My vintage ’64 Epiphone Frontier was in deep trouble. The bridge of the guitar was coming off, the nut was cracked and the neck was warped. The back had separated from the binding and was practically flapping in the breeze. If it were a horse, they would have put a bullet in its head.
“It was my dad’s guitar,” I told Monty Price, the guy behind the counter at Seattle’s Green Lake Music. It was the fall of 1992, and I’d just returned home to Seattle from my little sister’s latest wedding, and my father had decided I was ready to take ownership of his beloved acoustic guitar. I had listened to him play it while he was perched on a kitchen stool, nearly every night when I was growing up. But the guitar had languished in its case over the last few years, deteriorating in the arid Nevada climate to its present unplayable state.
Monty kept shaking his head as he scrutinized the instrument, making a little groan here and sucking in a little breath there. He summoned his partner from the back room, and they pored over the damage, murmuring about what repairs and replacements would be required to save my newest and most precious possession.
Eventually, Monty threw up his hands and shook his head.
“What we need here is George Weisel.”
In Missoula you can hardly walk down the street without bumping into a mandolin player or “accidentally” pushing a banjo player into traffic. The city is bristling with musicians, and for many aficionados of fretted instruments, there’s one man whom they will trust to repair and maintain their axe of choice: George F. Weisel III.
For more than 25 years, Weisel has been toiling away in his shop on the edge of town, repairing, refinishing, refurbishing and restoring guitars, banjos and mandolins for hundreds of strummers and collectors. It was pure happenstance that I’d crossed paths with his reputation that day in Seattle. I moved to Missoula soon after, and he has worked on every guitar I’ve owned since then. Every time I get a new guitar, I take it directly to Weisel for a set-up and a bit of a “how’s your father” before it ever sees the studio or stage.
Among the musical cognoscenti in this part of the country, Weisel has acquired that rare and most hard-won badge of respect among his following: the First Name Only. (“Your ’65 Jazzmaster needs a nut job and a neck tweak? Oh, man, you’d better take it to George.”)
“I can’t think of any serious player who does not worship the guy, truly,” says local guitar whiz John Floridis. “When I contemplate what keeps me here in Missoula there are only a few essential things: a good doctor, a good vet, a good mechanic, and George. I’ve entrusted him with my 100-year-old, family heirloom Gibson mandolins as well as any work on my Taylor guitars. Great guy. Just superb. It’s not often you come across someone these days who is that much of a craftsperson in his or her work.”
Weisel has repaired guitars for the likes of Steve Miller, bluesman Roy Rogers, and dozens of local players who have spent time in the national spotlight. He’s worked on mandolins for Mark O’Connor, and once did a fret job for honky tonk legend Ferlin Husky.
“It was some piece of shit Ovation,” he says, recalling the Husky job. “God, they suck eggs.”
Like many obsessive artisans, Weisel shuns the spotlight and seems unaffected by the frequent praise heaped upon him. He has never advertised, and his clientele is strictly word-of-mouth. He is also quick to acknowledge John Joyner and Peter Barberio as the two other skilled—and busy—luthiers in town, but
he is justifiably proud of his own talents.
“If you do good work,” he says, “people beat a path to your door.”
Weisel’s well-organized shop, in the sprawling basement of the creekside home in which he grew up, looks like the domain of a pack rat with serious OCD. Every shelf and corner is crammed with electronic parts, fasteners, glues, stains, knobs, chrome hardware and lubricants. Hanging from rows of hooks embedded in the overhead joists are the bodies and necks of dozens of electric guitars in various stages of disassembly, giving the vague and unsettling impression of dismembered mannequins. A drill press, a joiner and a band saw lurk in the shadows, ready to make sawdust. Dremel grinders, an acetylene torch, rolls of fretwire and many other tools of his trade share the space with clients’ guitars (acoustic and electric), mandolins (ditto) and a couple of banjos awaiting repair.
It’s as if Tim Burton had done the interior design at Eric Clapton’s house.
During a recent afternoon in the shop, Weisel performs a routine set-up—which involves adjusting the string height, the neck angle, and several other variables that maximize the guitar’s playability—on a gorgeous Ibanez acoustic-electric. k.d. lang croons from a tabletop radio as Weisel holds forth on the world of guitar building and repair.
Talking with Weisel is like listening to a Captain Beefheart record. It’s a rapid, bubbling stream of consciousness that is illuminating yet desultory.
He enjoys working on all kinds of electrics, from Paul Reed Smiths to Gibsons and other top names, but “Missoula is a Fender-crazy town,” he says. He possesses a stupefying amount of history and arcane knowledge of that company and its dramatic dips and rolls over the last 50 years.
“Leo Fender didn’t even play the guitar!” he exclaims. “But he was a genius of manufacturing. He was completely an in-house guy. He made his own tooling! CBS [which bought the company in 1965] butchered it. The early ’70s and late ’60s stuff is crappy, but it’s still valuable.” He takes a rare pause. “You know, the average Joe is not concerned with collectibility. They just want to take it out and play.”
Weisel’s affinity for working on high-end specimens produces a natural disdain for cheap Asian guitars. “More and more stuff is made in China, and that’s not going to go away. Most guitars made in China, Korea, Japan or other Far East factories use inferior parts,” he says. “But the workmanship is improving, although it usually comes up short of good old American craftsmanship.”
The vintage stuff, especially Martin guitars, is his favorite. “The older the better,” he says. “There’s magic in those old instruments.” To that end, he’s forged a close working relationship with Greg Boyd, proprietor of the eponymous House of Fine Instruments in Missoula. Boyd’s world-renowned collection currently ranges from a $1,000 Gibson B-25 acoustic guitar to a Gibson F-5 mandolin listed at $235,000. He uses Weisel extensively, but also farms out some work to Joyner.
“People in Missoula don’t understand how lucky they are to have three top quality luthiers here,” said Boyd in a recent phone conversation. “I get calls from places like Boston, where they have, like, two guys and they can’t get in because they’re so busy.”
Unlike Joyner and Barberio (see sidebar), Weisel doesn’t play music in front of crowds, and confines his guitar picking to his home. His desire to make guitars overtook his passion for strumming them early on, and I asked him when it was that he first got the bug for building and fixing guitars.
“Oh, it was about ’73 or ’74, I started reading the Rolling Stone, and I became interested in the vintage guitar ads in the back,” he remembers. “You could get a ’59 Strat for, say, $600 from the Guitar Trader in Red Bank, New Jersey. I had a mad passion for triple pickup Les Paul customs; it might have been that Keith [Richards] was playing one. But I couldn’t afford one at the time.”
He eventually bought a well-used gold top Les Paul that was missing part of the binding, and needed a fret job. “Bitterroot Music [where Bernice’s Bakery currently stands] had a couple guys in the basement, doing repair. They got me inspired. It was my first fret job, and a guy named Bob Burr helped me out with choosing the fretwire, and showed me how to do the work.” Burr later loaned Weisel his joiner when he started making his own guitars.
A couple of years later Weisel bought his coveted Les Paul custom, and that inspired him to try his hand at making one. He gave up on his first attempt, but finally was able to complete his own Les Paul, using a ’56 model as a template. He still owns it.
The late ’70s found Weisel in Bozeman, where he studied electrical engineering and metallurgy, and fell in with the crew at Music Villa. There he learned to wind pickups, and he absorbed what guitar crafting knowledge those luthiers had to offer. His electrical background has allowed him to expand his business, and he also repairs guitar amplifiers and re-cones all manner of loudspeakers. “I often thought the speaker thing was not worth it,” he says, “but it tides me through the lean times.”
Still, it’s his work on guitars that has made him a household name. Well, in houses where a guitar player lives.
Richie Reinholdt (Tom Catmull Band, The Acousticals) met Weisel back in the ’70s, when he was playing with the Live Wire Choir. “I met him through Chojo Jacques, a fiddle player who sat in with us and played with the Lost Highway Band,” says Reinholdt. “His wife was friends with George’s sister. I’m kind of lucky—I have a special relationship with him. He’ll always take my stuff right on. He’s been my tech forever.”
Former Missoula singer-songwriter Jenn Adams tells a similar tale.
“I closed a wooden futon frame on a Breedlove guitar of mine,” she says. “As George will attest, I use my guitars pretty hard but this one was still in perfect shape. Needless to say, I freaked out. I called George. He said, ‘You what? What where you doing?’ Then he asked me a bunch of questions about the crack and dents. I said, ‘Please, can I just bring it in?’ ‘Yeah, I suppose you could.’ He of course fixed it quickly and relatively inexpensively, like he always does.”
