Nothing warms the heart of a bluegrass guitarist like finding a new luthier building vintage reproductions in a small shop setting. As the prices of the actual prewar Martin dreadnoughts keeps going up, most of us need to be looking at the high quality replicas being made by independent builders, who can offer the same styling, specifications, and construction techniques, minus the museum piece pricing.
One such is Ben Walters, who is building both dreadnought and OM body guitars in Winchester, VA. He came to our attention when former Johnson Mountain Boy, David McLaughlin, was bragging on him on Facebook. His quote was quite striking. “I must say… I’ve never played a guitar better than these two. Whoever is getting them will be amazed. They are shockingly good.”
So we reached out to Ben, who agreed to share his story with our readers.
A multi-instrumentalist who has played professionally in bluegrass, old time, and rock music, Ben started out, like most builders, doing repair work for Marty Fair, himself an experienced luthier who makes a wide range of guitars and mandolins, in addition to taking in repair and restoration work.
“After graduating college, I moved to New Orleans from 2013 to 2015. I was in an edgy funk/rock band playing bass, and played banjo in an old time string band. I remember one summer, between the two bands, I was on the road for four months straight! These were DIY tours, but they were a lot of fun, and at the time I loved traveling.
When I moved back to Virginia in 2015, I found myself playing fiddle in a bluegrass band. We played a lot of weddings and private gigs, and though we didn’t do any extended runs on the road, we travelled quite a bit, and did go across the country a few times. I was working as a luthier part time, and when the pandemic hit in 2020 I decided to make working on instruments full time.”
But Walters says that it was a chance meeting with an enigmatic NOVA personality that really set his desire to build afire.
“When I moved back to Virginia in 2015, I met a man from the Shenandoah Valley named Pete Ross. There are some stories about Pete, people familiar with him know what I’m talking about! I played some of the fiddles he had fixed up, and really fell in love with them, so I brought him some fiddles to work on and we became good friends. I’d go to his place in Mt. Jackson and we would just hang out and work on instruments.
So I started accumulating some fiddles and working on them at my place. Then he showed me some guitars he was building. He was building them with a belt sander and a dremel on his back porch. I didn’t even know people did that, but I thought I’d give it a try. I purchased some tonewoods and planned on building myself a guitar in my dad’s garage. Pete was uncompromising with his use of hide glue and T bars, that definitely made an impression on me.
Before I could really get started though, Marty asked me if I wanted to work out of his shop. That was in early 2019. I’d say it was a dream come true, his shop is 15 minutes from my childhood home, and I grew up taking my instruments to him.
We didn’t really have a plan, but I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got these woods, how about I build a guitar?’ My first couple guitars turned out alright, good enough that I thought I should keep at it.
Marty has been a great mentor.”
Fair is allowing Ben to continue the use of his Fairbuilt Guitars shop while he buys and stows the implements he’ll need to eventually go out on his own.
“I wouldn’t quite say I have my own shop, but it is a work in progress. I am accumulating tools, and a lot of them are basically in storage until the time is right that I can set up my operation in Winchester, where I live. I do have a space in my house to do some tasks, but it’s a ways from being able to build a guitar start to finish.
I am really fortunate to work at Marty’s. He has been building and repairing for over twenty years, and you really couldn’t ask for a better shop for building guitars. He is an authorized Martin warranty repair person, so I get to see a lot of guitars come through the shop. It’s a great learning opportunity.”
Ben Walters Guitars are offered in either a D or OM body, using his own collection of mahogany and rosewood. All are built using hide glue, with the old style T bar rods in the neck, and a tapered dovetail neck joint. Specs match the old classic Martins, and he spends a great deal of time voicing the bracing for optimum tone and response.
One aspect of the builds differs from the old school, and that is his combination of shellac, oil, and lacquer to make a high gloss finish that allows the body to vibrate freely.
“I did that on my first build, and have been trying to get better at it ever since. I’m not sure where I got the idea to do the combination, or if anyone else is doing it.
I love doing a French polish. It’s very contemplative, and I get to know every inch of the guitar intimately. It really brings out the beauty of the wood, especially on mahogany. The main benefit for me though is when I go to spray nitro, the guitar is already shiny and smooth, so I don’t need very many coats, and I can spray an even layer over the entire guitar. I think an even, thin finish really helps a guitar to sound good.”
His guitars start at $3500 for a D-18 model, and go up from there based on other wood choices, custom inlays, and such. The tops are always made from old growth red spruce, and the bracing. He also has a supply of old growth mahogany and choice rosewood for backs and sides.
Here’s a video of Bryan McDowell playing one of Ben’s guitars.
Custom orders can take as long as six to eight months, depending on appointments.
“I probably have enough work to last me the rest of this year. I’ve just started a D28 herringbone with Brazilian rosewood for someone, and yesterday received a deposit to build a D18. After that I am going to build another D18, a spec guitar, which is fun cause you don’t know where it will end up. Then we will see!”
Ben encourages people to reach out to him online to discuss a possible build.