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I began this blog in order to share my experiences learning instrument building from my dad, but along with those stories I look forward to sharing my memories of growing up with two busy, musically inclined parents as well as my current experiences stepping out on my own as a female luthier promoting environmental sustainability in her instruments while working to alter gender stereotypes in a male dominated field. If you'd like to use quotes from this blog for interviews or in your own work, please contact me first! (email is henderson.elizabethj@gmail.com)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Girl in the Guitar Shop

So if I am being honest with you, the past couple of weeks haven't been the easiest. While I am so proud of my accomplishments and feel empowered in my job most days. every now and again, like the tendrils of gauzy green chemical vapor that seeps through the forest floor of Fern Gully, waves of doubt sometimes creep into my day. Typically it isn't terribly difficult to push aside and simply ignore my feelings when the Tuesday loafers treat me as though I don't matter. I cling to the knowledge that my dad does value my work and opinion and he has come to rely on me to help him out in the shop whether they see that or not. Every so often though, especially when the Tuesday crowd of old men rolls in, I don't really feel as though belong in my dad's shop. Not as an equal or a useful piece of the puzzle anyway. I am sure they don't mean it how it comes across, perhaps it is a generational thing or something, but a lot of times the shop visitors treat me as though I am either not there or just something to placate; "Aw how cute, the poor little girl want's to try to use a table saw."

Now, even though I am on a roll of frustration, I am going to pause for a moment to make one constant exception. Even though he comes in crotchety every Tuesday, upset that his table is cluttered with junk, even though it always is, Herb Key is always kind to me. He comes in before everyone else to find me trying to get my work done before the crowd descends. He always takes extra time every week to share with me what guitar he is working on and how he plans to fix it. All he really needs to do it say, "I am doing a neck set on this old Gibson," when I ask what project he has for the day but he doesn't. He shows me the handmade tools he has finagled to make the job simpler for himself, explains in detail how he plans to execute his job, and shows me how to turn on the water steamer without burning myself. He always takes time from his job to share tidbits of Gibson trivia, neck reset tips, and little ideas to make repair work exciting. I appreciate very much that he always treats me with respect and kindness. That being said, not many other folks are in his same boat.

In case you were curious, here are a few of the things that have recently knocked me down: First, someone accidentally (I hope) burned the $200 worth of buffing pads I had just brought to the shop from Asheville. The guitar I was in the middle of fitting a top on was unceremoniously moved from its table and dumped in several locations with absolutely no care. (With the explanation when I returned from breakfast from my dad, "I moved the stuff with your name on it because I needed to sharpen my tools." I suppose if the guitar was stamped with Wayne Henderson's name he woudln't consider touching it) He also walked up when my dad was checking out a guitar that very clearly had my name inlaid on the headstock and said condescendingly, "Oh, Jayne, did you make that?" Next, a group of local luthiers and their friends visiting on a not so distant Tuesday treated me with as much regard and respect as they would a hangnail they had just removed and flicked away. Finally, a man stopped by the shop selling guitar sets and jacked up his prices to double their worth. I can only assume the reason is because he thought he could hoodwink a stupid little girl who doesn't know the going price for a warped set of slab-cut cherry wood.

After all that and a little bit more in a couple week span I had simply had enough. I felt deflated, like one of the tired wrinkled balloons we stuff into the sound holes of our guitars to block the inside bodies after seven coats of finish. I thought perhaps I should quit and find something else to do more suited to my educational background and gender. This story gets better though, I promise. I am finished complaining. Luckily I have an awesome cousin (more like sister) named Leah and she pulled into the shop parking lot just in time. She didn't have to try terribly hard to convince me to play hooky for the rest of the afternoon.

She drove us, along with two kayaks, some crinkly bags Doritos, and two chilled tallboys of Corona out to the bank of the Little River and shoved me, sitting in her yellow boat, out into the meandering water. (She let me have her comfy, easily maneuverable, creek boat similar to the ocean kayaks to which I am accustomed and she took her uncle's sit-on-top that she wasn't used to paddling. Side note: If you don't paddle, I feel the need to let you know that such an act is similar to offering me a Porsche while leaving her happily behind the wheel of a Yugo.) We floated down the river enjoying our snacks and laughing as we periodically spun, paddling helplessly, when our boats snagged over hidden rocks and branches rising a bit too high beneath the water's surface.

At one point Leah decided she wanted to get out and skip rocks. She slowly moved through the knee deep water searching the riverbed for flat round rocks ideal for skipping. After a few attempts she deemed 'bad' (they only skipped three or four times over the water...she is an expert, you see, expecting more like 15 skips per throw) she set out to catch minnows instead. "Look! There's one! Ooh there's a bunch! A whole school! Maybe they will just swim into my hands!" she squealed. "Yeah maybe," I halfheartedly answered, more interested in finding a shaded spot to park my kayak without having to submerge my clunky 12 year old Chacos into the dark river water. I looked over and watched her standing silently hunched waiting for an innocent minnow to swim unknowingly into her waiting trap. I managed to hook my boat to a bit of rock slightly less dappled with bird feces than the rest of its mass, dipped my toes into the crisp flowing water and watched her play. Floating in my spot that day I felt immensely more relaxed than I had the several weeks prior. While Leah patiently waited for her minnow, I thought about how lucky I was to have such a strong, smart, capable 'sister' to emulate. Sitting there on that river I reminisced of all the times she demonstrated to me that I can do whatever I want. She dressed as the pirate instead of the princess in dress-up when she was five, she played basketball and ran cross country instead of cheering for the boys who did. She plays guitar in the jam circles with the old men instead of sitting quietly alongside their wives.

