Back in January 2022, I was checking out www.treysguitarrig.com (as usual) and noticed a post about a new guitar of Trey’s. But it wasn’t a Languedoc. It was by a maker named Circle Strings, also from Burlington. The guitar itself was absolutely gorgeous: a brilliant Koa flame on the back and sides and a beautiful classic Spruce on top.
Whoever built this guitar must have a pretty impressive resume and backstory. That someone turned out to be Adam Buchwald who I have been fortunate to get to know this past year. I presumed there was more of a story for Adam to tell besides making a few guitars for Trey. I also figured others might be interested as well.
In addition to Circle Strings which builds custom instruments, Adam runs IRIS Guitar Company which makes an affordable line of acoustic instruments, Allied Lutherie which sells top quality vintage and new woods to builders around the world and Ben & Bucky’s Guitar Boutique which is Vermont’s top guitar store – an impressive resume indeed!
Hope you enjoy learning more about these amazing guitars and the people behind them!
So how did you get into guitar making? Who were some of your early influences?
I started playing guitar in 5th grade and immediately became obsessed. I studied music my whole life – including college at UVM – which introduced me to other fretted instruments (banjo, mandolin, etc.). After college I moved back to NYC to work in my father’s manufacturing company which was a metal stamping, tool and die factory. I respected the work, but it never totally clicked for me and I wanted to make sure I truly loved my career. I was in a band with Bob Jones who was also a top NYC guitar repair man. I visited his shop one day after my beloved banjo fell off the stand and broke the headstock. Doh! I thought it was never going to be playable again, but he did an amazing repair on it and made it even better than before!
After seeing this repair, I begged him to teach me. It took another 1.5 years for him to say yes, and I went and watched him repair guitars every Friday for 6 months before he let me touch anything. During this time I built a banjo and a mandolin from a kit at my dad’s factory which I showed him. He finally gave me his blessing and had me take apart an old metal banjo and clean every piece. It was for an auction at Sotheby’s so I was excited to work on something special.
I then took a guitar building course at Vermont Instruments and later went back to Brooklyn and took a job in the Repair shop at Retrofret. I was able to build on the side and do repairs all while still working for my dad; it was exhausting!
My early influences were mandolin makers like Steve Gilchrist, John Monteleone, Will Kimble, Joe Cleary and banjo maker Will Fielding. I just loved how these guys were able to develop their craft and make one-of-a-kind instruments. It really left an impression on me.
What was the first guitar you built? Do you remember the specs and what made you take on that project?
The first guitar I made was at the guitar building school in VT (where I was actually a part-owner for a few years, but that's a whole other story!). It was a Dreadnought with European Spruce top and Indian Rosewood back and sides. I wanted a Bluegrass Cannon and it came out pretty well. The neck is way too big for me to play now and I didn’t do a great job on the binding, which was always a challenge at the beginning until I learned how to relax while building.
When did you decide you wanted to go out on your own and what was the initial focus of your business?
In 2012 I moved to Burlington, VT and opened my own shop. I worked at Froggy Bottom for a few years and learned so much about craft and guitar making. They were fantastic builders who inspired me in a lot of ways. A previous employee came back and unfortunately there wasn’t enough for the both of us at that time. I was very upset, but after a few months I realized it was a blessing because I was able to open my own shop. Initial focus was mainly repair work, but that quickly changed when people started ordering guitars.
Why do you think Burlington, VT is now home to three prominent guitar builders: yourself, Paul Languedoc and Creston? What kind of magic is in the air?
Burlington is a great music city. A lot of creative people and wood workers as well. People love handmade stuff up here and appreciate the finer details in something made by craftspeople and not just a factory. I'm so lucky to have shared a shop building with Creston. He’s a great friend and trusted me to do his CNC necks and bodies when I first got into machining parts. We did that for a few years until my business grew where it just couldn't happen anymore. Maybe someday we can do it again! Creston introduced me to Paul and we used to have Luthier Lunches. It's been a while since we’ve done one; might need to book another one soon! Too bad Penny Cluse is gone...
The seeds of Trey’s initial Circle Strings acoustic began by you knowing Page, correct?
Yes, Page and I were in a paddle ball group of buddies called Friday Night Lights. It was during COVID and we had an excuse to hang out and play outside in the dead of winter. I believe it got us all through that moment in time. Page and I developed a nice friendship and I felt comfortable telling him I had this set of Koa I've been holding onto to make Trey a guitar someday. I showed him photos and he mentioned he told Trey about the wood and maybe he would get in touch someday. Months went by and I forgot about the whole thing until I got a text later that year from Page saying, “You know what? I think I want to commission that guitar for Trey for his birthday.” I think my head exploded at that point! It was an amazing feeling.
So awesome! How did you guys decide on specs for the guitar? Did Page explain everything? Did you talk to Paul as well to get a feel for Trey’s preferences?
