Welcome to Worth Guitar Shop

guy making a guitar

Where Suffolk-based craftsman Tony Whitford’s handcrafted guitars strike a chord 

Photos and Story By Beth Hester

Way back in the day when a petite filet minion with two veg, tea and a roll was $5.95 at
the enigmatic Embers Steak House & Lounge (RIP) in Portsmouth, I was one-half of a short-lived acoustic folk duo. We performed at the Embers for a time and my guitar was a handsome classical model crafted by a well-respected luthier in Japan. It was lightly used and had been on display at AL&M in Norfolk—$189 with a high-quality hard case thrown in. 

Having learned on a Sears Wish Book acoustic with stiff strings set so high off the fret board that my fingertips bled, this lithe, nylon stringed beauty was a revelation. I still have it.

So, when I paid a visit to Tony Whitford’s Suffolk-based guitar workshop, I was all geared up to talk strings, wood grain and tuners. Whitford also happens to be a huge Metallica devotee. 

Joni Mitchell, meet James Hetfield.

Whitford started his company, Worth Guitars in 2017. Alongside a three-person team that includes his wife Anna, electronics expert Steve Stephens and production specialist Stephen Weaver, he builds custom, handmade guitars for a variety of clients including a considerable number of regional working musicians. Though he builds a handful of acoustic models, as a heavy metal fan Whitford’s primary focus is on crafting solid body electric guitar and bass models that are power chord and thrash ready. 

His side yard garage-turned-guitar shop is a tool aficionado’s paradise. Traditional hand tools and assorted guitar-building and finishing equipment contrast with the software-controlled CNC machine that roughs out each instrument’s initial silhouette. 

There are hand planes, chisels, pliers, rulers, fret saws, rasps, clamps, adhesives and tins of varnish—all in the service of helping to bring Whitford’s designs to life. The shop is presided over by a giant psychedelic image of Jimi Hendrix, a reproduction of Picasso’s Blue Period painting The Old Guitarist, and a wolf, which is Whitford’s mascot and totem animal.

Oh, and there’s the sandpaper. Lots of sandpaper.  

Whitford has always had a fondness for high-end specialty woods, beautiful grain patterns and different finishes. “As a kid, I was in charge of polishing my aunt’s piano, and that’s probably the first time I really took notice of how wood could be transformed into such a beautiful object,” Whitford remembers.

“In school, I was too awkward to really thrive academically, but when I was introduced to shop class, well, that was a different story,” he explains. “I was more in my element there.”

Whitford always enjoyed working with wood and making handcrafted objects and furniture, but when he learned to play the guitar, that opened up an entirely new realm of possibilities. 

“I learned to play guitar along with some other kids in the neighborhood,” he explains. “I went through the Mel Bay guitar books. I’d practice chords, learn to play a few songs, and then I’d need a new string. So, then I’d have to learn how to put one on and learn more about how to maintain the instrument and appreciate its different aspects. After a time, I decided that I’d like to try making a guitar myself. Things gradually evolved from there.” 

Whitford’s broad range of instruments include his distinctive take on the famous Gibson Flying V model, an extraordinary fretless bass sporting a paisley, sunburst or single-color finish and a beauty of a bass with ebony fingerboard, mother of pearl moon phase inlay position markers and Hot Rod two-way adjustable truss rod. He also crafts more traditional silhouettes like his Ancestor and T-Style models. 

“With every guitar I build, I learn something new,” he explains. “But I’m always very particular about getting each individual phase of the project as close to perfect as possible. If you’re building a chair, and something isn’t just right, it’s still a chair and it’s still useful. If you get something wrong with building a guitar, it won’t sound right—the resonance will be off or the strings will buzz.”

“I love it when I get to the part of the process where I’m putting on the strings for the first time and getting feel for how the guitar or bass plays and sounds,” he says. “It’s my favorite thing…really gratifying.”

But it’s not all peace and love. There are mishaps in the shop: a piece of wood with a hidden flaw explodes on the CNC machine, or a carefully bent acoustic guitar side cracks in the middle of the curve for no apparent reason. “I keep things in the shop at the correct temperatures and humidity levels,” Whitford says. “But sometimes you just end up eating an expensive piece of wood.”

Soft spoken and thoughtful, but with all of the exterior hallmarks of a serious rocker, Whitford is a bit of a dark horse. He writes poetry and has penned a novella. Along with his wife Anna, he’s also a serious gardener and their verdant raised bed gardens beautifully express both form and function.

Though he’d like to build guitars full-time—there’s a wait time of about a year for a Worth custom guitar—he currently works in the architectural millwork space as a project manager for Premier Millwork & Lumber Co. He likes the fact that his day job intersects with his guitar business. 

“I’m lucky that I’m able to work at something I love. It’s always been about the woodworking, and about the music.”

Ask the Guitar Maker

If you could own any guitar model from a musician, what would it be? I would love to have the black Fender Stratocaster that David Gilmore used for recordings and live performances. All of his lead solos are memorable because you can almost sing along with them. Simple and beautiful.

What are the three songs you’d take with you on a desert island? “Breathe” by Pink Floyd, “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, and “The Lido Shuffle” by Boz Scaggs

As a guitar builder, what things continue to inspire you to do your best work? I am inspired by some of the luthiers I follow on social media. But mostly I just have a need to create. I have ideas in my head that I need to see come to life. I want to do more.


BH
Beth Hester

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