You see, Leah would never let those guys in the shop belittle her. She would never stand for that. I wish I were as strong as she. But I realize now that I am. I know how to do something not a ton of women can do; I know how to safely use a table saw; I know how to sharpen my pocket knife (and use it to pick the stain from beneath my fingernails); I know how to do a neckset; I know how to make a guitar. Now please read that last sentence again. Don't think I am saying I can do those things because my dad knows how to do those things. He taught me, yes, but I now know how to do them in my own right. Please treat me as though I do.

I made this guitar for my good friend Mac. 
Playing with my good buddy Mac and my hero, Leah.


  1. As a member of the "privileged gender", I can't pretend to know what it's like to experience this condescension on a daily basis. I can only urge you to challenge such behaviour whenever you encounter it, acknowledging that to do so effectively without inviting conflict must be akin to walking on eggshells. Your skills are enviable - go get 'em!

  2. I'm sorry ignorant stuff happens in your shop, but I think I should say that you are one of maybe five or six luthiers in the US that I think are the new greats. Tony Yamamoto and Kathy Wingert are two others. Keep building!

  3. I was in the shop the night you chose the wood for your first guitar. It was then I knew I was watching history in the making. Yes you are carrying on your dad's legacy but also
    creating your own. Just remember for every loafer that seems to ignore you there are dozens of others that admire you and your work. The things you can do are things that only a very few select people can even try to attempt.

  4. I have a koa style 42 that rings like it was made 85 years ago by some old timers at the North Street plant. It wasn't, it was made by you. And A maple Nick Lucas that sounds and feels like the best 1929 guitar that ever came from Gibson. That was made by you as well. You happen to be in a area of tradition and in a shop of tremendously high standards. That wouldn't be easy but there you are. You are doing just fine. Actually your work is staggering. Wonderful.

  5. Wow. Just wow. So sorry you're being treated so shabbily -- in 2016, or maybe they haven't heard what year it is. I'm sure you'll hang in there, and now that I'm fortunate enough that my name's on your list for a guitar, I certainly hope that you do!

    In June, at the festival, I was sitting among strangers in the area off to the side under the trees. I was pleased that people were friendly and would chat a little with me between performances. As you know, I'm of Medicare age, and so were the guys around me. The first time I was asked what I play, I said "mostly a Collings OM2H," and the guy said condescendingly, "Oh, somebody must really love YOU!" -- assuming that I could not possibly have bought it myself, FOR myself. I was so surprised that I had no comeback. The second and third times I heard something like that, I replied firmly that I'd bought it myself.

    I had thought that this might be generational in that they were assuming that a woman my age couldn't be buying her own expensive guitar... But from what you say, no, it's just plain old antediluvian sexism.

    1. No, it's not just you. Or me. You're right, it is amazing to think this is 2016 and this is how we are treated as women doing something not a ton of women do. Or maybe I don't even need that qualifier, just as women in general. Let's just keep our heads up and be proud that we are awesome and that we own awesome guitars rude old men are jealous of. And I will be proud that I can make things they can't. And you'll be getting the most amazing guitar I can think of, hopefully one worthy of their rude comments :-)

  6. That crowd needs to be put on notice that they WILL respect your space and your stuff. The way you get that respect is you TELL them. Set boundaries. If not, they will push you as much as they can get away with. Like kids.
    You are already so far ahead and in a far better position than so many other luthiers. It is because of the work you are doing and not "who" you are.

  7. So Proud & awed by you EJ. I knew about you before you started carving instruments. You passion for doing the hard things in life....finding a place for that Passion. We all need help to get on our path.....but now its your path and its Beautiful & no one can take it away. Its hard to be around those with no Vision or even simple wisdom, but I know you will carve good things out of those encounters too...All the Best..R

  8. Any time you need a break and we are in Ashe County with good weather, we will float the North Fork of the New River and talk about how land, scenic views, riparian corridors and water quality are protected by conservation easements. Will send you a text about our schedules. Great blogs - I learned a lot. Thanks. TW

  9. I am shocked but not surprised by your experiences. Sadly, sexism in still alive and well and not limited to your Dad's shop. You made "The Eagle" #27 for me and it remains the centerpiece of my collection. I consider it a "Functional Work of Art" which will never leave its esteemed place. During all of our conversations, you were never considered anything less than a great talent and artist in your own right. You are helping pave the way for many young women who need encouragement to go against the prevailing sexist current and learn to fashion a career out of their love for creating something beautiful. Keep up the great work and know that I appreciate your talent and skills every morning as the first thing I do is turn on the light of #27's alcove in my foyer after which I often take the time to coax a few beautiful sounds from it. Come visit us in Williamsburg any time.