- Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
Bill Collings, a respected luthier whose treasured guitars have been played by Keith Richards, Lyle Lovett, Pete Townshend, Joni Mitchell and many more, has died following a yearlong battle with bile duct cancer. He was 68.
He died Friday, according to a post on his business website.
Collings founded Collings Guitars and Mandolins as a one-man shop in Houston in the mid-’70s. He relocated to Austin in 1980 and grew the company to a bustling business in Oak Hill with over 90 highly skilled employees producing some of the most coveted musical instruments in the world. These days, the company annually produces about 1,700 acoustic guitars, including the Depression-era Waterloo line, 500 electric guitars and 400 mandolins. The wait time to purchase a Collings instrument ranges from four to six months.
“Even their cheapest thing is heads, hands and feet above anything else,” Redd Volkaert, a local devotee of Collings Guitars, told the Statesman in 2011. “It’s world-class, kick-ass, does exactly what it’s supposed to — or more. The Collings guys are trying to make a better wheel. I’m sure it costs them more money, but I kind of think they don’t care.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES: Collings Guitars are close to perfect.
A Michigan native, Collings landed in a machine shop in Ohio after dropping out of med school in the late ‘60s. By the early ’70s, he had begun to experiment with making guitars and banjos as a hobby. When he moved to Houston in 1975, he worked briefly in a machine shop before devoting himself to building instruments full time.
Lovett, who bought his first Collings guitar in 1979, was an early convert. The background image on his official Facebook page Monday was a closeup of a guitar headstock with the Collings logo on the top.
Though Collings learned some of the basics of construction in the machine shops, much of his skill was intuitive.
“I always liked making stuff and was good mechanically,” he told the Statesman in 1991.
“He could do things which most people cannot,” said Steve McCreary, general manager of Collings’ company, who began working with Collings in 1992. “It was this innate mechanical sense also coupled with this sense of design that is unique for someone so engineering oriented.”
Collings was a mentor to his many employees, who, McCreary said, learned much of their craft “by osmosis,” observing the master at work. “Whether it was about wood and how trees grow or about forcing metal (and) bending it to his will, he just knew about the physical properties of things and how to make things better,” McCreary said.
In addition to his work as a luthier, Collings was an active member of the Austin hot rod scene, applying his mechanical mastery to vintage cars. But despite all the professional accomplishments, McCreary said, Collings was most proud of his adult daughter, Sara.
“He was not only the greatest guitar maker in the world, but the greatest father as well,” Sara Thomas said Monday afternoon.
In addition to his daughter, Collings is survived by his wife, Ann, and two sisters, Martha and Laura. Plans for funeral services have not been announced.