Building Resonance

Merging his musical and mechanical skills, luthier Ben Wilborn carved a niche as an in-demand builder of high-end acoustic instruments.

June 5, 2023

For much of his youth, Ben Wilborn B.M. ’92 could be found playing music or working with his father, an amateur woodworker, in the basement shop of their Reno, Nevada, home. So when Wilborn set out to build a violin in his senior year at Berklee, this seemed like a reasonable goal. After all, he had a decent grasp on how the instrument worked, having played it since the age of 6, and he’d learned the basics of carpentry from his father. How hard could it be?

“Really, really hard,” he conceded after reading a book on violin construction that year and promptly scrapping the idea. “When I was young, I was extremely impatient, and impatience and lutherie do not blend very well,” he says. “When I started as a luthier, I was 40, and I’d gained perspective.”

After earning his bachelor’s in film scoring, Wilborn returned to Reno and formed an Americana band, the Lazy Eights, in which he sang, wrote songs, and played guitar, violin, and mandolin. The band toured for nearly a decade and built a strong local following but never achieved commercial success.

When the band broke up, Wilborn traded his pedalboard for a power drill to help a friend restore a warehouse in downtown Reno. This led to more construction jobs, and soon he was running his own contracting business. But while he liked the work and had a knack for it, he missed music and wanted to incorporate it back into his life.

Everything clicked into place shortly after the birth of his daughter. Needing an activity to focus on while the baby was sleeping—one that wouldn’t make too much noise—he decided to give lutherie another try. This time, though, his sights were set on a different stringed instrument.

“No one ever told me ‘This is how you sharpen a chisel’ at Berklee, but I learned about tone, timbre, sustain, decay—all the things that make music music."

— Ben Wilborn

“I built a guitar…shaped object,” he says, “and even though it really kinda sucked, I saw the potential. It was just such a joyful experience.” So, with his wife’s blessing, he canceled his contractor’s license and launched Wilborn Guitars.

Wilborn’s new venture got a big boost from folk singer Gillian Welch ’92, who was the first artist to use and recommend his guitars. He’d met the future Grammy winner in a Berklee ensemble, and she later joined his college band, the Polka Masters. “Ben is a truly artful maker, with a brilliant eye, a gifted hand, and an exquisite ear,” Welch says in a testimonial she wrote for Wilborn Guitars.

While there’s no direct line from Berklee to lutherie (the college now offers a minor in instrument repair), Wilborn says the breadth of his Berklee education gave him an edge in his field. “No one ever told me ‘This is how you sharpen a chisel’ at Berklee, but I learned about tone, timbre, sustain, decay—all the things that make music music, instead of just noise—and that has helped me infinitely in my quest to be a good luthier,” he says.

Wilborn’s signature achievement is his Comma Series, a line of guitars that features an innovative support design, with fan braces arranged like spokes on a wheel, and an offset soundhole to produce extra vibration and amplification. Starting at $11,000, they’re not cheap, but Wilborn, whose guitars are made to order and built entirely by hand, says the experience of working with a luthier on a custom-build—rather than buying a factory-made instrument off the rack—makes his guitars well worth the cost.

It’s a price many are willing to pay: there’s a three-year waitlist to get a Wilborn guitar. Given this demand, he’s often asked if he’ll hire employees to help him build more instruments. But he’s a fully committed solo act.

“I just want to keep doing this,” he says. “I have the perfect gig for me. I’m doing mechanical work with my hands, building beautiful things that people appreciate. I’m solvent. And I’ve got music. What else could I ask for?”

This article appeared in the spring/summer 2023 issue of Berklee Today

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