Bill Collings knows everything there is to know about guitars — but he cannot play one.
Collings is the man behind Collings Guitars, an internationally renowned brand of acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins and ukuleles built in a factory just outside of Austin on Highway 290. Inside, a slow-moving, human-powered assembly line builds only 15 instruments per day. Each of these instruments is distributed to dealers around the world and then sold for an average of $5,000 a piece.
Some of these expensive instruments are sold to famous guitarists including Marcus Mumford, Robert Plant and Pete Townshend. Thousands of other names aren’t recognizable now, but they could be in the future. It would not be the first time a musician became famous playing a Collings guitar.
Somewhere between making one guitar a week on his kitchen table in a tiny Houston apartment and purchasing the current building that houses the factory, Collings became a master luthier.
“I was always thrilled by the way a guitar sounded, and actually just how that sound made me feel,” Collings said. “Even though I didn’t play well, I loved it.”
Collings moved from Ohio to Houston in 1975 for work. In his spare time, he began building guitars.
Collings said he is not sure how many guitars he has made on that kitchen table in Houston, but there is one thing he knows for certain — guitar number 29 was country singer Lyle Lovett’s.
A young Lovett came to take photos of Collings for a school assignment after he heard local Houston musician Rick Gordon played a Collings guitar. Now Lovett almost exclusively plays Collings guitars.
“I have some pictures that Lyle took of me when I was 27,” Collings said. “He was in college, he was 18 in a photojournalism class. Now he owns 30 of my guitars.”
In 1980, Collings left Houston, which he said was becoming too big, and moved to Austin in what should have been a pit stop on the way to San Diego. He never went any farther.
For 10 years, Collings experienced what he now calls his “struggling years,” a decade that ended with the birth of his daughter and the purchase of his first proper factory.
“I knew I could turn it up or turn it down; If I worked at it, I could get customers,” Collings said. “The biggest switch was 1990 when I had a baby daughter. I didn’t want my daughter to know I was a bum.”
Twenty-three years and a second factory later, Collings guitars receive international praise for being some of the highest quality instruments of their kind.
Collings isn’t a household name such as Fender or Martin, but musicians and celebrities, including Conan O’Brien and Steven Spielberg, own Collings guitars.
Collings gained respect through a guitar-building process that requires more than 50 hours of manual labor, almost all of which is done by hand. On an average workday, the factory produces six or seven acoustic guitars, three electric guitars, two mandolins and two ukuleles.
Ask anyone what it is that sets a Collings apart from any other guitar, and the answer will be “attention to detail.” But the attention to detail Collings gives things such as guitars is lost on almost everything else.
Steve McCreary, general manager of the Collings factory and old friend of Collings’, found similarities between Collings and Steve Jobs when he read the Jobs biography.
“Collings is the same way as Jobs when it comes to details,” McCreary said. “He likes the inside of guitars to be just as nice as the outside. But he’s a total mess. Like his cars are trashed. Nice cars, but he kind of gets off on them being trashy.”
Collings walks around his factory and points at the perfectly clean binding of an unfinished acoustic guitar one minute and shoves a handful of rice and chicken into his mouth with his hands the next. Utensils are a convenience. Perfection in his instruments is a necessity.
Building guitars to Collings’ high standards is tedious work, yet the atmosphere inside his factory is laid back. Instead of afternoon meetings around a long table, a group of employees plays four square in the parking lot behind the factory at 3:15 p.m. every day.
Kevin Jones, an employee at Hill Country Guitars, a Collings guitar dealer, worked at the Collings factory for eight years. In his time at the factory, he said he got to know Collings as well as he feels anyone can get to know him.
“He’s a character,” Jones said. “He’s a great human being, has a tremendous heart, but not everybody can see that.”
Collings splits his time in the factory between eating rice and chicken with his fingers, making sure the human assembly line is running smoothly and picking on his employees like a schoolyard bully.
Jones remembered one of his coworkers at the factory who was terrified of snakes. Jones said one day, just to mess with him, Collings tied a live garden snake to a string and lowered it over the man’s workbench. Some bosses show appreciation through kind e-mails. Collings chooses to show appreciation through teasing and pranks.
Bruce Van Wart, Collings’ first employee, has worked for Collings since 1989. According to him, Collings has slowed down since the early days.
“He’s not as fiery as he used to be, believe it or not,” Van Wart said. “He’s got his own distractions with hot rods and all kinds of things.”
Just as soon as Collings will lower a live snake over a workbench in the name of a good joke, he will loan a car to a worker, or allow a day off when the waves are good if he knows someone really loves to surf.
The men and women who work in his factory do the job he no longer has the capacity to do by himself. His employees are his hands, and he treats them well.
Every so often Collings will sit down in front of the workbench, roll up his sleeves and build a guitar. He said he does it with a bottle of Everclear at his side, but the smile on his face after he said it is a sign that this could be another one of his jokes.
Now, his favorite thing to do is build arch top guitars and ukuleles because they are the most challenging. He said he builds about five or six arch tops per year. The rest of his time is reserved to learning how to play one, a craft he has been trying to master for 40 years.
But according to Collings, you can never really learn.