Bowerman Guitars Interview

Jayson Bowerman of Bowerman Guitars is the luthier responsible for ‘that’ Ed Gerhard signature model, “you know the one … the one with the raised frets on the bottom bass string”. A truly unique piece of Weissenborn history that still holds players intrigue and fascination every time they see Ed play it. He trained under renowned luthier Kim Breedlove at ‘Breedlove Guitars’ for 15 years and has produced some of the most jaw dropping Weissenborns made in recent times. It was with great pleasure that we spoke to Jayson about his luthering career, his participation in the world championships of Surf Kayaking, ‘That Ed Gerhard signature model’ and the time he nearly killed himself and Ed in an automobile near miss while driving over 100mph!.​

Thank you Jayson for talking to us today, I have long been an admirer of your amazing work. Can we start off by chatting about your formative years and what circumstances led to you becoming a luthier?

The Path To The Workbench…​

As a youngster you weren’t a keen woodworker I understand, quite the opposite as a matter of fact. What turned you onto the joys of wood working after studying ‘mechanical engineering’ at state university?

“As a teenager I was fascinated by bicycles, and fortunately my dad introduced me to a retired machinist who turned me on to fabrication and machining and helped me build my first bike components, a pair of caliper brakes for my mountainbike. I drove down that rabbit hole building more bike components, even clipless pedals and entire framesets before heading off to study mechanical engineering at Colorado State U. As fate would have it the curriculum at college was really dry, lacking any hands on practice, and I quickly became eager to find an outlet for my creativity. A friend suggested a woodworking class just for fun, I had never worked with wood before and as soon as I bent my first shaker style oval box I was hooked. Wood is a medium with so much inherent beauty and unique qualities which can be transformed in so many incredible ways. I built my first instrument, a carved top mandolin as a final project in a later class before moving back to Bend, Oregon with the intent of studying more applied machining and finding a job in industry”. 

Tell us how you got your internship at (the then relatively small) ‘Breedlove Guitars’?

“Back in Bend, Oregon and now just 20 years old I studied a year of Computer Numerical Control programming, at the dawn software like Mastercam when we were still writing lines of individual code to control the machine functions (very primitive!)”. 

Explain to us what that internship entailed and how long did it last?

“The internship was only like 80 hours of work, but I was fortunate to share a bench with Kim Breedlove for nearly two years at the start. I would build two necks in the morning while he was doing inlay artwork, which he would carve in the afternoon while I was binding bodies. I still feel so lucky for the on the job training at Breedlove”!

Did you know straightaway that this was for you when you start to learn luthiering, was there a moment when you knew this was what you were going to do for the rest of your life?

“Steve Henderson who was the principal owner of Breedlove at that time had me saw up about 2 miles of Bloodwood for guitar binding as part of my “internship” at the company. I was blowing red bogeys all day and after work for 10 days straight from the dust, but still had a smile on my face. That’s how you know I guess. One of my mentors once pointed out that talent might simply be those things in life that we can’t stop doing”.

So you been full time building since 2002 now i believe? Was that always the plan to start up on your own as soon as your training was finished at Breedlove?

“Honestly, I never saw myself leaving Breedlove during those years, we had such a great team and positive vibe at the company in the “oughts”. I really admire small shop environments like you see at SantaCruz or Huss and Dalton, and also larger highly innovative manufacturers such as Taylor or Collings guitars. I loved the idea of being part of a team of dedicated and talented craftsmen working together to build really great guitars and a solid brand. Over time though the direction of the company started to drift away from the core mission of building extraordinary instruments under the pressures of a collapsing economy and an owner with grandiose growth objectives, and there came a time when managing a large number of people, constantly changing objectives and feeling like we were always swimming hard just to keep our head above water wasn’t working for me personally any longer, and it was time to find a new direction”.

You say on your website you ‘strive to keep the proper work/life balance’. Would you care to elaborate on that?

