Wayne Henderson

Luthier, guitarist, and 1995 National Heritage Fellow
Wayne Henderson

Photo by Tom Pich

Music Credits:

Wayne Henderson: “Sally-Ann”, and ‘Billy in the Low-Ground”

Doc Watson: “Black Mountain Rag”

Sheila Kay Adams: “St Ann’s Reel”

Earl Scruggs: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”

All performed live

Jo Reed: That’s musician, luthier and 1995 National Heritage Fellow, Wayne Henderson and this is Art Works, weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.  

Wayne Henderson is involved in all aspects of the guitar. He plays them and he makes them and he is superb at both. Born and raised in Grayson county, Virginia in the beautiful music-loving Appalachian Mountains, Wayne Henderson’s guitar playing stands out with his great and unusual style of finger-picking which has won him more than 300 ribbons at fiddlers' conventions.  Featured in three tours of the Masters of the Steel-String Guitar he’s performed throughout the country, including Carnegie Hall and the Smithsonian as well as touring through Europe and Asia, but Wayne Henderson also has a giant reputation as one of the country’s best luthiers. That is someone who makes and repairs stringed instruments. He makes mandolins, fiddles, banjoes, and most particularly guitars. To own a Henderson guitar is to own a superbly crafted hand-made instrument. The work is slow, and Henderson will not be rushed; so the waiting list is a long one and it’s made up of the famous and the not-so-famous. A neighbor is more likely to get a Henderson guitar than a star. In fact, a book was written about Eric Clapton’s long wait and Henderson’s guitar making process. It’s called, Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument

Wayne Henderson is also committed to keeping musical traditions alive and vibrant. He host an annual music festival and his workshop is an open house with folks dropping by, watching and learning from him, often picking a sander or picking out a tune in the process. Last summer, that’s where I caught up with Wayne and you’ll can occasionally hear some noise from the workshop. We sat down with some lemonade got down to the business at hand: music and guitars.

Jo Reed:  How long have you been playing the guitar now Wayne?

Wayne Henderson:  Well, I’ve been playing guitar for probably 60-61 years now.  I started when I was five and my brother got an old guitar and he showed me three chords on it and my dad was an old-time fiddler and it wasn’t long I could take those three chords and learn how to back up his fiddle playing.  Could play some chords with him and then I’ve been playing ever since.  I could do that and I played pretty constantly.  I don’t remember no time in my life that I’ve missed more than a few days.

Jo Reed:  Your father played fiddle.  Did your brother play too?

Wayne Henderson:  Yeah, my brother played mandolin and later on he gave up on the guitar, but later on he got to playing mandolin and so we played a lot and I had cousins that lived just across the road and especially one named Catherine who could play some Carter Family tunes and she taught me some of my first picking out lead guitar. I could walk over to her house and she would teach me those tunes and I’m sure I wore her out traveling over there every chance I got to try to get her to show me another tune and that really helped my enthusiasm about playing to be able to pick out a tune like Maybelle Carter would do and those cousins, a couple of them got so they could play pretty good and I could play pretty good music with them to play lead guitar and we learned some guitar tunes and stuff like that and then in the ‘60s I got a hold of a Doc Watson record and Doc didn’t live 45 minutes from right here, you know, but I’d never seen him or heard tell of him and when he started putting those records out in the ‘60s, I couldn’t believe my ears that anybody could play a guitar like that.

Jo Reed:  What was it about Doc Watson and his playing?

Wayne Henderson:  Well, it was a new thing to us then.  Doc back in the ‘50s played in a rockabilly band that would play all kinds of gigs they could get and sometimes they would play square dances and they did not have a fiddle player.  They had more of a rockabilly band and Doc, when they played for a square dance would play a tune like “Down Yonder” or “Turkey in the Straw” or any old fiddle tune like that for them to dance and when they start dancing, they want to dance for 20 minutes and I’ve heard Doc told me before he played those tunes it felt like his arm was going to fall off, but that’s how he learned how to do that so good.

Jo Reed:  So he was taking those fiddle tunes and playing them on the guitar.

