Custom banjo back designed and inlaid by Marty Lanham, 1984
The Fine Art of Instrument Design
By Susie Coleman
Building even a simple guitar looks like rocket science to the average Joe. Musicians everywhere laud the work of the individual luthiers who created their favorite instruments, almost to the point of worship. It is indeed an extremely important type of endeavor, kind of like making jewels for the crown of humanity’s most bonding experience: music.
Now, being a luthier does not necessarily make you an artist; luthiers are generally considered craftsman. Yet there are some who have a level of talent that moves beyond even the most highly skilled in the trade; Nashville resident Marty Lanham is gifted with that rare and sought-after ability to integrate clear art forms into his work — both in function and ornamentation. Marty knows how to pull the fullest sound from each of his creations; he has an eye for gorgeous wood and an ear to match.
Marty and wife Charmaine run the Nashville Guitar Company, a small but successful instrument building and restoration shop in Inglewood, Tennessee. Marty’s instruments are known for their crisp, clean sound and tasteful creative inlay work. Folks like David Grier, Kevin Eubanks of the Tonight Show, comedian Steve Martin, Pat Enright of the Nashville Bluegrass Band and other top professionals rave about Marty’s work.
On Left: Watch Kevin Eubanks work out on his slick, ultra-cutaway NGC custom guitar.
On Right: Here’s Pat Enright playing a custom NGC guitar. He currently owns four.
One of Marty’s greatest advantages has been his background in working with wood. “Lots of musicians are interested in building instruments but they often bypass learning the fundamentals of woodworking. Like how to sharpen a tool correctly,” Marty said. “That’s where I got lucky.” Born and raised in New Alameda, California, he was captivated by carving at an early age and was making gunstocks by age 14. He later befriended a woodworker who became a mentor and taught him well.
In 1966 Marty met a guy with a banjo while hitchhiking through Berkeley. Soon Marty had his own banjo and before long a guitar. It was only a matter of months before he tried his hand at making his own. By the time he moved to Nashville in 1972, his skill set qualified him for an 8-year stint at Gruhn Guitar repairing and restoring guitars, mandolins, banjos and the like. And in 1980, Marty was ready to open his own shop.
“Working at Gruhn gave me access to an endless variety of guitars, mandolins, banjos and other acoustic instruments, ” Marty said. He was able to study vintage models and learn what made them sound so good and hold up year after year. Marty’s familiarity with the multitude of instrument makers would later bring him the honor of working on famous instruments like Jimmie Rodgers‘ 1928 Waymann. Rodgers’ old Gibson HG44, guitars owned by Johnny Cash and Ernest Tubb, and Earl Scruggs‘ banjo. Marty is often called upon by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Roy Acuff Museum to perform restoration and maintenance work on their prized collections.
While many instrument builders are musicians, few have taken their love for their craft as far as Marty Lanham. In 1974, Lanham and his wife partnered with three other couples to open the Station Inn. Jim and Wilma Bornstein, Red and Birdie Smith, and Bob Fowler (who would later become a “Bluegrass Boy” working for Bill Monroe) and wife Ingrid (her father was the late Woody Herman, who brought his entire band to town for the Grand Opening celebration) joined Marty and Charmaine in bringing Nashville its first nightclub dedicated to Bluegrass Music. All shared the tasks of bartending, waiting tables and playing onstage until they sold it to its current owner in 1981.
Still an active musician, Marty fronts a bluegrass band that performs several times a month, mostly in the Byrdstown, Tennessee, area where the Lanhams have a cabin on the lake there. In 2010, Marty decided to break away from building strictly custom models and introduced The Lanham, a less expensive, sweet-toned dreadnaught that features Marty’s unique bracing and outstanding design elements. This move brings Nashville Guitar Company into the commercial mainstream with a more affordable handcrafted piece of art. But no matter what the end price, all instruments that leave his shop have been treated with the utmost in artistic respect and care. Those who own one are lucky indeed.
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Photos by Dan Loftin, Stephen Wilkes, and Charmaine Lanham