Ever since luthier John Thayer opened his shop just over the bridge in the quaint neighborhood in Bremerton known as Manette, he has been my one and only “guitar doctor.” From simple set-ups to major headstock repair on my Les Paul Special, he has always been my go-to guy for stringed instrument repair. Of course he doesn’t just fix guitars, he hand-builds both acoustic and electric guitars that are true pieces of art both to the eye and the ear. I’ve been talking with John for years now about my dream acoustic guitar that I want him to build for me. To have a one-of-a-kind, custom-built instrument made right here in my own backyard would be something I would truly cherish for the rest of my life. The only obstacle keeping me from realizing that dream has been my “broke-ass musician” status, but I assure you that one day she will be mine. Oh yes.
JP: Did you grow up here?
JT: Yeah. I was born and raised here in Bremerton. I really love it here!
JP: I love it here too! So when did you first pick up a guitar?
JT: I didn’t actually grow up listening to a lot of music in the house. It was really through friends where I started getting into it. My friend Kit Arper who has played drums in a few local bands got me into a lot of grunge and punk bands, and stuff like that. Kit had a friend who played bass, so they both suggested that I start learning to play guitar so we could jam, so I guess I was around fourteen. We tried to play together, but they already knew how to play, and I was still a beginner, and I was terrible! We ended up playing some NOFX and Offspring covers at our school’s pep assembly once, but we were just terrible… but nobody knew because we were just a bunch of teenagers that didn’t know any better. It was just loud and distorted, and everybody thought it was just crazy awesome. It was shortly after that when I realized that I’m just not a great musician, and not cut out for being in a band. I kept playing, but only for my own enjoyment. Then in high school I started studying drafting. I took it for three years, and started drawing all kinds of stuff, and thinking about drawing in a very three-dimensional way. I had also always been interested in woodworking, so I started really looking at my guitar more closely, and seeing how it was put together. I started taking it apart, and putting it back together, and just learning how it was built. That’s when I got the idea to try and make one. The first one was terrible, but it really got me into it, and thinking about the possibilities.
JP: How old were you when you made that first guitar?
JT: Sixteen. I never even took woodshop, but my Dad had some woodworking tools, so I kind of just hacked out that first guitar.
JT: Electric. I actually made five electric guitars before I had any real training. I was never really “academically inclined,” and it wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I realized that I actually was an intelligent and capable person. I just learned differently than most. I figured out that I was more of a “hands-on” person, and very mechanically inclined. I was even classified as learning-disabled at one point. My teachers didn’t realize that my brain just worked differently. Fortunately my parents saw this talent in me, so they found a school in Phoenix, AZ called the Roberto Lenn School of Luthiery. I started there two months after I graduated high school. The course was only five months, but one of the teachers there had me stay and work directly with him for a few months after.
JP: He saw you had extra talent?
JT: Yeah, I did really well in the course, and the teachers were very pleased with what I was doing. The course consisted of building one acoustic, and one electric, plus some repair work towards the end. While I was there I ended up making two acoustics, two electrics, and doing extra work on the side. He must have seen extra potential in me to have me stay on afterward. I probably would have stayed and worked with him longer, but another opportunity came along to work with Urban Somogyi who is one of the best master-luthiers in the country. He was based in Oakland, CA, so I went and studied under him. That was an amazing experience. I learned an incredible amount in the few short months I studied with him. He really taught me some very refined skills, and more of the actual art of crafting a fine instrument that was both beautiful sounding, and looking.
JP: It wasn’t long after that you opened your own shop here right? How did that materialize?
JT: When I came back to Bremerton I worked as a handyman’s assistant for about a year, but I started taking my guitars around to different music stores like Ted Brown Music (Silverdale)…
JP: That’s when I met you! (I worked at Ted Brown from 1997 until 2002.)
