Guitar1Listen as Allen Williams plays one of his guitars.
Guitar2Listen as Allen Williams plays one of his guitars.
The smell of fresh-cut wood hits you as you walk into Allen Williams’ basement.
And at first glance, the room looks like a woodworkers’ paradise, with various saws, lathes and sandpaper set up at separate workstations.
But don’t let your senses fool you — this isn’t your typical well-stocked woodworking cave. Rather, it’s the place where Williams finely tunes his custom-made guitars, starting with thick chunks or spruce or African ebony and sawing it down to smooth, flat panels or thin strips.
A room off to the side of the woodworking shop, outfitted with some cushioned chairs and guitars hung on the wall, is where you can take in all his hard work with just the strum of your fingers. As the strings vibrate, you hear a deep, true sound that’s similar to the man who handcrafted the instrument.
And, he says, he’s truly blessed.
What’s in a name
Music, Williams said, is a blessing, and one that should be passed on to others. Hence the name of Williams’ home-grown guitar company, The Baruke Guitar Company; baruke means "blessed" or "welcome" in Hebrew.
"It’s just really the idea of music being a blessing and the cycle of blessing," he said. "How God blesses us with music and we bless one another, and hopefully we bless God in return in how we use our gifts."
Williams hand-constructs five different models of guitars ranging from a smaller, traditional-styled guitar, reminiscent to what was often seen in the 1930s, to a full-bodied, booming-voiced guitar suitable for a concert hall. Each one takes about 80 to 90 hours to make over the period of a few months, and each one is hand tuned throughout the construction process to reflect the wood used, the style of music that will be played on it and who will be playing it.
The idea to construct his own guitar started small at first.When he was a teenager, Williams said, he was always into woodworking and, as he got older, started doing more repair work on guitars. One day about a dozen years ago, while he and his wife were working as house parents at Eagle Ranch, Williams told his wife he thought he might build his own guitar.
"I remember telling my wife when I started my first one — she knows I’m kind of obsessive — and I said, ‘Don’t worry honey, this is my only one,’" he said, only to later be struck at the impression his new guitar had on people who would come to see him play around town.
"As I was playing out, I realized one day that all of my conversations with people were never about my music," he said. "It was always about my guitars."
After some encouragement from friends like Skip Ecke, a local businessman and one of Williams’ best friends, he decided to keep pursuing the guitar building.
So about six years ago, Williams began pursuing Baruke full time.
"I enjoy the small shop; I enjoy the one-on-one, one at a time," he said, "doing repairs on the side, which is where we’re at now. And it’s gone well since."
A closet in a corner of the basement holds the raw materials: neatly stacked pieces of wood all known to beautifully resonate sound. This is where the guitars start, as rough-hewn chunks of trees and flat panels. Certain woods make good tops, or fronts, for the guitars while others are better for the backs and necks. Redwood tops, for example, bring out the high and mid-range tones. Spruce, on the other hand, has a more complex sound.
"If somebody is a bluegrass player, they’re probably not going to want this," he said, holding a freshly cut spruce top.
Then, he picked up a finished guitar with a red spruce top and Brazilian rosewood back and side. "That’s as traditional as it gets," he said. "And it’s also as good as it gets, tone-wise. Those are sort of the holy grail of tone woods."
At each station in Williams’ workshop, a section of a guitar is waiting for its next step. On a "go bar," an ancient method of using dowels to hold reinforcing pieces in place while the glue sets, a guitar’s front waits to be fitted onto its curved sides. Another tool holds a pair of sides in place, training the wood into one of Williams’ custom shapes.
He can gently tap the top and already get a sound. It’s the combination of the strength of the wood, the size of the reinforcements on the inside and how they resonate with the back and side pieces that give the guitars their unique voices.
"It’s a balance between what’s strong in the right places and being thin and elastic in places that create sound," he said. "And it’s always a trade-off, and that’s what makes it a custom job. ... you can hear tap tones in the top and that continues in the process as I glue it together."
Each neck of the guitar is made of five different pieces of wood fused together, reinforced with a carbon fiber and a steel truss. Williams creates custom inlays of doves and crosses made from mother of pearl, alabaster and olive wood from Israel. Then 12 to 14 coats of lacquer are applied, with a light sanding after every few coats.
"The tone is affected by the wood; it isn’t the only determining factor," he added. "The biggest contributing factor is the artistry. You can make a really dead-sounding guitar out of rosewood."
Sometimes, even the wood is custom.
When a friend’s father died, the friend gave Williams the man’s wood, left in his art studio. Williams was able to make four guitars from the wood, and each one had its own unique style.
"If you take these four guitars and look at them, the pattern is a little different in each one," he said of the wood grain creating a flame shape on the back of the guitar he was holding. "Skip’s is a lot of this (light) color. It actually looks like a different piece of wood, but it came out of the same plane."
A voice all their own
Maple Street Guitars in Atlanta sells a few of Williams’ instruments, along with many other kinds of high-end guitars. For about $3,000, you can get a Baruke guitar either from the shop or directly from Williams.
"They have a unique voice and they have a lot of bass and low end for their size," said Mark Pertain, a salesman at Maple Street Guitars. "Plus, we liked him. We’ve got a lot of great guitars in here ... (and) we thought it was kind of cool that a builder that was local was building guitars on that caliber."
Professional musicians sing the praises of Baruke guitars, too.
John Scott Evans, a guitarist who plays fingerstyle guitar — playing the guitar directly with your fingertips, rather than using a pick — said he has two Baruke guitars he uses when playing live and in the studio.
"Both have been on over 100 recordings," he said. "I play my Baruke steel string when I played on tour dates with Billy Ray Cyrus and also when I performed on "Secret Talents of the Stars" on CBS.
His nylon-stringed guitar once even fell down two flights of stairs at an outdoor amphitheater. "I picked it up and played it wonderfully and in tune," he said. "Now that’s a solid guitar."
Ecke owns two of Williams’ guitars. But he said he treats them more as pieces for a museum rather than something you create
"I cherish them to the point that I don’t play them," he said. "They’re too valuable to me. It’s like museum art. But my son is a working musician, and he actually plays his, much to my chagrin."
"The guitar would be happier if it were played," countered Williams.
Ecke smiled, noting that he’s happy to be around the construction of the instruments, even though he doesn’t play much himself.
"It’s not about the guitar’s happiness."