“A man can only work so many 60+ hour weeks before family, friends and the things that are really important outside of work start to suffer. I like to work hard, but without enjoying a powder day once and a while or a high water run in the kayak when that once every 3 years river comes in, it’s too easy to be filled with regrets and resentment. I also have a full plate of non-profit interests including volunteer instructing at the Sisters High School guitar-building program I set up 10 years ago, as well as with the Bend Paddle Trail Alliance which just recently completed fundraising and saw through the construction of Oregon’s first whitewater park. We raised over $1.1Million in 18 months to help build four standing waves for surfing and kayaking in the Deschutes River here in Bend. These are things I couldn’t do if I was focused solely on building a big business of Bowerman Guitars”.

I understand that you represented the United States in ‘surf kayak’ at the 2001/2 world championships? Wow!

“Rio Di Janeiro was a great experience, I didn’t even know I had made the team until the manager came calling. Kayaking is usually an individual sport, but in Surf Kayak they also have a team component which was the most fun. We battled hard for a 3rd place and it is a memory I’ll always cherish”.

You also volunteer at a local high school by helping run guitar building classes?

“The kids are so inspiring, I think I learn more from the questions they ask than they do from what little help I can provide. Their imaginations are so unbounded, it’s truly refreshing. Nowadays if they aren’t incorporating some sort of custom inlay into the design of their builds the project is not even worth an “A” grade. They are very adept at the use of the CNC machines and turn out some astonishing inlays every year”.

What range and type of instruments have you built since starting up your own business?

“I build mostly flat top instruments including Weissenborns, 6 strings from several different outlines, Octave mandolins, the occasional electric lap steel or Spanish neck steel guitar and even a Bouzouki once and a while. I did build two F-5 mandolins a couple of years back, but I’m not sure how people make a living at those without a CNC or a factory in China building the raw wood parts to be honest. I really like unusual and 5ths tuned instruments as well as Weissenborns and am looking forward to building a hybrid of a guitar/cello this winter as one of my commissions for 2016”.

How many instruments do you build a year on average, i take it you are working on your own?

“It’s just me and my two Alaskan Malamutes at the shop, and they aren’t much help with the guitars. Right now I am comfortable building between 16-20 guitars a year doing all of my own finish work as well as office tasks. The guitar work gets a little bit faster with every build as I get more tooled up. After all of those years of signing my name on behalf of a large team, the concept of self-authorship is really important to me with my little brand”.

Any instruments you would still like to build and add to you CV and product range?

“Oh man, it doesn’t ever really end I guess! (laughing) A buddy wants a MIDI electric banjo, so that is also something to research soon. Personally I’d like to build an 8 string Weissenborn, though I’m not enough of a player to warrant having one, so if any of your readers have been dreaming of one, have them hit me up”!

What instrument gives you the most personal satisfaction to build and why?

“The absolute best thing for this guitarmaker is seeing people inspired by their instruments. When you can feel that energy coming through the music and connecting with the audience it’s like magic! That’s what it’s all about for me”.

The “Ed Gerhard” Signature Weissenborn

This section of the interview will be of massive interest to a lot of my readers as THE ‘Weissenborn’ and ‘player’ in question are very well known and much admired in this small Weissenborn community. Let’s fast forward then to your first encounter with the Grammy award winning guitarist Ed Gerhard. Were you a fan of his music before you two met?

“My first memory of Ed was at a local coffee house concert not long after I started working at Breedlove Guitars, this would have been around 1995 or 1996. That was the first time I’d ever heard a Weissenborn style guitar, and the sound was captivating. I remember Ed describing that guitar as “cheap knock off” since his vintage Herman Weissenborns were all too fragile and valuable to take out on the road. In the next year Ed was around the shop quite a bit during the development of his signature model Breedlove J15, a thinner than normal Jumbo body with a venetian cutaway and a radical graduation of the top to create an incredible voice for fingerstyle. I’ve been a fan of Ed’s music and playing ever since”.

