A guitar-maker passes on his craft

Huntsville luthier Danny Davis. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)
Huntsville luthier Danny Davis. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)
Danny Davis Guitars at Tangled String Studios in Huntsville, Ala. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)
Danny Davis Guitars at Tangled String Studios in Huntsville, Ala. (Matt Wake/mwake@al.com)

Advance Local Media

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — They didn’t really have a choice. After Huntsville couple Danny and Susan Davis decided to shut-down the music venue component at Tangled String Studios in July 2020 amid the pandemic’s devastating early phase, they had to expand the guitar-making side of their multipronged business. Or go out of business entirely.

“Susan and I were gonna lose this space,” Danny says, “which means we sell everything and go home, so we said, ‘Well, let’s make a run at it.’”

Tall, blond and amiable, Danny is a rocket-science-turned-luthier. His exquisite acoustic instruments are played by the likes of The Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson and Atlanta Rhythm Section’s Dave Anderson.

After Tangled String Studios began hosting live shows in 2013, it quickly gained a rep as an intimate “listening room”-style music venue. The Black Crowes’ Robinson, Drive-By Truckers’ singer/songwriter Patterson Hood and Grammy-winning bluegrass band SteelDrivers performed there. Americana headliners like Amanda Shires, John Paul White and Secret Sisters too, as well as top local talents, including Kelvin Wooten, Ingrid Marie and Microwave Dave.

The venue became a deep passion for Susan. She often prepared home-cooked meals, including her lasagna, to meet artist-rider requirements. She strove to make the experience special for both musicians and fans. Tangled String partner and former Jason Isbell roadie Todd Haller booked artists and often ran sound. The stage background was a wall of downlit reclaimed barn-wood. Off to the right, Davis’ guitar making equipment in plain view. The seating capacity started at 60, then went up to 100 and finally around 150. It made for a unique place to see handmade music played close-up.

After Tangled String’s venue days were over, Susan, who’s striking, silver-haired and sweet, was understandably heartbroken. The concert industry was just a couple months into a shutdown that would last much of 2020. At that time, Susan told AL.com, “We realize that it is unlikely that small venues such as ours can responsibly reopen any time soon. We love our local community and don’t want to contribute to spread of this current health crisis.”

Susan was in tears as she canceled shows scheduled for later in 2020, featuring the likes of Drive-By Truckers guitarist Mike Cooley, Huntsville alt-pop singer DeQn Sue and Tuscaloosa jam band CBDB. During the 2020 shutdown, Tangled String hosted streaming performances by local acts such as Rob Aldridge & The Proponents and Ingrid Marie, to help raise funds for performers. But livestreaming wasn’t a sustainable solution, for musicians or Tangled String. Over the years, Tangled String has also had music-festival and recording-studio components, but amid the ongoing pandemic those weren’t answers to making the overall venture viable either.

Up to that point, Danny had made every single bit of every single Danny Davis Guitar himself. Around 200 guitars total in the decades he’d been making them, dating back before Tangled String opened in 2012. But ramping up production to the level Tangled String needed now meant he’d need to hire help. And teach new builders his guitar-making magic.

First, Danny built new workstations for different phases of guitar making. He then brought in Susan’s brother, Jake Wambsganss, supply chain manager for a valve company, to help set the shop up efficiently as possible. “We got the flow of the instrument,” Danny says, “and structured the room so that it kind of just has a vibe to it. You do necks over here, bodies over there, sides there and all of that.”

His found his two technicians, Anna Ruth Bennett and Shawn Webster, totally organically. Webster had previously done carpentry for Tangled String. Bennett had worked at Happy Tummy, a sandwich shop turned pizzeria located at Lowe Mill, the sprawling Huntsville arts center Tangled String also calls home. Bennett’s dad, Doug Bennett, a former roadie for prog-rock band Kansas who went on to work in industrial lighting/sound construction, had frequently attended Tangled String shows. When Doug heard Danny was looking to hire staff for guitar making, he stopped by to suggest Anna Ruth for the job.

Both hires clicked. Anna Ruth had a natural talent for detailed mother of pearl work for guitar inlays, flourishes that can make a guitar’s look extra special and personalized. A commissioned Danny Davis Guitar might have inlays in the shape of a rose, a crown of thorns, etc. Anna Ruth also helps affix the 12 or so braces inside a guitar critical for optimum sound. Her tools include chisels, jeweler’s saw and glue.

