John Bolin has made custom instruments for rock stars on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 greatest guitarists. He has handcrafted guitars out of bamboo, fur, car parts, neon tubes, even a chunk of the cabin where blues legend Muddy Waters grew up.
Bolin’s work has been featured in “Electrified: The Art of the Contemporary Electric Guitar” and the 2015 Nieman Marcus Christmas catalog, which offered 10 of his limited-edition models for $30,000 a pop.
ZZ Top frontman Billy F. Gibbons — Bolin’s design partner and pal — has commissioned several hundred Bolin guitars since the mid-1980s. As Texas Monthly put it, the Houston musician’s “guitar collection is almost as legendary as his beard.” Bolin’s work is a large part of it.
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Steve Miller has commissioned nearly as many.
What all of those famous guitars have in common is that they were custom made here in the Treasure Valley. Bolin Guitars is one of the most celebrated names in Boise’s small but thriving music industry.
“This is home base,” says Bolin, a 63-year-old, third-generation Boisean. “I don’t know if [staying in Boise] was really a sacrifice, because I was busy building guitars. I never looked back and thought, ‘Well, maybe if I would have been in Los Angeles...’ I never do that.”
Bolin launched the business out of a backyard tool shed in 1978. He will celebrates his 40th anniversary in 2018. Then, he made acoustic guitars for anyone who would buy them. These days, Bolin Guitars builds 40 or 50 instruments each year: flat-top acoustic guitars, jazz guitars, electric guitars, basses.
The company also has an extensive repair operation (by appointment only), and the longtime luthier has recently been hired as a consultant for a guitar-making startup in Los Angeles.
We do stuff that nobody else does. Not that they can’t. They just don’t.
John Bolin, master luthier
The Christmas crunch
It is a Tuesday morning in early December, a frantic time for Bolin and his crew. They’ve been rushing to complete Christmas orders and working around a band of roofers that showed up to (finally) fix the extensive damage from last winter’s snowfall.
Bolin Guitars is a 3,500-square-foot operation in the Foothills of West Boise. John and his wife, Cristi, and their Akita Queen live above the shop. Their metallic silver Christmas tree glints from an upper window, not far from the couple’s rooftop hot tub.
On this cold day, the workshop is redolent with the smell of fresh-cut wood. Sawdust particles float in the air. A router buzzes. Bolin has a clutch of guitar books spread out on the ping-pong table in the combination repair shop/showroom/man cave. Queen dozes near by.
He flips open “Electrified,” a book that features a list of 21 luthiers whom author Robert Shaw calls “modern masters,” “artists” in their own right. Bolin is pictured on page 32, wearing black horn rim glasses, with Gibbons, who sports his signature chest-length beard, as they laugh over over a furry white electric number.
“Over the years, John and a small team ... have built some of the most innovative and visually distinctive guitars in rock-and-roll history,” Shaw writes. “Their satisfied customers include Billy F. Gibbons and Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, Steve Miller, Jimmy Page, Lou Reed, Albert King, Bo Diddley, Joe Perry, and Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones.”
One of Bolin’s favorite guitars is the “Billy-Bo Psyche,” which gets a full page in “Electrified.” “Billy” is Gibbons, “Bo” is Diddley, “Psych” is short for psychedelic. The instrument is based on a Jupiter Thunderbird guitar that Diddley designed in 1959 and later presented to Gibbons.
Gibbons and Bolin “reinvented” that famous guitar together. It is thinner, lighter and curvier than the original. Its back is covered in “Shimrin Kameleon” car paint that changes color depending on the angle, its front embossed with a wild red scrollwork design. The Billy-Bo joined the Gretsch guitar lineup.
And then there’s the “Muddywood,” which Bolin and Gibbons designed and built together in the mid-1980s with an assist from Pyramid Guitars in Memphis. The Mississippi River — done in root beer-colored metallic flake paint edged in green — snakes down the neck and across the white body.
“This Blues-playin’ classic was glued together from the roof timber of Muddy Waters’ cabin in Clarksdale, Mississippi,” Gibbons writes in his book, “Billy F Gibbons, Rock + Roll Gearhead.” “Ya’ gotta imagine the Mississippi River winding down the body, down the neck, flowing right on into the Gulf.”
As Bolin pages through Gibbons’ book, he tells the story of the time the guitarist was driving the Mississippi countryside, looking for the crossroads where blues great Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil, and ran into the Delta Blues Museum. “And the person that was in charge of that said, ‘Well, you want to drive out and see where Muddy Waters’ cabin was, where he kind of grew up?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah’.” The only problem was that a hurricane had blown the cabin down, reducing it to a pile of wood. Gibbons asked the museum staff what they planned to do with it.
“And they said, ‘Someday, we’re going to have a big enough area where we can put it back together’,” Bolin continues. “Billy goes, ‘Well, can you spare a piece of wood? I’ll send it to my guitar maker, and we’ll have some guitars made to help promote and get your foundation off the ground here.’ And that’s what happened.”
In general, Bolin says, he tries to use local artists, including Boise illustrator Mike Flinn, machinists and components to create his guitars, which are known for being especially lightweight. Acoustic models start at $7,000, he says, and electric ones run from “from $3,500 to the sky’s the limit.”
Joe “Scooter” Shuter is a happy Bolin guitar customer. The retired Boise machinist makes ukeleles and small-bodied parlor guitars — strictly as a hobby, thanks to some sage John Bolin advice.
“He says, ‘If you really love making ukeleles, my best advice is, don’t make it your living,’ ” Shuter says. “I have his fourth acoustic guitar and his second electric one. This, of course, was before he got famous.”
Contact Bolin Guitars: 208-344-1260, firstname.lastname@example.org. BolinGuitars.com.