You say on your website that he brought you in a vintage weissenborn to Breedlove on which you were asked to study and copy to make a new signature instrument for Ed. This new instrument though would have fanned frets fitted to the bottom bass string on the bequest of Ed. Now i have interviewed Ed last year for the website and we spoke about this instrument and he said this about the concept and finished instrument ….

(Talking to TWiE, Ed Gerhard said)….”My main touring Weissenborn is the one Jayson Bowerman and the guys at Breedlove built for me. It’s myrtle-wood and the figure and colour is hypnotic. It’s not as sharp sounding or explosive as koa but it’s really rich sounding and has great sustain. Jayson, who was at Breedlove at the time, spent a day with me and my Style 2. We measured everything, took all kinds of photos of the guitar both inside and out. I had some ideas about putting frets on the bass side of the neck so I could fret the low E with my little finger or thumb while playing other stuff with the bar. I was doing that a little and thought it might be cool to incorporate that idea. I’d never heard of anybody doing it before”.

Tell us what ‘you’ remember about that brief you were given by Ed that day?

“Well, the other thing I vividly remember about that time was that it was during the Breedlove “Extraordinary Experience” where clients would fly in from around the country to have a vacation here in scenic Central Oregon and design their dream guitars. There were all kinds of high end activities planned out for us, including driving exotic cars (at high speed) around the scenic volcano tour known as the Cascades Lakes Highway. We even had radios and a spotter car to make sure the road was clear so we could drive super fast”. Ed and I were riding together that day, and we’d already driven the Porsche 911 up to 145mph, decided we didn’t like the handling of the BMW Roadster or the Corvette, and were cruising back to the shop with the top down in a BMW 325i at a “casual” 110mph on a straight stretch of two lane highway when all of a sudden the car in front of us (being driven by the shop financial advisor at probably only 70 MPH), pulled into our lane without signal or warning as we were about to pass. I locked up the brakes and we started to fish-tail violently, obviously without enough room to slow down in time before we slammed into the back of the car with our financial advisor and his unsuspecting family in it. I remember looking over at Ed, his long silver hair streaming back in the wind with his perfectly manicured guitarist’s fingernails digging furrows into the leather door handle, and he had this look of like….. sheer terror mixed with exhilaration on his face. We had this momentary mind meld, and I could hear him in my head telling me “Don’t Fuck this up, man! This isn’t how I want to die! I let off the brakes completely, and regained steering control at the last possible instant as we careened around the right side of the obstruction in front of us, narrowly missing the unwitting family in a slight drift at 90. They say people that live through harrowing experiences tend to remain true to one another, and we’ve been fast friends ever since that day. And yeah, the rest of it, the guitar design bit, was pretty much as you describe it”.

The choice of myrtle-wood is an interesting one given that Koa wood seems to universally accepted as the best tone wood for Weissenborns for almost a century now. What made you both decided to build it from local Oregon myrtle-wood. Explain to us its tonal characteristics and please elaborate on your website comments that it is “THE best wood for recording with”.

“Myrtlewood has this very even tonal response, with exceptionally clear trebles (almost like Maple) but a lot more substance in the bass, almost like a Rosewood and none of the muddiness of some mid weight woods like say mahogany. In terms of density its right in between Mahogany and Rosewood, so that might be part of explaining its tone. The other interesting bit about Myrtlewood is that it only grows in the wild in temperate rainforests along the West Coast of America, from San Francisco to the central coast of Oregon. It’s the only species in its genus, and the wood looks (under a microscope) more like a tropical wood and completely different from any other North American species. It’s like God’s gift to us wood workers since it bends easily, carves well and holds sharp detail, its stiff for its weight, polishes incredibly and has an incredible range of figures and colors. It was an easy choice for a prototype since Weissenborn size Koa sets are always difficult to procure, and really expensive. I had a hunch it would help deliver a little more even tone, which it sounds like it did”.

Begs the question then why more luthiers and Weissenborns are being built from myrtle-wood instead of Koa. What’s the price point difference for the two raw materials?

