Idaho Arts Quarterly » Cover Artist

Sharp Dressed Guitar

The Art of John Bolin

by

Nestled in the Boise foothills is a workshop that looks out over the city. It is a place that seems, at first glance, like any place where fine craftsmanship is done: There are the tools (both hand and power), the raw materials and plenty of sawdust. The difference is that the folks at work here are making art, and the art that they make creates music. Welcome to Bolin Guitars.

Bolin Guitars was established by its namesake, John Bolin, in 1978. Bolin was born in 1954, the same the year as rock and roll. Their fates were significantly intertwined. "I grew up with rock and roll," says Bolin. "I listened to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles. Those were the bands that were playing when I was in high school." An ad in a neighbor's music magazine for a guitar-building school caught Bolin's eye, and he headed down to Nashville to apprentice with a luthier for a couple of months. "I knew by the third or fourth week I was there that this is what I wanted to do," says Bolin. "Sometimes something just happens in your life, and you just know. It's like when you fall in love." He returned home to Boise and started his own company. "I just jumped into the deep end," he says. "There was a lot of trial and error."

Bolin began by making acoustic guitars for friends and friends of friends, building a reputation as a fine custom guitar maker and talented luthier. "It was pretty bare bones in the beginning," he recalls. "I was literally using rubber bands and clothespins. I had one router, a set of chisels and a few shaping tools. That's all I had to work with." His first big break came in 1980, when he made an instrument for bluegrass guitarist Doc Watson. His reputation grew and his clientele expanded, and soon his acoustic guitars were back-ordered. At the time, he was making about 12 guitars a year.

In 1981, he was asked to build an electric guitar. "I was hesitant at first, but I thought it would be fun to build an electric, and it was," says Bolin. "I had a collection of some old guitars, so I knew what it should be like. I found electric [guitars] interesting, and more orders started piling in."

The decision not to limit himself has vaulted him from a being a talented craftsman to one who is considered an artist of the highest caliber. "I've seen that the downfall for artists and craftsman can be that they only do what they want to do," says Bolin. "That limitation can be extremely dangerous.

"When I first started, I didn't consider myself an artist," states Bolin. "Luthiers are traditionally called 'craftsmen.' I think it's only been through all of the hoops that I've jumped through and all of the different materials and styles I work with that I came to view this craft as an art. A lot of people can paint a picture and hang it on a wall, but can they make a living at it? I am a working artist: I've had no other job since 1978."

Bolin has been influenced by artists such as Picasso, Warhol, Rembrandt and Michelangelo, all of whose biographies he has studied. "I've spent some time looking at their art and trying to get into their heads," he says. "I always wonder, 'How did they get people to support that?' Because when you're buying art, you're buying the artist, right? That sort of determination and desire they had is truly remarkable. There's some kind of magic that happens when you can start influencing people's opinions about your product and create something recognizable."

Like the artists who've influenced him, Bolin has learned from what has come before him and has built on the foundation of his predecessors. "Look at the really great electric guitars of the world," says Bolin. "They are mostly the old 1950s guitars; the Les Pauls, Stratocasters, and Telecasters. Leo Fender was right there in the beginning, and Gibson was right behind him.

"These guitars are extremely sought-after pieces. I've had the opportunity to be around some of these guitars in the collections of my customers and close friends. I've been able to put my hands on them, to look at the materials used to build them, to see the shape and the angle of the neck. I can feel their weight and look at the pickups and electronics. In that way, I've been able to really analyze them. I add my own touch to that and create the Bolin guitar."

As a product, the instrument itself requires knowledge and understanding of countless details and specifications. Other art forms can pale in comparison to the variety of work that goes into building a guitar and the variety of details that each task entails. There is no set pattern or idea for a Bolin guitar; each is unique, and is approached as an individual undertaking. "We don't make cookie-cutter guitars here," explains John's son, Jake.

Such attention to detail is elemental to the task of building a guitar, but it is the expansion of that consideration to all of the other elements involved that differentiates a great working guitar from a work of art. One of the key elements in the art of creating a guitar of the caliber of a Bolin guitar is understanding--really understanding--the form and function of the piece. The form refers to the physical aspect of the piece: the weight, shape, materials, and overall look of the guitar. The function requires an entirely different appreciation that deals with how it will sound and feel, what it is able to do as an instrument and how it is able to perform in the hands of the musician holding it.

