Setting up shop in Forestville, California, Maegen Wells is an unabashed fan of the art of luthiery and luthiers, the archtop guitar, the opportunity to include a variety of nuanced details in her guitar builds, and naturally… Buckethead. She spent 5 years with previous blog subject, Tom Ribbecke in his shop, and will be showing at the upcoming Rocky Mountain Archtop Festival here in Colorado this September, as well!
1. Are you a player yourself, and if so, how much time do you spend playing versus building?
I am a musician; I have been my whole life, basically. I started playing guitar when I was really little. But I don’t spend much time playing these days because all my time is spent in the shop! Playing music was my main passion for the first part of my life, before I discovered luthiery. I don’t gig out very much anymore, because I just don’t feel like it. Building guitars and performing are such different worlds, and the longer I do it I just gravitate towards building more and more. That being said though, next week I’m taking delivery of an electric guitar that I had built for me! I’m hoping that that will kind of wake up the musician in me and will be the catalyst to me writing more music. I will always, always be a musician – it’s the foundation of everything that I do, but I am trying to have more of a balance.
2. What would you list as the most essential points of a high quality archtop build?
I think some of this could be applied to guitars across the board, but for me since I build exclusively archtops – it just has to feel good in your arms, first and foremost. It has to be something people want to hold and keep close to them and not put down. And with archtops, that’s kind of tricky sometimes, because traditionally, they’re very large instruments – and I think things are headed in a new direction of smaller body archtops, because people are starting to question, “does it really need to be this big? My shoulder’s starting to hurt!” So I work a lot in the 15” and 16” range, when traditionally archtops have been made more in the 17” range. And that’s the first thing people seem to notice about my instruments when they pick them up for the first time; they fit the player well, they feel good in their arms. They don’t want to put it down!
The other cool elements of archtop builds as opposed to other flat top styles is that we get to experiment with a lot of color work, and we have a lot of opportunities with the different hardware we get to use; out tailpieces, pickguards, bridges and saddles – these are like fine appointments on these instruments that not a lot of other guitars have! We get to use them to define our own individual styles, and that’s really something that I love about archtops. These pieces really tie a whole instrument together when you do the final assembly on an archtop and you dress her up – it just completes the whole package in such a nice way!
3. What are the best – and worst – things an amplifier can do, in your opinion?
The best thing an amp can do for me is to accurately articulate the voice of the instrument; you don’t want your guitar to be this completely different experience when you’re plugged in and when you’re playing acoustically – at least for me! That’s the goal of my instruments, being hybrids ; acoustic, electric archtops. Personally, I hate this as a performer and a builder: when you plug in and it’s a completely different experience, and not necessarily for the better! So that’s the answer to the second part of the question – the worst thing an amp can do is rob my instrument of its true voice. That’s why Peter’s amps are so incredible, because they’re the first amps I’ve ever played through where I feel like it’s the exact same experience as playing acoustically, only more powerful and you can reach everybody, and it’s just… my guitar sound! And all of my players feel the exact same way.
4. Do you have a favorite wood species to work with at the moment?
I do. At the end of the day, I am a maple girl. I’m experimenting with a lot of different woods right now and I am completely loving it! I’m experimenting with walnut archtops, sapele ones, mahogany – it’s amazing. I love working with different materials, it’s what I live for! But at the end of the day, I’m a maple girl! I love the way it sounds; it’s such a Swiss Army knife material. You can kind of manipulate it and make it do what you want, whereas walnut and mahogany are what they are no matter what, and what they do is great, but there’s only so much you can do to control it. But with maple, it just surrenders every time and I can make it do whatever I want it to.
I don’t do maple back and sides and neck, like 90% of the archtops out there, though. I do a maple back, and maybe rosewood sides and a mahogany neck, and then I’ll color the top and back to complement the materials I used on the sides. Because I do want to continue to celebrate this variety of materials we have available, I really don’t want to make all maple archtops anymore. But in terms of a tone material for the back, I think maple is fantastic.
5. Tell us about a particularly memorable building or playing experience!
This past year, I was able to build two guitars side by side for two of my all time favorite guitar players; Jamie Stillway and Mark Goldenberg! From the moment I first saw them play, I thought “these are the kind of musicians I want to satisfy”! Jamie and Mark are just incredible guitar players that will play every single note on the guitar, but it’s far from obnoxious and it’s just beautiful. I delivered both of the guitars at the La Conner Guitar Festival this past May, and Friday night at the show after the convention there was a big evening performance featuring both of them. They each played an hour with their brand new guitars, and it was just incredible! It was the most magical night of my whole life. It was like, OK, I’m done – I’ve done it! This is what it’s all about. That night and those builds brought so much joy and love to my shop, it was just amazing.
6. Who are some others in the industry you’re inspired by?
It’s infinite! In fact, every single person that’s going to be at this Colorado Archtop Festival! I can’t believe I get to have my name on that list with those people – every single person. Linda Manzer, of course! She’s my hero and my dear friend… she’s amazing! Tom Ribbecke: he’s my mentor of 5 years, but really my lifetime mentor. He’s the real deal and basically one of the best things that’s ever happened to me! It’s just amazing when one day you’re nerding out on all these guitar magazines, and thinking “oh man, look at Linda, and Tom Ribbecke, and Cris Mirabella…” and then the next day you’re just running right there alongside them – it’s insane. So everyone! Everyone who’s working hard to bring archtops into the world, because we need more archtops in the world.
7. What musicians or bands do you enjoy listening to now, and who do you wish you could have seen live while they were still at it?
Easy. Buckethead is who I listen to constantly now, and Pink Floyd is who I would have liked to have seen. I didn’t get out of bed and cried the other morning when the auctions for David Gilmour’s guitars were going on; I mean it’s incredible, what happened, but it just hit me that it’s over – like, really over! But Buckethead and Pink Floyd, definitely.