Back in Weisel’s shop, he shows me another guitar. It’s a battered, dark brown Gibson ES-335, with a broken neck and some gouges and scrapes along the body. It belonged to Rob Quist, and was damaged in a horrific bus crash in the mid-1990s. Quist’s band, Great Northern, was returning from a Reno show and hit a patch of black ice. Quist (who wasn’t aboard the bus, having taken a plane to a separate engagement) says three band members were seriously injured in the accident.
Quist brought the guitar to Weisel to see if he could rescue it. When the musician blanched at the thousand-dollar estimate for a new neck, Weisel bought the guitar outright.
“George is definitely my first call when it comes to fixing stuff,” says Quist. “He’s even worked on my 1928 Bacon and Day banjo, and I don’t let anybody else touch it.” He adds that he’s been trying for years to persuade Weisel to sell the Gibson back to him, but has thus far been unsuccessful.
Later in the day, Weisel receives a phone call from Mark Peavey, son of Hartley Peavey, founder of that venerable guitar company.
“They want me to be a Peavey certified repair tech,” Weisel says matter-of-factly as he hangs up the phone after a brief chat. His shop is already a Fender authorized warranty service center. He smiles. “But I’d rather be a Martin rep.”
Weisel says he prefers building guitars to repairing them, which prompts me to ask about the five flawlessly crafted, solid-body electrics hanging along a wall opposite his workbench. They sport stunning flamed finishes, butter smooth fret milling and ornate mother-of-pearl inlays, including the brand “Weisel” on the head stock. They’d been sprayed with a clear varnish finish, but no hardware or wiring had yet been installed. He started building these in the mid-’90s, he says, but had to abandon them when his parents’ health took a downturn. He continued taking in repair and set-up jobs that provided a steady cash flow, but his caretaking responsibilities left him no time to spend on projects that didn’t bring immediate income. His mother passed on in 2000, and he lost his father in 2005. He is only just now resuming work on his hand-built namesakes.
The trade of building fine, hand-crafted guitars and restoring and repairing vintage instruments is threatened, like many traditional lines of work, by two outside factors over which Weisel has no control: the economy and the environment. The recession in particular has him worried.
“Even if you can make a guitar, can you sell it? What’s got me concerned about the economy is that people are cutting back on their spending,” he says. “I’m sure that things are skinnied up somewhat. I kind of wonder about the really big American guitar manufacturers—how are they going to compete? Our standard of living will have to go down a bit. The U.S. glory days of riding the coattails of cheap oil and cheap power are over. It’ll come to the point where you can’t eat your vintage guitar, and you’d be better off with money in the bank.”
As with any industry that thrives on extracted resources, shortages of raw materials are coming into play. Sitka spruce, commonly used for the tops of acoustic guitars, is becoming scarce. “Lots of it is being logged and sent over to China for plywood guitars. Japan has used a lot of precious woods for office furniture to sell in the worldwide market,” Weisel notes. Musical instruments may make up a small fraction of the end users of precious tonewoods, but it’s an issue that guitar makers will have to address.
“Gibson is cranking out 100 guitars a day,” he says. “They go through some pretty serious wood. They’ve become aware of the need for sustainability because their future is on the line.”
Weisel is currently fretting (nyuk nyuk) about his own future, albeit his online one. He’s having a website developed for his business, Montana Guitar Works. While he may like old things (“I have a bad affliction with old radios”), Weisel is by no means anti-technology. Straddling the fence between the old-school vibe of vintage guitars and the modernization of the guitar manufacturing process is one way he stays ahead of the game.
“I’d like to learn AutoCAD,” he says. “I’d love to have a C.N.C. [computer numerical control] milling machine. You can digitize or scan the body of a guitar, and then cut out an exact duplicate every time.” He names several guitar companies who are using the vertical milling machines, including Collings and Taylor. “I can’t say enough about Collings guitars,” he says, “but I find Taylors kind of boring. I know they have this big reputation, like, ‘They’re a premium guitar for the common man,’ but there are just so many of them out there, and they’re all exactly alike.”
Weisel’s clearly passionate about guitars, and his infatuation and love for the instrument shows in his finicky approach to repairs. But as his most loyal customers have found out, this obsession with quality comes at a price—patience. While he’s very good about turning around a needed instrument quickly for a working musician, Weisel is notorious for taking his time on the more esoteric or involved jobs.
“He’s just a nut. A total fucking detail nut,” says Tim Martin, a Missoula multi-instrumentalist. “I guess that could be scary to some people, but to me it’s very reassuring. He’ll do everything. If he notices something else he can fix, he’ll do it.”
Martin, whose reputation for collecting oddball instruments is well known in musician circles, recalls one particular incident.
