Maegen Wells Is Building Next-Level Archtop Guitars in Her Northern California Workshop
From the November/December 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Kate Koenig
It was around the time that Maegen Wells graduated high school that she realized making guitars was her calling in life. She’d been a guitar player since the age of seven, had always been interested in hands-on projects, and had discovered a love for woodworking in school. Upon graduation, those worlds all came together. “I don’t ever say that I chose to get into guitar making,” she says. “I felt like I was surrendering to a mission.”
Wells, who is now in her early 30s, works out of her shop in Forestville, California, building compact archtops—she doesn’t go any wider than a lower bout of 16.5 inches, and most of her orders are for 15-inch models—as well as the occasional mandolin. She’s built custom guitars for players as diverse as Mark Goldenberg, Jamie Stillway, and K-pop star Sam Kim. “The reason I started making small-body instruments is the same reason behind most of the choices I make as a guitar builder,” she says. “It’s because that’s what I wanted as a musician. Then it turned out that everybody else did, too.”
Wells’ custom builds go for $10,500, and the luthier keeps a waitlist, comprised of six orders, that opens up just once a year, in early October. Her most recent list sold out in 24 hours, making 2021 her best year to date as a builder.
Wells first felt a calling to the craft in 2005 and began formally studying it the follow year, when she enrolled at the Galloup School of Guitar Building and Repair in Michigan. At Galloup, making an archtop—an instrument she’d never even played—was the final assignment. When she began working on the guitar, she fell in love, not just as a builder but as a musician.
“Everybody had always told me that I didn’t play the right kind of music for an archtop,” says Wells, formerly a singer-songwriter in the mold of Lisa Loeb and Ani DiFranco. “But when the guitar was completed, I discovered this instrumental music inside of me that no other guitar had really been able to pull out.”
After graduating from Galloup in 2007, Wells worked first for Reverend, an electric guitar company in Detroit, and then for a flattop builder in West Virginia. But her most important training started in 2009, when she embarked on a five-year apprenticeship in Northern California with the master archtop luthier Tom Ribbecke, from whom she learned the ins and outs of archtop construction. She says, “When I got to his shop, it was like I had arrived,” adding that she founded a workshop of her own in 2012 while still working for Ribbecke.
From the beginning, Wells had a mission that set her apart—making small-body archtops. She’s always allowed what she’s wanted as a player to guide her building, and when she started her shop, that meant guitars that could fit snuggly in her arms. She soon found that she wasn’t the only one. “Men and women of all sizes were saying, ‘Yeah, my shoulders hurt. I want something that fits more comfortably,’” she says.
It’s commonly assumed that the larger the archtop, the louder the sound, but Wells has found this to be a misconception. “People think that you need this big box to get a big sound out of an archtop guitar, and that’s just not true,” she says. “A lot of my clients have other archtops that are much larger, but my guitars sound twice as big as those 17- or 18-inch guitars.”
Unlike many guitar builders, Wells does her own finishes, with a knack for color and for beautifully subtle sunbursts. She’s always worked with nitrocellulose lacquer, and, laughing, admits she’s afraid to try anything else since it’s the only thing she knows. In the construction process, if there’s an issue, Wells can usually recover from it quickly. But in the finishing stage, she finds that there’s endless opportunity for failure. “It’s the only part where in a second you can be launched back two weeks,” she says.
Wells once accidentally pulled a chunk of color off of a guitar she was working on when she touched it with an arm that was inflamed with poison oak. Sometimes, she’ll be applying lacquer and something random will spit out of the spray gun. When unplanned events like these happen, Wells has to pause to put a game plan together. “If that means stripping the finish off of that guitar that you loved and doing it again, then you do it,” she says. “By working through failure after failure, they turn into beautiful successes.”
It would be difficult to run your own custom guitar shop without having inspiration for your craft. And speaking with Wells, it’s clear that she’s overflowing with it. But it’s not just the guitars that inspire her—a lot of it comes from the wood itself, and her tools. To her, both might as well be living and breathing.
“My favorite part of building guitars is when I get to gather the materials,” she says. “I go into my wood room and start pulling pieces down, and I let the materials say, ‘Hi, it’s me!’ It speaks to you, and you get this vision when you’re holding this raw material in your hand—that was a life; there was a whole industry of processes that happened in between that life and it being in my wood room.”
Archtop luthiers have typically used maple for backs, sides, and necks, along with spruce for soundboards. But Wells prefers to branch out. Since she grew up playing flattops, she prefers mahogany necks. She might build a guitar with a flamed maple back and a spruce top, but throw off expectations with rosewood sides. Wells says that she is completely obsessed with West African ebony, which she uses not just for fretboards but all of her hardware—tailpieces, bridges, and pickguards—sometimes with carbon-fiber reinforcement for added structural integrity. Plus, her tailpiece features an ebony hinge, a design she credits to Ribbecke.
In terms of tools, Wells loves her hand planes more than anything. “When you’ve got a properly set-up plane, you can magically cut through a piece of hard maple like a knife through butter,” she says. “The tools really are my communication line between the wood and myself. I can’t take credit for this work. The tools are the ones doing the job, not me.”
The Fiddleback Tree
Asked if there’s a particular guitar she’s made that was the most special to her, Wells talks about the privilege of working with a rare and beautifully figured wood from the Fiddleback Tree, harvested by Hibdon Hardwood in southern Mexico in 2016. The yield included 390 guitar sets, only ten of them suitable for carved archtop backs. Wells says, “I bought six of them!”
The luthier’s plan is to build one Fiddleback Tree guitar every five years until she has run out of this special tonewood. She finished the first when she was 30. “This material is going to represent my evolution as a builder,” she says. “There are only going to be ten archtops in the whole world made out of it—and six of them will be mine.”
Over the years, Wells’ passion for archtops has extended to the mandolin. After coming across a 1921 Gibson A-2 at Tall Toad Music in Petaluma, California, she found herself discovering yet another unexpected musical connection. In 2014 she began building mandolins and has found that this offers a nice reprieve from crafting guitars. She says, “Mandolins are undeniably cute, and the process of making them is a miniature one. It brings a lot of joy to the shop in that way.
“That was not something I was aware of because I came to the archtop world through the back door,” she continues. “The archtop builder in me identified with the fact that those small instruments are at the root of all of this. It’s a beautiful history. You can’t read about it without being inspired.”
Wells is driven to further explore the mandolin family, going larger, while at the same time getting even smaller with her guitars. Next on her build exploration list is a mandocello, then an octave mandolin. The narrowest archtop she’s made is 14 inches wide, and she plans to go even more diminutive—to a mere 12 inches. “I want to just keep evolving and having the courage to try new things, as well as stay true to whatever vision I have today,” she says.
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But ultimately, the real reward comes from seeing her work come to life in the hands of her customers. Wells says, “Everybody has music living inside of them. To be able to sit back and watch a guitar find that music in somebody and pull it out makes me want to run right back up to the wood room and do it all over again.”