We live in an era where everybody with a Stew-Mac catalog and a spray gun considers himself to be a “luthier”, but true luthiers, men (and, with a particular nod to Linda Manzer, women) who can build musical instruments that set standards for tone, construction, and beauty — well, they are rare.
Rarer now, with the announcement that Kalamazoo’s Aaron Cowles passed away last week.
Twice, I engaged Mr. Cowles’ service to rescue severely damaged instruments. The first time was the Heritage Spruce Eagle seen above with Mr. and Mrs. Cowles. Aaron removed the neck, salvaged the fretboard, built a new neck from scratch, reattached the fretboard, and rebuilt the guitar into something that sounds absolutely perfect. I’ve let perhaps ten serious players try it out, and four of them offered me money on the spot for it. You can get a vague sense of it here, backing my brother’s saxophone:
Emboldened by that success, I next sent Aaron a Heritage H-575 that had been played and abused to death by a local jazz guy over the course of twelve long years. Not only was the neck bowed beyond repair, the body had dehydrated and the finish had faded. After five months: I got it back:
It’s too nice to play, almost.
Our third project would have been a “Unity” dreadnought acoustic, using some interesting rosewood he had in his shop, but he fell ill before we could hash out the details. Earlier this year, I was told that he had passed away, but that turned out to be a rumor.
Aaron started with Gibson many years ago, sweeping floors and working a succession of more skill-intensive jobs at the factory before becoming a senior luthier who was trusted with construction of the F-5 mandolin and Citation guitars. According to Patrick, the long-term Heritage rep, “The first six Gibson Citations were built by Aaron Cowles and Jim Deurloo.” I believe he is referring here to the 1979 reissue Citations, not the eight to ten 1969 Citations that were made before the model was discontinued. Here’s a Cowles-built ’84 Citation:
(Brief note for the car guys: A Gibson Citaton cost as much as a Chevrolet Citation, and unlike the Chevys they still fetch fifteen grand used.)
When Gibson left Kalamazoo, Aaron opened his own shop near the old plant and began making his own “Unity” guitars. He also performed the voodoo art of “tap tuning” on Gibson and Heritage archtops. Tap tuning is a process in which the underside of the top of the guitar is shaved in such a way as to change the fundamental resonating frequency of said top. It’s done in thousandths of an inch at a time. It takes delicacy and knowledge and experience and it’s very easy to destroy a $10,000 guitar by doing it wrong.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Aaron ranked with the world’s top archtop builders. I have no doubt in my mind that he was capable of doing anything that Monteleone or Benedetto have done, but he was a traditionalist who preferred perfecting the old Lloyd Loar patterns to pushing the envelope of design. He was also a lightning-fast picker in the Chet Atkins mode. At my request in 2011, he picked up an archtop and absolutely ripped through a couple of Chet’s songs at full velocity, using brass finger and thumb picks.
Humble, kind, and immensely accomplished, Aaron Cowles was truly one of a kind. You won’t see someone with his combination of personal and professional qualities again for a long, long time. When I get home, I’m going to take out that Spruce Eagle and play it in his memory. Goodbye, friend. You’ll be missed.