“Myrtle wood is relatively unknown to many builders, and unless you live in Oregon, you may not have ready access to it. I have lots of killer Myrtlewood if any other builders want to buy some or trade with me to try it out”.

Speaking of which i have never seen such an amazing piece of myrtle- wood ever used on an instrument (Ed’s) that has that degree of pattern, grain and colouring. I understand myrtle-wood has wide and varying characteristics visual with no two pieces ever looking the same. Where did you source that superb piece of timber from and were they’re other weissenborn made from the same batch of wood?

“That tree was the most intensely figured specimen I’ve ever seen. Others are as curly, but not with such vivid colors and patterning. We actually hired a small plane the day the lumber came out of the low temperature kiln to be able to pick the best of it at the mill. I wish I’d had the dough on me to buy some for my own work at the time. We built a number of 6 string guitars from the material, including several of the “calendar” Breedloves. I did build a handful of other Weissenborn style guitars from it, including one left handed version. They all looked and sounded killer”.

Was the fitting of the bass frets problematic with regards to construction and intonation?

“Seriously problematic! The first prototype employed a wedged fretboard, and fanned frets in an attempt to let Ed fret notes on the other strings besides the low “C”. Not only was it visually confusing with all of these frets running at steep angles to account for the varying tension of the strings and their increased setup height due to the wedge, but it was soooo sensitive to string gauges and setup height as to be almost impossible to intonate properly. We ended up pulling out the frets, re-planing the board, and adding single frets on little elevated platforms for his pinky 7ths and augments. That was a much more workable solution with good intonation. The trick with this setup is that the position of the frets has to be precisely determined after initial setup and is quite affected by tuning and string gauge, so you are kinda locked in on that combo for use with the partial frets”.

How many instruments actually exist with the raised frets concept?

“I think there are 4 only, but memory might be failing me on that #”.

Have you ever built a weissenborn since your Breedlove days with that raised fret set up again? Are you even allowed to, is it copyrighted in some way?

“Well, it’s really Ed’s ideer, and so any ownership of it would be his. I’m guessing he’d let me do it for a shot of really good whiskey as a royalty. I haven’t had any players ask for it on new commissions since starting Bowerman Guitars, but have built a couple of sliding capos for players who want to leave the instrument in open C”.

Would you make one if someone commissioned one from you now?

“Sure, anything is possible”.

How much satisfaction does it give you every time you hear him or see him play that instrument?

“The hair on my arm stands up every time I hear him play, and usually there are some tears of joy shed as well. Ed is simply an incredible player and human being, the pure emotions which come through his playing are without comparison”.

The “Oregon Glass” Lapsteel

Not exactly Weissenborn related but fascinating all the same was the recent solid glass lap steel you built with glass artist Suzie Zeitner. Although this is very much a work of art in a very literal sense it is also a fully functional musical instrument. Tell us how the projects concept and eventual production came to pass. Briefly explain if you can the building process for such a unique instrument. What were the inherent and obvious problems you had to overcome when making such an instrument and have you ever seen other luthiers make glass lapsteels?

“Glass is a really unusual material, extremely strong in compression, but very weak in tension. It also possesses very extraordinary acoustical properties. The primary challenges are having a kiln big enough to fire something the size of a lap steel, that all fabrication must be done underwater with diamond tools, and that all metal parts must be insulated or “potted” to prevent direct contact with the glass or you risk shattering it. Because of these challenges I’m not sure that anyone else is building such an instrument. If so I’d love to see some pictures! The process starts with cutting out a refractory firebrick “mold” and matching template for the glass sheets which will be layered up to make the artwork and give the guitar its required thickness for things like tuning machines and string ferrules. Then Suzie would layer on glass rod and “frit” to design the pattern in multiple layers like a watercolor. Layers would then be fused to one another, before the entire piece is fired for a last time for over 24 hours. With a piece of this size it takes several days to complete the firing and annealing process.     After the guitar comes out of the mold, it’s edges are rough with refractory material which has to be ground off, straightened out and rounded over for comfort. This all takes many hours and is done with a diamond grinder outside under running water. For some reason it always seems like it’s cold and windy during this step. I now own a nice set of rubber fisherman pants, wearing those is a lot better than doing the wet grinding in board shorts, I can tell you that! Next the holes for the tuners and string ferrules and pickup mounting points are cut using hollow diamond drills on the drill press or by hand, again underwater. Finally the entire piece is clear coated before assembly, and the rest of it is kinda like assembling any other guitar, except that I have always used file-worked Damascus steel for the nut and saddle with these projects, just for fun”.