“I had this six-string banjo, this weird thing I picked up,” he says. “It had a big lag bolt in the bottom to hold it together. It looked like a bad farm repair. I took it to George, and he did an incredible job restoring it.” There wasn’t much left to do on the banjo, Martin says, but Weisel became busy with other projects and the banjo slid to the back burner. After a few months, Martin began bugging him to finish it up. “I started calling him every day and leaving a one-word message on his answering machine: ‘BANJO,’” he laughs. He eventually reclaimed the unfinished project from Weisel, but says he still hasn’t paid him for the work he did. “It’s kind of a Mexican standoff,” Martin says.
“Another thing about George,” says Greg Boyd, “is that he picks and chooses what he wants to work on. He likes to work on the high-end stuff. He doesn’t want kids coming to him with $140 guitars.”
Indeed, Weisel is not the cheapest game in town, and he’s seeing fewer and fewer of the “teenage kid with a Korean Dean who wants a plastic nut,” as he puts it. His reputation and track record have allowed Weisel one other luxury: “I used to pick up and deliver. I’d go to motels and pick up stuff from these rock bands who were coming through town, playing these god-awful places like the Rocking Horse. Then I said bullshit on that crap. Let them come to me.”
Electronic Sound and Percussion (ESP), Missoula’s Fender dealer, served as a buffer between Weisel and his clients for several years. People dropped off their instruments there, and he would pick them up once a week or so and deliver them back to the store repaired.
“He just has always done great work,” says Dave McIntosh, co-owner of ESP, and owner of a Weisel-built guitar. As we’re talking, ESP’s Paul Nelson walks over holding a gleaming burgundy Les Paul.
“Here’s a testament to George’s skill,” says Nelson, cradling the guitar. “See this? This used to be a Strat.”
It takes me nearly a full second to realize he’s bullshitting, while McIntosh doubles over with laughter. With a skilled luthier like George Weisel, you just never know.
With the bands
Luthiers Peter Barberio and John Joyner take a more traditional approach
While George Weisel has developed a national reputation for his work while mostly holed up in his private shop, two other local luthiers have gained similar recognition in a more traditional fashion—one opening a storefront and both networking as musicians in the local music scene.
Peter Barberio builds and repairs all manner of stringed instruments, from autoharps to bass fiddles. A Missoula denizen for more than 30 years, he became certified in violin repair in Minnesota before working his way west and eventually hooking up with the staff at Bitterroot Music in 1978. He opened Stringed Instruments Division in 1985, and moved a few times before settling in his current location at 500 North Higgins.
Although he’s the only luthier in Missoula with a brick-and-mortar storefront, his inventory has shrunk over the years, and he’s more focused on repair and restoration. Competition from the likes of Wal-Mart, Shopko and eBay has soured him, he says, on the sales aspect.
“I couldn’t stand all that capitalist retail bullshit, so I streamlined everything. I’m not trying to get rich,” he explains. “I just want to take a vacation now and then. I’ve got everything I need, man. I’m loved, I’m needed. I’m happy!”
An accomplished saxophonist, he’s been on the scene playing baritone sax in several bands through the years, from the Riff Rats and the Moonlighters, up to his current outfit, Zeppo Montana. His shop is filled with various mandolins, violins, guitars, cellos, autoharps and percussion toys, which mirrors Barberio’s diverse musical talents.
“I can play on anything, man,” he says with a laugh.
John Joyner also plays out locally, sawing his fiddle for Pinegrass and Butte’s Dublin Gulch. “For a luthier, I think being able to play adds a little expertise,” he says, adding, “Although, Stradivarius didn’t play.”
Joyner was actually a bicycle repairman before shifting his focus to stringed instruments in the mid-1990s. Fixing guitars started as a hobby, and then he started hanging around at Barberio’s store, and eventually Barberio decided to start paying him. He apprenticed under the more experienced luthier for a few years, then struck out on his own, working out of his home shop. The move didn’t create friction.
“We get along fine,” Joyner says. “I get along with everybody.”
Each of the three repairmen has his specialty, says Joyner. His is acoustic guitars, specifically Martins, and he says Weisel “gets most of the electric stuff.” Joyner bemoans the fact that he gets very little business from classical musicians, even though the only difference between a fiddle and a violin is the style of music that’s played on them. Still, he gets work and referrals from all over the United States.
“One of my secrets,” he says with a smile, “is that if you play in a lot of bands, you get a lot of broken instruments.”