Share this page with your friends   Share
Tools that Inspire

Articles

A Graceful Sequence
Guitar maker works the wood.
Woodstock Times, May 2003

Gryphons "are beasts like lions, with the wings and beak of an eagle," wrote Pausanias in his Description of Greece somewhere around the year 150 A.D. Even earlier, Ctesias the Cnidian, a physician at the royal Persian court in the late 5th century B.C., wrote that the mythical Gryphons were a "race of four-footed birds, about as large as wolves, having legs and claws like those of a lion..."

Photo of Joe Veillette by Dion Ogust
In Joe Veillette's vision a Gryphon is a 12-string tuned up to D, almost an octave high; it has a short 18 -inch scale for its string length, a small single-cutaway poplar body in perfect proportion to its short neck, and, plugged-in, sounds crystal-clean, kind of like a cross between acoustic guitar and mandolin. I'm sitting in Veillette's living room, which is more like a down-home instrument showroom, playing James Taylor's Gryphon, struggling with the small frets, awestruck by the sound and the light feel and touch of the guitar. "Blind Mice (Veillette's working trio) was playing in Stockbridge in the Red Lion, and James' technical crew came by, heard us, stuck around after the show and asked if we wanted to come to a closed rehearsal the next day before a European tour. They suggested that James might be interested in seeing some of the guitars," says Veillette, the 57-year-old Woodstock musical instrument builder, whose unique sense of guitar construction has won him a devoted following in the last two decades. "I went up the next day with the bass player. (Taylor) had an old Veillette-Citron (guitar) from 20 years ago, but I hadn't met him, he bought it through John Hall. So we talked and he was interested in the little 12-string and I offered to send it up to him and let him sit with it. He kept it for a while. Last week I got the word that he wants to keep it. He sent it back for a little tweaking." The velvety acoustic-like sound is smooth for fingerpicking; slap a flatpick on it and it kicks up a riot. It's OK for James, I tell him.

What's really got Veillette excited these days is a newly designed bass that's received a rave review from Bass Player magazine. He believes it will lift his instrumental reputation from the niche his extraordinary designs have carved out into a mainstream, central place where everyone will have to have one. It's a five-string bass, a single cutaway instrument (hence its name the Singlecut 5) designed, says the review, "to combine vintage-like bolt-on tone with the enhanced frequency response, clarity and stability (Veillette) perceives in single-cutaway neck-through basses." The review goes on to gush "thanks to innovative and passionate craftsmen like those at Veillette Guitars, Woodstock continues to remind us of the magic in certain locales. The magnificent work of its bass-loving citizens, exemplified here by a brilliantly designed, excellent sounding, versatile bass, does justice to an unforgettable musical legacy." Veillette designed the instrument with Martin Keith, a 23-year-old Woodstock bass player himself, who has been working in the Veillette shop for three years. "The new bass is the first thing that's come out of the shop that's right down the middle of what people want," says Veillette. "A few years ago I made a fretless nylon string 5-string that sounds like an upright, but not what you'd play with a rock and roll band or a pop band. It was a real niche instrument. This thing Martin and I co-designed is right down the middle. Now we start selling things we can make a living at. From a professional standpoint, it doesn't get much better than this - we make it and people want it and it's cool."

The possibility of commercial viability, while pleasant for Veillette and Keith to consider, tends not to be foremost in their minds. "The energy that goes into making instruments, the fun you're having, it's really critical," says Veillette. "The instruments that sound good, aside from the fact that Martin and I are having fun, I believe, have a graceful construction sequence to efficiently release the energy, the musicality, from the wood with a minimum of struggle." Veillette came around to building instruments after an education in architectural design and a string of fancy but unsatisfying jobs in the city. "In 1970 I worked on Park Avenue as an architectural designer, worked on a hotel in the Bahamas, office buildings, public parks, nice stuff but I hated it. It just wasn't fun," he says. "I worked on the World Trade Center as a draftsman in school for two summers. The headpiece broke on my first guitar (a 1960 Gibson J-45) and I couldn't get it fixed. The best repairmen in the city were doing things that were spectacularly dumb. I was really frustrated. A friend of mine told me of a one-night course with Michael Gurian at the YWCA in Manhattan. I ended up working with him for four months and he showed us how to build a classical guitar, totally from scratch. I got so turned on to it and I began getting materials and I ended up fixing the Gibson." Veillette left the city, moved to Grahamsville to build acoustic guitars, then moved back to the city and teamed up with Harvey Citron, a CCNY architectural design classmate. In Brooklyn, they started Veillette-Citron, moved the business to a shop on Field Court in Kingston, sold guitars to Van Halen, Dave Holland and others. "We were making two-thirds electric basses, the rest were electric guitars. And we're still selling to most of those customers. But we ran out of money and broke up the partnership. We were together from 1976 to 1983." Veillette made only two guitars in the next eight years - baritones for John Sebastian and Earl Slick. Instead he focused on a musical career with the wildly popular band, The Phantoms, a group equally adept at showing off the instruments he had made and singing a capella. It was in this band that Veillette gained confidence as a singer, after being told early on that he couldn't sing.

"These are mainly tools for musicians, to facilitate someone making music, that's what I want to do. Making a collectible is of no interest to me. The work is enough, you don't have to stick shit on it."
"Nobody can't sing," he says. "People learn not to. Learning how to sing is not stifling yourself. I learned how to sing harmony, but I knew we wouldn't make a lot of money, and by 1990, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I guess I could have gone back to architectural design. But Stuart Spector was making some interesting basses." The pair teamed up and worked together for four years, creating Woodstock Music Products, ending the partnership in 1994. "Then I started working on stuff I wanted to do. These machines," he says, pointing to the giant pin router in the cramped shop, "were in Brooklyn, then Field Court, Manhattan, back here. They just sat here for a few years. But that's where the creativity comes in, in making the tools that make the guitar, the guitar forms, the molds..."

The instruments that come out of the Veillette shop now are carefully crafted but unadorned with fancy inlay or decorations, logos. "These are mainly tools for musicians, to facilitate someone making music, that's what I want to do. Making a collectible is of no interest to me. The work is enough, you don't have to stick shit on it," says Veillette. Keith agrees wholeheartedly with Veillette's philosophy that better, truer instruments come from the hands and hearts of honest, artistic craftsmen who believe in the wood. "The work makes me feel better about myself," says Keith. "I feel like the pieces end up having some kind of quality that I don't have a logical explanation for." The shop puts out around 40-45 guitars a year, and has a potential for more. Veillette thinks it is possible that someone "offshore" (in Korea or China) could license the Singlecut, and, given the quality of work that comes from those countries these days, he says it would be all right. "If I can get them into more people's hands, let more people make music, what's what it's for," he says. "I think I'd be happy to license stuff, but that's not the issue. We're into getting people to respect what we do here and we can make a living. That's my choice in life. I live in Woodstock and I do what I like. It's a high calling. It's like alchemy. Making things that people make music with, it feels like, is a good thing to do."


Back to All Articles