Bear Creek Guitars
Bill Hardin is a man who’s reputation as a Weissenborn luthier is almost unrivalled in the modern age. Ever since I first saw, heard and played a weissenborn I was aware that Bill Hardin at Bear Creek Guitars was regarded amongst the elite players as a master Weissenborn luthier.
A combination of two decades experience and an open minded approach to innovation and not just dutiful historic replication has resulted in Bill Hardin creating instruments that are a perfect blend of old and new, stunning beauty and amazing tone. Embracing 100 years of luthier evolution and modern day tooling techniques has resulted in an instrument which pays close homage to its past while offering the player new tonal, playability and build qualities that I’m sure Hermann C himself would approve of.
Music journalist & published author (as well as keen Weissenborn player) Andy Volk has graciously donated to TWiE the permission to host this in depth profile article about Bill Hardin’s career he wrote a few years back. Andy is an award-winning Boston-based television producer/director, writer, designer and musician. He’s the author of the books Guitar Dreams, Lap Steel Guitar (Centerstream/Hal Leonard), and Slide Rules and co-author (with John McGann) of Joaquin Murphey: Classic Western Swing Steel Guitar Solos. Andy is a also contributing writer to The Fretboard Journal and Acoustic Guitar as well as various online venues.
This article first appeared in “The Fretboard Journal” and has since been included in his book “Guitar Dreams” and covers Bill’s luthier career from his early days with Dobro to the founding of Bear Creek Guitars. It’s a fascinating read for any Weissenborn fan and many thanks go out to Andy for letting me share the article with you all at TWiE in its entirety.
Here is Andy’s article in full as it appears in his book “Guitar Dreams”…….
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.”
Hardin’s days of hitting the swap meets and the flea markets in search of 25 or 50-dollar Hawaiian-style guitars began to pay off. He remembers finding quite a few at affordable prices, but they invariably needed repair. “The first one I took apart was an old Kona,” Hardin recalls. “It was X-braced. It was what I would consider kind of a crudely made guitar but it had some pretty refined bracing in it for a steel string guitar – especially for its day in the 1920s.”
Repairing old guitars also taught Hardin how Weissenborn had constructed their hollownecks. “There are certain things you won’t know about them until you take them apart,” he explains. “One of them was that they reinforced the whole neck with some kind of wood, usually spruce. You can’t really see this by looking in the soundhole. The interiors were pretty crude, with saw marks and lots of glue dripping everywhere. And almost every brace in them was loose after all that time. Most of the ones I was picking up at flea markets and thrift stores were definitely beat up. So they were very crude, but they somehow held together.”
The Hilos were ladder braced and there were some differences in the Weissenborn bracings in the early years, but by the mid 20s, they had a pretty refined X-brace with three struts coming off of it and a couple of transverse bars across the bottom, similar to what Martin uses. It was definitely a strong bracing pattern and it seemed to be the one to go with.”
Anyone who has spent sometime around acoustic steel guitar players knows that they consider the original Weissenborn instruments to have a special magic unduplicated by other instruments. Endless late-night arguments have raged over whether it’s the quality of the koa wood, the body design, the rope binding, or simply their age that gives some of these instruments their unique, yet hard-to-define mojo. Hardin has little patience for metaphysical explanations.
“They weren’t all great and they actually weren’t all the same,” he says. “You get some of the old Weissenborns that have a top that’s maybe .150” thick or even more, and then you’ll get one that’s maybe .080” thick. And they really didn’t select wood. It was whatever was running through the mill – some of it highly figured, some much less figured, and some with patches all over it. They all sounded different to me. Some of the magic of them is mainly the age – when you get a good one that has the original hide glue construction still intact and a shellac finish on it. The ones that sounded really great had all the original bracing intact. The neck angle also has a lot to do with how the guitars sound. The ones that I liked would usually have a little bit of a negative cant to the neck and fairly high action.”