Wayne Henderson:  Yeah, and when he started making those records, he fell back on some of that stuff that he knew how to do that almost nobody else had ever done and certainly not out in national recordings or anything and he’d also take old songs, country songs that people would sing, and turn that into a guitar instrumental.  That was a new thing. I just could not believe my ears when I’d hear that guitar, what he was doing on that, and then of course you started trying to learn how to do some of that. It wasn’t long until the late ‘60s I got to meet Doc because he lived close by and I ran into him over in a music store in Boone, North Carolina, and I was sitting there picking a Carter Family tune, “Cannonball Blues.”  I still remember that and I heard this voice behind me.  I was sitting on a stool in that store picking, playing that, and I heard somebody singing.  I turned around and sure enough-- I thought it sounded familiar and I turned around and it was Doc.  Walked up, sang that song with me and I liked to fell off the stool, you know but he was a super nice guy and he’d done been making records and stuff then and he was getting well known and to me somebody really famous. You know, Doc never did act like he was famous and didn’t even want you to even mention anything like that.  He just wanted to be a regular like everybody else, but he certainly was special to me and everybody else in the world and he was one of my biggest influences.  EC Ball was another influence.

Jo Reed:  I was going to ask you about him.

Wayne Henderson:  And he lived right in this community and he played with a thumb pick and he certainly influenced my style of playing because he used a thumb pick and he was a wonderful player and most years that I knew him he played gospel music, but every once in a while he would play a hillbilly tune to show me some guitar stuff and he was a wonderful player, a great songwriter, and people still today record his music.

Jo Reed:  Describe a little bit about that special way you have of picking that really is pretty unique to you.

Wayne Henderson:  Well, I think that’s Mr. Ball’s influence in all this what caused the unusual style of playing that I do.  I play, if you listen to one of my tunes, most people think I’m using a flat pick if you just hear it because I pick down strokes with my thumb and up with my first finger, so it works like a flat pick.  You pick up and down, up and down.  I never hit an up stroke with my thumb or a down stroke with my finger.  If I do, I never do that on purpose because it’ll yank my pick off and that’s a little unusual style of playing, but Mr. Ball thought I needed to learn to play like he did and use the thumb pick and with enough work and practice I got so I could do it. It sounds a little bit different than everything else, but that’s alright.

Jo Reed:  Let me ask you this and I don’t even know if you have an answer for it, but your father played, your brother played, your cousins played, Doc Watson lives up the road, EC Ball lives down the road, what is it about this area and musicians?  I have never seen so many musicians per square foot in my life.

Wayne Henderson:  That’s always been the same thing for as long as I can remember in a way further back than that.  This area has been just well known for old-time musicians It’s remote in the mountains of Appalachia here and it was never easy to get around.  A lot of people didn’t have cars and stuff and I’ve heard my grandpas both played old-time music and I’ve heard them talk about walking for miles to go play at the schoolhouse or somebody’s house for a dance or something and I think it was just a way of entertaining in these mountains when you could get together and play music and I think this music, this old-time music goes back for hundreds of years.  People that settled this area came from Scotland and Ireland and England and places like that which they brought fiddle music with them and there were still slaves and people from Africa here that played.  They brought the banjo with them.  They had banjos made out of gourds and stuff like that and I think that’s where the heart and soul of old-time music is the fiddle and banjo and they played together and so that was two cultures that just happened to come together here in this area.

Jo Reed:  People often confuse-- not people from southwestern Virginia, but the rest of us can often confuse bluegrass and old-time music.  What’s the distinction?