As with any artistic endeavor, natural talent plays a role in the creative process. There is also the less glamorous but no less necessary commitment to hard work and determination, two of the main things Bolin attributes to his success. "A lot of it is willingness to communicate: to listen and take suggestions. I have to really get into my clients' heads and find out what they are looking for," says Bolin. "It's a difficult thing, when you are building something for someone. They know what they want, but you can't read their minds. I've taught myself to listen to what they say, to listen to the kind of music that they play, to listen to the actual music that they have played. I need to know how they want it to sound, what weight and balance they have in mind, and how it should feel to them. I've learned to be open and willing to listen so that we can achieve the ultimate goal, which is, of course, to create each artist's ultimate dream instrument."

Bolin has parlayed this unique understanding of his clients into collaborative working relationships with some of the finest guitarists in rock and roll. He's managed to get inside the minds of these guitarists; once he knows them, and knows what they want, the process becomes a creative collaboration. "It isn't just one thing that goes into making a guitar," explains Bolin. "It's all of my influences, and numerous hours spent with guitars and guitarists, with these geniuses and their collections, finding out what they need. And the devil's in the details."

One guitarist who has worked closely with Bolin is Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. The tale of their meeting is legendary around Boise. Bolin presented Billy and Dusty Hill with matching guitars when they played a show here in 1985. Gibbons was so impressed that he started ordering more guitars from Bolin. Together, they have created some amazing guitars, in terms of both design and function. As other guitarists began to notice these guitars, Gibbons would put them in touch with Bolin. This has led to other creative collaborations, notably one with Steve Miller.

As Bolin tells the story, Miller played a show with ZZ Top and asked Gibbons who made his wild guitars. Gibbons replied that they were from a guy in Idaho. Miller, being from Idaho himself, looked up Bolin Guitars and walked into the shop one day. He and Bolin started talking, then retired to the kitchen so Bolin could fix his kids an after-school snack. Miller had a snack, too, and over the table, they discussed the guitar that Bolin would build for him. "He said, 'We'll call this number one,'" recalls Bolin. "Since then, we've made over 50 guitars for him."

At the core of Bolin Guitars is the Bolin family.

John Bolin married Cristi in 1973, and she has been an integral part of every aspect of Bolin Guitars from the outset. "You can't run a business like this and raise a family without someone like Cristi behind it," says Bolin. "In the early years, when we were up against a deadline, she would be in the shop sanding along with everyone else."

"Bolin Guitars is about rock and roll," says Cristi. She is the proud owner of Bolin's very first acoustic guitar. Daughter Celeste arrived in 1979, and son Jake was born in 1983. Both children grew up in and around the workshop. "My dad used to have a shop behind the house," says Celeste. "Apparently, I used to hang out in the workshop in my playpen in the midst of all the sawdust." Both children have fond memories of the musical world that they grew up around. "There is a picture hanging on the refrigerator of Steven Tyler from Aerosmith with his arms around me and my mom. I was about 15 at the time, so that made for good bragging rights," Celeste recalls. Her father has made guitars for the band's guitarist, Joe Perry.

"I loved growing up in the rock and roll lifestyle," continues Celeste, now a Ph.D. candidate in neurotoxicology at the University of Montana. "I love the artistry of what my dad does."

It hasn't been easy for the Bolin family to stay in Idaho for all these years, but Cristi made sure they stayed. "People have always said, 'Why are you in Boise? What are you doing there?'" she says. "There was a lot of pressure for us to move elsewhere, especially in the beginning. But this is where we chose to raise our family. Boise is a great city, and we're all thankful for that."

There have been three locations of Bolin Guitars over the years, all in Boise. They are, as the family fondly calls them, the Shack on Clark Street; the Tin Can on Tucker Street, and, currently, Home on 36th Street.

Jake Bolin remembers having after-school snacks with Steve Miller the first time he came over. "Billy Gibbons bought me my first skateboard," he recalls, " And I used to sweep the shop floors for chore money." He became an apprentice at the shop after graduating from high school in 2001. "I feel like it's in my blood to work with wood," Jake says. "My grandfather was a master carpenter, so we've all worked in it." He worked with Andrew Jones, who was head of production for Bolin Guitars from 1993 to 2003. When Jones left to go out on the road with Rod Stewart, Jake stepped into the role of head of production until he left to go out on the road with Steve Miller in 2005. He is currently attending the University of Montana. "It seems like it has come full circle, to me," he says.

"Jake is a luthier," says Bolin with obvious pride. "He can take a piece of raw wood and take it through the whole process."

"I had the confidence to come to my dad with a finished product when my apprenticeship ended in 2003," says Jake. "They say a good craftsman isn't necessarily perfect, but they know how to fix their mistakes."

