Guitar Builder Angling for a Vintage Sound
Balsam Range’s Caleb Smith brings an intensity to the stage that’s hard to miss in a live show. The guitarist usually provides a bookend to Grammy-winning banjo player Marc Pruett, who is usually grinning and swaying while picking. Smith is on the task at hand, hitting the notes with precision and speed, clean and loud—in “the zone” as they’d say in sports. When a song ends, then the smile usually comes. He’s had a lifelong love of guitars and playing music and a dedication to getting it right and playing with power. He’s old school that way. For the last decade or so, he’s brought that same attitude and drive to building custom guitars that shine as bright as any new model, but sound like an instrument made before the second world war.
Smith grew up in Haywood County, in the North Carolina mountains and lives within a mile of there now, within close driving distance of his bandmates, who have captured countless IBMA awards. With hits like “Blue Mountain,” “Trains I Missed,” “Papertown,” “Something About That Suitcase,” and many others, their albums consistently rise to the top of the bluegrass charts. They’ve been together since 2007 with no band member changes—certainly a distinction in the genre.
Smith got an early start in music, but didn’t think the guitar would be his instrument of choice.
“My grandads played and other family played and I didn’t really want to play because they were so into it,” Smith said. “I played around with the mandolin and the banjo, but I never really heard bluegrass until I was about 12 or 13. My dad was a huge Doc Watson fan. I didn’t really listen to his records, but heard my dad play it. Dad was a Baptist preacher, so I grew up playing and singing in church.”
One year, in those early teens, family friends from Cary (near Raleigh) were coming to visit the Smiths and a watershed moment took place.
“They had a Stelling banjo and I always looked forward to them bringing that and letting me play it and they brought some copies of the Banjo Newsletter and they brought me a cassette that had a Hot Rize album on one side and a Lonesome River Band album on the other,” Smith said. “That changed my musical life. The aggressiveness of LRB singing, everything was just so perfect and Charles Sawtelle [Hot Rize] had such a different guitar style, I’d never heard singing and picking like that.”
Not long after that, his mother took him to the library in nearby Canton —the inspiration for Balsom Range’s Papertown album—where there was a big stack of cassettes that could be checked out.
“They had Tony Rice’s Me and My Guitar and I’d never seen or heard anything like it,” Smith said. “It made me want to play.”
Smith worked for a while at Ghost Town in the Sky, an amusement park in Maggie Valley (NC) and was also in a bluegrass gospel band called Harvest. He didn’t have high expectations and even when he and his neighbors started playing together, in what would become Balsam Range, he wasn’t thinking career.
“I never thought one time I could make a living playing music. The first three or four shows we didn’t even have a name for the band and we weren’t looking ahead. It was just easy to get together and play.”
But then Mickey Gamble of Crossroads Music sat down with the band and told them they had something special, which turned out to be a spot-on assessment.
In the early 2000s, Smith self-taught himself how to set up a guitar and gained knowledge from Frank Ford, Dan Erlywine and John Arnold.
“It was hard to find someone to do what I wanted done in a timely manner,” Smith said. “I play a high action. Setup is a very personal thing. I like the nut height and the string slot as low as possible without buzzing. At the saddle, I don’t care if it’s high — I like the tension from the high side. Low action is easier to play, but the style I play, I like it high.”
Pretty soon he was taking in instruments from friends and started doing minor repairs. He came from a family of carpenters and had worked in construction, so he knew his way around tools and wood, but there was still a learning curve.
“I remember that first neck set. It was a major thing at the time, not so much now, but taking a neck out at that time was a big deal … and I guess it still is,” Smith said and laughed.
Smith took in more work but kept at day jobs in construction and pest extermination. The economic slump in 2008 found him looking for a job. He was also becoming more interested in building guitars.
“Balsam Range was young and weren’t playing many shows yet. I was giving lessons and when a couple of students found out I was building a guitar, they wanted one,” said Smith. “Pretty soon, that grew to five and then ten and now I stay about twenty guitars behind.”
If it sounds like the idea came out of nowhere and just happened, that’s not the case. His dad had built a guitar in the early 1990s in the classical style and the idea to try it himself stuck with Smith from his early teenager days.
“It was a great guitar. The sides and back were from a maple that came from our property and the soundboard came from an old local piano company and the guitar had nylon strings. I remember watching him boil sides on a wood stove. He had a great book by William Cumpiano to guide him. When I got ready to start, I made some calls to get advice and was told to read that book. I took it as a challenge,” Smith said.
Smith said that it’s misleading to link woodworking with guitar making, a lesson he quickly learned.
“I’d worked with mahoghany, ebony and rosewood in cabinets and building a guitar has nothing to do with that,” he said. “It’s more like being a machinist, it’s very precise. I carry around calipers.”