Wayne Henderson: Well, you get asked that a lot.  The bluegrass music came along I think the name of it for sure was Bill Monroe.  You know, he was a musician from Kentucky and he sort of devised a type of at the time when he had Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs playing in his band and that band together to me is almost the best bluegrass band I’ve ever heard and it was sort of the first one and to be known and called bluegrass and that’s like in 1945 and old-time music been around forever since I was talking about a while ago when settlers that settled this part of the country.  That’s been around and I think it is more designed for dance music. You know we loved to dance and play and that old-time music, you get that fiddle and banjo going right together.  When that’s going real good you almost can’t be still.  You can’t help patting your foot or if you’re like me, can’t dance, at least you want to pat your foot and that’s a sort of difference and then bluegrass has a different style of playing.  I really like the way they do because they take solos on their instruments and it centers on the singing.  They do like three-part harmony singing which takes a lot of practice and work to learn how to do and then between each verse and course of a tune they usually take a solo on the instrument, the fiddle, banjo, and even the guitar later on, let us play a little once in a while. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned, but it is a different style and a different way of doing and probably the biggest still noticeable thing in bluegrass and old-time is the banjo style. When Bill Monroe had that band back in the ‘40s, that great bluegrass band, he had this young fellow named Earl Scruggs playing banjo who had sort of invented a style of playing or at least brought it out to the public where he played a three-finger roll type banjo and that was something people had never heard before and they just went wild over it. And before that, the banjo playing was done with just usually your fingers and a drop thumb lick and it’s a beautiful, melodic style of playing that it’s like nothing else.  Call it claw hammer or old-time frailing and it’s just a night and day difference in those banjo styles. And that’s a real distinctive difference in bluegrass and old-time and old-time.

Jo Reed:  Now when did you start making guitars?

Wayne Henderson:  Well, I started making guitars as far as I can remember.  People in this Appalachian region never been-- most everybody were farmers and didn’t have lots of money to go out and buy fancy instruments. Mr. Ball was talking about had a nice old Martin guitar that he got somehow way back in the ‘40s and he always had that thing and it was the best guitar in the community and he let me look at it and I wanted one of those things so bad I couldn’t stand it, but absolutely could not afford one and me or my family, either one.  So I would go up and look at it and I’d think I always made stuff.  I had always been a craftsperson.  I’ve whittled and carved and made all my toys when I was a kid.

Jo Reed:  And your mother did too.

Wayne Henderson:  My mom did too.  My dad was a pretty good carpenter.  He could do stuff you needed on the farm.  My grandpa was a great craftsman.  They built houses and made caskets and all kinds of things and so it was always in my family to be a craftsperson and so that old guitar, I’d look at it and I’d think, “This thing ain’t made out of nothing but wood.  I should be able to make one of these,” and of course I had a hard time getting much done because I had no materials and tools and just what was on the farm, but I fashioned out a guitar just by drawing around maybe the old one that I had first or Mr. Ball’s Martin and he had let me look at it, but he certainly wouldn’t take the strings off.  He was so particular with it.  I could feel on the inside of it or anything. I got started at it like that and I made one guitar out of starting to try to find material’s really a challenge and because I knew the sides had to be bent somehow and I had no idea how to do that and I had observed a piece of walnut veneer in my mom’s dresser drawer bottom that the veneer, it was real thin, but it was walnut, pretty wood, and I noticed it was flexible and I thought, “Well, that stuff will bend if I can get that off there,” and of course I didn’t know what Mom would think about me getting her dresser drawer bottom, but one evening I slipped it out and she didn’t know it and put it in the branch that run down by the house and sure enough the next morning that veneer was soaked loose and come off and I got it off of there and dried the board off and put it back in my mom’s dresser and she didn’t never miss that walnut veneer off of it, but I had some thin wood and so I bent that and glued it together with the only glue I had was some old black rubber stuff my dad put weather stripping on his truck door and I’d seen him do that and so you just stick it and it sticks right there, so he didn’t have to clamp it and stuff and I thought, “Well, that’s the ticket.”  I can do that without having forms or clamps or anything that I didn’t have and didn’t know how to make and so I worked my whole school vacation between farm work and stuff getting that guitar made and then when it got August and heat and humidity set in on that, I had it out in an outbuilding where nobody’d been seeing it and had it almost done and had the body made, the neck made and everything, and when I went out there one day and it’d got hot and that spring had still left and that walnut veneer and that old rubber glue got hot, that thing just totally came apart and I was so disappointed and my dad could tell there was something wrong with me and after a while I told him I tried to make a guitar and of course they wasn’t into that guitar making.  That was an unheard of thing and nobody around did that and thought that was a total waste of time, but my dad had a little bit of interest in it I think and he said the next time it’s a rainy day and we can’t work on the farm, I’ll take you over to see a fellow named Albert Hash and Albert dad made some fiddles and so one day sure enough he did.  He took me over there to go see Albert and he lived just 25 miles away over in Lansing, North Carolina. We went over there one day and I couldn’t believe Albert.  He got a fiddle out that he had made in 1953, but he got that fiddle out and showed me and he saw my interest told me how to bend a piece of wood.  He gave me a piece of wood somebody had thrown out of an old door and it was mahogany and he said, “Son, this is a piece of mahogany.  It’s the same thing a Martin’s made out of,” and that just drove me wild because and it was thin, an eighth of an inch thick, and he told me how to take a hot metal pipe and then wet the wood on the inside and just bend it around that pipe and sure enough that worked and he also told me to get some Weldwood Carpenter’s Glue. He said that’ll hold it together until the cows come and sure enough it did.  That guitar’s still together.  I still have it and that was about 1964.  It took me another whole year to make that guitar, but Albert was a big help. When I showed him that old guitar was a pretty rough, crude operation for a guitar, but it worked and played and Albert looked at it and he said, “Lord, son, if I’d known you’d done this good, I’d have got you some better wood,” and he gave me a catalog where I could order some rosewood and he knew I was into it and then my next guitar was nicer. And so then I got to doing repair work on Martins and I learned most of what I know how to do by doing repairs.  Every time I did any kind of repair work on a Martin, I would look at chisel marks, sand marks, anything on the bracing to try to figure out how did they do this, what process. So that’s how I learned mostly and I still learn stuff from other-- nowadays there’s guitar builders absolutely everywhere. 

