Caleb Smith — ‘Guitarchitect’ par excellence

By Carol Viau | Apr 05, 2017
Photo by: Carol Viau ‘GUITARCHITECT’ CRAFTSMANSHIP— Caleb Smith, Balsam Range’s talented vocalist and guitarist, builds high-end guitars to create art and ‘decompress.’ He said it’s a ‘blessing to make these guitars and I’m thankful to be able to do this.’ Smith is pictured in his Waynesville workshop with a guitar he made for Lee Gibson.

The fame of Haywood County’s IBMA- and Grammy-winning bluegrass band Balsam Range has spread far and wide — and so has the word about the guitars hand-crafted by Balsam Range’s master guitarist, Caleb Smith.

Smith guitars are so much in demand by boutique collectors and musicians, there’s a two-and-a-half-year wait to get one.

A true student of playing the guitar, Smith said that building fine guitars gives him another creative outlet to his music career.

“I chase the sound of the really special Martin and Gibson guitars made in the 1930s - early 1950s. Those guitar builders were true craftsmen.”

Most of the guitars Smith crafts are either dreadnought or orchestra models (OM), both “patterned after ‘war-time’ guitars,” he said.

“The dreadnought guitar was named for the biggest battleship of the time in the 1930s,” Smith said. “The Martin Guitar Company wanted it to be the biggest in its ‘fleet’ of guitars. It caught on because it had the loudest sound, and the tones in the box create a wide spectrum — clear on the low end to clear high tone.”

It’s a style Smith has crafted for numerous musicians, including two members of the Zac Brown Band — Zac Brown, himself, and John Driskell Hopkins. The Smith dreadnought Brazilian rosewood guitars for ZBB were so well received, Brown wants Smith to craft two more for him.

Boutique guitar collectors often search for high-end guitars the quality of Smith guitars, but Smith feels it’s ‘a feather in his hat’ for accomplished musicians like Brown, David Holt, Lee Gibson and Bryan Sutton to want and to play a Smith guitar.

“Bryan Sutton is one of the best guys on the planet,” Smith said. “He’s a vintage Martin guy, often playing a 1936 dreadnought. So it was really cool, when he called me and said that he was going to play the guitar I made him on the ‘Harry’ (Connick) show. He chose my guitar.”

Except for the tuning machines, bridge pins and endpins, all parts of Smith guitars are handcrafted by Smith. For the guitar Smith made last fall for Lee Gibson, of the Gibson Brothers, Smith used wood he harvested and milled himself from a 400-year-old red spruce in Yancey County.

“Every piece of wood is different,” Smith said, “so you have to prepare it differently.”

He recently completed what he proudly calls “one of the best sounding guitars I’ve made,” a dreadnought 42 style with Brazilian rosewood and mother of pearl abalone, which he said is challenging to get to perform well.

“Every now and then something magically harmonious happens in the guitar box. It’s loud, clear — clean. That guitar sounded like a piano.”

With Balsam Range’s travel schedule of more than 110 days on the road each year and Smith’s meticulous style of craftsmanship, he is only able to complete one to two guitars a month.

“It blows my mind that people will wait years to get one of my guitars,” Smith said. “So when I call clients and tell them their guitar is almost finished, it’s like I get to play Santa Claus.”

What started out as guitar repair and a woodworking challenge for Smith, has become his passion, now done in a familiar workshop in the basement of his father’s house.

“Building guitars is a release point. When I’m in the shop, I’m focused. I’m consumed. It’s not a challenge anymore — it’s a form of art.”

And when Caleb Smith is not building fine guitars, performing with Balsam Range, spending time with his family — singing with his daughter, Sydney, showing his boys, Jaxon and Jonah, how to use a chisel or chilling with his wife, Rachel — he spends time fishing and watching Cubs baseball games on TV. What’s on this accomplished musician’s bucket list? — Well, Smith would like a trip to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play in Chicago.

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