“The way we make our guitars, the top of the guitar is not flat,” Davis says. “It has a very slight curve to it. Well, that curve has to be dialed in perfectly.” Any gaps between the brace and the top of the guitar, Davis says, “would be places where you can lose the sound energy.” However seamless construction is how, “you get your resonance and kind of the fullness of the guitar,” he says.

Indeed, a Danny Davis Guitar, when played rings like a bell. The tone is crystalline yet warm. Descended from the contoured sound of classic Martin Guitars, but with their own character. In 2019, Robinson, the Black Crowes guitarist, described Davis’ guitars to me this way: “They play so well, they resonate so well. The design is spot-on and beautiful. It just seems like everything he did was done with such care and consideration.”

Before starting Tangled String, Davis spent about 30 years as a NASA engineer, working on projects ranging from propulsion systems to a space telescope. With rockets, it’s imperative to know what frequencies are vibrating so they can be eliminated/reduced to keep a rocket from shaking itself apart upon launch. When making guitars, it’s the opposite. You want to exploit frequencies to achieve optimum sound.

The airy interior of Tangled String Studios is a tinkerer’s daydream. There’s all kind of cool woodworking machines, tools and multiple workbenches with guitars in various stages atop them. Wood blanks are stacked against a weathered brick wall. Danny Davis Guitars are made from a variety of woods including mahogany, maple, rosewood and katalox. On the day I stopped by Tangled String this summer, they’ve some funky jazz playing on the shop’s stereo. And there’s a faint scent of sawdust in the air.

At a workstation equipped with a green vise, Webster is sanding down a guitar neck. He uses chisels and rasps to get the general shape, then shifts to finer rasps and sandpaper for final smoothing and tapering. Although Webster had relevant carpentry and woodworking experience, making guitars is a totally different beast.

“It’s the challenge of it really that makes it satisfying,” Webster tells me. His hair’s pulled back in a ponytail. “And it’s a pretty exciting feeling to think this is going to end up out in the world in somebody’s hands making music.”

At another workbench a couple yards away, Bennett is installing the back braces for a guitar. Her focus is like a laser. “It’s really satisfying when everything fits together just perfectly,” says Bennett, who’s wearing circular eyeglass. She adds, “I’ve just always been interested in art and music, and so I guess this (guitar making) is just that, converged.”

Since Bennett and Webster started at Tangled String, they’ve been making three or so guitars a month. They work on the “player’s series” guitars, which cost around $2,850. Those guitars have the same high-quality chassis but are less ornamented than Davis’ commissioned guitars, which are generally built entirely by Davis and run around $5,500. It takes about 80 to 85 hours of work for each guitar. Before a player’s series guitar is ready for sale, Davis completes a quality check and if something needs to be tightened up it gets tightened up. “The joy for me,” Davis says, “is building the instrument, and I love to see them go to a customer, particularly after I’ve worked with on the design of the guitar with somebody, and it means something to them.”

Currently, there are 20 or so Danny Davis Guitars, including dreadnought, grand auditorium and parlor-sized models, in stock at Tangled String, address 2211 Seminole Drive, and local indie retailer Fret Shop, at 309 Jordan Lane N.W. (More info at dannydavisguitars.com.) Susan has pivoted from live venue operations to focusing on Tangled String’s social media, posting sharply produced videos and photos. “Susan has been so supportive,” Danny says. “She’s great at getting out (on socials) what’s coming up.”

Webster, who grew up playing drums and began learning guitar in recent years, says Davis is a patient teacher. One of the first things he taught them was how to affix a guitar’s top. “Danny gives a lot of instruction, but he also leaves a lot of room for interpretation,” Webster says. “And he’s open to new ideas in the process too. So it’s not like this whole process is completely set in stone and you have to do it this way.”

Indeed, Davis says Webster and Bennett have made suggestions on how to improve things at Tangled String. Those ideas have even inspired some new tools and practices for their guitar making. “Now we can do it better and faster,” Davis says. In the past, David had always loved guitar building and took pleasure in the solitude of doing so alone. But he’s grown quite fond of having Webster and Bennet around, to share the work, listen to music together as they work and enjoy each other’s company.

“You really don’t know something until you teach it,” Davis says. “And working with Anna Ruth and Shawn, I’m learning a lot about this process and trying to make it easy and repeatable. Luckily, these great people came along and fit right in. The first step was to make sure we can deliver the product and we’re feeling good about that. We’re getting good at making guitars. Now we’re trying to get good at selling. That’s the next big step.”

Author: By MATT WAKE

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