Jo Reed:  What sound do you go for?

Wayne Henderson:  Well, I like a nice, deep, woody tone that happens by trimming your braces lightly in the top and they have to be left heavy enough so your instrument will hold up under the stress of the strings, but you can get them carved down to where that top vibrates at its best, the most it will do, and you can hear that.  I’ve always had to learn to do it by just listening and my daughter, since she’s been helping me build and building her own stuff, I was trying to teach her.  It’s hard to teach somebody how to listen to a piece of wood, the tone that it has.

Jo Reed:  Does a guitar need to be played for a bit in order to develop its sound? Does that make sense as a question?

Wayne Henderson:  Oh yeah, for sure.  That’s a very good question because almost every instrument you make, when it gets played just a little bit, the next day will sound better and they say everybody says old instruments always sound better than new ones, but I think those old instruments sound much better when they’ve been used and played. I’m no scientist or anything, but I think those pieces of wood, stuff I’ve always heard and makes sense to me, when you put that string on there and the vibrations from the string make the top move and vibrate and that creates a sound chamber waves on the inside of the body that you can feel when you tap on it or play on anything.  You can feel air come out the sound hole.  That means something’s moving and those grains of wood is linear like in the top.  The grain of the wood runs from the back end to the front end and the sound waves travel through those grains of the wood and they say the more they do that, it lines up the molecules of the wood and it gets them in line with each other.  The more they vibrate the sound waves travel through the piece of wood.  That makes sense to me that they would do that and the more that happens, the easier they go through there.  They get lined up and I think that’s the reason old instruments sound so good.  They’ve been used and played. The most noticeable time that you can hear that’s when you first string up an instrument.  When you string it up the very first time, sometimes it’ll sound wonderful as soon as they put a string on it, but it always gets better just in a few hours and then the next day for sure and then after that it slows down.  You have to play on it a lot to notice much difference.

Jo Reed:  I was at Galax with Joe Wilson and his back was to this man who had a guitar and this guy’s back was to Joe and Joe looked at me and he said, “He’s playing a Henderson,” and indeed he was, but that’s how distinctive it was and I know you made a Henderson for Joe.

