Luthiers: Sheppard Guitars
August 30, 2011In 2003 Gerald Sheppard left a successful job in the engineering division at Eastman Chemical in Kingsport, Tenn., to build some of the finest high-end acoustic guitars in the world. He began by repairing, refinishing, and building guitars about 25 years ago. Today his instruments are used for professional studio work and on stage by top guitarists. In 2005, Sheppard's Ave Maria Grand Concert guitar graced the cover of the Grammy award-winning CD tribute to Henry Mancini, Pink Guitar.
Since 2003 Sheppard has been the staff instrument builder/luthier for Guitar Week at the world-renowned Swannanoa Gathering. There, attending guitarists can view Sheppard's work and learn how a personal guitar design can match their playing style. This year Sheppard built the Swannanoa Gathering 20th Anniversary Guitar, with proceeds from its auction going to the Swannanoa Gathering Youth Scholarship Fund.
Sheppard shows his guitars at several events. This year he participated in the Healdsburg Guitar Festival in Santa Rosa, Calif.; and the London Guitar Show in England. He says, "Shows are not fun and are very expensive, but I do them because potential customers attend them. It's also very valuable to network and share ideas with other [instrument] makers and get reacquainted with previous customers." He uses magazines, online ads and social networking to point people to his website. "I sell mostly to individuals and a few to dealers in the U.S., Japan and England," he adds. "I primarily market my playing and recordings via Reverbnation.com, Digstation.com and my website. I also set up events on Facebook to promote gigs."
It takes about six months for Sheppard to make a guitar, so he builds more than one instrument at the same time, usually eight per year. Most are custom built, and he frequently uses rare and exotic woods from South America and Africa. According to an article in FingerPick Magazine, "He builds his guitars for sound and uses the same top-notch master grade woods and materials in even the least decorative of his creations. While speaking with him, we were hard pressed to even discuss decorative appointments as his focus continued to return to the issue of sound and playability rather than glamour." It's little wonder that, in 2010, Sheppard's guitars received a five-star rating in every category of quality from the United Kingdom's Acoustic Magazine.
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Left: Sheppard used Madagascar Rosewood on this guitar.