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Forestville guitar maker creates custom archtops

In her 34 years, Maegen Wells has — twice — fallen in love at first sight.

When she was 7, she picked up a nylon-string acoustic guitar for the first time and strummed along to the soundtrack of “Grease.” She was in love.

And in high school, the first time she moved a chisel through a piece of wood, she was smitten.

For the Forestville guitar maker, those two moments ignited a burst of energy and unlocked the music inside her, she said.

That’s why she carves and assembles one-of-a-kind custom archtop guitars and mandolins at her Forestville workshop, which sits below towering redwoods near the Russian River.

“I want to make guitars that unlock the music that’s living inside all of us,” Wells said. “The music that we forget we have inside or the music that hasn’t been unlocked yet. That’s it.”

Tiny music store in England

When the Michigan native was 9, she and her family of four moved to England when her dad’s company relocated him.

There, she took her first serious guitar lessons, every week at a tiny music shop. She learned from a journal filled with songs she wanted to play, from Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” to The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”

At home, Wells did extra chores to save up for a bright red electric guitar. Feeling displaced after her family’s big move, she latched onto her guitar for comfort. That hole-in-the-wall guitar store, where she had befriended the staff, also became her happy place.

“My guitar became my best friend,” Wells said. “It was sort of my anchor.”

Then in 1998, Wells and her family moved back to Midland, Michigan, where she fell in love a second time. This time, she fell ever harder.

At Midland High School, Wells, then 14, took her first woodworking class. As sawdust filled the air and settled on shiny chisels and big table saws, there was Wells, learning how to use a chisel to slowly cut into wood.

“Woodworking changed my life,” Wells said. “You never think you’re going to have a second love. It was the only thing I’d ever fallen in love with, other than guitars.”

For Wells, woodworking means taking risks. It requires courage and pushing past uncertainty.

“When you use a woodworking lathe, the wood is being spun fast and you’re sticking a very sharp chisel into the wood as it’s spinning,” Wells said. “You’re using a scary tool and machine. I think there’s a lot of fear you need to face in woodworking.”

It’s one of the reasons she adores the craft.

“There’s nothing more fulfilling than overcoming your fears,” Wells said.

A guitar maker is born

In November of 2005, weeks after her 18th birthday, Wells was sitting in her Michigan bedroom strumming her acoustic Taylor guitar and noticed the tuners on the back of the headstock read “Taylor.”

“I thought, ‘Gosh, it’s got to be the best feeling in the world for Bob Taylor (co-founder of El Cajon-based Taylor Guitars) to see his name on every guitar and on every music tour in the world,’” Wells said.

Her “luthier lightbulb” lit up. It was then she decided she would become a professional guitar maker.

As years passed, she seized every opportunity to learn the craft.

First she had to learn the basics. To do that, she worked alongside a guitar repairer in the basement of the Mid-Michigan Music store. She polished guitars and did random chores in exchange for lessons on how to make a guitar play well.

In 2006, she headed to the Galloup School of Lutherie in Michigan, which focuses exclusively on professional guitar making. Then she jumped into a job with Reverend Guitars, an electric guitar company in Detroit. She worked on 20 guitars a day, assembling them and putting on strings.

And finally, in 2008, after meeting long-time luthier Tom Ribbecke at a guitar show in Miami, Wells moved to Healdsburg to begin a five-year apprenticeship with Ribbecke.

“I was inside his shop five days a week for 10 hours a day,” Wells said. “That’s where I learned how to make the archtop guitars. I learned how to make everything from scratch. No computers or technology, just some chisels, clamps and glue. I learned from one of the best.”

Unlocking music

Now, in her workshop at her two-story home in Forestville, Wells spends nearly 300 hours on each one-of-a-kind archtop guitar — the hollow-body, six steel-stringed instrument with a distinct arched top and the rich sound you’ll hear in a Chet Atkins song or Wes Montgomery jazz guitar solo.

Archtop guitars, which are considered pretty niche, are traditionally much larger than those Wells makes. But Wells’ specialty is creating a smaller guitar without “robbing its voice and sound.

“I make my guitar tops much thinner, which makes the sound more resonant and responsive, acoustically,” Wells said.

Her days consist of hours of gluing, sanding, carving, drying and, most importantly, testing out the guitars, she said, laughing.

Wells typically works on four guitars at a time. The wood she uses varies widely, from redwood, ebony, maple and mahogany to walnut, sapele, spruce and koa. Each guitar sells for more than $10,000.

When it comes to woodworking, Wells uses her intuition.

“I’m feeling the wood through the tool,” Wells said. “How’s it behaving? Are we done? Did I go too far? It’s a conversation. I let the wood tell me what it wants me to do.”

Orders are flying in for Wells’ creations, and she usually has orders booked two years in advance. However, the guitar maker opens a wait list every October, on her dog Lutherie’s birthday, to take orders for the next year.

“I don’t care who you are, if you’re famous, how long you’ve been playing or how well you play,” Wells said. “If you pick up one of my guitars and you don’t want to put it down and feel like it unlocked that music inside of you, then I did my job.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at mya.constantino@pressdemocrat.com. @searchingformya on Twitter.

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