A purple light bulb glowed above the back door, casting an eerie light on the pumpkin-colored house in the night. I’d arrived at the home of Hendrickson Guitars -- a barely-kept secret amongst Twin Cities musicians -- with a baby-blue Stratocaster in desperate need of a set-up.
Whether you need a quick tune-up, a wound G string, or a functional volume knob, Brad Hendrickson is the doctor on call for your ailing guitar, and he’ll throw in a story or three while he’s at it. Hendrickson has aided the likes of Low, Chastity Brown, David Bazan, and Communist Daughter. His attention to detail is contagious and his ability to combine craft with conversation is captivating.
It was after a long day in December when I first showed up at his house in need of assistance and I was more than ready to climb into bed after this one, final errand. I didn’t expect to shoot the shit for the next hour and a half with a luthier I’d never met before. I hadn’t anticipated learning more about electric guitars in those 90 minutes than I had in the entire previous seven years combined. I wasn’t aware that I was headed straight into an illuminating discussion on lutherie – the craft of making and repairing wooden, stringed instruments – and the purpose of existence. I had no idea what I was in for, but then again, these sorts of encounters are never predictable. The sacred doesn’t announce itself on arrival. Sometimes, a glowing purple light bulb above the back door is your only clue.
A couple weeks ago, I visited Hendrickson again, this time armed with a tape recorder.
City Pages: What do you consider your introduction to lutherie?
Brad Hendrickson: I certainly have a very vivid memory of being 14. I had this red Yamaha electric guitar. My grandparents in Washington, Iowa, they purchased a guitar and loaned it to me and I had to pay them $10 a month for nine years. I remember I had broken a string so I unscrewed the saddle and took it off. It was frustrating, time consuming and I had no idea what I was doing. [My introduction] was mostly out of a trouble-shooting angle. It gets in your blood and ends up being a really cool thing, and not cool in a “cool kid” kind of way.
There’s this sense that -- trees and wood, “oh, for the beauty of the earth” -- that things should radiate the good, the true and the beautiful and that it isn’t just a tree, it isn’t just a thing. I don’t mean it as some sort of like “possessed by a tree goddess” thing, but maybe more like a Narnia thing. You get to catch a lump of something turn into a lump of something else that is not only functional, but also beautiful. There’s a finesse to it. A panache.
Years later, I was working at Guitar Center in Edina and Dave Rusan [luthier of Prince’s Cloud guitar] would do repairs on Saturdays there. And he was really good at teaching things and there were a couple of snowy Saturdays when he showed up and no customers were there. From 3-5 p.m. we were twiddling our thumbs and then there was the “Hey Dave, I don’t know what a trust rod does or why. Can you help me not be dumb?” He pointed out a couple things that first Saturday and then the Saturday after that.And then at some point I sort of invited myself over to help him out at his shop.
CP: What are some of your rituals when doing your work?
BH: I mean, it definitely helps to work from home. I don’t want to do work at some shop. I’m not antisocial, but to be able to just turn on some Wes Montgomery -- midcentury jazz or local groups that I like, I like to have that control while I’m working. Or silence for that matter. To be able to have some kind of space that’s aurally consistent with where I’m at.
CP: What activities are inherent to the practice of lutherie?
BH: At least for me, I need to, as much as possible, listen to someone’s music before working on their instrument, or even better watch them do it -- to see how hard they’re coming at it. Everybody’s different. It’s like watching someone walk and trying to buy shoes for them. Or tailoring. It’s not off the rack. It’s more than just an oil change to me. An oil change is either done or it’s not. To me, a guitar is as much of a chef’s recipe book and then complimenting that “meal” with what someone’s already drinking. We can fine-tune it, finesse it so that we can really nail it. Sometimes I actually listen to people’s music while I work on their instrument. I don’t know how necessary that is to do my job well, but it’s a neat experience. I feel like I get the best seats around, thinking about what I can do to help this artist do what they do.
CP: Do you consider your work sacred?
BH: Oh boy. Um. In a way, I sometimes struggle to remember that this work matters, that is isn’t just an oil change. I had academic, vocational aspirations. Where I thought I would be is not here.
CP: Where did you think you would be?
BH: For me, I’ve wasted so much time, or anger, or money -- so much, period -- on stuff that none of us can undo or redeem. So there is this sense of urgency. We’re all gonna be dead so quick. It’s gonna be so over and that’ll be that. It’s a lot to unpack, the “God” thing. I grew up immersed in [Christianity]. Anne Rice has this term about being “Christ haunted,” though she might have found the term somewhere else. I still mean it but in a way that most of my Christian friends are dismayed at what a non-anything I am. If not atheist, than more sprawling, because I don’t think Genesis reads like Marty McFly could have gone back and video-taped it.
I was a chaplain's assistant for a time in the National Guard and also led music at a weekly Sunday evening service for guys still in the Department of Corrections but living in halfway houses. I had gotten sober recently and had also spent time as a guest of the county here and there, and not just for a weekend, which is why I think the church asked me to do it. It was like one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread. I didn’t do it in a holier-than-thou sort of way, not trying to heal or fix anyone. There’s just some stuff that’s gotten me through, music that resonates.
CP: Does something that’s sacred have to matter?
BH: I’m not sure I entirely agree with your question, that those two things could be different. Art matters. Beauty matters. Music matters. Someone sitting down and having their instrument speak and effortlessly saying what needs to be said, to contribute to the ongoing articulation -- that process matters. A good analogy is if you look at a cathedral. That’s not a day project, a week or a year, but it’s sometimes hard to be the guy buffing the granite squares and know that that work matters. It’s easy if you’re the one who drew the cathedral blueprint. But really, all that stuff actually matters.
CP: How has the physicality of your work changed the way you listen to music?
BH: It’s like, if you watch someone take a sip of a beer, and you’ve had that beer, you know how it tastes. I go to shows and listen to folks whose instruments I’ve worked on, and I know what they’re sipping on in way that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. You wouldn’t believe how radical certain nuances can be. Hearing and feeling the difference between a maple neck and a mahogany one, it starts to soak in. It might be a shade of a difference, but it’s there, even if it’s subtle.
CP: What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you through your work as a luthier? Any “holy shit” moments?
BH: I got hired to work for the Staves this past summer. I went out and did the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Newport Folk Festival and Edmonton Folk Festival. While out there it was like, “Oh, hey, Ryan Adams. Hi Ray Lamontagne.” There were surreal moments of star-struck-ness, but also it was neat to see the normalcy of it. There were a lot of other gracious guitar techs. There was a lot of generosity, a lot of team work and wonderful music on top of it. It was weird in the sense that I was actually there.
CP: What’s your favorite kind of wood to work with? Or your spirit wood, like a spirit animal?
BH: I sure do like mahogany. Do you have a hierarchy of fruit in your mind? Like raspberries are better than strawberries? I recognize the superiority of other woods, and mahogany is kind of basic and it’s used a lot, like the working mans guitar. For me, mahogany is warm and buttery, it’s the underdog.
Brad keeps some crazy hours, but you can reach him through the Hendrickson Guitars Facebook page or drop him a line at [email protected]