If there is one thing I have learned for sure while working in the world of custom guitars it is this; everyone loves Bill Tippin. I don’t just mean they love his guitars, (how could you not) — I mean that they love the man himself too.
Always quick with a funny anecdote, Bill has a knack for setting you at ease, and reminding you how great it can be to talk to good friends, share some laughs, and shoot the breeze about fine guitars.
Personally, Bill has been extremely generous with his time, educating me about the finer points of guitar construction and design. I bother him regularly for information, and he is always patient, and always willing to go above and beyond in explaining the alchemy that turns mere wood into breathtaking works of mellifluous art.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Tippin, and I found his answers to be both insightful and delightful. With that said, I present you now with a portion of our conversation. I’m sure you’ll agree, Bill Tippin really knows his stuff!
First, some basics. How many years have you been building? And how many guitars have you completed?
I started fixing guitars as a hobby, as early as 1972, and started building my first guitar in 1979. My son still has it.
At what age did you catch the bug, and decide that building instruments was to be your chosen path?
In 1980, after the completion of my first guitar — that was when the bug hit me. I made mistakes, but it sounded pretty good, and it was an exciting challenge. Soon after, my best friend asked me to build a D-45 style guitar, and like an idiot I said ok!
Not knowing much, it was a real quest.
I continued building 4 to 5 guitars a year, until 1992. I had a backlog of orders and I built a guitar for Aaron Tippin. Around that time I went looking for a dealer.
In those early years, what resources did you draw from to inform your craft? Did you learn to build as an apprentice, or were you solely self-taught?
My first guitar, was Inspired by a shop owner that told me, “you can do it with your woodworking skills”. Later, I had some great input from my friend Dick Boak.
From there I am self-taught.
If Bill Tippin the Master could go back and speak to Bill Tippin the student, what advise would you give yourself?
I could fill this page with the things I should have done or not have done, but all of this led me to a good place. I am pleased to be where I am today.
I know that you play the guitar. What type of music do you play most?
I play a little finger style in open tunings. I also play finger style blues, slide guitar, mandolin, with vocal accompaniment. I can also play banjo but I wont brag about it. A lot of my musical diversity came from repairing instruments, as a necessity.
Which model Tippin guitar best fits your playing style?
I guess it depends on what style of playing I am doing. They all have their avenues of expertise, but they also all have things in common. For example, if you played finger style blues on a Staccato, It would sound great but it would have a different voice than the Crescendo.
Crescendos give you a bigger sound and more bass — and the Bravado would give you even more headroom and bass. They all have good balance and can be played the same way.
I have made three Crescendos, one Bravado, and one Staccato for myself, but I sold them all. So for now I don’t have a guitar. I guess one of each would be my preference!
Of the many innovations you’ve added to the lexicon of luthiery, which do you feel is the most significant, and why?
I think the process of developing my top bracing. There is less wood per brace, but slightly more of them in various shapes. This allows the guitar to be strong enough to survive time, but also brings out the strongest tonal potential.
I am also pleased with the way I have treated the cutaway. I bevel the neck block and use an asymmetrical neck heel to help reach the upper frets with less obstruction. This is all accomplished without cutting away more of the body. (See photo.)
What is your favorite non-traditional tone wood?
Traditional for me is Sitka, Adirondack Red Spruce, Brazilian Rosewood, Indian Rosewood & Mahogany, etc. And I am still very fond of all of them.
For tone, and different aesthetics, I really like the Moon harvested Spruce from Switzerland, and Alaskan Yellow Cedar for the top, and for the back and sides I like Amazon Rosewood, and African Blackwood. There are many others that I like too, but these are my favorites.
Could you make a good sounding guitar from wood purchased at Home Depot?
I don’t know. I have never tried! I hear that they sell Acrylic sheets there, and 2-X- whats. Who knows???
Now, I want to question the guys that ask me this one! HA!
What unusual goodies do you have stashed in your wood locker — I know you have some amazing Pink Ivory sets?
Lots of very good stuff. Clients can call me and we can talk about what the might want. I’ve been a wood junky since birth.
Please describe the most experimental instrument you’ve attempted, or are planning to attempt.
I am going to build a guitar specific to my own playing needs, and perhaps help beginning guitar players too. My new model will only have 5 frets 1 – 5! (Just kidding!)
But on a serious note, I have had someone ask me to build a harp style guitar. I have an Idea for a slightly different approach — so there is an interest.
For the most part, I am a builder who likes to stay focused on improving what I have created. There are unlimited avenues to explore when building an instrument. I like to create elegance with a theme rather than seeing how much inlay I can put on a guitar.
If the design requires a lot of bling then it still needs to work together with the rest of the instrument.
My sole preference is simple elegance. The use of different woods in a design can be as effective as any thing else.
My pet peeve is to see a guitar full of bling, that doesn’t sound very good — and there are many.
My primary focus is in the tone of the instrument. Right now I have a new model in the works. It will have a significantly different voice, and multiple strings… soon to come.
Have you ever built an electric, or an archtop guitar?
Yes, I have made a Tele thin-line style, a carved top electric similar to a Les Paul, and also a solid body 4 string bass. No archtop acoustic though.
How do you envision the state of the custom guitar world 5 years from now?
Well, I hope to still be here in 5 years. The economy will greatly affect how many of us can continue to build by hand. There is much more interests from the foreign market than there use to be, which is good. But even their economic structure is flailing, and the Lacy act is making it harder for us to interact.
There are also many good up and coming builders, filling the market with great product — that enters the picture as well. They deserve to be there too — so the question is how many guitars can be made per customer that can afford them???
When you examine other builder’s guitars, what do you look for first? Which details interest you the most?
The details are the builders’ interpretation of ones personality, i.e., what he or she wants to portray. In all fairness, that cannot be judged. What I do look at is how clean the work is, how good the tone is, and of course the playability.
Which pickup do you most frequently recommend for your guitars? And do you have a preference for amplification?
There are many to choose from that are very good. I like the Highlander, the D-Tar, the K&K pure western, and the McIntyre Feather. It really depends on the guitar. I also like a good Mic and a good PA system.
What is the name of your favorite piece of music?
That’s a tough one. I think I have to say it’s a piece that my Mother use to play on the Piano. That still moves me to this day every time I here it. The title is Clare de Lune by Claude Debussy…and then there was Frank Zappa! I like all kinds of stuff man, you dig?
And finally, the question all of America has been waiting for… are you the tallest luthier in the biz?
I am sorry but I cannot honestly answer that with out accurate data. Sorry. I’m
6’6 ¼” bare foot, you tell me.
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with the readers of our blog?
I would like to say that it is a pleasure to be apart of such an elite group of creative people. Luthiers want to share their talents and teach their skills. Guitar building is a sophisticated art that has progressed to a level that has never been reached before yet it still has the old world comfort that gives people a sense of pleasure that soothes the soul.