With his own line of hollownecks, Hardin looked for ways to improve on the original design. He reinforced the necks on his Bear Creek models and, gradually, found that increasing the thickness of the bracing and the top improved their tone. “I use a little bit thicker top than what someone would use on a standard Spanish or steel- string guitar,” he explains. “With koa especially, if I get the top around .110” – about .030” more than I would do on a Spanish guitar – it gives me more sustain, more punch to the instrument. In the early days, I was maybe going a little thinner on my tops. If anything, I learned I like the koa a little fatter, especially for a steel-string guitar. It also gives the player a lot more versatility. They can play it in some higher tunings, with the strings at higher tension, without worrying about it.”
One of the interesting cosmetic features of the early Weissenborns was the use of rope binding made of alternating light and dark shades of wood. Hardin is amused that some modern luthiers haven’t yet figured out how to efficiently construct it.
“I’ve seen people put all the individual little pieces together,” he explains. “I learned how to do it one day at Dobro by looking at a guitar that came in with some rope binding on it – I think it was actually Don [Young] and me sitting there – we were just looking at the guitar saying, “How would you do this? We came to the conclusion to lay it up in a big slab and then slice it off at 45 degrees into big strips. The thing I learned was that, without a backing on the binding, it was real difficult to work. Early in the Bear Creek days, I learned the trick of putting a little backing on the binding when you’re sticking it on and then routing that off afterwards was the key. You could get some really intricate, small rope patterns without having to use the more chunky-looking rope.”
Hardin feels the rope-bound guitars sound better but can’t really explain why. “It could be the actual weight of the rope around guitar,” he ventures. “They’ll definitely take a hit. I’ve dropped guitars with rope binding and there will be a little smashed edge off the rope and maybe pieces falling off of the rope but the guitar itself won’t be damaged. If I were to drop a guitar with solid rosewood binding, the body of the guitar would take the hit. A lot of the old rope bound guitars are missing pieces of rope here and there but it looks like the segmented binding protected the guitar.”
The most visible proponent of Bear Creek instruments has been multi-instrumentalist, Bob Brozman. Brozman’s endorsement helped put the company on the map and has extended to influencing Hardin’s designs. As Brozman relates, “I have had and continually performed with Bill’s instruments since 1997. His instruments are a big part of my sound and repertoire. A lot of my music would not be possible without Bear Creek instruments. I feel that they have gone beyond the Weissenborn in tone, projection, craftsmanship, joinery, and overall beauty.”
“Bob’s been a great promoter of my guitars and he’s got a giant Weissenborn collection, which was really cool to see,” Hardin says. “He’s got real specific ideas of tone and usually, when I can meet those, it’s pretty fulfilling. The guitar that I think Bob and I worked on that’s the best was the little short scale kona that he tours with and he loves. I’ve actually made him two of them. What he does with that guitar pretty much blows my mind.” Brozman professes that curly koa delivers more sustain while straight-grained koa is louder but decays faster. Hardin believes the answer may have more to do with the thickness of the top.
“Koa is a pretty amazing wood for tonal characteristics,” Hardin says, “ but it varies a lot, with different densities from one board to the next. I can’t say that the specific curl in the wood will give you a specific tone – especially with koa – because you can get some highly figured, really dense koa, and it will sound good if someone knows what to do with it and [you] thickenes it to the appropriate thickness and brace it right. I believe you can’t really base a guitar on how beautiful the wood is but on how thick it is and what the luthier has done with it. I’ve also heard from other players out there that the plain koa’s the stuff as far as what they want from the guitar.
“Bob may know some of this on a level I don’t understand because he’s got all these guitars he can compare right next to each other. I don’t have 50 koa guitars I can swap at one time. I’ve seen curly koa that was amazing and I got great sustain out of it after building the guitar to the thickness that I prefer for the particular wood. I’ve been working with koa almost exclusively, and koa’s getting more costly and kind of competitive to buy. It’s becoming more and more popular and scarcer. It’s only a matter of time. The large factories make beautiful guitars with koa, and they use up a lot of it.”