Bolin's willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of his art pervades the essence of what he does. Over the years, he has surrounded himself with experts in different mediums. He understands the idea of collaboration through all of the stages of the creative process, and has a willingness to invite other artists and craftsmen to contribute to his guitars. "I have an open-door policy for other artisans to come in and work with us on projects," he says. Some of the artists that he's worked with include Todd Hanson, Noel Webber and son, Hawk Rainwater Dobbins, and Mike Flinn.

Flinn has worked with Bolin on numerous guitars since they first started working together. "Where John is concerned, there's no better partner in creativity," says Flinn. "I think our first collaboration was on a pair of ZZ Top guitars in '89-90. Mostly I was designing neck art and icons that John would later inlay with mother-of-pearl. I remember one project we worked on. I was freaking out about the design problems and I said, 'Man, I just don't see how this idea can be a guitar!' Bolin said, calmly, coolly: 'Anything can be a guitar.' He was right."

The phrase "Can't isn't spoken here" adorns the wall of Bolin's woodshop. "I haven't set barriers and boundaries in my shop," he explains. "If you start fencing people in, things get stagnant." The language that is used around the shop doesn't include words like "problem" to describe the difficulties that the artists or apprentices may be presented by a particular guitar. Everything is a challenge, an opportunity to learn from the experience, and to gain knowledge that can be applied again to future projects. "You have to remember that you're basically taking a tree and forming it into an instrument," says Jake. "Wood is not a constant; it's a material that is always changing. Each instrument takes its own path, and you have to follow that."

The apprentices who work with Bolin are another key component in his work. He's had 12 over the years, and each has contributed his or her own individual abilities to create the whole of Bolin Guitars. "Every apprentice is different," explains Bolin. "Each one has different good qualities and natural talents. They have all been artists in their own right."

Asked to explain how he finds his apprentices, Bolin says, "It just kind of happens. Every person who has worked for me has just come in the door." Carl Hamilton, who has been working with Bolin for nearly two years, demonstrates that experience. After graduating from the Art Institute of Portland in 2002, he moved to Boise and began building a guitar for himself. He came into the shop to ask for some pointers. "John asked me if I had had any help building it," says Hamilton. "When I told him I hadn't, he said, 'Let's cut to the chase: Do you want to work here?'" Hamilton is also a painter who works with oils and acrylics on large, oddly shaped canvasses. At Bolin guitars, he often works on designing and implementing the inlay for the neck, but is quick to point out that everybody does everything in the shop. "We're all everywhere," he explains. "There's a real team-effort mentality. When a guitar is finished and ready to go out the door, you realize that it took everybody's efforts to make it what it is."

"When your job has a set routine, it becomes monotonous," says Matt Kulchak, who started on the same day as Hamilton in February, 2005. "We don't have that issue here." He, too, has a background as an artist, with painting as his medium. Jake Bolin knew Kulchak's work and scouted him to work with his father. "We're not machines. We're a tight knit group, and it's all of our blood, sweat and tears that go into making these guitars," Kulchak says.

"This is not an 8-to-5 job," says Bolin. "It's much more than that. And I'm a worker just as much as anybody else, which is exactly the way I want it."

Also in the stable is Jim Richter, who has been working with Bolin since he took a class on building acoustic guitars from him over 10 years ago. Richter has been an electronics technician for over 30 years, and comes into the shop several times a week. He is soft spoken about his contributions, but Bolin is not. "Jim has done all of the really wild stuff," he says. "He's the one who figures it out."

Bolin is quick to mention his indebtedness to everyone who he has worked with. "I've been able to learn from the best. I have a great team around me and everybody has the freedom to do what they're good at. That allows really amazing things to happen."

The Bolin Guitars family and crew experienced a pinnacle recently when the Rolling Stones played in Idaho. John and Cristi spent time with the band in the green room. During the show, Kulchak proposed to his girlfriend, Abbygal. And the whole crew watched with gleaming pride as Ron Wood and Keith Richards played guitars that Bolin Guitars had built and delivered to them just that afternoon. "That was really heavy for me," says Bolin. "I mean, we're making guitars for the greatest rock and roll band in the world. It's very satisfying to be up to their standards."

So where does it go from here? Bolin has created guitars for his heroes. He has built a company with a great reputation, raised a family, and seen his guitars hang on the walls of galleries and museums. What started out as a small backyard shop making and repairing acoustic guitars has become one of the most respected guitar names in the world, and the man who began as a talented craftsman has become an artist of renown. "I see things as starting to come full circle," says Bolin. "I'd like to start building high-end arch top instruments. I never plan on retiring, because I love what I do."

"Who knows what the future will bring?" says Bolin. "When you work for and surround yourself with creative people, creative things happen."