It’s a good thing for the musical world that Mark Swanson, as a young man, was broke. If he’d been able to run out and buy any guitar he’d wanted, he would never have learned to make them himself.
And that would have been a shame, because he does it so well.
In recent years, Swanson — who lives in Grand Rapids — has developed a reputation as a world-class luthier and has hand crafted guitars and mandolins not only for many local musicians, but nationally-known artists as well.
His annual table at Wheatland Music Festival is always well-attended by area players.
Swanson’s creations don’t come cheap, but for those who can afford one, the experience of playing a Swanson is hard to match.
Local guitar hero Randy Springer, a former Lakeview High School grad, has been performing on his Swanson for over a decade.
“We started work on my guitar in 1996,” Springer said. “Mark told me he would show me how to do it and we built my Swanson guitar. It took about four months. Since then, it has been the only guitar I own or even want to play; it’s that special to me.”
Most players who own a Swanson feel much the same way. The quality and craftsmanship that go into his creations is unparalleled. For his part, though, Swanson remains surprisingly humble about his talents.
“I’ve been playing since I was a kid,” Swanson said. “I always wanted a better instrument; the ones I had were always falling apart and I couldn’t afford to get them fixed professionally, so I was always tinkering on them. I’ve always been a tinkerer and a hands-on kind of guy.”
It wasn’t long before Swanson found himself doing repair work on the instruments of friends as well. In the 1980s, Swanson performed with Grand Rapids area band Horsefeather and spent much of his free time keeping the instruments of the entire band in good repair.
“I would be constantly working on them and fixing them up,” Swanson said. “I finally realized that, hey, I could probably build one of these myself. That was probably in the late ’80s.”
Swanson’s first guitars were electric. Though he still builds an electric guitar from time to time — generally a commissioned work — these days they don’t provide him with enough of a challenge to hold his interest.
The intricacies of building acoustic instruments is far more rewarding, he says Matching the wood to the bracing to the design contours; there is virtually no element of the instrument that does not affect sound quality and playability, either for good or ill.
Perfecting his art took time, Swanson admits.
“My first acoustics were not very good,” he said. “But by the mid-’90s, I was building guitars that were really very nice.”
With no real formal training in producing instruments, Swanson picked up information, tips and tricks from any source he could lay his hands on. The advent of the Internet provided one of the richest sources of stored luthier’s knowledge; Swanson was quick to exploit it.
“The Internet was really helpful,” Swanson said. “I hooked up with an online musical instrument maker’s forum. I was on there so much that they finally asked me to join the forum. now I’m a moderator there and have been for 10 years. People from all over the world know me from that.”
Swanson doesn’t rely solely on online information, however. Every few years he travels to Seattle to attend the Guild of American Luthiers convention. While there, he rubs elbows with some of the most famous luthiers in the world.
“I go out there and hobnob with the biggest, best names in the business,” Swanson said. “I can rub elbows with all those guys and ask them all the questions I want.”
Most Swanson owners would say the man has already perfected his craft and there’s really little room for further improvement. Swanson disagrees.
“I’m always looking for ways to make them better,” Swanson said. “There’s always room for improvement.”
Among the instruments he’s created of which he is most proud is a mandolin commissioned by country group The Dixie Chicks.
“I built an octave mandolin for them,” Swanson said. “They used it extensively on an album that went on to win five Grammies. On one song, ‘Silent House,’ you can really hear that mandolin busting out. It was a good feeling.”
Locally, Swanson’s creations can be seen onstage with acts like Trace, Ralston Bowles, Tetrad and Swanson’s own band, 13th Hour.
Swanson usually maintains a backlog of orders. It takes him about a month to create one instrument; demand almost always exceeds his ability to deliver.
That’s just one of the quirks of producing instruments of this superlative quality. Besides, Swanson says, really good things are sometimes worth waiting for.
Springer echoes this sentiment.
“Mark has a special gift,” Springer said. “He builds one of a kind guitars and they are a reflection of his impeccable talent.”
Swanson’s band, 13th Hour, can be found most weekends playing Montcalm and Kent county clubs. His creations may be seen online at www.markswansonmusic.com.