To understand Maegen Wells’ devotion to building guitars, it helps to know three things: One, she named her dog Lulu, short for lutherie, the art of making guitars. Two, she has a tattoo on her left arm of a blueprint for an archtop guitar. And three, her retirement plan comes in the form of rare wood, specially cut in sections that will allow her to make a one-of-a-kind custom guitar every five years until she hangs up her chisel. “This is my calling,” she says. “It wasn’t a choice at all.”
Wells picked up her first guitar at the age of 7 and began writing songs at 9, dreaming of becoming the next Lisa Loeb. But it was an epiphany at 17, when she first held a Taylor guitar, that led the 32-year-old Michigan native to head straight out of high school to the Galloup School of Lutherie. After apprenticeships with Reverend Guitars in the Midwest and veteran luthier Tom Ribbecke in Healdsburg, she moved to Forestville, where she now lives in a grove of redwoods near the Russian River.
Meet Maegen Wells and fellow Sonoma County luthier Bruce Sexauer in this video, produced by Joshua Dylan Mellars for NorCal Public Media.
Sheltering at home during the Covid-19 pandemic allowed Wells a rare chance to skip her annual tour of guitar conventions and focus solely on creating in her workshop, a lower-level sanctuary in her house that was once a speakeasy during Prohibition (and still has the bar footrest to prove it).
Wells also crafts mandolins, but her passion lies in the archtop guitar— the wide, hollow-body six-string with an arched top instead of a flat one, known for its super-rich clarity from note to note. It’s what you might picture when you hear a Wes Montgomery or George Benson jazz guitar solo. But they’re also prevalent in rock, rockabilly, and country.
Wells’ guitars emerge from a range of woods: mahogany, ebony, maple, walnut, sapele, and koa, and sell for around $9,000 each. When Wells picks up a piece of wood, the first thing she does is scratch it. “That’s when the conversation begins,” she says. “The entire time, me and the wood and the tools are talking. The tools are kind of the translator between me and the materials.”
While working with a hand plane to carve the top, she can hear and feel the pitch change with each carve. It will be at least “another 400 steps” until she strings and strums the guitar for the first time.
With over a decade dedicated to her craft, it now takes about 250 hours to make a guitar, and “a lot of Buckethead,” she says, name-dropping the eccentric guitar virtuoso she often listens to while working in the shop.
A few years ago, Wells scored six sets of wood from an East Coast dealer who stumbled on a rare Honduran mahogany tree in Southern Mexico that bore a flamed “fiddleback” pattern. The pattern was so distinct and unusual, it became known simply as “the Fiddleback Tree” and all the wood sold out quickly. Wells made her first guitar from the tree in 2018 and sold it for $13,000. Her plan is to make a guitar from the tree every five years until she retires, waiting 10 years to make the final installment.
“By the time I’m 60 and I finish that last guitar, it will be bittersweet,” she says. “But it will represent my life and how I evolved as the wood evolved.