By Ryan Lutz
Photography by Randy Pace
The first guitar tunes I can recall are those I heard on 8-track in my dad’s truck while he drove me to school. I was in second grade. We listened to Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and, in a slightly different mood, to John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Rocky Mountain High.” A few years later, a fourth-grade friend introduced me to the inimitable Eddie Van Halen, which explains so much of the music that has come to define me: Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, (former Augustan) Steve Morse, to name only a few.
Although I went on to become a drummer, I often dreamt of being The Guitarist — someone whose fingers, like little angels, ascended along the fretboard to give us a foretaste of the divine — as in “Always With Me, Always With You” (Satriani) — or descended along it in a demonic frenzy as in “Tumeni Notes” (Morse).
Undoubtedly, rockstars like those listed above are musicians whose technical virtuosity and compositional creativity have dubbed them “guitar gods” and, as such, they take center stage. None of them, however, is the star of this story. That title is reserved for a man on whose ingenious craft these gods depend, and his business at the corner of 5th and Telfair streets, Berkshire Guitars.
The eponymous owner of this workshop is our star: AJ Berkshire, master luthier.
What It Is and What It Takes
Perhaps few know the term, which may be pronounced “LOOT-ee-er” or “LOOTH-ee-er.” You might think it refers to a guitar-maker, which is true but incomplete. A master luthier is a craftsman who can repair or restore any stringed instrument, which means not only the six-stringed axes of guitar gods, but also violins, banjos, ukuleles, basses, mandolins, dulcimers, harps — or, in Berkshire’s words, “all of it,” meaning all bowed or plucked instruments.
“I was always in art programs and shop classes, and I’ve always been very inclined toward woodworking, so [luthiery] is all my passions merged into one.”
The range of knowledge such a profession requires is staggering. A master luthier must have carpentry skills; he must understand the physical properties of a variety of woods and how to cut, shape, and finish them without compromising their acoustic quality.
Doing that means he must use large and small tools — saws, planers, drills, sanders, routers, razor files — with minute precision, for too much or too little material removed may change an instrument’s tone.
A luthier must be an electrician, knowing how to wire a circuit and how poles, resistors, coils, and switches affect an electric guitar’s pickups. He must know how different cables alter amplification, which is yet another dimension of his electrical proficiency.
He is also a painter in both a scientific and artistic sense: aware how paints, stains and lacquers change acoustics and which ones best preserve an antique look.
A luthier must be creative, able to design for full custom jobs, the entire “look” of an instrument, from its shape and size to the colors, patterns and images applied. If you feel overwhelmed by the scope of skill involved, then you are beginning to understand what it takes to be a luthier.
A Plan Takes Shape
Berkshire does not play the guitar, at least not seriously. His trajectory into luthiery began when he realized in middle school that his close friend had suddenly surpassed him in musical ability. He remembers thinking, “Okay, so I’m not gonna be a rockstar. [Then] I took my guitar apart and put it back together, and I just got hooked.”
So, in a sense, Berkshire Guitars exists because of one dream going to ashes so another dream could, like a phoenix, rise from it. His logo is, in fact, a winged letter ‘B’.
After working on and modifying several guitars, Berkshire showed some of his work to Kevin Lundsten, owner of Affordable Guitars in Sumner, Washington, who told him, “‘Wow, this is pretty good, but you need some guidance.’”
Lundsten connected Berkshire to renowned luthier Jack Pimentel (JP Guitars), who had done work for some high-profile musicians, including Jackson Brown and Joe Satriani. Berkshire apprenticed under Pimentel’s tutelage for almost three years before taking a job at the Fender guitar factory in Tacoma.
Berkshire was not at Fender long, but he left on good terms and moved to Augusta to do contract work for Landmark Aviation, painting private jets at Augusta Regional Airport — yes, airplanes.
This stint at Landmark allowed him to hone his mastery at painting into a deadly serious skill so that he could control with exactitude the texture and shade of paint.
Chuckling, he explains how this job helped him become a connoisseur of white: “You don’t realize how many types of white there are until you’re painting private jets: Matterhorn white, snow white, frost white, winter white, sky white, cloud white.”
Wearied by the repetitive singularity, Berkshire admits, “I realized that while painting jets was perfectly fine, it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
In 2007, he sat down with his family and decided to open the business, working out of his parents’ garage in North Augusta, contracting repair work for several guitar and music stores. A year-and-a-half later, the volume of business was so great and the quarters so cramped that he and his business partner, Roni — who does the finances and also works on guitars — had to look for another building.
They found one on the corner of 13th and Reynolds streets. “It was a great transition space for us,” Berkshire says. “The business grew a whole lot there, but we eventually grew out of it, and we wanted to refine stuff, so we went from renting to purchasing this space [428 5th Street].”
Berkshire’s expansive knowledge may be directly proportional to the geographic range of his customers. His custom guitar shop is the only one in Augusta — actually, in the Savannah River Region.
Think of “custom” as meaning not only that Berkshire can build a guitar from scratch, but he also is authorized by some of the most recognizable names in the industry to do repair work.
“Because we’re a warranty center for Fender, Gibson, Martin, Taylor, Guild,” he explains, “a lot of people get sent to us. If you have a warranty issue and you call Fender and you’re anywhere around here, they send you to me. We’ve had customers from Florida all the way up to Virginia. It has to do with whether there is a luthier nearby who’s been certified with that company; warranty work has a lot to do with passing the tests to get that certification.”
Certification is no small deal. All the big companies have different levels of certification that correspond to the complexity of the repair.
Fender, for example, offers gold, silver and bronze certifications, and Berkshire has obtained the Gold+ Certification, their highest level. “Fender really trusts me,” he said. “We have a great relationship, which is another reason I get a lot of people sent here.” And he has an A+ Certification for Gibson.
Although Berkshire loves to build custom guitars — some of which you can see on his Facebook and Instagram — most of his revenue comes from repairs to already existing guitars and other instruments.
“Very easily repair work is our bread and butter, by about 70%,” which includes people who want their instrument upgraded and those who want an unplayable oldie to be given new life.
One of the advantages to Berkshire’s style of custom shop is that, unlike many other custom guitar manufacturers, he can build exactly what you want. The others offer only prefabricated designs; the customer picks one and then tells the builder what material and color he wants. And that’s about the extent of the customization.
In other words, “You don’t get to walk in and say, ‘Hey, I want it to look like a Rickenbacker, but I want the headstock to be this shape.’ That’s what we do. Literally, the sky’s the limit. Pretty much anything you want, we can build.”
Building More Than Guitars
Building guitars is one thing, but building the future is another. Though he has considered taking on an apprentice, Berkshire has not yet done so.
The closest he comes to that prospect is that he has, usually yearly, one to two teenagers who “job shadow” for, say, their senior project. He has had students come from all over the local region to shadow, but if someone out there is interested in such an arrangement, he takes only two and it’s “first come, first served.”
Thinking of the future of Berkshire Guitars prompts me to recall Berkshire’s past days as an apprentice under Pimentel. That critical stage in Berkshire’s development into a master luthier might never have occurred were it not for Kevin Lundsten, so perhaps it is fitting to close with his words: “‘I work seven days a week. I wish there was eight. My worst day at work is better than your best day fishing. I make less money than I ever have and I’ve never been happier.’”
If that kind of joy infuses Berkshire’s own work, then the future of his business has nothing to fear.
Appears in the February/March issue of Augusta Magazine.