Inside their quiet workshop Wes Lambe and Ben Maschal fashion wire and wood into one of the most talked-about guitars in the acoustic music world.
After years of studying, repairing and building musical instruments, the two luthiers have discovered a sort of acoustic alchemy that makes their new guitars look, feel and sound like those made by the Martin and Gibson guitar companies in the1930s and early 1940s – the “Golden Age” of acoustic guitars.
Their guitars so closely resemble those classics that Lambe and Maschal have named their enterprise the Pre-War Guitars Co.
“The guitars we decided to make are probably the most duplicated guitars in the acoustic industry,” Maschal says. “Everybody’s trying to capture that ’30s sound.”
Musicians and collectors regard vintage guitars with the reverence bestowed upon sacred relics. A Martin or Gibson guitar, handmade before World War II, can fetch $100,000 or more. Musicians who play them say their tone is richer and more responsive than guitars made during and after the war, when materials were scarce and craftsmanship diminished.
“I’ve never fallen in love with a new, crisp, immaculate acoustic guitar,” Lambe says. “But every time I pick up a ’30s Martin – even the most beat-up ones – I strum a chord and it sounds so good.”
As news of Pre-War’s craftsmanship spreads backstage at concerts and festivals, musicians are beginning to take notice. Tommy Emmanuel, a guitar virtuoso who played with Chet Atkins on Atkins’ last album, owns two Pre-War gutiars, and the members of Chapel Hill’s Mandolin Orange play Pre-Wars on stage.
“You can’t beat the old guitars because of the history and the vibes the old guitars have around them,” says Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange, who recently returned home to Chapel Hill from performing with the band at the Bonnaroo music festival.
“I do think Wes and Ben are getting closer to the old guitars than anyone has before. They have the sound, they’ve got the overtones and the volume, and they’ve got that dryness that most people have to wait years and years to achieve on a guitar. They’re getting them right out of the box.”
Guitars achieve their tone from a combination of materials, workmanship and age. Together, these elements influence how the vibration of a struck guitar string circulates inside the body of the guitar, and escapes through the sound hole to the listener’s ears.
Lambe and Maschal begin by using the same quality woods used in the early models – mahogany or certified Brazilian redwood for the backs and sides, Adirondack spruce for the tops and interior bracing. As a spruce top ages, the moisture in the sap evaporates. This alters the cellular structure, affecting the guitar’s responsiveness, overtones and other qualities that contribute to reproducing the sound of decades-old guitars.
Pre-War Guitars use torrefied (artificially aged) spruce for the tops. Torrefied spruce mimics the age of vintage guitars, contributing to the sound quality players value.
As the guitars are assembled, shellac is applied for protection and appearance. Then, in an interesting, if unusual, twist, the finish is “distressed,” or marred, in ways that give the guitars the appearance of having been played and knocked around during years or decades of use. Distressing has been used by makers of electric guitars, but Pre-War may be the first to apply it to acoustic instruments.
Marlin understands the allure of Pre-War guitars looking, as well sounding, vintage. “I think it puts you in a certain mindset and feeling when you look down at it and it looks like it has a story,” he says.
Other luthiers have attempted to capture the qualities of vintage guitars. The C.F. Martin Co., for example, markets its “Authentic” series of reproductions, ranging from 1919 through 1939 models. While popular with some guitarists, others argue that Lambe and Maschal have succeeded in creating a product nearly indistinguishable from the icons of the 1930s at a fraction of the cost. Their guitars range from about $4,395 to $7,995 depending on the model, though a custom guitar made with special woods can cost up to $12,000.
“I think part of it is that they’re hand-making every part of every guitar,” says Rubber Room recording studio’s Jerry Brown, a collector of vintage pre-WWII guitars. “They’ve done exhaustive research into how the original ones were put together and the style in which they were built. I think they’ve figured out what nobody has figured out. ...
“When I played the first one, I thought, ‘Holy smokes! These guys have hit it over the fence on the first one.’ I wondered if the second or third would sound as good. But every one I’ve played has been astounding.”
The path to expertise
Lambe, 39, is a soft-spoken Durham native whose mother played violin with the Durham Symphony. His interest in music and musical instruments developed, in part, from accompanying her to symphony concerts.
“She would drag me around to the Durham Symphony happenings in the early ’80s,” he says. “I guess that’s where it started. I started to play guitar as a teenager, at 13. I realized I wasn’t going to be very good at playing guitar, so I started to work on them. It was always more interesting to take them apart and try to fix things, or to make something different out of the guitar.”
Maschal, 35, grew up in in Charlotte and attended luthiery school in Phoenix, Ariz. He moved to Siler City, where he built cabinets and did maintenance on vintage instruments for Tony Williamson’s Mandolin Central.
“I’ve been interested in old instruments since I was a teenager,” he says. “I went to MerleFest when I was 13 years old, and that was it. I was obsessed with it.”
In 2015, the two men joined in partnership making cabinets for Moog Music. The Moog contract provided them with the financial footing to obtain their 3,500-square-foot workshop and launch Pre-War Guitars Co.
“We used the Moog contract to build the dream shop,” Lambe says. “And the dream shop is what gave us the freedom to do the Pre-War guitars.”
Lambe and Maschal attribute their expertise to being able to see and work on North Carolina’s vast array of vintage guitars.
“Some people have seen one of those [vintage guitars], and that’s an example of that one guitar,” Lambe says. “They’re all different, so finding the average and understanding the bigger picture of what instruments from that era were is something that not a lot of people have. Having experience with hundreds of them is different from having experience with one of them.”
For more information on Pre-War Guitars go to www.pre-warguitars.com