As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 19 – Spring 2022
For Jayne Henderson of EJ Henderson Guitars, the devil is in the details. For the past ten years, the environmental lawyer-turned-luthier has continued her father Wayne’s instrument-building legacy at her own shop in Asheville, NC. Known for her unique aesthetics and commitment to quality, Henderson has been hand-crafting exquisite custom guitars and ukuleles, all while sourcing most of her wood locally and sustainably.
Your dad was the one who inspired you to become a guitar builder and “taught you the ropes,” so to speak. Do you still collaborate with him on instruments?
Yes, all the time. I am proud that I have my own shop and have the ability to build an instrument on my own without his input if I had to. But he’s there, and I like having something in common to talk to him about, so I am always having him check out what I am working on. It is fun now that it goes both ways, though! He asks me what I think of the sound of a certain top, or I will trade some finish or inlay work on one of his instruments for help with a neck fit. Luckily, we enjoy the things the other doesn’t so much.
In addition to being a luthier, you also have a background in environmental law. Has there ever been an instance where you’ve had to put these skills to use, or have you found many parallels between the music world and the legal field?
One big lesson I learned when working to protect the environment is that you can’t change people’s minds with your own opinions; it is a slow process that requires finding some common ground. When before I was writing grants and rarely being rewarded with what I had hoped for; my instruments have become the vehicle I use to push the change I hope to see in environmental policy. I know it is an incredibly small contribution, but my clients are typically older, wealthy men often on the other side of the political aisle from me, which gives me a really great opportunity to speak with them about the necessity to care for our natural world while using something they love as the catalyst to make that conversation happen.
I use sustainable or reclaimed exotic wood when at all possible, explaining that an incredible instrument doesn’t have to pick the rainforest bare of Brazilian rosewood to be something special and rare. Brilliantly curly maple from an already felled tree is just as precious in the right hands, and I know whatever one-of-a-kind instrument comes from that can be enjoyed a little more, knowing we didn’t decimate our natural world to make it. I also make smaller body instruments and ukuleles because I am able to use the smaller pieces cut from a tree, so nothing is wasted. I leave the dreadnoughts to other folks, and I take the wood nobody thought to take because it is too small for their projects. Also, because I am small, I prefer working with smaller body instruments.
Before, when I was working in the field, I mostly interacted with like-minded folks, and it didn’t really feel productive; I didn’t need to convince them that the way we are consuming our earth is harmful. And doing something I absolutely love while building a little bigger platform to quietly communicate the needs of our planet seems a better use of my education.
Is there one commission of yours that you’re particularly (or most) proud of?
That’s a question I don’t think I’ve gotten before, and it made me really think. I ran through all the challenging elements of emulating my dad’s 1927 0-45, and how Doc Watson played and asked to take home a koa cutaway OM I had just finished, all the custom inlays of beloved pets I have drawn into fingerboards, each one where I learned or completed a new challenging task. The answer is no. I can’t single any one instrument out as something I enjoyed seeing complete more than another. Each one gives me pleasure in spending time with these chunks of wood as they become a singing, living being; in my opinion, they are each special, just like people.
Your inlays are your specialty. Which design has been the most challenging for you to create?
The trees of life, symmetrical vine designs taking up the entire fingerboard, are the most difficult. They consist of many small pieces that need to be cut as exactly as possible to look even when centered on the fingerboard. There are also 20 frets you must account for and glue around. I am currently working on one I designed using vector software, so it has been especially challenging, teaching myself to design on a computer on top of making a really cool tree of life design.
Between guitars and ukuleles, which instrument would you say is more “in demand” when it comes to commissions?
For me, it is guitars, but I would love to change that. Ukuleles are my favorite to build and play because I love playing them when they are done. I am an awful guitar player, to be honest, but there’s some good in that given I have to make a REALLY comfortable neck in order for me to be able to do anything with it! There’s a huge ukulele world out there, but I don’t do much to promote myself, so nobody has heard of me, whereas in the guitar world, my dad already paved some of the way on that front, so more folks ask for a guitar so I build them the most and ukuleles for fun when I want to use smaller wood that wouldn’t fit a guitar and would otherwise be thrown away.
Where do you acquire all the different woods for your instruments?
I have a few local suppliers who know me well enough now, probably as the crazy guitar girl who comes asking for wild grained wood, and they will sit aside pretty walnut or maple after checking the pallets. I also get messages from folks who’ve had beloved trees fall on their property and ask if I’d be able to build with it. A big spruce supplier has a burn pile he leaves for his local community to use; I pull the prettiest maple from that for ukuleles. I have friends in Hawaii who trade koa for spruce. My dad has friends who do the same thing; his reach is much larger than mine, and he shares any materials he has. I use Brazilian rosewood blanks that came from a local factory making Porsche shifters and cue sticks before they moved overseas. They make beautiful four-piece backed ukuleles. So many places. I have never once just gone and grabbed a piece of wood off a pile without it feeling special and having a backstory to go with it that makes it unique and special.
More often than not, you custom-build guitars, but you do periodically make some without orders attached. Do you have any of those up for grabs right now?
I wish I did! I have a couple of ukuleles started but not finished yet. I had a baby, and she is taking up all my spec instrument build time (and almost all my custom build time). But she loves to go help me in the shop, and I’ll take that time and the distraction for now as I know it won’t last forever. Soon I will have more time to refocus on building my spec instruments. Keep checking my social media and website for those!