Word of Mouth: Luthier Steve Davis

By Brian D’Ambrosio

At age 74, well-established commercial woodworker Steve Davis is an ascending talent in the state’s luthier scene. His years of swinging hammers and planting nails have unintentionally served as the ideal backdrop for synthesizing his love of music, lumber, and labor into a guitar-making gig so successful that referrals and testimonials have quickly fomented his reputation as a capable luthier.

“I love music, but I am not a musician,” Davis said. “A lot of guitar makers are really good musicians. I’m not one of them. I make them for the people who really know how to play them.”

Davis said he especially appreciates listening to the blues, a music style that played a significant role in how this leg of his journey came to be. Sometime in the early 1990s, he met Pat Chase, aka “Guitar Slim,” who had just wrapped a world tour along with harmonica player Mark Hummel. Chase was moonlighting as a house painter and Davis, employed at a wood shop, was building cabinets and exterior columns on the very same project – the Rainbow Temple in North Bend, Wash.

When the woodworker went out to eat with his new buddy, Davis made an outrageous claim over a few drinks: “I have been sober for 25 years, but I was a little drunk at the time, and I told Slim, ‘You know, I could make one better than what you were playing.’ When I sobered up, he reminded me of what I said. … He wanted something beyond what I thought I could do at the time – a hollow-bodied Gibson-style acoustic. I needed to start with something simpler. I got the blueprints for a Fender Stratocaster, and I built it off those blueprints. He still plays it.”

After that, Davis made another guitar for a family member in Seattle and has since made a number of instruments for other artists, each catering to the performer’s style and often to their pocketbook.

Guitars are not only time-consuming and uniquely laborious endeavors, but also the market is crammed with decent imported guitars that sell for about one-third of the price of a respectable American-made offering. Guitar luthiers in the U.S. generally command prices formulated on their reputation and clientele strength. However, profit and retail don’t necessarily appeal to Davis, who is known to sell his guitars at cost to people he likes, pricing his guitars for musicians who don’t have a lot of money to pay for a handmade instrument.

For example, Davis has made six guitars for unconventional New Mexico singer-songwriter Sean Healen, a reclusive but prolific wordsmith who lives in pensive privacy in the San Jose, N.M., area.

“Steve is an artificer of the highest order,” Healen said. “The finest of humans who trades in currencies that have nothing to do with transaction and everything to do with his art. I would place him in the company of da Vinci himself for his inventive curiosity, precision, execution and aesthetics.”

Davis has built a wide array of guitar varieties, such as resonators (which are completely hollow on the inside), bass guitars, and semi-hollow bodied ones. He has also experimented with woods sourced from all corners of the globe.

“I’ve never done an acoustic guitar,” Davis said. “I’ve got a few goals, of course, like working on trying to get a smoother, thinner finish and I’m figuring out how to inlay genuine pulverized turquoise.”

How Davis develops and expands his niche skill isn’t predictable, even to him. He is enjoying the free-flowing nature of guitar anatomy, and he has no preconceived ideas or notions of what he should be doing, or for how long, or even for whom. Right now, he is taking it all in one fretboard and tuning peg at a time.

“I think that I’ll finish these guitars right here and see what happens,” Davis said. “Making guitars provides a real special feeling (that is) different from building a cabinet or something for a home. When you hear one of your instruments being played, it is a lot like being a part of the music.”

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