My favorite guitar was made for me by a legendary guitar builder named Bill Hollenbeck, who’s unfortunately not with us anymore. Here’s the story of how we met, and my favorite instrument.
It’s gotten much harder to travel with a guitar nowadays; if you’re lucky and there’s room in the overhead, maybe you can carry one on the plane. Years ago, in the early 2000s and late ‘90s, I went to the Chet Atkins festival and carried on a Taylor acoustic and a Telecaster, both in the same big deluxe gig bag with an inch of foam between them and a big beach towel for protection! So I didn’t really have a jazzy sounding guitar at this festival, where there are a bunch of guitar builders, as well. Bill Hollenbeck had a bunch of his archtops on display and for sale, and I knew about him from the “Blue Guitar” book by Scott Chinery, who may be the biggest collector in the world of vintage instruments, and who’d commissioned Bill to build his version of an archtop guitar with the only requirement being that he had to use this exact tint of blue that James D’Aquisto had used to build a famous lightening-blue guitar; the Centura Deluxe.
So Bill had this beautiful archtop on display at the show with a killer neck, and I asked if I could borrow it to play at the festival, and he said sure! So for four days I was playing this guitar on stage a lot, and at the end of the festival, Bill said, “do you like that guitar?”, and I said “I love it!” He said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll make you a special deal if you want to buy it.” I bought it right there on the spot and took it home and started playing it on some gigs, as well as on a couple of videos – one was an instructional video for Mel Bay, and one was a fingerstyle jazz video, and lo and behold, after people saw those videos they started calling Bill up saying “we want a guitar like Jim plays!”
Bill suggested we put our heads together, and said “I’m going to build you a guitar for free”… I almost fell on the floor – I’ve never won anything in my life! So he sent me a rough neck blank from a Douglas Fir 2×4, and I measured four of my favorite guitar necks; a handmade acoustic, a Gretsch, a Telecaster and another, and it ended up being 4.5” on all of these guitars down at the first fret for the neck circumference, and I thought, that must be the key right there. Just big enough that I can get my thumb around the neck to hit the bass strings for Merle Travis chords. So I just went out in my so-called workshop, and with pencil marks and a rasp and sandpaper, I slowly rasped this neck down until it was exactly like the others and it felt good. I sent it back to Bill by UPS, and next thing I knew he had built a real beautiful maple guitar and sent it to me, and it’s that guitar that I’ve been playing ever since! That was in about ’98 or ’99.
I love that guitar and I play it a lot, still, to this day. I got to be friends with Seymour Duncan, who gave me a couple of jazz humbucker pickups for it, which were great. But anyway, that was Bill’s favor back to me for helping him sell guitars, and I’ll never forget it. Unfortunately he had a blood condition that became leukemia and he died when he was about 72. He was a guy who could build anything, fix anything; if there was a leak under the sink he’d go under there and in 2 minutes he’d have fixed the leak. I miss him.