JT: Yeah! I went there, and Kitsap Music (Bremerton). Mike Karnes, my former guitar teacher at Ted Brown, suggested to the store manager that he give me a shot at doing some repair work for them, which he did. That really helped me start a good customer base. I was still working my day job as well as doing repairs for them, and then I picked up some more repair work from the Washington Academy of Music. I was slowly starting to get my own customers outside of the music stores, but I was just working out of my garage. It was getting to the point where I had too much work and not enough time, so I quit my job and started doing repair work full-time. I think I was still only 19 at the time. I was living in my sister’s basement, and didn’t really have many financial obligations, so when I found this location it was very inexpensive rent, and I was able to make just enough money to pay the bills. I was still very new and inexperienced, so I wasn’t charging very much. Of course now ten years later I’m married, and have a house, so the prices have gone up a bit! Also as I gain more experience I feel like I can charge a little more these days in order to make a livable wage. When I first opened I had absolutely no business experience, so I opened with the motto of “craftsmanship before salesmanship.” I had had some bad experiences growing up with pushy and arrogant salespeople, so I wanted to have a place where people could come in and feel comfortable talking to me. I don’t want people to feel like they are asking a dumb question about anything. I want it to be a very positive environment, and make people feel like they can have a personal relationship with me in regard to their repair, or a guitar I may be building for them. After ten years I have gotten to where I am doing work for just about everybody in town. There are other guys that I’ll send people to that have very specific specialties like Mark Tossman on Bainbridge Island that does really high-end restoration work, Willie from Rocket pickups for advanced electronics, or Brent Bagby (Solderhaus) for tube amp repair. Overall I’ve really benefitted from having this storefront here. I do everything from simple restringing, to high-end restoration work on vintage instruments. Now I’m doing some crack repairs, refinishing, neck resets, or even instruments that have had some not-so-great work done that I need to “re”repair.
JP: Over the last ten years here what are some of your projects – either repair, or building – that you are most proud of? One that comes to mind for me was our mutual friend Marshall Trotland (Tumbledown, Rocky Point All-Stars) had his upright bass smashed into several pieces which you and he put completely back together.
JT: I’m not a violin-maker, so I couldn’t just make a new top for the bass. I had to figure out a way to put it back together. I actually came up with some new techniques to accomplish that without severely altering the way the top functioned, and sounded as a whole. I came up with an inlayed splice brace that could hold the broken pieces together in addition to quite a bit of gluing. It worked out so well that I ended up writing an article about it that was published in a quarterly luthier magazine. This might sound cheesy, but some of the repairs I’m most proud of were the ones that people were just really happy to have their instrument that had sentimental value back to being playable again. As for building an instrument, I just get a lot of joy out of seeing someone really enjoy playing a guitar I built.
JP: That brings to mind your photo on the wall of Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) playing one of your acoustic guitars. How did that come about?
JT: Yeah. I should start by saying he didn’t contact me to have me build him a guitar or anything, but Wilco has always been one of my favorite bands, and I always felt like I wanted to somehow give back for having been so inspired by their music. I saw that Jeff Tweedy was going to be playing in Seattle, and I somehow contacted his manager, and asked him if I could come by and show Jeff a guitar I had made. Surprisingly his manager said, “Sure!” So I went and got to meet him! I probably seemed really shy and starstruck, but I told him I had a guitar that I wanted to give him as a thank-you for inspiring me with his music. He played it a little bit, said he liked it and would be happy to take it!
JP: “Sure I’ll take a free hand-made guitar!” Very cool. So I would imagine that luthiery is a life-long learning process…
JT: Definitely. When I first started I didn’t even think of it as an art. I just felt like I was more of a craftsman, and I wouldn’t even call myself a luthier. I felt like I hadn’t really earned that yet. I was still pretty terrible! After a few years and having built more and more guitars, I started getting more experimental, and establishing my own style. I could make a really nice Martin copy, but as I progressed I starting flexing a more artistic muscle. These days my work is much more my own than ever before, and continues to evolve into what is really my creative expression. I’ve learned a lot by seeing other luthier’s work as well. I imagine that it’s probably similar to making music in that way.
JP: I imagine it’s similar in that a great musician starts out by pulling from several different influences, and it eventually turns into their own unique sound.
JT: Yeah, and I think I’ve finally gotten to where I have found my own voice these days, but I’ll hopefully always keep learning.
J Thayer Guitars is located just over the Manette Bridge in Bremerton at:
2207 E. 11th St. Bremerton, WA 98310