A little plywood, a few hand tools, a drill and an idea; that’s all luthier Will Bright had when he crafted his first stringed instrument. It was a mandolin and the total cost was around $30 – just slightly different than the beautiful $3,500 guitars he now crafts out of his Bellingham workshop. But everybody starts somewhere.
Will still has that mandolin. It’s on display in his showroom. The mandolin rests atop a shelf he built that’s filled with luthier, guitar and music-related books. When he built the mandolin, he was working in Santa Cruz, California, repairing guitars and other stringed instruments.
Will’s been involved with music from a young age.
His first music memory happened in fourth grade, when his music teacher brought in a friend who played electric bass.
Following a short demonstration of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the bass player allowed students to take turns playing the instrument. Will picked up the bass and began to play.
“I remember playing that bass part and nailing it,” Will says. “The bass player and my music teacher looked at each other, as if to say ‘This guy is going to have a career in music.’”
They weren’t wrong.
At age 11, guitars became Will’s passion. He started taking lessons, eventually going on to study acoustic guitar stylings and West African music at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Following college, he ended up in Santa Cruz doing his repair work, it was only a matter of time before an interest in creating his own instruments developed.
Before constructing the mandolin, Will bought a book and used his own know-how, combined with what he had read, to build the instrument. No professional instruction, just pure drive and ambition fueled his creative process.
“The main reason I decided to make a mandolin first was because I didn’t have a big workshop yet,” Will says. “Building a mandolin was conducive to the amount of space I had.”
Today, I’m in Will’s workshop and he’s offered to let me play his instruments, the special mandolin included.
Will’s workshop consists of three separate rooms, all built within the garage on his property near Lake Whatcom. There’s the climate-controlled room where most of the work is done, the power tool room that consists of all things that cut, saw and drill, and then there’s the showroom, where Will’s own creations rest among guitars and other instruments he’s collected.
The first thing you learn about Will’s approach to guitar making is that he prizes the wood he uses. He’s passionate about the wood he sources and how he sources it. His ethics when it comes to sustainability are sound (no pun intended). He’s proud to use wood native to North America.
Will says he is one of the only luthiers he knows who uses Persimmon, a wood found commonly throughout the United States. He thinks it’s one of his guitars’ distinct qualities. He also crafted an acoustic dreadnought style guitar out of Douglas Fir. It’s the most Pacific Northwestern guitar I’ve ever held, and not only does it play great, but it smells wonderful.
“Each build presents its new challenges; each guitar I make is a new puzzle to solve,” Will says.
One reason behind some of his more interesting guitar creations, like the acoustic Douglas Fir model, is Will’s avid participation in guitar shows. Just like an automobile show, these are conventions where luthiers and players come together to show off their tricks of the trade. Will built the Douglas Fir model following guidelines at one of the shows; luthiers attending were encouraged to bring in an instrument made from 100 percent locally-sourced wood.
He says there’s nothing like watching a good player pick up one of his guitars and strum away. Last August at the Vancouver International Guitar Festival, a fantastic player picked up one of Will’s guitars and took it up on stage in front of the crowd. Will was nervous at first, but to his relief, the guitar sounded the way he knew it could: crisp, clear and articulate.
Each one of his models has their own unique quality. I played through his catalog of acoustic and electric models and found them all to be enjoyable. Although the time I spent playing was small, it was an experience I won’t forget, it was my first time playing a craft guitar brand; guitars built by hand with the intention of sounding perfect, being special.
Will had one of those moments himself. When he was in Santa Cruz working for Sylvan Music, he played his first high-end acoustic guitars and got hooked. Now Will can give that experience to other people, players like myself who seek six-strings we’ve never heard of, imagined or seen.
In addition to Persimmon, there are many other North American woods Will can use in his models, like Walnut, Cedar, Alder and Maple. Maple and Cedar are especially convenient as they are located throughout the Pacific Northwest.
After hanging in the showroom for an hour, playing guitars and learning about the different world instruments he’s collected, Will takes me to the climate-controlled room. His Logo, Bright Guitars, is emblazoned on the door. Inside is where he shapes guitars, makes repairs and puts on finish. Also inside is his wood stash. All kinds of North American woods are found here, keeping up with his philosophy of sustainability.
Next to the wood stash on the wall is an instrument I’ve never seen. It’s the frame of a 1915 Gibson Harp Guitar; one of the repair projects on Will’s list. In addition to building and selling his own line of guitars, Will still repairs both acoustic and electric stringed instruments. The harp guitar is what it sounds like, a combination of six-string guitar and harp. The harp part is on top and guitar on the bottom, melded into one instrument.
Will’s got a pretty sweet gig, crafting his own line of guitars out of sustainable wood and getting the chance to repair old relics like that 1915 Gibson Harp guitar. But the sweetest gig of all will happen in a couple years when he and his two kids take their family band out on the road.
They’re two and four right now, but Will says they’re practicing. They rock out in the showroom together from time to time.
“I’m not in any musical projects right now other than that,” Will says with a laugh. “That will be the next band I’m in. I’m just hoping I can get one of them to play drums since I want to play guitar.”
Bright Guitars is located at 1206 Lakeview Street in Bellingham. Here Will crafts his own unique guitar models, takes custom orders and does repairs.