Page pretty much said just use the best sounding and looking woods you have. He did think we should make something he was accustomed to which is why we chose the Dreadnought. I knew he loved Koa and I had a stack of old German Spruce tops I got from someone I bought out named Water Lipton. He knows his wood and said it was the finest looking and sounding wood he had ever used. I chose all the appointments and used Holly to bind it because that's what Paul used on his 4.0 Koa Languedoc. Page really wanted a custom inlay that would show Trey it came from him. We went through a lot of different designs until he came up with the Lichtenstein print. I didn’t contact Paul about the build as I really wanted to do my own thing and see what Trey thought.
That visit with Trey and Page soon after he received the guitar must have been so thrilling. How did that come about?
One of the best days of my life! Can't even describe the feeling. We had a window of a few hours to get the guitar ready for someone to deliver to Page up at The Barn because Trey was in town recording. Page said maybe they would have time to come visit, but he texted and said it couldn't happen as Trey had a flight to catch. I was bummed! The courier took it and left to meet Page and give the guitar to Trey. I was hoping I would hear something that hour when he received it, but nothing...a few minutes after the hour my phone vibrated and it was a text from Page. He said Trey loves the guitar so much and has 30 minutes before his flight and he wants to thank you and see the shop. I ran through the shop screaming and everyone was psyched. Luckily we were on the way to the airport! The rest was history. You can check out the acoustic Trey and Page duet of Theme from the Bottom from that day in our shop here.
Imagine the biggest complement of all was when Trey ordered more guitars from you. How was the process for wood selection and specs different from the first one?
Seeing him play it at The Beacon Theatre for the acoustic solo set with the immersive sound was epic! I grew up going to The Beacon and was able to sit in for sound check and listen to him play the guitar. It was heaven. I went both nights and he gave me a shout out and said it was the best guitar he has ever played in his life. I was on Cloud Nine absolutely freaking out. After that run of shows, Trey’s guitar tech Justin Stabler told me he brings the guitar everywhere and can't be without it and wants to order a backup so he can always have one with him. I finished the backup with the same specs and same wood, but a different inlay and delivered it to him at the Stone Pony last summer. I walked on Trey's bus and the first guitar I made him was sitting right there and he said that it goes everywhere with him and inspires him to write more and he just loves it! After the Dreadnoughts, the OM guitars came about because he likes alternate tunings and I made him an OM out of Brazilian Rosewood, Koa trim and the same German Spruce top like the Dreads. A backup was then ordered for that. We used Indian Rosewood on that but the same top wood. All Trey said for their specs was to make the neck the same as the first. I LOVE IT!
It also seems like you’ve also been doing some work on Trey’s Languedoc’s. What types of things have you been doing with them?
Not just the ‘Doc’s! We have over a dozen of his other guitars in for work right now. Justin Stabler and I are getting his whole collection set up and running perfectly so if he does want something immediately it is ready to go. Just like cars, guitars need periodic maintenance to perform at their best. A lot of them are getting Plek'd and set up so they feel all the same. One of the benefits of the Plek is that I can repeat the same specs over and over with how the computer can store the data. We have a bunch of his Martin guitars in for maintenance and setup as well. But from what I hear, he isn’t really touching them much since he got his Circles!
So amazing how that all came about! How often do you sell to professional musicians vs enthusiasts and collectors? And what role does IRIS Guitar Company play in that?
Good question. Most Circle Strings buyers are currently enthusiasts and collectors who love to play because the prices have needed to increase a little. It’s amazing to see so many guitarists obsessed with guitars in general. Helps keep us in business! Because of the demand and because we want to make sure the right guitars get into the right hands, we started a production line called IRIS Guitar Company to make a model that was more accessible for many musicians who can’t quite afford the higher end Circle guitars. That has taken off and I love getting emails saying, “I've been looking for a boutique handmade guitar like this, but never could afford all the other brands!” Luckily, I get a mix of customers now.
Great to have both options! What are the differences between the guitars made at Circle Strings and IRIS Guitar Company?
IRIS guitars are basically a stripped down version of the Circles. They are built the same way and by the same people. They just have simpler appointments, less fancy woods and have more of a vintage vibe. They have a lot less finish, no pore filler, no inlay, etc. They are doing very well and we just started shipping them to Japan and Korea. It's very exciting to have a brand that can compete with the big boys and gain traction. I have a very talented crew. Everyone here has worked for other manufacturers and moved to Vermont to help build these brands. I’m so lucky to go to work everyday and have a crew that works so hard.
What is the quality control process before a guitar leaves your factory?
Every step of the process has its own quality control. If something has an issue, it doesn't go to the next station. We have a nice system where notes get passed on so if there is something to pay attention to the crew knows before it hits their bench. We are implementing a new software where this can happen as well; it's gonna be great.
