Born in Rugby, VA in the White Top Mountain area of Grayson County, Wayne Henderson is one of the finest luthiers in the country. Coming from a family of craftsmen and musicians, he has remained in the Blue Ridge Mountains honing his craft. Henderson’s father and uncle were musicians who played with the string band of Estil Ball and were recorded by and John and Alan Lomax, folklorists.
Wayne ordered a guitar from the Sears catalog after admiring his uncle’s steel-string Martin guitar. His disappointment in the instrument prompted Henderson’s career as a luthier. Using a dresser-drawer bottom and some “sticky stuff” used to glue weather stripping to a car door, Wayne had almost completed his first guitar when a hot day approached. The guitar had been left in a confined area and when he returned to complete his work, Henderson found, as he described it, that “it had blossomed like a morning glory”. Another time he used a cigar box, carved a wooden 2 x 4 for the neck and used fishing line as strings. Henderson finally made his first complete guitar using a mahogany door and later sold it for some tools and cash.
Today Henderson’s guitars are in high demand and although many are “intricately decorated”, they are respected for their volume, tone and resonance. Wayne, a retired mail carrier, now spends much of his time as a performing artist. When he is not performing, he may be found in his shop working on instruments often until the wee hours of the next morning. To get a Henderson guitar, one must convince Wayne that they seriously want one. Once he feels they are sincere in their desire for a Henderson guitar, he will put them on the schedule. Sometimes his customers wait years for the finished product, although rarely any longer than Eric Clapton who waited ten years. His guitars inspired a book by Allen St. John entitled “Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument”.
Wayne’s guitars are his pride and are patterned after the old Martin guitars like his uncle once had but he also builds mandolins. Henderson located to Nashville for a brief time and repaired guitars, including ones belonging to Elvis Presley, Neil Young, and Doc Watson. The old neck of Watson’s guitar, with Watson’s name on it, still hangs in Wayne’s shop. Since then, Henderson has built Watson a mandolin. Watson has described it “as good as any I’ve had my hands on. And that’s saying a lot, because I’ve picked up some good ones”. Blues player John Cephas considers Henderson one of the “most masterful guitar makers in this in this whole United States”.
Henderson, an accomplished guitarist, has won more than three hundred ribbons at fiddlers’ conventions and was awarded the NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1995 which included a $10,000 monetary award. With this award he built the small brick workshop where he crafts his fine-toned instruments today. He has been part of three national tours of the “Masters of the Steel String Guitar” and has traveled internationally including seven nations in Asia. His performance venues include Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Institution and the 1992 presidential inauguration for the “America’s Reunion”. On May 3, 2007, Wayne’s birthday, he played for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip during Virginia’s royal welcome at Capital Square to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown.
Wayne often plays in his guitar shop and for local festivals and events. The Wayne C. Henderson Music Festival and Guitar Competition was established in 1995 to express appreciation to this “living legend” with a portion of the proceeds going into a scholarship fund for local musicians to continue their education. Wayne is also involved with education music programs and has shared his skills as such events as the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshop at Davis held at Elkins College in Elkins, WV. Wayne Henderson is a “friend to everyone” and shares his abilities unselfishly.