Wayne Henderson:  Oh yeah.  Joe, he’s a big influence on me too.  Joe has been when he was the director of the National Council for Traditional Arts, he always recognized what little bit I could do and was very instrumental in getting me to go out and go to festivals and be seen and get my instruments out where people would see them other than right here in the community. His organization at that time was responsible for getting me to go to Asia and places like that and get to travel and when that happens, you get out in the world, people see your instruments and hear you play and that’s a big help.

Jo Reed:  You had been working as a mail carrier.

Wayne Henderson:  Yeah, I always did that and I also kept my shop too.  I was building instruments first and farming and I got to being a substitute mail carrier which was easy to do.  It was an extra job and made some money and I could still do what I loved doing was building my instruments and I always did that.  Then I got to be a full-time mail carrier and I thought that’s such a good deal.  I knew eventually I would have retirement and insurance and health insurance and stuff like that that keeps a lot of people working and I pretty much enjoyed doing that too.  I was a rural carrier which is the best deal you can have in that postal service deal because I got to travel around through up every hollow in here that people live and I knew everybody and I got to do it in my own community right here and it was a fun job to do and it was something that I could pull off and then come back home and do my guitar shop every day and so I didn’t make as many instruments along that time, but--

Jo Reed:  Or travel as much, I would think.

Wayne Henderson:  Or travel as much and I got to do quite a bit of traveling I know too because I had a lenient postmaster and they understood my craft and what I did playing music and they would always work with me.  As long as I had a great substitute that would work for me, I usually could get off to do important music jobs and stuff like that and that always worked out really good and I was able to do that for 32 years until I retired and then ever since then I’ve worked much harder and everything, and as I get older it seems like I even like making instruments even better and seems like I never get tired of it.  I even string up a new-- I made like 600 guitars and if I get a new instrument strung up it just seems like as much fun as ever to hear that first tone and sound.  I always sit and play them and listen. It’s always exciting, a good thing to do.

Jo Reed:  And finally, I do want to just mention the Wayne Henderson Music Festival and  the winner of that festival actually gets a Henderson.

Wayne Henderson:  Yeah, they do and that usually draws in some really good players.  The contest is always really good and a lot of people show up early in the day to see that and then we have music.  Usually somebody I can trade a guitar for if it’s a big shot.  It’s a totally volunteer organization and nonprofit and every bit of the money that we make goes into a scholarship fund that’s distributed out every year to kids to learn how to play this music. It’s a cool festival.  It’s up in the most gorgeous state park you’ve ever seen right here in this community. People really seem to enjoy it and my only job mainly is to select who I can get to come play and that’s always somebody good.  Doc come and did it like three different times and actually Doc’s always been a good friend and he said he would help me start it.  He came and played.  The very first festival we ever had was successful and that is a lot because Doc volunteered to come play at it and it always helps to have somebody national or famous to come in to play and all that. Some of the best music you will ever hear comes from right around here my goal is to promote this music in general and anything I can do to help preserve it I’ll always try to do.

Jo Reed:  And that’s I think where the National Heritage Fellowship Award is also so important in the way-- you received one in 1995 I think and the way it highlights the importance of traditional art in all its many aspects.

Wayne Henderson:  Oh yeah.  I was always so honored and stuff to get that.  Would never have ever thought that’d happen.  I’ve always known about it and known the people that got it like Doc and Earl Scruggs and BB King. I don’t know about instrument makers.  There’s some, but craftspeople in general and that was always an exciting thing to me and to be honored like that and they also gave me some money and I sold some of my antique stuff and took that money I got and that built me a new shop and so I use that Heritage Award every day, ever since 1995, so I’ve certainly made use of it and I wouldn’t’ve had that nice shop out there if it hadn’t have been for that and so that’s a cool thing and I’ve always appreciated that. 

Jo Reed: That’s musician, luthier and 1995 National Heritage Fellow, Wayne Henderson. You can find out about the 2015 fellows and the free fall heritage concert at arts.gov. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Wayne Henderson Sally-Ann, and Billy in the low-ground

Doc Watson, Black Mountain Rag

Sheila Kay Adams, St Ann’s Reel

Earl Scruggs, Foggy Mountain Breakdown

Transcript will be available shortly.

Wayne Henderson on his distinctive guitars and his distinctive sound.