Good For Business?

Would you like to comment on an underlying argument that luthiers in the weissenborn building community have rather polarizing views on. Namely the argument that cheap Asian mass produced weissenborns are damaging the market place for top end luthiers such as yourself. My personal view point from the ‘customers’ prospective is that there is no way I’m going to send $4000-$5000 dollars on a custom made instrument that i haven’t tried out on a cheaper model first, in most cases i think people want to ‘dabble’ first then quickly upgrade when they are hooked like every other commodity in their lives. So this cheap/affordable outlet of Asian instruments is surely a good thing for top end luthiers such as yourself as it actually stimulates the market not diminish it. Your thoughts from the ‘Supplier’ side of the argument?

“It’s probably a good thing if the first step to entry is being lowered, but experience has also taught me that the world probably isn’t better off having additional product categories being overrun by a glut of hastily built, cheap Asian guitars. There tends to be a rush to oversupply the existing demand when new products are brought to market in Asia, which is never good for the health of any industry and a primary driver of low margins for retailers. As a builder of custom instruments, my only competitive advantage is that I can use my experience, access to top quality materials, understanding of design and attention to detail in crafting heirloom musical instruments which fit and reflect the sound, style and interest of my clients. I guess in 10 or 20 years we’ll see if more people are moving up to quality handmade instruments or not”.

What is your pricing policy for a custom built ‘Bowerman’ weissenborn these days?

“All of my custom work carries a baseline price of $3749, with fancier Koa or pickups being the main driver of price on fancier Weissy builds. To try and balance the needs of my time and family, we are probably looking at a price increase at the end of 2016, which will likely further reduce the number of Weissenborn inquiries unfortunately”.

Would How many weissenborns have you built in your career to date do you think and how many per year on average do you get commissioned to do?

“I did 24 while at Breedlove (everything except for the finish work), and have built just 7 since, as well as a pair of Weissy inspired electric steels recently. I generally am seeing orders for one or two a year only which is O.K. I guess, since I can’t afford to build them for any less”.

Is there any real way you can increase your build capacity without getting commercialized and start a ‘factory’ style environment where you haven’t got 100% control or input 100% of the time? is that something you would ever consider?

“I’ve been giving it a lot of consideration since my build list is out to about a year now and I’m working way more hours than I would like to try and keep up with demand. Office and accounting are very weak skills for me, so the thought of hiring on help is really scary. There are a lot of repetitive tasks that robots (CNC Machines) do faster and more accurately than I can by hand, so that might be the direction I have to take in the near term to keep up with demand. Right now I am still executing every element of the work with my own two hands”.

Has the ‘Ed Gerhard’ endorsement been very rewarding to your business with regards to commissions based purely on that connection? Can an endorsement such as Ed’s be measured and have a substantial impact on your business finances and prospects or is this perceived influence not as great as people would think, more promotional than financial?

“I wish I had enough free capacity to build Ed a couple of “stock” instruments which he could sell on a commission basis, my understanding is that he has numerous inquiries at his shows. I’m thrilled that Ed still plays the guitars I’ve had the pleasure of building for him”.

Thank you Jayson for taking time out your busy work/home life to answers all these questions. It has been an absolutely fascinating chat and TWiE wishes you all the best for the future, and please stay in touch and give us updates on future weissenborn builds.

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