Master of His Craft

Story by David Erickson, for Montana 55 | Photos by Tommy Martino, for Montana 55

One of the world’s most respected luthiers is, probably while you are reading this, quietly working on
another handmade guitar in an unassuming shop in the woods, way up Petty Creek Road west of Missoula.

John Walker builds high-end custom guitars from scratch for customers in Japan, Germany and everywhere in between.

His guitars range from $4,000 to $15,000, and right now he’s working on his 169th project. That’s not counting all the guitars he built when he worked for Gibson and Tacoma, when he made instruments for master musicians the likes of Pete Townsend of The Who, Jorma Kaukonen and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

For Walker, who is a humble, deliberate, soft-spoken craftsman, the art of getting every single tiny detail right on every single guitar has been a three-decade long labor of love.

Most of the equipment and tools John uses to build his guitars he built himself. “There things like tuners and strings that I don’t build, but most of the things I either build myself or I have built in other parts of my career,” Walker said.

Most of the equipment and tools John uses to build his guitars he built himself. “There things like tuners and strings that I don’t build, but most of the things I either build myself or I have built in other parts of my career,” Walker said.

“I like everything about it,” he said. “I think the thing that really gets me going is my belief that music is such an important part of everybody’s life and the good things in life. For me, I’ve always loved music so much. And by building instruments, it allows me to participate and be a part of that scene. I love it and I think it’s an important thing in the world. That to me is a really huge draw.”

Walker, who jokingly refers to his own playing ability as “unsuccessful,” took an unusual route to the trade.

“Most (luthiers) are players and are seeking a better guitar than they can purchase,” he said. “For me it was every job I did before getting into this, I seemed to be too meticulous. So when I was building houses, I worked for a guy who kept saying, ‘You’re not building a piano!’ And the thought that crossed my mind was, ‘How cool would that be to build musical instruments?’ ”

He started out making banjos and mandolins in Bozeman for a small company, then honed his craft building guitars for Gibson, one of the most respected companies in the industry.

The opportunity came up many years ago to purchase land on Petty Creek Road, and now he lives there with his wife and commutes a few feet to his shop every day. Each project starts with the selection of the perfect wood – everything from rosewood to mahogany to Adirondack red spruce – and then he builds every single piece except for the tuners and strings. Guitar makers are obsessive about the wood quality. Walker recalls one instance where his supplier dug up an entire curly maple tree’s root ball because it was so perfect that it needed to be planted.

“He doesn’t expect to see any results in his lifetime, but possibly that same tree will produce again,” he said. “It is really amazing wood.”

His shop has all kinds of machinery and tools to help him shape each piece of the guitar.

Many of his customers are dentists and lawyers and other professionals who have found a renewed passion for music as a hobby and now want a fine instrument to play.

“It’s mostly baby boomers who are now in a position to afford that guitar they’ve wanted since they were in that garage band in their teens,” he said. “Now they can afford that dream guitar. They most of the time have a collection of guitars.”

He often has repeat customers, and he sometimes has a two-year backlog, since he can only produce about 12 a year.

“Every once in awhile I build a guitar that doesn’t have a customer other than a general customer in mind,” he said. “It gives me an opportunity to sort of broaden the things that I do.”

The price tag may seem high, but Walker says he charges less than many experienced luthiers, although
more than the younger ones.

After spending several years with Gibson Acoustic and eventually managing the custom shop in Bozeman, Walker spent about 10 years in the Seattle before returning to Montana to start his own shop.

After spending several years with Gibson Acoustic and eventually managing the custom shop in Bozeman, Walker spent about 10 years in the Seattle before returning to Montana to start his own shop.

“I kind of work off of my reputation,” he explained. More and more, it seems, his customers have been ordering more expensive guitars. They often have specific requests, but Walker says many of them just want a traditional, high-quality instrument rather than a flashy, gaudy piece.

“Every guitar has a different purpose and I can steer towards that purpose,” he said. “You know, if I build 100 guitars it’s 100 different guitars and every one has its own personality. I can steer towards that. Certainly bluegrass players have different requirements than fingerstyle players or rock ’n’ roll players.”

Although it’s a difficult skill to master, Walker says the art of building instruments from scratch is not in any danger of dying out anytime soon.

“Twenty-seven years ago there were not a whole lot of people building guitars on their own,” he said.
“But that number exploded in the ‘90s, I would say. To a point where now I can’t believe how many people are doing it. It’s certainly a very hard way to make a living at least until your name is well-known and your quality is well-known.”

He’s made it his mission to build a custom guitar for every one of his children and grandchildren. He’s gotten a lot of calls from people hoping to apprentice under him, but he’s never been interested in that.

He takes pride and satisfaction in knowing that every instrument he’s created is bringing joy and music into someone’s life.

“I haven’t seen one yet wear out or fall apart,” he said. “As far as I know they’re all still in operation. And hopefully they’re still in operation long after I’m gone.”

As for his favorite guitar he’s built after all these years?

“The one I’m working on right now,” he said, smiling.

David Erickson is the business reporter for the Missoulian. He can be reached at david.erickson@missoulian.com. Tommy Martino is a photographer for the Missoulian. He can be reached at tommy.martino@missoulian.com. ☐

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