Amazing Guitars

Looking at one of Andrew White's personally-made guitars, one might think he had been raised by a band of musicians who taught him to pluck before he could speak. Truth is, White, 24, didn't start playing until his senior year at St. Mary's High School and, admittedly, he's still not very good at it.

"I don't think you have to be very good [at playing] to be a good guitar-maker," he says. Many, including one of the more famous guitar-makers in the country, would agree.

This minor handicap hasn't prevented White, who now divides his time between Annapolis and Morgantown, W. Va., from creating "amazing" guitars, according to Matt Umanov, New York City's premier guitar salesman and repairman for nearly four decades. In fact, so amazing, that Umanov agreed to sell one of White's guitars on consignment, marking only the fourth time he has ever agreed to do so.

"Andrew is one of the brightest lights on the guitar-making scene in years," Umanov says about White. "As far as we're concerned, he has 'it,' however one wants to define that."

The story of how these two crossed paths is a good one, which White will joyfully tell. It's clear White believes that the cosmic coincidences of how it all came together is a sign that becoming a guitar-maker, also called a luthier, was obviously meant to be. The story begins in a blizzard in the middle of New York City. "I was trudging through the snow carrying two of my guitars," he says. "I went into this one guitar shop, and it was clear the owner didn't really like them. So I left and tried to catch a taxi. But I was in the middle of a blizzard, so catching a cab was impossible. To make matters worse, I had to go to the bathroom."

White made his way to Greenwich Village and happened upon another guitar store. Hoping simply to use the store's facilities, White entered and was directed to the back. As he was leaving, one of the employees asked him what he was doing walking around in a blizzard with two guitar cases. He told them the cases contained guitars he had made himself and that he was trying to find someone to sell them.

"They said the store owner was upstairs and might be willing to check them out," says White. "I was tired and expressed some doubt, but they said, 'C'mon, just wait one minute.'" The owner happened to be Umanov, who came down, looked at White's guitars and simply said, "These are amazing." Then Umanov began to tell White his life story---that he had been fixing and selling guitars for 37 years, ever since he was 18 years old and that, since that time, he has often worked on guitars owned by famous musicians such as Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan.

"I listened to everything he had to say, but I was skeptical," White recalls. "I later told my mom what happened. She checked him out on the Internet and, sure enough, everything he had said was true. I couldn't believe it."

Umanov now sells one of White's guitars for $3,000. Next to the price tag is his own glowing recommendation in which he compares White's style of construction to Michael Kasha, a famous guitar designer and builder from the 1960s. "The tone is bold and clear, and the workmanship superb," he says. "A most lovely classic guitar with Indian rosewood back and sides and an Englemann spruce top, by a maker whom we believe to be better than excellent. This guitar is an exceptional bargain as well, in our opinion."

In just a few years, White has come a long way from being a mediocre student learning to play guitar for the first time at St. Mary's. "It was the first time a guitar class was offered at St. Mary's, and a bunch of us took it," he says. "I was a pretty terrible student. The teacher wanted us to read music, which I was really dreadful at. I just wanted to learn chords."

White continued learning to play guitar in college at West Virginia University. His passion for making guitars didn't set in until he traveled to Spain and decided the one big purchase on his trip was going to be a "classic Spanish guitar. I went into this shop and immediately thought, 'Man, I'm paying a lot of money, and I think I can do this myself.'"

When his sister and brother-in-law gave him $300 worth of wood and a book on guitar-making that following Christmas, he knew there was no turning back. "I was kind of obligated at that point," he says. "But that was what I needed. I think I started that day."

White says he started making his unique guitars through simple trial and error. "I kept it in the realm of a guitar, but I thought, 'Well, let's try this,'" he says. "I learned by doingI think I am a bit naive about all of this, and I think that's a good thing. I don't need money. I don't need to eat. I think this has allowed me to take risks."

He also had the help of his brother, Daniel, and father, James, whose engineering skills White believes have given him "an edge" over many guitar-makers. "They've enabled me to make a very stiff instrument that is still very light," he says. "They've helped me create bracing designs that people have never seen before."

Greg Dibos, one of the owners of Acouticopia, a music shop on West Street which sells White's guitars, says White's unique bracing system "really blows people away. Creating your own bracing system takes a lot of knowledge about guitars," Dibos says.

The external design and shape of some of White's guitars are also unique. In most guitars, the sound hole is in the center. On some of White's guitars, it is on the top left corner, which White says provides for a fuller musical range. And the unusual shape is "very comfortable to players. We asked a player to demonstrate how he sits with his guitar, then we looked at the angle at which the player held the guitar and said, 'How can we get that guitar to sit at that angle with the least amount of effort?'"

Today, White, the youngest of five children, works with another brother as a carpenter to pay for his main focus in life---forging a living out of making guitars. Since early last year, he has sold 15 guitars and travels the country trying to find retailers to sell more. "When I get a call that a guitar has sold, it's the best feeling in the world," says White, whose workshop is in Morgantown, W. Va.

Dibos says he expects White will be getting many more such calls in the future. "Andrew is very innovative," he says. "In the few years that he's been making guitars, he's taken the basic knowledge of guitar-making and really pushed the limits."

White's instruments range in price from $2,500 to $4,200, take about 100 to 200 hours to make and three to six months total to complete in order for the instrument to dry. "It's hard sometimes, because I want to just pump out guitars," he says. "But I'm trying to set myself up for a long-term career. I really have to think about the future. One thing I know, though, is that my life is about guitars. Everything I think, eat or feel is about guitars."

Margot Mohsberg is a resident of Eastport and a freelance writer in addition to being the media relations associate for Anne Arundel Health System.


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