West of downtown Austin on Highway 290 is a small company building some of the finest musical instruments in the world: Collings Guitars. “We might be the only guitar company in the world founded by an engineer from an engineering family,” said Steve McCreary, General Manager of Collings. Every day of the week, Collings produces acoustic guitars, electric guitars, mandolins, and ukuleles that rival instrument builders from all over the world. “The coolest thing is that we have all these people that make great instruments, and no one can do the quality or the number of instruments that we do.”
THE FAMILY TREE
The meticulous desire for quality and precision, runs in the family. Founder Bill Collings traces this in his lineage back to his great-uncle, Alexander Winton. Alexander was a Scottish-American inventor, noted for his engineering prowess. In 1891, he started building bicycles with his Winton Bicycle Company. In 1897, he opened the Winton Motor Carriage Company to produce automobiles. Winton custom made all their vehicles. He is credited with the sale of the first gasoline-powered automobile in the United States in 1898. Alexander is also known for creating the world’s first semi-truck, which is now the backbone of transportation worldwide.
But Alexander was not the only inventor/engineer in the family. Bill’s grandfather, William R. Collings, was the vice president of Dow Corning at its conception in 1943. William also served as president of Dow for eight years, starting in 1954. The desire for craftsmanship, and the know-how to achieve it, is in Bill’s blood.
CONTINUING IN QUALITY
Bill tinkered and built various projects from a very early age. “We didn’t have TV, so you had to keep yourself entertained,” he claims. He broke into manufacturing right out of college, when he took his first job in a machine shop. It was there he learned how various people come together to craft something that is greater than the sum of its parts. As he worked in the shop, he started to develop an interest in guitars. “My early days of making guitars was taking repairs in, talking to customers, and learning what was wrong with their instruments.” He used the repair sessions as on-the-job training.
As he started to develop prototype models, Bill realized that manufacturing guitars would be his future. The Collings Guitars brand really started to grow in the late 1980s, when the craftsmanship and designs caught the attention of amateur and professional players around the world. Lyle Lovett is quoted as saying that “[Bill Collings’s] guitars have personality; his guitars have a lot of spirit; and, they respond quickly.” It is this type of praise that sets this company apart from other manufacturers in the United States.
THE COLLINGS CRAFTSMANSHIP
The beginning of any guitar is the selection of wood. Bill typically explains that the making of a great guitar comes down to three elements; the wood, craftsmanship, and design all have to be impeccable, otherwise the guitar will be mediocre at best, and dead at worst.
Different woods have different tonal properties, and a true luthier, someone who builds string instruments, understands this. For example, maple is known for a brighter tone, while mahogany or walnut will give darker complexities.
No two guitars ever sound the same. Collings has wood shipped in from all over the world to satisfy the varying models they produce. Sitka Spruce is the primary wood for the tops of their acoustic guitars, and they use a mixture of mahogany or rosewood for the back, sides, and neck. For the fretboard, they use ebony which provides a lush dark color. The electric guitars vary in composition as well: the I35 model is their best-selling electric, comprised of maple and mahogany; they make the 290 models solely from mahogany, and others like the 360 are alder or ash. The possibilities are endless.
Once they select the wood, they begin the process of cutting the wood into the varying designs. Using laser guided CNC machines ensures precise cuts every time. The entire operation involves eighty people, and they pour their heart and soul into every single guitar that comes off the line. “I go home late pretty much every night,” said Steve. They work with local colleges to bring in young talent that has studied art or manufacturing.
As the guitar moves through the process, each worker has a specific part to play. There is a person to cut the body, someone to cut the neck, one to paint, another to install hardware, and finally someone to install the electronics. Despite having four different product lines, there is a handcrafted element to their work; it can take as little as two weeks, to as many as eight weeks for a guitar to go from a slab of wood to completed product.
INDUSTRY AND ART
To see slabs of wood, and then to see a finished guitar, is truly awe-inspiring. The gorgeous flame from Spanish woods or the bright colors of the paint give each instrument a unique look. The guitars stand out from the standard instruments seen at big-box retailers. While vintage designs inspire some of the body shapes, the overall instruments are original Collings creations.
Collings is in the midst of the Austin music scene. Texas musicians such as Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Charlie Sexton, and countless others use Collings as their main instruments. The renown of the guitar builder from Austin stretches much further, though. Pete Townsend, Mumford and Sons, Alejandro Escovedo, Andy Summers, and even Conan O’Brien are known for appearing with Collings instruments. The design and quality of the guitars helps solidify Texas as a home for fine music and art.
“Every day we marry art and industry,” said Steve McCreary. They absolutely love showing visitors how the entire process works. Tours are available every Friday, but they ask that you make an appointment in advance as it is a manufacturing facility. They have to take safety and work into account.
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
Recently, Collings opened another brand, Waterloo Guitars. The goal of this brand is to provide customers with pre-war era style guitars that take people back to a simpler time. The response for this line of products has exceeded their expectations. Not only have the amateur players responded, but rock icons like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame have been enamored with the brand.
“We are committed to our customers and employees,” says Steve. Collings is not the most widely distributed guitar manufacturer, nor the biggest. In fact, they are quite happy with their current operation. They have no intent to produce a lower end line of products. Collings strictly limits its distribution. There are only seven dealers in Texas: two in Austin, two in Houston, one in Beaumont, one in McKinney, and one in San Antonio.
Guitars are personal items. For the owners, they are a tool through which they can express emotion. For the manufacturers, they are a source of pride. The effort that Collings Guitars puts forth makes the instrument more enticing and personal for the owner. They can feel the “soul” that Lyle Lovett talked about. Collings is an ambassador for Texas music and craftsmanship, which is something that can make all of us proud.