Carpenter John Hollenbach Taught Himself How to Make Beautiful Guitars
Louisville carpenter John Hollenbach started building custom guitars during the sleepless nights that followed the birth of his twin sons nine years ago.
Oakland L. Childers
Learning to play guitar came late in life for John Hollenbach. The Louisville carpenter wasn't a stranger to the instrument but had trouble finding the time to really focus on music. "I always had a guitar," he says. "There's always been one around me but I never really took it seriously until the kids were born."
Nine years ago Hollenbach and his wife, Katie, got a big surprise when they found out they were having twins. When they were born, Hollenbach found the inevitable disruption to his sleep schedule to be both a blessing and a curse. "I was awake in the middle of the night with nothing to do," he says. "I started reading a lot and playing guitar."
Rather than take lessons, Hollenbach took a familiar path: he taught himself. It's the same route that led him to his career as a carpenter and eventually to combining his two loves: woodworking and guitars.
"I never took any woodworking classes ever, but I took a lot of art classes all through my life" says Hollenbach, a native of St. Louis who does everything from kitchen remodels to fine finish work. "I can remember being down in my mom and dad's basement, playing with one of my grandfather's rasps, shaping wood, spending hours making gun stocks and stuff, swords. Stuff a little boy would think is cool."
Once his boys were born Hollenbach tried his hand at building some furniture pieces, and eventually began to think about building a guitar.
"I don't even know what got me going down that road," he says. " I think I actually started working on drawings after I started gluing stuff up and it just started to become a guitar on me."
Looking at his finished pieces it's hard to believe that Hollenbach has less than a decade of experience and no formal training as a guitar builder. Each of his instruments is built from scratch, often using scraps of rare and beautiful woods that just don't show up on stock axes at Guitar Center. Hollenbach says a custom guitar ought to be one of a kind, and he puts a lot of work into making each one unique.
"They're all different and I don't know if I'll ever make one that's the same as another," he says. "Part of the fun of it is the designing. I go online and see custom guitar makers and I mostly see replicas. How many kinds of Telecasters do we need?"
But even for a seasoned woodworker building a guitar isn't simple. There's more to it, Hollenbach says, than even he thought. But that, he says, is part of the fun.
"It's a two-fold thing," he says. "To me it makes more sense to make objects that function. It's got to work a certain way."
And making a guitar that is both functional and beautiful takes time and attention to details that might be lost on someone who doesn't play.
"One thing that I didn't know anything about when I started is they have geometry and it's very exact," says Hollenbach. "There's a lot of different angles in a guitar and a lot of the design is practical. I didn't know they had radiuses and fret angles. I just had guitars and started to copy them without even knowing what I was copying."
Building guitars is difficult to say the least, but learning to craft a functioning musical instrument is only half the battle."The other challenge is financial," says Hollenbach. "I'm just a carpenter. It's very, very time consuming."
Add to that the fact that, so far, it's been nothing more than a hobby for Hollenbach, who has never even tried to sell one of his instruments. "It's not that I don't want to sell them," he says. "I guess I'm unsure of myself. I mean, will anyone want to buy them? Then what do you charge for them? It's hard to put a full-on price tag on the time. I really enjoy doing it. It's not like I work for someone else. They take what they take."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.