Meet the Maker: Collings of Austin
Ask the typical guitar picker about high-quality fretted instruments made in North America and the brands you’ll hear will probably be household names: “Gibson, Martin, Fender, Taylor, gee, Guild, but wait, some Guilds are now imported, and let’s see, there’s that newer guy with three names, Paul Reed Smith…” Of course the in-crowd types will probably mention Collings, but often we find that the people who know about Collings flattop acoustics, or Collings electrics, or Collings mandolins are those who actually own one. Why is that? For a music store that primarily sells fretted instruments, such as Gryphon, Collings is one of the top three or four brands, right behind, and sometimes ahead of, those high-production names you see on headstocks all the time.
It’s odd the Collings brand isn’t better known because Bill Collings has been making guitars sold through retailers like Gryphon since 1989, when he rented commercial space in Austin and hired two helpers (that’s just a few years after Paul Reed Smith got started). Well-known performers, such as Lyle Lovett, have been performing with a Collings hanging around their neck pretty much ever since. Early Collings dealers, and Gryphon was one of the first, recognized that Bill excelled at not only playability and impressive volume, he also made sure his crew spent the extra time needed to insure impressive “fit and finish.” Throughout the 1990s, Bill’s acoustic flattops were often hard to get and his production numbers grew with no compromise in quality. During one of my visits to a larger Collings workshop outside Austin in 1995, I noticed a sign posted above the set-up station that read “Do the Ding, Do the Time.” In other words, if a member of Bill’s crew put a scratch or a ding in the finish, that same guy had to do what was needed to make the guitar perfect again. Throughout these early years Bill Collings’ version of the iconic herringbone-trimmed rosewood dreadnought, the D-2H, was in constant demand.
Among discriminating flattop guitar players Collings reputation was secure by the late 1990s, and Bill’s success making fully carved archtop guitars, essentially by hand, led him to tackle Gibson-style mandolins with carved tops and backs. Within a few short years Collings versions of the iconic F-5 style mandolin were appearing on bluegrass stages along with Collings dreadnought guitars.
For mandolin pickers who didn’t need a mandolin the same shape as Bill Monroe’s, the Collings A models were much more affordable while still delivering similar tone and volume.
Soon a line of lower-cost mandolins, with low-gloss finishes and less binding and inlay, brought Collings quality to a wider range of players.
After years of focusing on Martin-style flattops, by this time Collings had also branched out with “slope-shoulder” D models (the CJ, for Collings Jumbo) and a smaller L-00 style called the C-10.
More traditional 12-fret flattops with slotted headstocks were also trickling out of Austin, a nod to much earlier American guitar styles, but made for steel strings and the more rough-and-tumble life that modern flattops often face. By the early 2000s Collings offered a dozen different guitar body shapes in numerous styles and with a seemingly endless range of wood options.
This impressive growth was because Bill had enlarged his second workshop several times and had a crew of over four dozen builders. Both Bill’s guitars and his mandolins had been out long enough to have a solid reputation: Collings instruments held up, you could travel or tour with them, they didn’t need constant tweaking to be optimally playable. Sure they were made with beautiful wood and were finely finished, but a Collings guitar or mandolin was also tough. With an impressive line of flattop guitar models in over a half-dozen different shapes, two body styles of fully carved mandolins with either f or oval soundholes, wasn’t it time for Bill to settle down and focus on upping production and wider distribution?
Not hardly. After building a new shop in 2005, just a few miles from the old one, in 2006 Bill Collings introduced his first electric guitars. You’d expect Collings would start with solid-body models only, but Bill’s long affair with arched-top guitars came shining through in new thin hollow-body models as well.
Within a short half-dozen years Collings had a line of different electric guitar models, and price ranges, to rival manufacturers who’d been focused solely on electric guitars for decades. Gryphon tries to stock a representative group of Collings electric models, but as the time between ordering one and taking delivery can be several months we’re sometimes out of stock of certain models.
But despite dozens of different models, Collings guitars were all relatively “high end” by most people’s standards and developing more affordable models was the next challenge. After all simple guitar designs with less decoration, and thinner, low gloss finishes had sustained American guitarpickers during the hard times of the Great Depression, why not rely on the same formula using modern wood-working technology to keep the quality far higher than it had been 80 years ago? Using the best of the 1930s “budget brands” as inspiration, the first Waterloo acoustic flattops were introduced in 2014.
By 2015 Waterloo was a stand-alone line with both 14-fret and 12-fret models, two different bracing patterns, and a limited number of other variations. Despite the different name on the headstock and the very different overall look, the sound and playability of the Waterloo guitars made it obvious they were made by the same people with the same dedication to the craft.
OK, we’ve talked about how much Collings Guitars has grown since the 1980s, even a glance over the links above will give you good sense of how many different Collings models are now available, but what about that opening question: Why isn’t the Collings brand better known? A quick summary of 2016 production is probably the best answer. The Martin Guitar Co., for instance, builds over 10,000 guitars per year, all flattop models. By contrast, last year the Collings crew produced just over 1200 flattop acoustics, plus 560 electric guitar models and about 320 mandolins. The new lower-priced Waterloo acoustics added another 970 guitars, but that still leaves a total of only about 3,000 instruments per year. When you consider that Collings now employs 90 people, it’s obvious that there is a lot of old-fashioned labor in each instrument, despite state-of-the-art woodworking machinery and designed-in-house tooling. There’s no other way to get the fit and finish Collings is known for, and that quality translates to both the sound of the instruments and their legendary dependability.
— Richard Johnston
Some of the recent Collings arrivals at Gryphon Stringed Instruments: