Abandoning metal for wood, he began a quest to perfect the kind of fretted musical instrument he had dabbled with since he was 13, in his case a C-1 model Gibson, like the one Elvis Presley played on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Self-taught and by then living in Houston, he learned on the job largely by fixing other people’s instruments before venturing to build acoustic guitars on his own in his two-bedroom apartment, making machine parts for them as well.
“The first few guitars I made primarily for the challenge of it,” he recalled, “but I knew that I was doing what I wanted to do.”
Mr. Collings, who died July 14 at 68 at his home in suburban Austin, Tex., became one of America’s pre-eminent luthiers, as string instrument makers are called. His company, Collings Guitars, said the cause of death was bile duct cancer.
Beginning in 1979, Mr. Collings’s company produced some 20,000 guitars for many of the world’s most accomplished rock, country, jazz and folk musicians, including Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Joni Mitchell, Eddie Van Halen, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Bill Frisell and Emmylou Harris.
His company later branched out into mandolins, electric guitars, concert and tenor ukuleles, and custom guitar cases, becoming a leader in mass-produced musical instruments.
“Every day out here around the world I hold a piece of your excellence and heart and soul in my hands when I pick up your guitars,” the singer, songwriter and guitarist Charlie Sexton wrote in a tribute to Mr. Collings on Facebook.
Business grew at first mostly by word of mouth. In the late 1980s, Mr. Collings produced two dozen custom guitars for George Gruhn, a vintage collector and retailer in Nashville, under the Gruhn logo. He then began placing his own surname in distinctive script on the headstock of every instrument crafted in his shop.
He explained that making a single Collings guitar takes about 20 craftsmen more than 35 days working in a climate-controlled plant in Austin (temperature 72 degrees, humidity 48 percent). The company turns out about six acoustics, three electrics, two mandolins and two ukuleles every day, or more than 3,000 a year.
A new Collings guitar ranges in price from about $3,300 to about $13,500.
“His devotion to form and function dictated the elegant construction of his instruments, which are known for their warm, crystalline tone and projection,” Steve Grimes, a fellow luthier, wrote this month on the website Premier Guitar.
Mr. Collings is survived by his wife, the former Ann Shaughness; his daughter, Sara Thomas; and his sisters, Martha Howell and Laura Putnam.
William Ralph Collings was born Aug. 9, 1948, in Midland, Mich., to Wallace Collings and the former Angeline Commora, and was raised in suburban Cleveland.
“I started playing when I was a teenager in Ohio, but I would usually just stare at the instrument, thump it, listen to it,” he said in an interview in 2012 with Texas Monthly magazine. “I’d ask, ‘Why does that steel-stringed guitar sound different than the nylon-stringed one?’ Why did the sound of some guitars haunt me while others didn’t?”
He left the Ohio machine shop for Houston, where he worked for an oil field pipeline company during the day and indulged his passion at night.
He made his first guitar, a hybrid composite of a Gibson Dove, a Martin D-28 and a Guild D-25, from Brazilian rosewood on his kitchen table using a hand saw, hammer, chisel and plane.
In the late 1970s, Lyle Lovett was at a Houston nightclub when he became intrigued by the flattop guitar that Rick Gordon, a songwriter, was playing.
“It looked like nothing I’d ever seen,” Mr. Lovett told Premier Guitar. “It was a Martin 000-shaped cutaway with wood binding, and I thought, ‘What kind of Martin is that?’”
After learning that it had been made by Mr. Collings, Mr. Lovett called him to repair the frets on his own Martin D-35.
“His guitars have personality,” Mr. Lovett said in a company video. “The sound is full of energy, just like Bill Collings is.”
After building about 50 more guitars, Mr. Collings was heading to California when he stopped in Austin. There he met the luthiers Tom Ellis and Mike Stevens and decided to move into their shop instead of continuing on to the West Coast. He hired his first employee in 1989. The roster eventually grew to nearly 100, but each instrument got personal attention.
“If you have great wood but not a great design or great craftsmanship, you’ll get a dead guitar,” Mr. Collings told Texas Monthly. “If you have bad wood, your guitar will be O.K. but never great.”
Collings guitars are usually fabricated from ebony, Indian rosewood, mahogany and quilted maple, which is sanded repeatedly between 12 coats of nitrocellulose lacquer.
“Can you pick the perfect piece of wood? No, but you can get really close,” Mr. Collings said in the company video. “Can you make it the perfect thickness? No, but you can get really close. Can you scientifically do it? No, but you can get close. So we do it all — buy the best wood, intuitively making a judgment on it, weighing it, banging on it, and roughly coming to the right thickness.”
Still, he was never fully satisfied.
“Success is succession, over and over and over, and it comes from failure,” he said. “Failure, failure, failure — knowing that if you stop, you’re done.”
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