John Gathright, luthier – I can make ’em but I can’t play ‘em

LR News Contributor

This latest guitar John Gathright has built has a top made of spruce while the back and sides are of Indian rosewood. Photo by Carolyn Myers

Guitars, mandolins, violins or fiddles are all commonplace musical instruments in our world today. In other centuries they were not so common.

According to an internet source, luthier Arthur Robb, the lute was the most important musical instrument in European culture for hundreds of years but it had evolved from a hollow, round-bodied, stringed Middle Eastern instrument called “ud” or “oud,” known to have been played as early as 1,000 AD.

Through the centuries other stringed instruments have evolved and today the musical world has been given a plethora of acoustic instruments to enjoy.

The person who makes stringed wooden musical instruments such as violins, mandolins and guitars is called a “luthier,” from “luth,” the French word for lute. John Gathright III from Foreman is a luthier.

He is an artist whose studio is a woodshop and whose tools of creation are sanders and saws, raw wood, patience and integrity. He will assure those discerning individuals who come to him for a new instrument or repair of an old one that doing a good job takes time. And Gathright won’t settle for anything with which he is not completely satisfied.

There are a number of conditions that have to be just right before he can finish an instrument he’s made. “People don’t understand that when I start doing the finish work on these instruments, I’ve got to have the right humidity, the right weather and so on for the finish to turn out to suit me,” he said.

“I’m not about suiting you because I can suit you 10 times easier than I can suit me. I’m not going to let something walk out that door with my name on it that I would ever want you to say, ‘well, I found this’ or ‘look what he’s done here.’”

Gathright was a welder by trade for Ash Grove Cement until about three years ago when he decided to move over to the shipping department.

John Gathright instruments are made from various types of wood. He holds the first violin he ever made showing the back that is bird’s eye maple cut in Little River County. Photo by Carolyn Myers

“I’ll turn 59 years old on Sept. 3,” he said. “I decided to work where I can stay in the air conditioning and not have to climb stairs,” he said, with a chuckle.

Gathright grew up in Foreman; all his family is from there. He lived beside his grandfather who had a woodshop and did hobby woodworking, making birdhouses and such.

John grew up in the woodshop, learning from his grandfather how to use tools to create things out of wood.

“Woodworking is just kinda second nature to me,” he said. “I always wanted to learn how to play the fiddle but I was one of the ones who figured out that I didn’t have what it took to be a musician. I know what they (musical instruments) are supposed to sound like, I know the physics of them, I know how they work and I know what makes them work. Naturally, I decided one time I was going to build me a fiddle – a violin.”

Gathright found out quickly that those who knew the trade secrets of making violins were not willing to share their knowledge. But being determined, in that era of no internet nor Google, he finally found a small book to explain the basics and the fiddle-maker was on his way.

After experimenting with several projects he finally, in 1993, built “the first one you could say was an instrument.” It hangs today inside his shop with numerous other violins.When asked about his talent for playing the fiddle he made, Gathright laughed and said, “The ones who make them can’t play them. There’s a whole lot less of us who work on them and build them that can play them.”

Gathright continued his self-education by repairing fiddles, many of them old models that had been hard-used, but there weren’t very many to work on then and he didn’t have means to acquire them.

Then a person came into his life that helped him on his way. “I guess the Good Lord shined down on me,” Gathright said. “I met an old gentleman by the name of Gene Graham down in Canton, Texas. Mr. Graham had a standing lot at Canton’s First Monday Trade Days and people brought him lots of old instruments because he didn’t care what shape they were in.

All that was required was that it had to be able to be strung and then be playable. That’s the condition he wanted.” Gathright continued, “We used to go there all the time because I could buy a lot of broke, beat-up fiddles and other instruments there for little or nothing and I would bring them home and fix them. Mr. Graham was a violin/fiddle dealer. When I mentioned that I worked on a few instruments, boy, his eyes lit up and he started sending some stuff home with me. ‘Take this home and fix it for me,’ he’d say and I did and the next month I’d take it back to him. I didn’t know at the time that he was pushing me to keep learning. He was feeding me material to work on without it coming out of my pocket.”

As Gathright’s skills became better, he began to make the old fiddles look better, also. He wanted them to look good for resale and he wanted his repairs to look good, too. The old gentleman saw Gathright’s improvement and encouraged him to learn how to build a Gibson-style mandolin, the F5 style that was Gibson Guitar Corporation’s trademark.

Gathright started working on building a mandolin which he quickly saw was “a whole different twist than a violin.” He eventually found enough literature and a supply house that even had blueprints. He joined the Guild of American Luthiers and bought lots of drawings.

He took features he liked from several different mandolins and incorporated them into a style of his own. The first mandolin he built was in 1994. With each successive instrument that left his shop, Gathright began to gain name recognition for the integrity of his work, both in repair and building of the mandolins on which he had come to focus solely.

He has never advertised; word-of-mouth has brought him business from other states and countries, including Germany and Spain via military personnel who carried Gathright instruments with them. His reputation grew. He was approached at the Dallas Guitar Show in the late 1990s by a representative of the Martin Guitar Corporation about becoming an official Martin repairman.

He was delighted by the honor of being associated with a premiere, world-renown guitar company. Gathright had always been impressed with the lifetime warranty Gibson offered their customers.

But he stopped that association two years ago because, he said, Gibson revamped their warranty so that they no longer honor a warranty the way it had been in the past. But his business continues to flourish to the point that he has to say with a smile, when customers ask how long it will take to build or repair their order, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” He said, “I work at Ash Grove for a living for my family and my family comes first, so I can’t spend all my time in my workshop. My customers just have to understand.”

He continues to build and repair guitars and mandolins; the Gathright name has been branded into over 100 mandolins today. He has built 30-35 guitars and hasn’t kept count of the violins.

Regardless of how many instruments he builds, it’s still hard to disconnect with that instrument when the work is done and he proudly presents it to its new owner. Gathright said, “It’s hard to let one go. I created it. I spend so much time on one and I know it inside out. When somebody comes to pick it up, it’s just like one of your kids leaving home when it goes through the door.”


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