Inside the Industry: Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Buy! A Closer Look at Luthier, Kathy Wingert

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 16 – Summer 2021 – Acoustic Amplified!

Kathy Wingert has carved a name for herself (pun intended) in the field of luthiery, specializing in high-end acoustic guitars and harps. The Southern California luthier had a “lifelong lust” for the instrument, purchasing her first guitar in the ninth grade. That lust grew over the years with a yearning to learn all she could about the voicings of this beautiful instrument.

After researching, experimenting, and learning all she could through books and a class at a local community college, Wingert began working for an instrument repair and restoration shop owned by Jon Peterson. In 1996, she officially began building her own line of instruments—Kathy Wingert Guitars. Daughter Jimmi joined the team in 2003, adding to the beauty of her instruments with custom ornate inlays.

As a musician, when did you first begin playing guitar?

I had a delayed start, considering my lifelong lust after the instrument. I finally got my hands on a functioning guitar in ninth grade when I had saved enough babysitting money for a $99 Univox 12 string.

What drew you to the instrument?

My first musical crush was from my dad’s record collection. It was Joan Baez sitting in a field of wildflowers with a lovely little Martin 0-size guitar. I was in love with the stories and the simplicity of just voice and guitar.

How did you eventually begin crafting guitars?

I began at the library. Remember those, before you could feel like you could know everything from the device in your back pocket?! There are still treasures to be unearthed in books with lots of pages and a little bit of dust.

After finding a book—the name of which I do not recall, and I’ve not seen it since—I read everything I could find on guitar construction, repair, tool usage, tool sharpening, wood identification, everything I could think of. None of the books had the answers to the questions in my mind about how to make the sound I wanted in a user-friendly size, but one morning I woke up with the realization that I knew how to build a guitar from start to finish, and I figured the rest would reveal itself as I got to work.

I was lucky that at the time, there was a guitar-making class at a local community college. The course had been in existence for almost 20 years when I found it. The specialty of the class was the use of the mold system created by Bob Mattingly, a classical guitar maker who had died long before I found the class, but it is the ultimate small-shop solution. There may be some images on my website or Facebook page.

How long have you been building your own line of acoustic guitars?

I have been building for 25 years.

Where do you draw the inspiration for your designs?

I have about 10 or 12 body shapes between acoustic guitars and harp guitars, but I have two basic shapes that make up fully 90 percent of my work. My biggest concern was to build a guitar that would be comfortable to hold that could retain some of the bigger body sound. Of course, I tried making a 00 with a deeper body; it’s what everyone tries at least once, but that was clearly not going to produce what I was looking for and was the wrong direction for the fabulous 00/OM body size. I changed tack and developed a body that was long and lean and makes a fabulous crossover between fingerstyle and flatpicking. After making a guitar that could bridge that gap better than any guitar I had been able to find in all my years of guitar study, I created a more typical, larger than a 00, curvier than a dread, and not as huge as a jumbo guitar that frequently gets put into the “auditorium” category.

As for aesthetics, I’m all over the place. I will provide what buyers want, almost exclusively with the help of my daughter, the amazing inlay artist Jimmi Wingert. Her biggest superpower is that she comes at this with zero ego. If a client wants something, she will work it out. She is willing to abandon hours’ worth of design work when someone changes their mind, and she receives all criticism as if it’s instructive. Because of those abilities, she generally doesn’t have to do that because she was listening from the beginning.

How do you choose the woods you work with?

I seek guitar tops with a long sustain, stiff lengthwise, and without runout. I look for a general musicality to the sound of the wood.

For backs and sides, I tend to stick with traditional guitar woods. Being a little older, I have the advantage of having invested in enough wood for my career and of giving that wood time to season.

How do you define your tone?

This is one of the most difficult subjects to tackle in talking about musical instruments. Unless it’s jagged vs. wavy signal shape on a scope, like oboe vs. flute, it’s very hard to define tone in language that we all have in common. I describe the tone I’m after as being as dark as possible without losing articulation. The simple shorthand I use is to compare Ella Fitzgerald and Alison Krauss. Ella had a massive three-octave range, but you wouldn’t even realize how high she was singing unless you tried to match that pitch. It was uniformly rich and dark all through her range. By comparison, Alison Krauss, whom I also adore, has a bright and limber voice. For guitar tone, I am seeking more Ella.

