Desert luthier channels Bigsby in shop chock full of vintage tools
STANDING over his circa 1912 Valley dual-wheeled buffer, with its assuming cast iron construction more akin to a ship’s anchor than any of its poten- tial modern counterparts, a wry smile creeps across the face of luthier TK Smith. He can run the venerable machine for hours on end and the motor never even gets warm. It is the epitome of the classic idiom — the just don’t build them like that anymore. Smith and that buffer have a lot in common. He has dedicated years to the study and creation of exquisite, high-end guitars in the vein of classic guitar builder and inventor Paul Bigsby because, among other reasons, they just don’t build them like that anymore… and he’s just getting warmed up.
A two-hour drive east of Los Angeles takes you to Yucca Valley, a land of desert sands, sprawling scrubs and joshua trees. Wedged in between San Bernardino County’s scenic Morongo Valley and historic Joshua Tree National Park, it is definitely a slower pace of life than the one in the city, and that suits its residents just fine.
Driving through town on Highway 62, a sort of time warp envelops you — a flashback to the 1960s with vintage storefronts lining the road: bakeries, auto parts shops and the like. The town gets more modern as you drive east capped by one of the more recent additions — and one that drags you back to reality — a mega-sized Wal-Mart.
Just north of the main drag is a brick-faced multiplex that includes various small manufacturers including the world headquarters of TK Smith Electronic Guitar Service. The entry room to the shop acts as sort of a combination showcase and work area. There is parts storage here, tucked away in a metal cabinet, as well as a few workstations… but two things stand out immediately: the vintage drafting table and the hand-built pick-up winder both on the right side of the room.