On a rainy afternoon in Athens, guitar builder Scott Baxendale takes a cursory glance around his small showroom, running his fingers over racks of vintage and custom-made instruments. He’s looking for the perfect guitar to complement an amateur player with tiny hands. After a moment, he selects one with dark, gleaming wood.
“Try this,” he says, handing me a lightweight acoustic that instantly feels right. Playing barre chords has always been a struggle for me, but on this guitar—which Baxendale explains has a narrow 1-5/8 inch neck and small body—I’m easily able to eke out a solid B. It doesn’t hurt that the instrument is a restored ’64 Epiphone Texan—the same model Paul McCartney used on “Yesterday.”
In some ways, the silver-haired owner of Baxendale Guitar is as much therapist and muse as he is master luthier. He has a gift for deftly pairing instrument and musician, whether it’s a restored vintage guitar or a built-from-scratch Baxendale acoustic with hand-tooled pearl inlay. These days, his specialty is crafting custom guitars that are as nuanced as the musicians for whom they’re made. It’s a talent that has attracted a steady stream of notable clients including Jimmy Herring, Bettye LaVette, Booker T. Jones and Drive-By Truckers. According to Baxendale, crafting a custom guitar is all about asking the right questions.
“I’m interested in knowing what the guy’s influences are, what his inspirations are, what kind of guitars he dreamed about when he was a kid, and what kinds of sounds he likes to listen to,” Baxendale says. “A lot of it is intuitiveness, and a lot of it is me being able to interpret what [musicians] want. Not necessarily what they say they want but what they really want, which isn’t always the same thing.”
Baxendale spends an average of 100 hours on each guitar he builds, painstakingly crafting every piece individually in his busy Athens studio. In addition to carving the delicate inlay, grinding frets, sanding, buffing and finishing the wood, he also applies his considerable skill to the parts you can’t see—like the elaborate interior bracing he says improves tone.
“I think I have achieved a tone and sound in most of my guitars that surpasses anything you can buy in the music store,” Baxendale says, crediting his research on guitars built in the mid-1930s, a period he calls the golden age of guitars. Unlike instruments you buy off the rack at a high-end retailer, no two Baxendales are alike, which means each instrument has an individual sound. With celebrity clients, he’ll go so far as to study subtle differences in playing styles to accommodate them in his designs. A musician himself, Baxendale understands how even the slightest difference in tone or action can open the floodgates for new material.
“Each guitar makes you play a certain way or inspires you to play a certain thing,” he says. “If I can make a guitar that inspires that artist to create art that he may not necessarily have created any other way—to me, that’s when I’ve reached my goal.”
Though he laughs that his original intent was to “make it” in a rock band, Baxendale has instead forged an impressive career for himself at a trade he once considered a fallback. While attending the University of Kansas in 1974, he read an article about the custom guitar shop that Stuart Mossman had just opened three hours away. At age 19, he dropped out of college, moved to Winfield, Kansas and joined a group of musicians apprenticing under Mossman’s tutelage.
“It was just this community of this crazy little town and everybody knew everybody and everybody was really liberal,” Baxendale recalls. “There was so much good music and so many people that were into it around there. I was in my element, finally.”
Though he could easily be describing his current hometown of Athens, it was years before Baxendale would end up there. His path took him to Nashville, where he restored guitars at acclaimed vintage dealer Gruhn Guitars, he bought Mossman in 1985 when his former mentor fell ill and later, after a period of personal hardship and tragedy, he established the Colfax Guitar Shop in Denver, where he first met his now loyal clients, Drive-By Truckers. After performing emergency repairs on several of the band’s broken guitars during a tour, Baxendale developed an ongoing relationship with DBT that eventually resulted in his joining the Dirt Underneath Tour as guitar tech. After traveling back and forth to Athens several times, he and his wife, Pam, jumped at the opportunity to relocate to the laidback music hotspot in 2010. “I really liked the artistic community here,” says Baxendale, who now plays with several Athens bands. “Its not all about personal egos as much as it’s just about doing something creative.”
The move not only allowed Baxendale to start a new custom guitar shop, but it also led to the creation of Athens Luthier Academy, a training program to teach the craft of making and restoring stringed musical instruments. “I wanted to get more into building customs and I wanted to teach,” says Baxendale. “I don’t want to just keep dressing frets and setting guitars up for the rest of my life. I want to pass that [knowledge] on to somebody else.”
Among the apprentices who have participated in the program is Joel Byron, guitar tech for Widespread Panic. “Scott’s not afraid to experiment with things,” Byron says of his mentor and friend. “Knowing what makes guitars tick and how they work and their aesthetics gives him a different perspective than a lot of people that are making guitars now.”
Though he’s focused now on paying his considerable knowledge forward, Baxendale never seems to tire of his chosen craft. He says he’s as fascinated with guitars as he ever was, and jokes about having postpartum depression when he lets go of a guitar. After years in the trade, though, he knows what a gift it is to make a living doing something you love in a place you love.
“I always thought that instrument-making was just a means to an end—it was my fallback so that I could make it as a musician. But it’s not about making it, because I’ve already made it,” Baxendale says. “It’s about being true to myself, being part of the community and being an artist.”