Six strings attached: Q&A with Bill Wise of Charis Acoustic Guitars

Since 1996, Bill Wise has been handcrafting acoustic guitars for professional and amateur musicians. In the beginning, the electrician turned luthier (a builder of stringed instruments) worked from his basement. Today, he and his wife, Beth, operate Charis Acoustic at 2356 Delta Road in Bay City.

The Wises come from a strong Christian background, so they named the business Charis, which is a Greek word meaning "grace".
Route: How did you begin building guitars? 
I learned to play guitar when I was in college. I was a trumpet player in high school, but I liked to sing and you can’t sing and play the trumpet at the same time, so I started learning to play guitar when I was at the University of Cincinnati. Then, a few years after, after we got married, I started looking for a nice guitar and that’s when the bug bit me to build one. That was probably a big mistake because after I built the first one, I was hooked. That was how I got started. Then, after a few years of building guitars, I decided I didn’t need an engineering job with benefits and vacation anymore, which was a bad decision (laughs).
Recently, I've added personally-crafted tuner buttons. Customers can choose their own unique set on my website.
As we sit here, it doesn’t look like a bad decision.
This is a few years into it. There’s a lot of dues to be paid to get here.
What’s the inspiration or philosophy behind your guitars?
My biggest influence right off the bat was a player named Phil Keaggy (an American acoustic and electric guitarist who has released more than 50 albums and contributed to recordings in both contemporary Christian and mainstream music). He’s just a phenomenal player. My thinking was if I could make something that I could envision him playing, that would be my goal. He has played my guitars and he’s done some recordings. There’s a video on YouTube at of him playing a Charis guitar.
What would you say to someone thinking of getting into the guitar-building business?
There are just so many people now building guitars and there are so many kits and things that are available. Everybody knows somebody building a guitar. It’s really diluted the market. There are thousands of independent guitar builders out there vying for the same number of buyers as when there were hundreds of builders. It’s gotten a lot more difficult for somebody to start. Restrictions on shipping rosewood are hurting us as well. The restrictions were intended for the furniture market and the guitar builders are collateral damage. There is some talk that in May this international group CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) may exempt musical instruments from these restrictions and that would be a big help for us. 
Rosewood is the preferred wood for guitars?
Yes. It’s not the only wood. We also use mahogany, maple, walnut, and Hawaiian koa, but rosewoods are the long-time favorite. Brazilian rosewood is the Holy Grail. I doubt that will be taken off the list. Brazilian rosewood is in danger now. It’s a rainforest wood and it was irresponsibly harvested. I’ve got a few sets here. I couldn’t sell it internationally, but it’s perfectly legal for me to sell rosewood guitars in the United States. 
Are there any famous musicians playing your instruments?
You may have heard of a guy named Kenny Loggins. We’ve built two guitars for him in the last couple years. His lead guitar player, Scott Bernard, has been playing one of my guitars for at least a decade, so Kenny had seen my guitars. Kenny had some shoulder issues and he wanted a really lightweight guitar. He challenged me to make a 3-pound guitar. A typical guitar is 4 ½ to 5 pounds I met that challenge and he fell in love with the guitar. We’ve got lots of pictures of him playing it. I’ve got a short clip of video taken by Scott’s wife where Scott is playing one of the guitars I built for Kenny and Kenny is playing the other one at a music awards ceremony. 
How did you meet Scott Bernard?
Through Phil Keaggy. Michael Card, another Christian musician, was one of the first well-known people who took a chance on me. I stalked him at the Midland Center for the Arts one time and showed him what I was doing. He made the mistake of complimenting me and then I never left him alone (laughs). He knew Phil Keaggy and that’s how I got to know Phil. Michael Card has just treated me incredibly well. He’s really a wonderful guy.
What’s your favorite part of the process?
My favorite part is probably right at the end when I’ve finally got the guitar ready and I’m strumming the first notes. I’ve been over every inch of the guitar a hundred times, my arms are worn out from all the sandpaper, the finish is on, I’m done fretting over all the details and detailing the frets. I love hearing it finally come alive.

You can learn more about Charis Acoustic via their Facebook page. 

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