Luthier Gareth Jenkins thumped a piece of guitar-shaped wood.
Not satisfied with the sound, he picked up a hand-held plane and scraped away fine curls of wood from a crossbar on the underside. He held the wood up to his ear and thumped again.
“It’s like a drum,” Jenkins said. “The crossbars make the sound. It sounds so amazing.”
Jenkins is one of 10 employees at PK Thompson Guitars LLC, which does business as Preston Thompson Guitars.
Each has a hand at making acoustic guitars inspired by the 1930s iconic American guitar style used mainly by folk and bluegrass musicians. At Thompson Guitars, each guitar soundboard is hand-graduated, the braces hand-carved and scalloped. These traditional approaches give Thompson guitars a unique sound, said co-owner Dan Stewart.
While most of the company’s business comes from the United States, last year about a third of the business came from dealers in Japan, China, South Korea, England, Germany, Holland and Switzerland. The company sees growth potential in the international market.
Right from the company’s start in 2014, there was business from the international market when a Japanese dealer Blue-G reached out for an order. Guitars sell for anywhere from $6,000 to $35,000.
“Most people, when they pick up our guitar for the first time, notice the big bass response and how light the guitars are,” Stewart said. “Guitar making is a combination of art and science. The science is about how it sounds, and the art is the woodworking and finish.”
The company was founded by Preston Thompson, who turned 400 square feet of his home in Bend into a full-scale business when he formed an LLC with Stewart. The luthiers at the boutique guitar shop in Sisters were all trained by Thompson, who has been absent lately recovering from surgery, Stewart said.
“The real thing that separates us from the rest, is how Preston studied an old Martin dreadnought that belonged to the late Charles Sawtelle,” said Stewart of the bluegrass musician who was part of the band Hot Rize. “Charles and Preston were great friends, and Preston was deeply affected by Charles’ primary guitar.”
When the company first started, it made about 30 guitars a year. Today it makes more than 150, with a goal of growing to 225 a year.
Recently the company received its largest international order yet from a Holland company, the Fellowship of Acoustics, which placed an order for 12 guitars, Stewart said.
That order came from a crew from the company who attended the National Association of Music Merchants Show in Anaheim, California, in January. Trade shows, word of mouth, the internet and social media bring in new and repeat business, Stewart said.
“We feel that international sales are beneficial as it helps us expand our market, but not oversaturate the U.S. market,” said Christine Funk, PK Thompson guitars general manager.
Market research showed that there was untapped business in the international market from the beginning, Stewart said.
Thompson guitars specializes in 12 models that can be customized to fit a customer’s desires. One customer asked for Mother of Pearl inlay designs of horses and horseshoes. Another asked for a special design to adorn the headstock. “People like the bling,” Stewart said.
That’s the attraction of custom-made guitars, said Cameron O’Connor, an Oregon State University guitar instructor. Collectors or weekend warriors are attracted to guitars made of exotic woods with inlay designs.
“If you want the palate of tonal colors, quality, intonation and aesthetic beauty, you need to go to a handmade guitar maker,” O’Connor said. “These top-of-the-line guitars are built for a different class of musician, usually a collector who has the financial means. They usually want highly ornate, special materials like Brazilian rosewood, which has been illegal since the 1970s.”
The prices for these kinds of guitars can go for thousands depending on the reputation of the builder and the materials used, O’Connor said.
Several big-name bluegrass and folk musicians have purchased guitars from Thompson Guitars including: Peter Rowan, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, Trey Hensley, Eric Bibb, Laurie Lewis and Tim Stafford, Funk said.
“What we have here is his dream,” Stewart said. “Every guitar we build is better than the last one because we are trying to get it perfect.”
Tony Schmitt, a 53-year-old customer from Houston, Texas, has ordered his second Thompson guitar. His first is an 18-style mahogany dreadnought with an Adirondack spruce top that he purchased in October. He uses it to play in a band with friends. His second is on order, he said.
“I’m a regular guy,” Schmitt said. “I was so impressed by the amount of time they spent with me. My guitar is a work of art. The seams, the inlays, everything is flawless. It’s visually stunning.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2117, email@example.com