A Visit to Guitar Repair Guru TJ Thompson

Ah, the sleepy little burg of West Concord, Mass. and its Revolutionary War overtones — first shot fired and all that.

Perhaps you’re thinking there might be a sign advertising Thompson Guitars… fuggedaboudit. The primary sign by the entrance to the old warehouse on Bradford Street where TJ works his magic says, “SPACE FOR RENT – CALL JACK”.

In theory, I’m running in to grab TJ from the shop, zip by his new house to check out the renovation, quickly eyeball the progress out back where his new workshop will stand, then we’re off to rehearsal.

It’s never surprising to find someone upstairs besides TJ and his assistants, Vivian Ecker and Mike Ruckle. Today, bluegrass legend Peter Rowan and his manager Gareth Hedges have come by with the fabled Charles Sawtelle guitar. This is the ’36 D-18 originally owned and played by the famed guitarist from Hot Rize. After leukemia claimed Sawtelle in 1999, his D-18 was bequeathed to Rowan. The guitar is only a little less famous than the Clarence White / Tony Rice D-28 #58957.

It seems Jet Blue has dropped the poor old D-18 on it’s butt, cracking the sides and displacing the end block. Rowan is leaving it with TJ for repair and trying out temporary replacements for his gig in Fall River the next night with Tony Rice.

Now, TJ is hardly unfamiliar with big time musicians at his shop, but he still has that happy/proud look on his face as we watch Rowan and Hedges bang out tunes. In the end, everyone agrees that the great sounding ’44 D-18 Peter is trying would require set up changes that can’t reasonably be done before his gig the next day. (Rowan ends up playing a Thompson that was made for a distant cousin who lives nearby.)

After about half an hour, Rowan and Hedges take off along with Vivian, leaving only a young man named Sean who has come down with his old R-18 on a referral from Kim Walker. TJ looks over the R-18 but the talk quickly turns to Sean’s day job as a machinist. Before long, TJ is discussing having Sean make up yet another esoteric machine tool for some special luthier work.

That discussion ends and Sean is on his way, but before I can drag TJ out the door, in comes David Bonsey — Skinner Auction and occasional Antiques Roadshow appraiser. Bonsey is carrying a 1928 Martin 000-45 for TJ to opine on in one hand and a 1700s violin in the other.

After a brief examination of the 000-45, TJ goes to “the back” and produces another ’28 000-45 for comparison of the headstock inlay. The appropriate descriptive language for auction having been agreed upon, out comes the violin and a discussion ensues on the techniques for dating spruce which is analogous to a bar code, it seems.

And, finally, off we went to rehearsal… TJ dearly loves to work on guitars, but he likes to USE them, too.


The Fretboard Journal #26 features an in-depth interview with luthier TJ Thompson, penned by Clapton’s Guitar author Allen St. John. To get it, subscribe or order the single issue today.