This article is about the career of luthier Bill Hardin, from his early days with Dobro to the founding of Bear Creek Guitars. It's a fascinating read for any Weissenborn fan.
Music journalist and published author (as well as keen Weissenborn player) Andy Volk has graciously given Steel Trappings his permission to reproduce his in-depth profile article he authored several years ago. Andy is an award-winning Boston-based television producer/director, writer, designer, musician, and the author of several books including Guitar Dreams where this article appeared. Andy is also a contributing writer toThe Fretboard Journal and Acoustic Guitar as well as various online venues. His publications can be viewed at his website, Volk Media Books, at http://www.volkmediabooks.com. Copyright © by Andy Volk.
The most visible proponent of Bear Creek instruments has been multi-instrumentalist, Bob Brozman. Brozman's endorsement helped put the company on the map and has extended to influencing Hardin's designs. As Brozman relates, "I have had and continually performed with Bill's instruments since 1997. His instruments are a big part of my sound and repertoire. A lot of my music would not be possible without Bear Creek instruments. I feel that they have gone beyond the Weissenborn in tone, projection, craftsmanship, joinery, and overall beauty."
"Bob's been a great promoter of my guitars and he's got a giant Weissenborn collection, which was really cool to see," Hardin says. "He's got real specific ideas of tone and usually, when I can meet those, it's pretty fulfilling. The guitar that I think Bob and I worked on that's the best was the little short scale kona that he tours with and he loves. I've actually made him two of them. What he does with that guitar pretty much blows my mind." Brozman professes that curly koa delivers more sustain while straight-grained koa is louder but decays faster. Hardin believes the answer may have more to do with the thickness of the top.
"Koa is a pretty amazing wood for tonal characteristics," Hardin says, " but it varies a lot, with different densities from one board to the next. I can't say that the specific curl in the wood will give you a specific tone ‐ especially with koa ‐ because you can get some highly figured, really dense koa, and it will sound good if someone knows what to do with it and [you] thickenes it to the appropriate thickness and brace it right. I believe you can't really base a guitar on how beautiful the wood is but on how thick it is and what the luthier has done with it. I've also heard from other players out there that the plain koa's the stuff as far as what they want from the guitar.
"Bob may know some of this on a level I don't understand because he's got all these guitars he can compare right next to each other. I don't have 50 koa guitars I can swap at one time. I've seen curly koa that was amazing and I got great sustain out of it after building the guitar to the thickness that I prefer for the particular wood. I've been working with koa almost exclusively, and koa's getting more costly and kind of competitive to buy. It's becoming more and more popular and scarcer. It's only a matter of time. The large factories make beautiful guitars with koa, and they use up a lot of it."
Asked to explain the difference in tone between the Weissenborn hollownecks and the solidneck Konas, Hardin says, "The Kona has a little bit more of a guitar sound. It's got about the same volume as far as the chamber size, but it doesn't have the hollowneck ‐ though some people call them 'semi-hollow' because it's hollow to the seventh fret. When I play an original Kona with a 25" scale it kind of sounds like you could be playing a Roy Smeck or an Oahu or another standard guitar on your lap. The Konas had a really nice bracing pattern so I think they're superior to some of the old student model Oahus, but it's a similar tone. I really like bottleneck style on a Kona. I think it sounds amazing. The first Kona I ever bought had four fishing lines as strings strung up like a ukulele. Man, the fretwork in those things was just horrendous, so I'm sure if they were playable, they weren't a great Spanish guitar by any means. I don't know why the Kona was produced. I think it might have been just to use smaller pieces of koa. The hollowneck is just its own animal. It's like the difference between a tricone and a single cone. It's got its own characteristics."
Hardin uses a 25" scale on his hollowneck instruments, unless a customer plans to use a high G tuning or wants to play it with lap steel tunings. He'll then shorten the scale so string tension won't overwhelm the instrument. The Kona guitars have a 23.5" scale ‐ a 25" scale shortened by one fret. These guitars can accommodate higher tension tunings such as A, E, or C.
With an output now approaching 25 guitars a year, Hardin recently hired some help. "Milton Yamashita is working with me now," he explains. "He's an independent luthier and his company name is Kula guitars. He's working with me 20 hours a week doing gluing and carving braces but I'm down here seven days a week. I've been working with Milton for six or seven months now and we've managed to get a little ahead of the orders here and there. I finally had to take on my own finishing. I was actually even sending guitars to the mainland to get done for a while. It's also another whole job, in my opinion. The toxicity of it was annoying me but I built a spray booth here in the Maui shop and I'm doing my own high-gloss finishing and I also still offer a satin finish." Hardin built ukuleles while working at Dobro and noticed there were collectors who would pay luthier-level prices for fine handmade instruments. Bear Creek makes two or three ukuleles a year, including a soprano model with a unique heart-shaped soundhole ‐ a detail Hardin first saw on the soundhole of an old Gretsch that someone had customized. He debuted the heart-shaped soundhole at a guitar show in Healdsburg, California one year and it's continued to be popular with players.
Asked to name his own favorites, Hardin replies, "The baritones that Bob Brozman and I worked together on were really cool because we basically took the Weissenborn and we extended it all around inside by one inch. It came out to be this gigantic, kind of comical-looking Weissenborn and then when I strung that thing up, it just blew me away. It was like Weissenborn on steroids. I think the baritone was one of the coolest things because of the quick and immediate reaction from doing nothing but enlarging the guitar. I've also been working on a Hindustani slide guitar for a good ten years now. I'm just going through the wood selection now but I have all the drawings and the tunings down. I have decided to go with a carved top on it rather than a flat top, mainly because the luthiers in India seem to be coming out with an incredible sound out of theirs."
For the foreseeable future, Hardin plans to stick with the Hawaiian steel guitars that built his reputation but hopes to expand the line ‐ in response to the economic pressures felt by every luthier working today. "It comes in waves but the economy's kind of choosing things right now; it's not necessarily the popularity of instruments," says Hardin. "I have noticed the Weissenborn isn't doing what it did five years ago but there's still steady interest. We're going to stick with hollowneck Weissenborn-style guitars and I am also adding parlor guitars. I've got some really cool old small body guitars I'm working on. I don't think I'll ever go back to the Dreadnaught, but I'd like to explore resophonic guitars." At my peak, I was about three years backlogged. Now, with Milton's help, I'd say we're getting down to about a year or so which gives me the luxury to think like this. Over the last ten years. I've just been building Weissenborns so it's exciting to consider some new designs."Weissenborn
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