After the finish – which is done by experts who can make sure it's perfect before it hits setup – every guitar goes in the Plek machine. The machine levels and radiuses the fingerboard for frets. This can be done by the machine faster and better than any human. The Plek does the nut and then levels and crowns the frets after we put those in. It measures the neck relief under string tension and can do the fretwork as if it was strung up. It is an amazing machine which has really improved guitar setup. You can input the string tension, target the action, etc. and it helps you get the instrument in perfect playing condition. At this point it would almost be tough to go back to building without it. We have a new electric we are prototyping to do the frets and fretboard on the machine differently than the acoustics and I can't wait to see the results. After setup, it sits for a few days until we are confident it is ready to go and any finish blemishes are fixed. Then it’s cased up and shipped out! Haven't had one return yet in over 1000 guitars.
What’s your favorite part about building custom instruments?
The wood selection. I love pairing woods together for the right tone someone is looking for. After years of experience, I know what I like and love to deliver the goods! I'm so excited to get into electric guitars. I never appreciated them as much as I do now. I've been playing acoustic for the last 20 years and started playing electric more again and becoming obsessed with all the stuff you can do to your sound.
And how did Allied Lutherie begin? Did you start the company after having more woods than you knew how to deal with? Are all the woods listed on your website?
Allied Lutherie was a supplier of mine in California. It was started by Todd Taggart who started Luthiers Mercantile as well. His son inherited the business and wasn't a guitar guy so we negotiated a price and I bought it from him in 2019. It was known as the wood supplier to the professionals and always had the best wood. I knew this would help me with my guitar career, but most importantly would be something I could fall back on if things didn't quite go as planned. The pandemic hit and I first thought we were screwed, but things actually blew up. We were supplying and selling so much wood and material to makers because they were stuck at home and constantly building. It also provided us with so much wood to start IRIS Guitar Company and afford the equipment. The best part was that it gave me the ability to source and use the best and oldest wood I could find. The old growth woods are so much better because they are tighter grained and came from larger older trees. I have become the guy that collectors and retirees call when they are getting out of the business because we go and buy entire collections. It's so much fun!
We have a lot of woods on our website, but it’s really only a small selection of what we have in our warehouse. It’s great to talk to customers about what they are looking for and dig out something special that suits their needs perfectly.
It was so exciting to hear about your new joint venture with Paul Languedoc. How long had you two been talking about potentially doing something together?
Surprisingly, not long at all. I had asked him to consult for us on a new Hollow Body guitar we wanted to make. As things were developing, he suggested the idea of us making his G4’s. He would essentially license us the design and have some oversight and we’d take it from there. My head nearly exploded! I never expected that. We are almost ready to start prototyping and hope to start production in early 2024. Paul will be laying up the neck blanks and providing the bridges, tailpieces, pickup covers and the smaller pieces he makes by hand. We are going to keep the guitars simple and to his specs. I am so excited to learn from him. He is a genius. We are working on updating his website and have plans on handling all of his ordering and sales. From what I can tell, he just wants to focus on making the G2's and not deal with the customer service aspect of things anymore. I'm sure it gets exhausting dealing with all the emails he receives. He seems excited to finally get some relief from that and just focus on the actual building.
Was the focus with Paul always on the G4 or did other ideas get bounced around until that stuck?
Always been on the G4. He wants to continue with the G2 for the time being with talk of us learning to do that when the time is right. He still wants to work in his shop and he also sees the potential for the G4 to get scalable to some extent because it is a bit easier to make. It was thrilling to sell out the pre-orders so quickly. It left me shaking. And I'm confident that once we get rolling and more people see them and play them that others will want them as well.
So great to hear! What else does the future hold for you and your business?
Besides the Languedocs, there will be a lot of focus on the deal we just signed with Japan and Korea for distribution. I’m heading over to Japan in May for a big expo to show off the IRIS and Circle guitars, maybe a Languedoc as well. It's a huge market. We also have some European distributors who are interested in our products. I'd love to hire a couple more people and get the electrics going and eventually do some mandolins as well. I love going to work and I love working on a million things at once. I love the woods, I love the music – it’s all a perfect match! I'm so lucky to be able to do this. We want to keep buying and selling wood, get better machines, do better work. There’s nothing better than inspiring musicians and players with quality instruments.
What advice would you give for someone considering a custom build?
Definitely give it a whirl. I try to tell people to stretch as far as you can to get something that is better than you think you need now. When you have something special, you’ll practice harder and play so much better. The sound, the feel, the look, everything about it will improve your playing and help you reach your musical goals. It's also a better investment. Buying a standard guitar is totally fine, but it may not inspire you and it may not hold its value. Something special and custom will increase in value and can be passed on or sold to the next player who will hopefully also get something out of it. I do tell people not to over-customize as that can make any potential reselling more difficult. I only say to do it if you know you will definitely keep it or hand it down to someone.
If you are ever interested in discussing something special for you or a loved one feel free to reach out anytime at email@example.com. And everyone is welcome to stop by our showroom at Ben & Bucky’s in Burlington anytime.
Thank you, all!
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