It’s been said many times that we are living in a golden age of luthiery, with a good many exceptional stringed instruments being made all over the world. In bluegrass, we are quite fortunate to see small shop builders of banjos, mandolins, guitars, and reso-guitars turning out professional quality heirloom pieces on a regular basis.
To that list, we should add Rufus Thames of Bristol, VA.
Only slightly more than two years into his quest, Thames had made a name among serious players and collectors for his RJ Thames guitars, handmade at his shop to the specifications of the celebrated Martin dreadnoughts of the 1930s.
Rufus is a bluegrass guy, through and through. He has been playing guitar for 35 years, and tinkered with them a bit as far as repair and modifications, and even built a few kits. But his move into building came after he retired in 2018. And he blames his wife for getting him in deep.
“My wife gave me a Christmas gift in 2020 to attend the Gerald Anderson Luthier School with Wayne Henderson. It’s a week long cram class – build a guitar in a week. I did really well, and they let me build at the school in Marion for a year. I built a few more there, and then I started building a shop at the house, in my basement. I can build a world class instrument down here. It has a spray booth, exhaust fan, and everything.”
Thames had worked in a machine shop for 30 years, so he had experience building things, and understanding how important it is that things fit together properly at close tolerances.
“I started buying nice equipment – table saw, band saw, dust collection system, thickness sander. You have to have the right tools to build a good instrument. It took about six months to finish the shop, and I completed my first guitar here in September of 2021. I took it with me to a jam in South Carolina somewhere around Thanksgiving, and it got passed it around. This older fella started checking it out carefully, asked what it was made from, and all that. Then he told me he has a bunch of that mahogany at the housed that he had a bunch of people trying to buy.
His name was Bubba Swayles, and I called him back around Christmas time and asked if I could see the wood. Offered to trade him that guitar for the wood, and we could figure out how much. He thought a second about it, and agreed to give me all of it if I would do that. That mahogany had been back there 40-50 years. He said that was exactly where he wanted it to go.”
The RJ Thames guitars are built as replicas of either a 1937 D-18 or a 1937 D-28. He says that he also has specs for a ’39 if anyone is interested.
“These guitars are all hand made – I build everything myself. I buy fret wires, binding, and tuners. I make everything else. There are only three things that deviate from the ’30s spec – 3/16” adjustable truss rod, gold EVO frets that don’t wear out, and side dots of mother of pearl. Everything else is identical to my ’37. I use the same truss rod as Wayne uses.”
Building in his shop by himself, Rufus says that he has enough orders to keep him busy until January of 2025.
“I went to a party recently at Ken Hoopers, and took one of my guitars. A lot of luthiers were there, and it got passed around a lot. Three of them asked if they could get on the list.
I have guitars ordered to go to California, Oregon, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Alabama, Georgia, Colorado, and Florida.”
Most of the guitars he is building now are mahogany, though he does have orders for rosewood models as well. Those will copy his ’37 D-28. Thames does have a few people requesting Brazilian rosewood instruments, but they are supplying their own wood.
Guitars ordered now are priced at $4500-$5000, and you can expect that to increase as the backlog grows. Thames can be reached by phone at 423-366-3548, or through his Facebook page.