Basement craftsman makes guitars

By Jordan Lawrence
Staff Writer

Wes Lambe restores an antique guitar from the mid-1800s in his basement workshop. Lambe builds and repairs guitars for The Music Loft.
Commons Photo by Jordan Lawrence

While many people use their basements as recreation rooms or areas to store their aged possessions, Wes Lambe chooses to use his in a different fashion.

He builds guitars.

While this is not a traditional way to use one’s basement, Lambe is not your average homeowner. He is a luthier, or someone who crafts stringed instruments.

The Durham native makes guitars and bass guitars, both in acoustic and electric varieties, in addition to cellos, mandolins, and amplifiers, in the garage and basement of his Chapel Hill home. He sells the majority of his creations through the Music Loft in Carrboro, where he holds the post of head luthier.

Lambe said that the space is an upgrade over previous working arrangements.

“When I first had my smallest shop, I started making mandolins,” he said of the small shed behind his first house that became his shop in 1998. “I didn’t have enough room to make a guitar fit.”

Lambe slowly worked his way up to the basement arrangement that he now uses, taking up residence five years ago.

“I had a little shed at the first house and a bigger shed at the next house and a bigger shed next house,” he said.

The current shop does not resemble your average basement. The space is filled with woodworking tools. Half-finished guitars occupy many of the shelves, and sketched plans for guitars hang from some of the walls.

Lambe said that though the space works for him at present, he would like to move into a workplace that was not attached to his house.

“I definitely need more space than I have now,” he said adding that it would be nice to have a shop apart from his home from the hassles of running a business such as constantly answering the phone. “Just for domestic tranquility it would be nice to have the shop separate from the house.”

Lambe jokingly added that the basement has another downfall. “I have to fight the spiders,” he said.

Now 29, Lambe first began playing guitar at about the age. At the same time he also began tinkering with the instrument.

“I kind of always had guitars around,” he said. “I was always taking them apart and refinishing them, breaking them that sort of thing.”

Lambe said that although his mother played the violin and forced him to take piano lessons for a few years, he was always drawn to the guitar.

Starting to take guitar lessons at about 16, Lambe immediately formed what he now calls “terrible, terrible bands” with some of his friends. He said the bands did little more than create great amounts of annoying noise.

“We’d always get the police to come shut us down,” Lambe said.

It was during this time that Lambe constructed his first guitar as the final project in his woodshop class.

“I had already made the ash tray and whatever else,” Lambe said.

After graduating from high school, Lambe attended Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., for a month before deciding that higher education was not for him.

It was at this point in his life that Lambe, 18, first began his relationship with the Music Loft. Working at a gas station across the street from the store, he met all of the store’s employees and eventually began working there.

“I ended up driving the truck for the warehouse,” he said explaining that he eventually became a salesperson for the store. “I was a terrible, terrible salesperson.”

Lambe worked for the Music Loft until 2000 when he decided to take
the money that he had saved up for college and go to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to attend the Summit School of Guitar building and Repair, a training school for luthiers.
He went to the school for a four month program, but ended up staying at the school for six months as he was invited to stay on for a stint as an instructor.

“It was like heaven for me,” he said.

After his return from Canada in 2001, Lambe decided to become a professional luthier. He now repairs instruments for the Music Loft as well as for High Strung, a music store in Durham.
Lambe said it is difficult to balance both building instruments and repairing them but that he manages to stay on top of things.

Though he has honed his craft to the point where he is beginning to feel satisfied with his work, Lambe said that there will always be room for him to improve his craft.

“It’s one of those things too that the better you get at it the more you can see you can do that much more,” he said. “There’s always something you can improve upon.”

Since he began working professionally, Lambe has sold many of his guitars and other instruments in the community and around the world. He said that he has had a lot of luck selling his eight-string electric model, which can be played as both a bass and a guitar at the same time, to people in Europe. Lambe also sold one of his eight-strings to a member of The Blue Man Group. His local sales however are made up mostly by his traditional acoustic guitars.

In addition to his work in instrument manufacture and repair, Lambe plays in several local acts including The Guns of El Boracho and The Wes Lambe Trio. He also plays bass for local singer/songwriter Rose Verhoven.

One way in which Lambe is challenging himself in his craft is by restoring a guitar dating from the mid-1800s given to him by a friend during the Civil War. One of the woman’s female ancestors had smuggled the instrument out of S.C. before Gen. William Sherman came through the state and burned her house down.

Lambe said that restoring the instrument has been a hard job because much of the top was collapsed and he was forced to replace much of the mother of pearl inlays and re-etch them by hand. Despite this difficulty, he said that the experience has been rewarding in the way it has brought history to life for him. One instance Lambe said was particularly memorable to him was when he was forced to open up the guitar. When he got the top off he could smell the pipe tobacco that its owners had smoked while playing it.

“It’s amazing you can read about it, but that smell makes it that much more potent,” he said.

For more information on Lambe’s guitars, visit his Web site at www.wlguitars.com.

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