Asked to explain the difference in tone between the Weissenborn hollownecks and the solidneck Konas, Hardin says, “The Kona has a little bit more of a guitar sound. It’s got about the same volume as far as the chamber size, but it doesn’t have the hollowneck – though some people call them ‘semi-hollow’ because it’s hollow to the seventh fret. When I play an original Kona with a 25” scale it kind of sounds like you could be playing a Roy Smeck or an Oahu or another standard guitar on your lap. The Konas had a really nice bracing pattern so I think they’re superior to some of the old student model Oahus, but it’s a similar tone. I really like bottleneck style on
a Kona. I think it sounds amazing. The first Kona I ever bought had four fishing lines as strings strung up like a ukulele. Man, the fretwork in those things was just horrendous, so I’m sure if they were playable, they weren’t a great Spanish guitar by any means. I don’t know why the Kona was produced. I think it might have been just to use smaller pieces of koa. The hollowneck is just its own animal. It’s like the difference between a tricone and a single cone. It’s got its own characteristics.”
Hardin uses a 25” scale on his hollowneck instruments, unless a customer plans to use a high G tuning or wants to play it with lap steel tunings. He’ll then shorten the scale so string tension won’t overwhelm the instrument. The Kona guitars have a 23.5” scale – a 25” scale shortened by one fret. These guitars can accommodate higher tension tunings such as A, E, or C.
With an output now approaching 25 guitars a year, Hardin recently hired some help. “Milton Yamashita is working with me now,” he explains. “He’s an independent luthier and his company name is Kula guitars. He’s working with me 20 hours a week doing gluing and carving braces but I’m down here seven days a week. I’ve been working with Milton for six or seven months now and we’ve managed to get a little ahead of the orders here and there. I finally had to take on my own finishing. I was actually even sending guitars to the mainland to get done for a while. It’s also another whole job, in my opinion. The toxicity of it was annoying me but I built a spray booth here in the Maui shop and I’m doing my own high-gloss finishing and I also still offer a satin finish.”
Hardin built ukuleles while working at Dobro and noticed there were collectors who would pay luthier-level prices for fine handmade instruments. Bear Creek makes two or three ukuleles a year, including a soprano model with a unique heart-shaped soundhole – a detail Hardin first saw on the soundhole of an old Gretsch that someone had customized. He debuted the heart-shaped soundhole at a guitar show in Healdsburg, California one year and it’s continued to be popular with players.
Asked to name his own favorites, Hardin replies, “The baritones that Bob Brozman and I worked together on were really cool because we basically took the Weissenborn and we extended it all around inside by one inch. It came out to be this gigantic, kind of comical-looking Weissenborn and then when I strung that thing up, it just blew me away. It was like Weissenborn on steroids. I think the baritone was one of the coolest things because of the quick and immediate reaction from doing nothing but enlarging the guitar. I’ve also been working on a Hindustani slide guitar for a good ten years now. I’m just going through the wood selection now but I have all the drawings and the tunings down. I have decided to go with a carved top on it rather than a flat top, mainly because the luthiers in India seem to be coming out with an incredible sound out of theirs.”
For the foreseeable future, Hardin plans to stick with the Hawaiian steel guitars that built his reputation but hopes to expand the line – in response to the economic pressures felt by every luthier working today. “It comes in waves but the economy’s kind of choosing things right now; it’s not necessarily the popularity of instruments,” says Hardin. “I have noticed the Weissenborn isn’t doing what it did five years ago but there’s still steady interest. We’re going to stick with hollowneck Weissenborn-style guitars and I am also adding parlor guitars. I’ve got some really cool old small body guitars I’m working on. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the Dreadnaught, but I’d like to explore resophonic guitars.” At my peak, I was about three years backlogged. Now, with Milton’s help, I’d say we’re getting down to about a year or so which gives me the luxury to think like this. Over the last ten years. I’ve just been building Weissenborns so it’s exciting to consider some new designs.”