The ax man: Vermilion County resident uses local and exotic wood and handmade machinery to build electric guitars
GRAPE CREEK — After Craig Collins was laid off from his job at a machine shop in Danville four years ago, he mentioned to his wife his dream of building electric guitars.
She didn't discourage him.
"I told him he'd better do it because he wasn't getting any younger," Gail Collins said last week outside their home in Grape Creek, a wooded valley south of Danville.
So Craig Collins, now 53, built a climate- and humidity-controlled workshop near his home on top of Harper Hill.
He took other steps most guitar-makers wouldn't.
With the help of his younger son, Collins chopped down walnut and cherry trees and harvested the wood for his instruments.
He built, from a rusty pile of steel, his own sawmill. Using the mill, he cuts 5-foot walnut and cherry logs into 2-inch-thick boards.
Collins dries the boards for a year in a solar-powered wood-drying kiln, that, again, he built himself.
To reach the sawmill and kiln, he crosses a wide wooden footbridge over a ravine.
And you guessed it: The self-described "old-school machinist" constructed the bridge, using old trailer frames.
After considering several different names, Collins settled on calling his new business Vibrance Guitars.
It might be far from the madding guitar-playing crowd. But recently Collins took his guitars to Ellnora The Guitar Festival at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana.
There he and his wife, a registered nurse at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System in Danville, watched people stopped by to admire and try out Vibrance guitars.
Gail Collins said she heard comments such as "beautiful," "wow," "These are gorgeous," "They play so nice," and "This is the best-sounding guitar I ever heard."
One man, a university employee, returned to Ellnora each of the three days of the festival to try out Vibrances on his own amp.
This past summer, Craig Collins also set up a Vibrance Guitars display at the National Association of Music Merchants trade show in Nashville. His guitars drew similar comments there; as a result of the show, one man bought one.
Collins, who had worked as a machinist for 30 years, designed two prototypes for six-string electric guitar and one each for four- and five-string bass guitar.
He's finished 24 guitars so far. Their more unusual design elements include:
— a neck through body;
— chambered, arch tops and backs with contoured necks without heels;and
— a five-piece laminated neck with carbon-fiber inserts for rigidity and tonal transfer.
Another unusual aspect of his guitars: He doesn't paint the bodies, as most mass manufacturers do with theirs, often using car paint.
Collins instead hand rubs the wood with gun-stock oil, letting each application dry before he adds another.
The 10 coats of oil build up the surface, fill in the grain and allow the natural beauty and tone of the wood to come through.
Besides using local walnut and cherry, Collins builds his guitars from exotic woods like purple heart, canary, bubinga, bloodwood and wenge. He buys that wood at C-U Woodshop Supply in Champaign, testing it for tone.
If it has a ping, it's good.
That as well as his design elements make Vibrance Guitars guitars works of art.
And what's more, they have great tone, says guitarist W. Todd Reynolds, who advises Collins and tests and demonstrates Vibrance guitars, including in 12 YouTube videos.
Reynolds, who also teaches guitar, writes music and does remote session work for an East Coast company, owns three six-string Vibrance guitars, each made from a different kind of wood.
Each has its own sound; Reynolds trades off playing them depending on the job.
"Honestly, I love them; there's really nothing else like them," the 42-year-old musician said. "There's a lot of lingo about guitars, but their tone is outstanding."
Asked if in an electric guitar the pickup is more important than the wood, Reynolds said that's debatable. Large manufacturers make guitars to reduce the impact of the wood on sound quality, he said.
"If they're making a million guitars of a particular model, the last thing they want is a guitar that reflects the actual piece of wood," Reynolds said.
Because of the wood and the finish, Collins said each of his guitars has a personality — whether he wanted it to or not. Even Vibrance guitars made out of the same kind of wood have slightly different tones, he said.
Reynolds, a lead guitarist and singer in theFPband, said because they have such a crisp and clear sound, Vibrance guitars can be intimidating to some players.
"When you have something that true — and amps are the same way — it lets the personality of the player come through," he said. "It points out the flaws in your playing. A lot of guitar manufacturers try to minimize that."
Collins, though, aims his electric guitars at professionals who have gone through other brands and want more delivery and performance. They have not yet caught onto Vibrance models.
"I haven't been able to get them into their hands yet," he said. (He did get a Vibrance into the hands of one famous guitarist at Ellnora; though the musician was complimentary, he would not allow photographs of him with a Vibrance because of his endorsements of other guitars.)
Because of the materials, time and labor Collins puts into each guitar, he charges $3,500 to $4,000 apiece. Because of the price, he's sold only four so far.
Reynolds bought three — two at "deep discount" because of the help he's given Collins and Vibrance. The other went to the man who saw the guitars in Nashville.
Collins produces five to seven guitars per batch, using jigs and templates he fabricated himself. He is painstaking and puts 150 hours into building, sanding and shaping of each guitar.
"In a good way, he obsesses over the details," Reynolds said. "I do think he's pretty resourceful. He's brilliant; he really is. I think the wheels are always turning."
Collins built his own duplicating machine for carving out the guitars, saving an estimated $2,500 on that piece of equipment. Before starting Vibrance Guitars, he owned a vertical mill.
"Without that there would be no Vibrance Guitars," Collins said.
The only things he doesn't fabricate himself for his electric instruments are the hardware, laser-cut diamond inlays in the fret boards and the strings — he uses Elixir coated steel strings.
He makes electric rather than acoustic guitars because he's partial to electric. Also, at this point, making acoustic guitars would require a completely different set of tools.
His two sons, Lucas, 20, and Mitchell, 15, play electric guitars; Mitchell plays his in the Danville Vineyard Church band.
Before his father founded Vibrance Guitars, Lucas played a Fender but "had big eyes and wanted an expensive guitar, more than I wanted to spend on one," his dad said.
So Collins modified his son's Fender to make it sound better. After hearing it, Reynolds, who's played guitar for 28 years, suggested that Collins build his own.
At first he thought it would be too difficult. But he began reading basic guitar-design books. Within six months, he had built his first electric guitar.
It weighed 13 pounds, about 5 pounds more than it should. He and his family call it "Grandpa."
To reduce the weight, Collins began making semi-hollow bodies. Now his guitars weigh 7 to 7-1/2 pounds each.
"From that one I learned what I shouldn't do," he said. "My guitars are still evolving, but less so now. I've got them where I want them."
On the Web
To learn more about Vibrance Guitars and luthier Craig Collins, visit http://www.vibranceguitars.com/. The website includes links to 12 YouTube demo videos in which Danville guitarist W. Todd Reynolds plays Vibrance guitars.