Steel Trappings

Andy Volk

Bill Hardin - Part 1

July 7, 2016 • Andy VolkInstruments and Luthiers

This article is about the career of luthier Bill Hardin, from his early days with Dobro to the founding of Bear Creek Guitars. It's a fascinating read for any Weissenborn fan.

Music journalist and published author (as well as keen Weissenborn player) Andy Volk has graciously given Steel Trappings his permission to reproduce his in-depth profile article he authored several years ago. Andy is an award-winning Boston-based television producer/director, writer, designer, musician, and the author of several books including Guitar Dreams where this article appeared. Andy is also a contributing writer toThe Fretboard Journal and Acoustic Guitar as well as various online venues. His publications can be viewed at his website, Volk Media Books, at Copyright © by Andy Volk.

Due to its length, the original article has been divided into three parts.

Although Bill Hardin now makes his living as a luthier, he was initially more interested in deconstructing guitars than constructing them. "I was always curious about how things worked — what was inside things — so in my teens, I took apart more guitars than I put together," explains Hardin, who builds guitars in Maui, Hawaii under the name of Bear Creek Guitars. "The first time I realized you could build a guitar was when I got out of the Navy and I saw a class advertised at a community college. By then, I'd already taken apart three or four guitars and had a basic understanding of what was inside them. I got through that class at the community college in southern California, and I learned enough basically just to get my way in the door at Dobro. That's where I met Don Young."

Now co-owner of National Reso-phonic Guitars in San Luis Obispo, California, Young introduced Hardin to the world of resonator guitars, and more importantly, to the then mysterious Weissenborn-style Hawaiian steel guitar. "Don brought in this thing he'd made that he copied off some old original Weissenborn and it just blew my mind," Hardin says, "It was such a pure slide sound and just amazing." This unusual guitar with its flush frets and hollow neck, was designed to be played lap-style. It inspired Hardin to search out the old music that people would have played on it, and it sparked a desire to explore how these almost-forgotten instruments were constructed.

Before Hardin could really delve into the mysteries of hollowneck guitars, though, his budding career almost came to an abrupt end. One day in 1983, Bill Hardin was buffing an ornately engraved metal-bodied Dobro mandolin in preparation for plating. In a rush to get the job done, Hardin neglected to put the protective wooden cover over the well, the center cavity that holds the resonator. After a few seconds of pushing the mandolin against the buffing wheel, the instrument slipped, jamming his right hand into the spinning machine. With an odd mix of clarity, emotional detachment and a nearly hallucinogenic recall of the grisly details, Hardin remembers looking at his wrist bones starting to tear through the skin while two of his fingers dangled from his right palm, now attached solely by their veins. After turning off the buffer with his left hand, he screamed for help and then mercifully passed out as his colleagues used a hacksaw and tin snips to free him from the machine.

After several surgeries and extensive physical therapy, doctors told Hardin he'd recover only 50% of the use of his right hand and should consider a career change. He reluctantly took their advice and enrolled in a travel-agent course to prepare for his new life. After only one mind-numbing day of class, he went home, pulled out a set of rosewood boards and started figuring out how to make a guitar again. Confounding expectations, Hardin regained the use of his hand and, one year later, Gabriella Lazar and Don Young offered him a chance to return to work. Two years later, he joined Richard Hoover at Santa Cruz Guitar Company.

Hardin describes his time at Santa Cruz as a masters program in guitar making. "It thrilled me. It frustrated me. If you're not getting frustrated now and then you're not trying," he says. "I was there 5 years and saw a really interesting time at SCGC. When I started there, there were 5 of us building guitars. The theory was for each person to try to build one guitar a week. The day I left Santa Cruz, the first CNC machines were on the way and I think they had 12 or 15 employees, all highly skilled luthiers and good guys out of Roberto Venn [School of Lutherie] and places like that."

Even as he constructed standard guitars at Santa Cruz, Hardin couldn't forget those early talks about Weissenborns with Don Young. He contacted Young, asking him what model of Hawaiian guitar might be best to use to launch his own lutherie business. "That was about the time Ben Harper was starting to record and it just seemed like the Weissenborn might be getting a new life. My idea was to get as far away from the Dreadnaught as I could get and the Weissenborn steel seemed to be perfect. I'd already chosen the name Bear Creek 'cause I lived just off a creek with that name. I ran an ad in Acoustic Guitar Magazine and started getting some interest, and it started taking off."

Next: Repairing guitars provides valuable information about guitar construction.


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