly low-tech – just as he likes it. A photograph of the late singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, a longtime friend of Clark’s, hangs over a Delta band saw at the end of Clark’s worktable.

Clark’s workshop, in a converted basement bedroom in his Nashville home, is decidedly low-tech – just as he likes it. A photograph of the late singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, a longtime friend of Clark’s, hangs over a Delta band saw at the end of Clark’s worktable.

Clark learned to play on a $12 flamenco guitar – the first guitar he took apart and put back together (and then took apart again). Sometime in the mid 1960s, he doesn’t recall exactly when, Clark started building classical guitars. He made seven or eight of them. “None are still in one piece today,” he says.

Today, Clark builds 19th-century-style flamenco guitars. Why this style? Perhaps, he says, because that’s what his father’s law partner taught him to play on, and the first guitarist to whom he listened was the flamenco great Sabicas, whose blazing  fingers revolutionized the genre and introduced it to the non-Spanish speaking world. He’s also a big fan of the legendary Andrés Segovia. And of course, growing up in West Texas exposed Clark to a lot of Spanish-influenced music, which is evident in many of his songs, as well as his guitars.

Rasps, files, glue, chisels and carving tools make up the bulk of the equipment in Clark’s small shop, all stored within easy reach of his handmade workbench.  In front are two of the 10 flamenco-style guitars Clark has made.  A template awaits his next instrument at the far end of the bench.

Rasps, files, glue, chisels and carving tools make up the bulk of the equipment in Clark’s small shop, all stored within easy reach of his handmade workbench. In front are two of the 10 flamenco-style guitars Clark has made. A template awaits his next instrument at the far end of the bench.

Signed in Blood
Clark always builds his guitars two at a time, experimenting with ways to achieve different sounds by tweaking the pieces for each. As he works on one, he lets the glue set up on the other. “That way, I’m always waiting for one to dry,” he says.

The construction process starts with a cork-covered hardwood template. The front of the guitar is affixed to this template from beginning to end, as the rest of the guitar is built off the face. The sides are bent around a steam pipe, ribs are added to the interior, the headstock is carved and the neck added to the guitar body before the back is put on. A lot of commercial companies build the neck and body separately, Clark says, “but there’s something about the integral construction techniques that really fascinates me.”

A hand-carved Mayan-inspired headstock is  a signature design for Clark’s guitars. But perhaps the best way to confirm a Guy Clark original is to run a DNA test. Each guitar is labeled with his signature handwritten through his thumbprint inked in blood.

A hand-carved Mayan-inspired headstock is a signature design for Clark’s guitars. But perhaps the best way to confirm a Guy Clark original is to run a DNA test. Each guitar is labeled with his signature handwritten through his thumbprint inked in blood.

For tools, Clark relies on a set of old standards: good chisels, a Stanley fore plane – and a $10 Swedish beginner’s carving tool. “It’s the best darn knife I’ve ever bought.” He prefers Japanese pull saws to western push saws, and doesn’t like power tools much. First of all, they’re simply too technological for a guy who likes to work with his hands directly on the wood. But Clark’s primary objection is that they’re simply too loud. In fact, he rarely even listens to music when he’s building, despite hundreds of tapes from which to choose but an arm’s-length away. “I like the silence, the peacefulness of it,” he says.

After the guitar is fully constructed, it’s removed from the template and French polished. “No oil on raw wood – ever,” says Clark. “I think that would deaden the sound.”
The last step is to mark each guitar as a Guy Clark original; Clark has a unique way of going about it. He pricks his little finger, smears the blood on his thumb, then presses a bloody thumbprint onto a card. After the thumbprint is dry, Clark signs through it and numbers it. “That label is on the inside of every guitar I’ve built,”  he says. It also serves as the album art for The Dark, which Clark released in 2002.

But you won’t find too many of those labels; a handcrafted flamenco-style Guy Clark guitar is a rare commodity. Of the 10 he’s made, he’s given only three away – one each to Jamie Hartford, Rodney Crowell and Lyle Lovett. And as far as Clark knows, Hartford is the only one to record while playing a Clark guitar, on “Magdalene” off Clark’s latest album.  Clark himself plays a Martin guitar on all of his recordings.

Clark displays his planing chops on a neck blank.

Clark displays his planing chops on a neck blank.

A Mystery in Sound
While he’s certainly an expert at making the tones that come out of a guitar sound great,  Clark says he doesn’t actually know the secret of building a guitar that sounds great. That is, he can’t explain how it’s done; there’s certainly a little bit of luck and magic involved in the process, as well as skill, he says.

“That’s one of the neat things about building guitars … at some point you just have to string it and start playing it to see how it sounds. It’s fun to make them. But the minute you fall in love with them, they break your heart,” he says. Clark admits that the prettiest guitar he’s ever made really didn’t sound too good. So now it’s in pieces in his shop as he figures out how to make it sound better.
It’s a delicate process, carefully planing the top to reshape the edges where it meets the sides. The thinnest slice can change the sound of the instrument, he says. And, of course, the wood species has a lot to do with it as well. Clark finds stock selection to be the most mysterious part of making a guitar. And he doesn’t necessarily buy into theories of wood stiffness, or what note the raw wood sings. He’s says he’s just experimenting to see what sounds best. Usually, he opts for rosewood and sitka spruce for his guitar bodies; “Mahogany’s sound is just too soft,” he says.

Clark is glad he has the time to play around with the sound of his instruments, and not have to meet a deadline.  “It’s not like a competition: ‘Man, how good can you do it?’ I just love doing it. But I couldn’t make a living building guitars,” he says. “I build guitars so I can write songs on them.”
Each of these pursuits serves Clark as a welcome break from the other, though writing music is  his day job, as it were. He feels guitar building and songwriting fulfill a necessary left-brain/right-brain workout that helps him achieve more with both. When he’s home, Clark says he tries to log time in his workshop every day pursuing both of these passions.  “It’s a dream come true, to be able to build guitars and write songs in the same room,” Clark says.  PWM

Clark took this photograph as he was working on his latest guitar, midway through the construction process.

Clark took this photograph as he was working on his latest guitar, midway through the construction process.

Photos by Al Parrish, except as noted.

From the June 2007 issue (#162), which also includes “10 Rules for Better Workbenches,” “Handplanes for Beginners: How to Set One Up & Use it Right,” “Two-base Router Kits” and more.

7 thoughts on “Songs from the Workbench: Guy Clark

  1. tombuhl

    Thanks for sharing this again, Megan. Your words helped create a warming and inspiring image.
    I like Guy’s appreciation for feeding both parts of the brain/soul with song writing and guitar building.
    Well done both of you.

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick Post author

      It was a singular and wonderful experience, truly. Also gobsmacking: Hanging on the wall in the entryway is one of Susanna Clark’s many paintings, “Stardust”…the cover for Willie Nelson’s 1978 album of the same title.

  2. k15n1

    Nice article, really nice to read an about instrument maker. The way he fits the neck is inspiring. The typical way of joining those parts is one of my anxieties.

    There’s art and science in making a good guitar. The more objective sources (Engineering the Guitar, Richard French) point out that even traditional ideas do not always bear up under the test of experimentation. For example, wood species and grain may be less important than previously thought. And mundane details like humidity control during construction is considered important by famous instrument makers.

    One point that I appreciated was the bit about how you never know how it will sound until you start playing it. Apparently, even with measurements, it’s very hard to line up guitars in order of players’ preference. But when you put a bunch of players in a room, they can line up the guitars in order AND THEY AGREE. Amazing.

    Keep up the good work.

    KLN

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