What’s currently on your workbench?

A Wingert Model E fan-fret with straight, gorgeous cocobolo and no inlay. Jimmi is still keeping her distance during the last days of this pandemic. (Knock on wood; keep wearing your masks; get your shots.)

Your daughter does the beautiful inlay work on your guitars. What inspired her to get involved in that craft?

I don’t know that she was inspired as much as bullied into it. Jimmi was always artistic and creative. I knew from my early days of building that she would be good at it, but she resisted. She resisted adamantly. One day I finally asked her to tell me exactly why she didn’t want to do it. She confessed that she didn’t want the life she saw me living. Guitar making is very time-consuming, and she had seen me working around the clock way too many times. I had to admit she had a point. So I called my friend Larry Robinson, and he talked to her.

With the inspiration of Larry’s work, which obviously was way beyond fret markers or items in a headstock, and the use of the guitar as a canvas by Grit Laskin, Jimmi saw that the way had been paved for non-traditional designs and dug in. Within a couple of years, she found herself quite busy working for not just me, but for my competitor/friends as well.

As a side note, I find that to be one of the most fascinating things about the guitar world. Competitors are friends. It was in the sharing of information that the craft of guitar building was elevated into what we see today—with fantastic guitars everywhere you look—from what it was a generation ago when people only knew a small segment of the skills needed to put together a good guitar.

What has been the most challenging part of being a luthier?

Time management.

How about the most rewarding?

Players making really good music on my guitars.

The Black and Tan harp guitar pictured on your website is absolutely stunning! What are the challenges in building a harp guitar versus a dreadnought body?

Ack. How much time do you have?

The harp guitar is challenging because of the stresses on the guitar body, the sheer bulk of the instrument, and the multiple pieces that need to fit with other parts already in your way. It’s just a lot of guitar, a lot of sanding, and a lot of bench space needed to complete the steps.

I find the single most difficult part of harp guitar building to be the binding transition from the harp arm to the harp head. It’s silly. It’s small. I have an idea of what I want to see, and I’ve had a hard time making it happen just exactly how I want it to. It is highly likely that no one else has ever looked.

How many guitars do you create a year?

My average has been 10 a year. I anticipate having that slip. I have produced as few as seven and as many as 18 in one year.

As a musician, what musicians have made the biggest impact on your music?

Probably, unintentionally, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young has had the most lasting impact, in that all the guitar fills I learned when I was first learning guitar are the ones that stick. Old habits die hard. The biggest impact to my own musicality definitely comes from vocalists. I have gone back to some of my classical repertoire and thrown out performance notes or critiques from juries and just tried to reimagine lines being sung by favorite singers. Don’t worry—no one will ever have to hear it. If I play at all anymore, it’s in my living room with the windows closed.

What advice would you offer to someone interested in becoming a luthier?

1) Find a job repairing guitars. Start as the shop maid if you have to, but know repairs, hopefully from a shop that is capable of repairing wood as well as doing setups.

2) Find a class and build a couple of guitars. If the school gives out certificates, throw them out. No. Six months in school doesn’t make you a master luthier. What makes you a master is being able to adapt practices that result in a perfect outcome in your own environment. Having built a couple of guitars is what it will likely take to be hired to sweep the floor at a reputable guitar repair shop.

3) Go to college. You may think you don’t need it or want it. But unless you are asking these questions with your retirement savings already in the bank, then you are too young to choose a life without options. Trust me on this. You need options. Guitar making will still be here when you have an education in your back pocket. Your clients are probably going to be educated, well-spoken, well-read, well-traveled, and you are going to have to communicate with them in writing and on the phone. So while you’re there, pick up a class on contract law and art appreciation, maybe intro to architecture, or a real estate class that covers basic design identification. These things can never hurt and will not be a waste of time. No learning ever is.

4) Play. Play well enough that you can scratch the surface of any style your clients might throw at you. There are builders who do not play, but the buyers seem to show a little extra respect to builders who do play. Besides, what fun would it be to design the best car in the world and never get to drive it around the block?

All photos provided by artist with permission to use unless otherwise noted.

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