The guitarist wasn’t just out to build a good instrument, he had specifics in mind for exactly what he wanted.
“My favorite guitars are Martin and Gibsons from the 1920s to the 1950s. Growing up, it was all dreadnaughts, that’s what a guitar was to me. My dad had a Martin D-35 and I always stole it. [Bandmate] Tim Surrett has a 1945 Martin D-18 that we’ve recorded with and I borrowed a 1943 D-28 to record with and I found a 1940 D-18 that I bought from the original owner near Asheville.”
He said it is not just the age that makes those instruments special.
“Those guitars I liked were built differently,” Smith said. “Everything was different. A D-18 from the 30s or 40s is totally different from those made today and I wanted to create those old guitars the same way with the same materials. The way the wood is cut is very important and I approached it in a vintage, antique way. I’ve worked with many old guitars and if they were built with hide glue, they have to be repaired with hide glue. I measure old guitars for thickness, how the scallops and braces were made, and I made notes.”
On the wall of his shop is a blueprint based on a 1937 Martin D-28.
“Older guitars are so much lighter. I’m looking for a dry, powerful, balanced sound — that’s what I want in an old guitar,” he said. “The only real difference in how I make them is the neck reinforcement. Some players want a T-bar, which doesn’t allow for any adjustment and some want compression truss rods that allow for adjustment.”
That first guitar was “decent sounding,” Smith said. It had mahogany back and sides and the top was spruce from West Virginia. He finished it the night before Merlefest in 2008 and had Watson’s longtime playing partner Jack Lawrence to give it a once over at the festival.
“He said it felt ok, it played good and that it was a really good guitar,” Smith said. “He said he’d only change the finish. The finish is by far the hardest part. The sides seemed a little wonky to me and the shape of the heel. [Builder] Wayne Henderson told me that the shape of the heel needs to be sexy like a woman’s high heel shoe. And he’s right.”
Smith said his second effort was better by far and that the experience on the first was invaluable. The second instrument went to a player in Pennsylvania and the third to one of his students.
“I had to [build one] to figure it out. I had minimal tools and my bending tool was a hot pipe. I bought my first thickness sander and built my side bending press and that was a game changer, made it so much easier. Now I have jigs for everything.”
Smith’s guitars have been sent all over to the country. He’s had buyers in Alaska, Canada and Germany. He built one for bluegrass guitar virtuoso Bryan Sutton and a couple for country performers The Zac Brown Band.
Some things from those old guitars can’t be duplicated, like the seasoning that can only come with age. Nitrocellulose lacquer degrades over time, so part of the sound is distinct from that wear.
“The least material you can have touching the wood, the more it will vibrate,” Smith said. “I make my finishes super thin. The power comes from the way the guitar is braced and the quality of the soundboard. That’s the most important part of the guitar.”
Smith’s tops come from a red spruce from nearby Yancey County, a tree that was felled in 2012. It grows in North Carolina, but only at about elevations of 5000 feet, he said. The tree was estimated to be around 300 years old.
“The stiffness and the integrity comes from the top. I want balance. I want my treble E and the bass E to be comparable. When I rake across six strings, I want to hear all six strings. For my picky ear — and every builder says this — not every guitar you build blows your hair back. But they are all special. Some are just a tick better than others and no one can tell you why — if they could, we’d make them all like that,” said Smith.
It’s also not a process that can be rushed. Smith has built over 100 instruments now and averages about 12-15 a year. He’s done it long enough to come up with some theories that he’s yet to test.
“Some of my best builds have been in the fall and winter when the humidity is lower,” said Smith. “I’ve thought about putting all my bodies together in October, November and December, but I’ve not done it, it’s just not my style. I usually do it one at the time.”
He’s also come up with an original guitar design and got a little help from Sutton on naming it.
“It’s like a 000 Dreadnaught, just a hair smaller,” Smith said. “For me, it can be fatiguing playing a big guitar for a long stretch. I was doing a show in Minnesota with Bryan [Sutton] and he played it without me telling him anything. He liked the feel and that it felt lighter and a bit smaller. Dreadnaughts are named after battleships, so he suggested Destroyer or Cruiser. Well, I didn’t think I could name it Destroyer, so it became the Cruisier and I’ve built about 15-16.”
The building is more than a job, though.
“When the box comes together, that’s a pretty cool milestone, from taking raw materials to that. I still carve the necks by hand, there are no machines,” Smith said. “When I spray it, that’s when I see what it’s going to look like and it’s a totally different look [than where it started]. The finish is my least favorite part, because one little thing can ruin it. After the finish is buffed and the guitar is put together, I let it sit overnight before I put the tension. That next day is when it gets it’s voice. When I put the strings on it, it’s like Christmas. I know it’s only going to get better from what it sounds like now.”
For more information on Smith guitars, visit www.calebsmithguitars.com