Longtime jazz guitar builder known for handmade instruments
Lincoln has lost one of its finest craftsman.
Ironically, Bill Hollenbeck’s skills were probably better known on the national scope than they were in his own backyard. He was a luthier, a highly respected builder of arch-top guitars that he fashioned in his small, but meticulously organized home workshop in Mayfair subdivision.
Hollenbeck, 74, died Friday at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield.
In his hometown, he was probably best known as a long-time teacher of electricity and electronics at a vocational school based at Lincoln Community High School. He retired from there in 1990 and devoted himself to building and marketing his own, hand-built guitars.
His second career took him to guitar shows around the nation and once drew him and one of his instruments to a guitar exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
While the guitar market in recent years has been flooded with machine-built instruments, many from Asian manufacturers, Hollenbeck stuck to his pain-staking method of hand carving and assembling his instruments.
He learned the trade from Peoria resident Bill Barker, a famous maker of arch-top guitars. While Hollenbeck was spending his weekdays teaching vocational classes in Lincoln, he would drive to Barker’s workshop in evenings and weekends to help make the sought-after Barker instruments.
When he retired from teaching, Hollenbeck set out on his own and began taking his instruments, with the Hollenbeck logo inlaid on the tuning head, to guitar shows around the country.
His guitars weren’t beginner’s instruments. With price tags ranging from $6,000 to $8,000, they were made for professional jazz guitarists. One of his early buyers – jazz fingerstyle guitarist Jim Nichols – liked Hollenbeck’s guitars so much that he commissioned Hollenbeck to produce signature models for him.
During his travels around the country, Hollenbeck rubbed elbows with some of America’s best-known guitar players. Although a shy and quiet man, Hollenbeck relished showing visitors to his Mayfair home a large album he had compiled containing photos of himself with artists such as Chet Atkins and Les Paul.
“I met Bill at the Classic American Guitar Show many years ago and found him to be a really nice and genuine person and a great luthier,” jazz guitar educator and performer Joe Giglio wrote over the weekend on an Internet forum dedicated to jazz guitar. “(He) put his heart, soul and great craftsmanship into his creations.”
Hollenbeck started each instrument with raw slabs of wood that he had carefully selected. While most wood workers are content to measure in 32nd-of-an-inch increments, Hollebeck used micrometers and feeler gauges to hone his work to the thousandth of an inch.
The former teacher estimated that, at his peak, he could churn out no more than six to eight guitars a year. Many of those were made to order, with each instrument customized so the neck and fret board were sized to the buyer’s hands.
In the late 1990s, Hollenbeck was selected to participate in a nationwide project sanctioned by New York resident Scott Chinery, who at the time was regarded as the biggest private collector of guitars in the world.
Chinery, now deceased, sponsored the Blue Guitar project, in which he hand-picked 50 guitar builders across the country – including Hollenbeck – to create a blue guitar. Chinery provided each of the builders with the blue wood dye, but left the instrument’s designs up to each luthier.
That Blue Guitar collection spawned a book by the same title, which includes a page devoted to Hollenbeck, and it earned the Lincoln craftsman a trip in 1998 to the Smithsonian, which put Chinery’s project on display as a salute to American guitar builders.
Photos of some of Hollenbeck’s creations can be viewed at www.hollenbeckguitar.com.
He was a member of the Association of Stringed Instruments Artisans and the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society.
Among survivors are his wife Sandy, a son Doug of Austin, Texas, and a daughter Jeannie Poe of Las Vegas.
Dan Tackett can be reached at email@example.com.