Luthier Jim Hewett Crafts Wood into Music
Text by Cheryl Alexander | Photos by Argenio Garza Jr.
When Art, Science and Spirit Become Music
Rosewood, ebony, walnut, mahogany and maple. Mother-of-pearl, ivory, abalone and laquer. Bookmatching, strutting, necks, fingerboards, bridges and saddles.
Such is the jargon of a luthier — someone who builds or repairs guitars. James Hewett knows the vernacular well. Hewett, one of Houston’s most well-known luthiers and a native Texan, began building acoustic guitars in 1993. He is self-taught and naturally gravitated to the craft through his love for music, his passion for great, acoustic instruments, his innate understanding of woods and his gift for working with his hands. Today, he works full-time building custom acoustic guitars, hand-carved arch top jazz guitars and harp guitars. In addition, he performs full-scale repairs and restorations for six Houston-area guitar stores.
Hewett’s interest in music and art began in 1965 when he was 6 years old. He vividly remembers getting the first Beatles album, starting to draw pictures of everything that he found interesting and getting his first guitar all in the same year.
As a young musician, Hewett studied both piano and guitar. He could play guitar pretty confidently by the age of 10 and took five years of piano lessons and played in a few bands.
“It seems like all musicians can play guitar, but few could play the piano, at least back then when I was a rock-n-roller,” said Hewett. “So I was a real commodity as a trained piano player. Lots of bands wanted me to play keyboard.”
As an artist, Hewett was singled out in grade school for his ability to draw and attended art school for a full year at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. He remembers getting his first art supplies and his first assigned subject: a bowl of fruit on a table. Eventually, he connected his artistic abilities with his personal inspirations.
“I’m one quarter Native American (Hopi and Cherokee), so I have a deep connection with the natural world,” Hewett explained. “To this day, my favorite subjects to paint or draw are dramatic wilderness landscapes mostly of the West because it’s one way I can connect with the spiritual part of my being. When I paint, draw, or design and build my instruments, I’m connecting with the spiritual world.”
Hewett remembers his best painting as a mural he did in pastels on a wall in an apartment in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1977. He was living there with his girlfriend. When they moved out, they were declined their deposit because the maintenance crew told management about it.
“About a week later,” Hewett recalls, “I got a call from the manager saying we’d be getting our deposit back after all because the maintenance man told her, ‘You’d better come see this before I paint over it.’ She decided to leave it intact.”
That memorable mural is depicted in the inlay designs of some of Hewett’s guitars that are now out in the world.
Hewett was totally consumed by creating art as a young boy and admits that he still is today. Eventually however, his fascination with drawing and painting spilled over into working with wood at a very early age: cutting it, carving it and building things with it. He also admits that he can be a bit obsessive-compulsive when he gets into something.
“My OCD has served me well in many regards,” says Hewett, “in that I won’t give up and always strive for the extreme or highest level in my endeavors.”
Hewett began repairing guitars before building them, because “like everything else I’ve ever gotten in to, I wanted to learn what makes it tick, how to fix it and how to modify it,” he said. “I did this with my bicycles as a child, with my first motorcycle at the age of 10 and with all my cars.”
Then 21 years ago, Hewett built his first guitar motivated by his love of music and guitars, and his frustration of trying to find and not being able to afford what he deemed “the perfect acoustic instrument.” He acquired several books written by prominent luthiers and studied them for about a year to get a basic understanding of the tools and the woods he would need, then he built his first instrument.
Needless to say, Hewett was hooked. He built a second, and a third, and kept on going. He has sold every one since then except one that he kept.
“It took me almost 10 years of building until I kept one,” Hewett said. “To me, it was and still is the perfect guitar.”
And just how is a guitar built? According to Hewett, it is a combination of art and acoustical science. The science of a luthier begins with the selection of wood. Traditionally tropical hardwoods like mahogany and several different species of rosewood are used for the back and sides of a guitar, with Brazilian rosewood being considered the Holy Grail of tone woods. Mahogany gives the base for a louder mid-range voice, while exhibiting a unique warmth. Rosewood has a deeper, richer color to its voice with complex overtones. Other commonly used woods are maple, walnut and a variety of other tropical hardwoods that can yield a unique and tonally beautiful instrument.
The wood must be well-seasoned and dried out for several years before building the instrument. “A luthier who lives in the dry Southwest already has the perfect climate,” said Hewett, “but here in Houston I have to dehumidify my shop as needed.”
The soundboard of an acoustic instrument is tonally the most important part of the instrument. For the soundboard, spruce is the most commonly used wood, along with western red cedar. Pieces are selected for their responsiveness to vibration. “You do this by tapping the piece of lumber,” Hewett explained. “Experience and a good feel for wood are absolutely necessary for this selection process. An experienced luthier can spot a good piece by simply shuffling through boards. As the boards are banging against each other, a good piece will ring out like a bell.”
The wood’s thickness and bracing are critical to the responsiveness and tone of the instrument. As well as refining the thickness of each piece of the instrument, during the final stage of creation, the bracing is scalloped or shaved to achieve the desired voice. This, too, requires experience and an intimate feel for each piece of wood.
Even with a deep understanding of the acoustics, Hewett enforces that one must still be able to tap into some kind of intuitive, spiritual element to craft a superb instrument.
“I liken it to many famous songwriters and musicians who, when asked how they do it or where they get the beautiful melodies and lyrics,” he said. “Most will tell you they pull them out of the air or from voices in their heads.”
This, then, is where science and art merge with spirit. Hewett believes that the element that makes any handmade art a great piece is that it looks or feels familiar, even if you’ve never seen it before – that it evokes an immediate emotional response. Additionally, he believes that a great piece of art will harbor the spirit of its creator.
“I once built a harp guitar for a fellow in Spokane,” said Hewett. “It ended up with my blood and tears literally on the inside of the soundboard. My father had died the night before I was to carve the bracing of the soundboard to tune it. My dad came to me in a dream that night, and the next day I went to work on that soundboard. I cut my hand scalloping the bracing, so the wood was slightly blood-stained. Tears of grief fell on that guitar as well. I shared that story with the customer who appreciated knowing the depth of my energy that now lives in that instrument. To me, that is a work of art.”
Hewett has built and sold hundreds of commissioned guitars and repaired as many or more, working his science, creating his art and leaving a piece of himself in each unique instrument. His mission, he says, is to leave behind something that can be used and enjoyed for generations to come, and his goal, “to keep working until I drop dead.”
To see more of Hewett’s work, visit hewettguitars.net.