Is there a musical instrument that tells the story of the South any better than the guitar? After all, the South gave birth to rock and roll, which everyone knows will never die.
We decided to find some of the guitar makers headquartered in the South who have the most fervent professional adherents, concluding that they logically produce among the best crafted instruments.
There is a long tradition of advanced guitar craft around Nashville, as well as in parts of Texas. But other parts of the South are also producing masterful and beautiful stringed instruments, reflecting the fidelity and honest tone demanded by professionals.
Here are some of the South’s great guitar makers, in no particular order:
Gibson Brands of Nashville is probably the most iconic maker of guitars anywhere, of both the electric and acoustic variety.
Gibson’s most famous model is the Les Paul, designed in part by the guitar-playing impresario of the same name. The Les Paul has inspired many pros over the years.
The pantheon of accomplished guitar players who have played a Gibson is a long, long one, and includes Woody Guthrie, Rosetta Tharpe, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, BB King, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, Warren Haynes, Duane Allman, Wes Montgomery, Scotty Moore, Slash and Dave Grohl.
When it comes to music, the people who play it are the first to acknowledge the instruments they hold in their hands are vital to their success.
Many guitar players are evangelists for a particular brand, and have a reverent affection for the craftsmen, aka luthiers, who made their instruments.
Blues musician B.B. King was famous for his career-long love affair with the Gibson ES-335.
He dubbed it “Lucille” after a woman by the same name who sparked a fistfight in an Arkansas club where was playing. The passionate fight resulted in the club actually burning down.
In the liner notes for his 1968 album “Lucille,” King wrote of his guitar: “It seems that it loves to be petted and played with. There’s also a certain way you hold it, the certain noises it makes, the way it excites me… and Lucille don’t want to play anything but the blues… Lucille is real, when I play her it’s almost like hearing words, and of course, naturally I hear cries.”
Gretsch, also a drum maker and now headquartered in Savannah, likewise has a distinguished pedigree. The company is known for its Electromagnetic and Streamliner guitar models.
Some musicians are so meticulous they help design their own guitars. Gretsch produced the emblematic “Country Gentleman” guitar fostered by Chet Atkins, as well as Bo Diddley’s trademark cigar-shaped guitar nicknamed “The Twang Machine.”
Other Gretsch players have included George Harrison, Bono, Lou Reed, Brian Setzer and Michael Nesmith.
Peavey Electronics Corp. is a Meridian, Miss. maker of guitars, amplifiers and other musical gear. Founder Hartley Peavey, a towering figure in the industry, started the business as a one-man shop, but today it is one of the world’s biggest makers of musical devices.
Its notable guitar players include Eddie Van Halen, Gary Rossington and Steve Cropper.
In Texas, Austin-based Collings Guitars is a venerable stringed instrument maker. The company was founded by master luthier Bill Collings, who set out in 1948 to make "heirloom quality instruments" and, by all accounts, succeeded mightily.
Noted players of Collings guitars include Rui Velos, Ariel Posen, Jack Pearson, Andy Summers, Michael Kang, Keith Urban, John Sebastian, Audley Freed, Lyle Lovett and Joni Mitchell.
Master luthiers like Bill Collings toil in a zone where craft meets art, working long hours with beautiful woods like mahogany, ash, alder and rosewood. all for the glory of music. The best luthiers are obscure, and famous mostly among the music stars and pros who seek them out.
Much-travelled luthier Scott Baxendale recently set up shop in Athens, Ga., site of a burgeoning contemporary music scene. Thankfully, Baxendale Guitars also teaches the art of lutherie to aspiring craftsman.
Notable Baxendale players include members of Drive By Truckers, Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, Luther Dickinson, Booker T Jones, Butch Walker and members of Widespread Panic.
John Morgan was an executive at Billboard Magazine's parent company for nine years, and notably led the launch of the magazine's Website, www.Billboard.com. He was also founding editor of the "This Day in Music Almanac," and created the BPI Entertainment News Wire. He has a special fondness for Southern music and other Southern art, from literature to crafts and photography.