My journey to visit Jim Olson of Olson Guitars began a long time ago in California at the Healdsburg Guitar festival in 2003 where I had a chance encounter with a master luthier who up until then I only knew as, “the guy who makes guitars for James Taylor”. Since James Taylor was my inspiration for playing the guitar in the first place, that meant a lot to me personally. What I didn’t expect though, was that the moment we met, I immediately knew that something was different about Jim, he was the real deal, he truly cared and it showed in his work. I still think very highly of him not only as a luthier, but a person in general. Since that fateful day, he has become my friend and one of the few people I look up to.
The day we met in Healdsburg emotions were running high for my wife and I who were still newlyweds at the time. We had stretched as far as we could financially to make it to the guitar show that year as I was still starting out as a luthier and lets just say it was quite an adventure. Jim seemed to sense the struggles we were in and to relate on a personal level. He began to tell us stories of the struggles that he and his family went through in his early days. We seemed to bond that day, as Jim so kindly and generously shared his experiences with us of his tough beginnings, and of the wonderful breakthroughs that came later as a result of his walking by faith and never giving up. It’s quite an amazing story. I never heard the full story until my visit last year to his workshop where I had the pleasure of hearing it in more detail, truly Inspiring to say the least!
Efficiency & Artistry
As a luthier, especially an artsy, one-off kind of luthier like me, Jim’s shop is like going to one of the 7 wonders of the world. The efficiency and precision that he has been able to harness is unmatched. Simply put, the guy is a genius. It is so rare that a person has the skills to make a guitar, tune it, and artistically refine it so well, and on top of that also have the capacity to engineer such wonderful systems to streamline the work in a way that doesn’t detract from the unique handmade element his guitars possess.
So many people hear of Jim’s famous Fadal CNC and have the idea that he can just push a button and a guitar pops out, but I can assure you that it is far from true. Jim shared with me the stories of how he started using the CNC, he had it for an entire year, working long days every day, before he could finally begin to make guitars with it. Not many people have the persistence and diligence to never give up on such a huge undertaking. I have to commend his vision and passion for seeing it through, which from this side of that battle was obviously a great victory.
Inside The Olson Guitar Shop
Olson Guitars – First Floor Tour
I arrived early in the morning and even as I pulled into the driveway I was already impressed. Jim’s setup is every luthier’s dream, the nice piece of land, the beautiful workshop out back within walking distance.
As soon as I entered the shop there it was, The Fadal. The ultimate machine. It might have been fitting to have the Darth Vader imperial march music playing in the background, this thing is legendary, at least in my mind. Maybe it’s similar to a lover of fine automobiles seeing a Bugatti in person for the first time. But Jim’s gentle and humble spirit as he greeted us and throughout the visit seemed to make the Fadal and grandeur of it all a little bit more approachable.
After a little catching up and visiting, Jim began the tour. He poured his heart out as he walked us through nearly every step of his process, explaining each fixture and specialized station that he had developed in his brilliant workflow.
The first level of the Olson shop has most of the large power tools, the Fadal of course, and in an adjacent room, neatly set in rows were his latest batch of guitars in progress that he was creating. Certainly an impressive sight!
A stack of guitar necks partially machined and awaiting the next steps of their evolution. Shapers in the background and Jim’s home-made thickness sander in the foreground and jigs everywhere.
To the left is the sanding room complete with many sanders (one for each grit) and a downdraft table, as well as the various fixtures and other little contraptions Jim has fashioned over the years to help him work faster and more precisely.
Olson Guitars – Second Floor
Next we went upstairs to see where the fine detail work happens. Jim explained how each step is executed and he demonstrated how the different body molds and other jigs and fixtures worked. Each one has a specific operation that it helps him accomplish. There were far too many to mention here in this article. By viewing the slide show at the top of the page you can see all the photos of my visit to Olson guitars. If you click the little “i” in the upper left it will display info about each photo.
Never Stop Learning
One of my favorite things about being a guitar maker is that I can always find more to learn, which I did for sure with Jim Olson. Talking with Jim, and listening as he explained so many wonderful things to me, seemed to help me as a luthier, an artist, and as a person in general. To meet someone so sincere and so humble in spite of his great success was very inspiring and left me feeling the same way I did the first time I met him years ago; wanting to be more like him when I grow up.
The Olson Artists
After we finished the shop tour, we had a chance to relax for a while and listen to some of the wonderful stories he told of the many great players that have been there to visit and who play Olson guitars. The adventures and the experiences that unfolded for each unique situation were amazing to hear. Jim has made guitars for players such as; Sting, Phil Keggy, Paul McCartney, and many others, and of course — James Taylor.
Because James Taylor was one of my first inspirations to begin playing the guitar (long before I even knew anyone could make their own guitar), I couldn’t resist including a video of him playing his Olson guitar to finish off this article, enjoy!