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How did you get started and did you have any formal training?

 I built my first guitar when I was in college earning my degree in jazz guitar. I needed an archtop guitar and couldn't afford to buy one so I decided to build one for myself. At the time I was studying with some of the top players in St.Louis and after seeing and hearing my first guitar they asked me if I would be interested in building one for them. I had never considered being a guitar maker before that, but I kind of liked the idea since it came so naturally to me.

 I never had a formal apprenticeship with any luthier so I am mostly self taught, though I was greatly helped by many luthiers. I was able to briefly visit and study with some great luthiers such as Boaz Elkyam and the luthier that I consider my biggest influence and my mentor Eugene Clark.

What is your favorite part of the process?

 I really enjoy interacting with my customers and getting to know them and collaborating to create their perfect guitar. My favorite part of the building process is sculpting the tops and backs of an archtop guitar by hand. I do this totally by eye and by hand with my hand planes. When I'm carving it's really intuitive, it is like I'm a spectator watching my hands do the work, removing the unnecessary wood, and leaving behind the perfect and elegant arch to bring out the unique voice that's waiting inside.

You just returned from a guitar show in Italy. What else have you found that stimulates international business?

 I don't do much as far as advertising and this show was the first I have been to in several years. I recently had my first book, The Creation Of The Natura Elite Archtop Guitar, published which is available through my website, www.tbguitars.com in print or eBook form. The book is really a great way for me to help people get a glimpse of what I do and my approach to building that goes beyond what I can say at a show or even on the phone. Having a good website and blog is a great way to connect with people from all countries too. At the end of the day though, it really comes down to word of mouth, if the product is good then people will spread the word for you and these days it doesn't take long to reach Europe and beyond.

How do you balance production time with marketing?

 I have always done way to much hands on work and not enough marketing. As a artist it is really difficult to break from the thinking that if I'm not physically working on a guitar, I'm not actually getting anything done. The reality is, it does take some marketing, but it's still very difficult to put down the chisel and sit at the computer with everything I "should be doing" in the shop on my mind.

What has been your biggest challenge as an artist/businessman?

 Well, the business part for sure. When I'm faced with a situation where I must decide if I should spend three days redoing something that no one in the world will ever see, but that drives me crazy, I will always choose to redo the work until it's perfect. It costs me a lot to do that, but I sleep well at night, so I think it's still the right way to go even though it doesn't help the bottom line in the short term.

What is the one tool you can't imagine your life without?

 I have a small violin making plane that I would have a very hard time living without. It was one of the few tools I purchased while I was building my first guitar and I've used it on every guitar since. I don't know if the tool itself is so outstanding, though it is nice, but maybe because it was one of the only tools I had for a while, I developed many uses for it and even today without thinking I grab it to get the job done.

What is your preferred finish? Why?

 All my guitars are currently finished with a shellac varnish applied by hand with the French polish  technique. Aside from being natural and environmentally friendly, it gives the guitar an amazing sound. The shellac doesn't mute the voice of the guitar as many other finishes do and the way it refracts light is visually stunning and cannot be matched by any synthetic finish. My process is totally hands on, and is a true art form in itself. There are few things I enjoy more than starting my day in the quiet of the morning with the peaceful sights and sounds of French polishing my guitars in the same way that craftsmen before me have been doing for thousands of years.

If you had to do it all over again...

 I would do it the same way, but I think I would take things a little more slowly and not be in as much of a hurry to succeed as I was when was younger. This is a marathon and not a sprint. I have taken the slower approach, but not by choice, I just didn't have the resources to do what everyone else was doing, but it has really helped me in the long run. Now that I'm a little older and more experienced, I'm really happy with the path I've taken and that I'm presently on.

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Tom Bills Guitars

St Louis, MO






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