As you cross from Sonoma into Mendocino County, the landscape goes through an almost instantaneous kind of change. The terrain becomes rougher, the hills more stark, with clusters of Serpentine rocks piercing the ground. The grey sky above and the almost complete lack of traffic were the perfect complement to my morning drive. I was heading to visit the workshop of Greg Byers — someone I instinctively think of as a “Bay Area builder” until it’s actually time to go visit him.
Once you reach the town of Willits—some 150 miles North of San Francisco—you have to make a right turn and prepare to leave the beaten path for a while. Cell reception drops almost immediately as you reach the hills. The road narrows, then becomes unpaved. Climbing up and down the hilly ranges you are rewarded with some truly breath-taking views. After about fifteen miles, just when you start to wonder if you’ve made a wrong turn, you finally come into sight of Greg’s house and annexed workshop, sitting in a quiet and picturesque clearing.
Greg had sent me an email the previous week to tell me he had both a cedar and a spruce guitar strung up in the shop. Since my own build was scheduled to commence soon, and I remained undecided in the great spruce/cedar dilemma, it seemed to me that the three hour drive was a small price to pay to be able to indulge in a detailed comparison.
Alas, such comparisons are often nothing more than glorified fool’s errands. Greg had not two but three finished guitars in the shop—one had come back for a repair. However, there were some subtle construction differences between this guitar and the two newer ones, so we decided to eliminate from our comparison. Still, the cedar-topped one was about forty-eight hours old, whereas the spruce had been assembled for close to a month.
For close to two hours I went back and forth, changing guitars (and my mind) every five minutes. Greg sat patiently working on the frets of a fourth guitar, chiming in from time to time with a comment or a request. He is a gracious and welcoming host, but he’s also good at “staying out of the way,” so to speak, as I was trying to figure out what I was hearing.
The differences were subtle, but still significant. Hard to attribute them to the top wood alone—back and sides were also different, in addition to the afore-mentioned age. In the end, I decided for the spruce, partially reassured by the fact that, in all honesty, I could be perfectly happy playing either guitar.
We spent another half hour or so going through sets of woods and discussing more trivial ordering details. Conversation kept drifting to other subjects—Greg is a Renaissance man, and I’m a blabber: we make a pretty dangerous pair. Eventually I forced myself to leave—the rental car had to be returned by evening, and I had a long drive ahead.
As I reached Willits on my way back, its distinctive blend of Far West and Hippie traits struck me as positively frantic, rather than just quaint. I had left the wilderness and was back into the faster-paced world that I’ve known for all my life.
Chances are you live within driving distance of a skilled luthier. See if you can schedule a visit to the workshop, meet the artist, and play a guitar or two. You don’t have to be a customer, but you may soon be…