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.
I still have my Hollenbeck but ready to sell it because I never play it.
Wow, I just happened upon this article. Nice surprise. Bill gave me a special deal on my first Archtop, had to take out a loan for it. Best decision I ever made guitar wise. I later commissioned an 18” from Bill and bought a Barker archtop from him as well. I could never seem to visit his shop and leave in under 2 hours. Bill kept pulling guitars out and asking me what I thought about the neck or how it sounded. I miss Bill, he was such a wonderful person..
i knew bill and went to high school with son here in Lincoln,il. i played a bass for 4 decades.and played behind other artists backup singer in the USA and united kingdom,at one time and another through the late 90’s and later again on and off up til” 2009 and remember bill hollenbeck, as a high school teacher when he helped me fix on my first old kingston cheap violin bass that was splitting at the bottom after i took it to school back in 80 LoL” Mr spears was a woods teacher back then and Mr.hollenbeck also was and he teached electronic,thats right.but my early memory of him was when he and mr,spears helped me back then.after all many yrs had went by then yrs later i ran a small store here in town.over at the corner of 4th and state back in early 99″ 2000″ then one day he stop in,and we started talking. and we would talk for awhile about this blue top he had been building for a special project he showed me in a paper he had with him. i remember it well.he was a very nice man and soft spoken,and always had good tips he would share with me about setting up my bass after i done a lot of custom work to it. it was sad when i learned of my old friends death that came all of a sudden. my younger sister told me about bill later in 2008. after not seeing him anymore and after i closed my store,she said he would always tell my sister to tell your brother geno i said hello and how is he haven’t seen him for awhile i miss Mr.hollenbeck he had a boat full of information to learn from,Mr,hollenbeck spoke about different Artists that has purchased his guitars,and also a long time friend of mine from here in lincoln,il has one she purchased back in the 90’s barb (Day) maxey ,i could not believe the craftmanship he had after seeing her hollenbeck guitar with strings that close to the neck all over and no buzzing at all on any of the frets.wow! wish he was still around. he and i bill was talking about him helping me build a bass,i believe he built that same bass for his son that he played in the lincoln,high school jazz band in 1980.his guitars were like none i ever seen.he knew his craft well. .