In today’s highly connected world, I am often taken aback when the passing of a giant in an industry receives very little notice. 2017 has been a very tough year as we have lost some extremely influential people in the music business. We lost another last week with the passing of legendary guitar builder Bill Collings.
Bill’s passing didn’t make the national evening news, but there is no doubt about his importance within the musical instrument industry. His influence and his instruments can be found around the world, played by some of the world’s greatest musicians, regardless of genre. From his line of acoustic and electric guitars, to his phenomenal mandolins and ukuleles, Bill was one of the true pioneers of the modern era of boutique builders.
I first met Bill Collings in 1986 after he was recommended to me for some much-needed repair work for a couple of my guitars. He was working out of a detached garage behind his house in central Austin. I had a ’57 re-issue Strat I couldn’t keep in tune if I even glanced at the whammy bar, and a fretless Precision bass that needed some TLC. They both were reborn in Bill’s hands.
The last time I spoke with Bill he was in the late 80’s after he did some repairs to my ’73 P-Bass. He had moved from that detached garage to a small warehouse on South Lamar to deal with the growing demand for his custom acoustic guitars. It was always a blast to chew the fat with Bill about guitars, vintage hot rods, or whatever was on his mind.
On that day, Bill shared with me that he was worried about the growth of his business. The demand for his guitars was becoming too much for him to handle alone. While Bill had an assistant working for him, he knew he needed to expand. For Bill, the problem was hiring the right people. As Bill put it, “I need to hire someone who’s just like me,” he said. “They have to do things exactly like me. I don’t know if I can find that person.”
Bill was looking for what he thought was impossible. His attention to detail and undying commitment to quality is what drove him 24/7 no matter what he was working on. I don’t know if Bill ever found his doppelganger, but he did go on to build a remarkable business.
In 1992, Bill moved his expanding business to an old feed store southwest of Austin. Today, Collings has grown to almost 100 employees, and along the way created a legacy and a culture that will live on beyond his unique life. I don’t think it’s a stretch to look at Bill as an icon to the boutique instrument business in much the same way Steve Jobs was to personal computing, with one major exception. Bill built his business with his hands as well as with his imagination and unwavering drive to create the best. There is little question that Collings is one of the true benchmarks for any boutique builder today.
Like Apple, employee number one is gone, but Bill’s influence and lifelong commitment to producing the best instruments humanly possible lives on, just the way he wanted when I talked with him on that day in 1988. He will be missed and my thoughts are with his family.