Good Vibrations

Worth the wait: Bosque County luthier Glenn Quarles produces exquisite mesquite custom guitars with incredible attention to detail

CLIFTON – Outside a workshop, an organized pile of mesquite lays seasoning naturally next to a pile of scrapes, ready for smaller projects. Upon entering the non-descript, utilitarian building at the back of the yard, the workshop transforms into a treasure trove for the senses.

First the warm, earthy smell of wood oils, bark and musky mossy notes reaches your olfactory nerves. Then your eyes feast on all the different types of wood organized along the back wall, the different self-engineered instruments and molds. As you run your fingers along the planks, you feel the roughness of the bark, the relief of a knot in the board, the smoothness of a perfectly planed plank. The whirr of the Computer Numeric Control laser as it precisely cuts out a delicate inlay, or the hiss of the varnish sprayer’s compressor stimulate the auditory sensors. And sometimes you can just taste the fine sawdust as a board is sanded.

This special workshop – on the interface where the science of sound meets artistry and skill; where beauty and function are expertly fused to produce exquisite guitars with crazy good vibrations – is the birthplace of all GQ Custom Guitars.

Always doing woodworking and building “stuff” his whole life – taking wood shop in junior high and building model airplanes and boats with his dad – upon retirement Bosque County resident Glenn Quarles picked up the not-so-common, and not-so-obvious, creative and detail-oriented work of being a luthier.

A luthier is a craftsperson who builds or repairs string instruments that have a neck and a sound box like the ukulele, banjo, mandolin, lute, and the bowed string instruments like violin, cello and contrabass. Quarles concentrates on building acoustic guitars.

And it might seem an unorthodox choice for a retired Air Force test pilot and simulator trainer to embark on this journey to produce specialized musical instruments.

In his career as a military test pilot of mostly very fast, maneuverable jets – he admits to being a speed and G-force junky – Quarles applied his technically geared brain for all the precision, technical “number stuff” and all the protocols with procedures and checklists. But according to Quarles, being a pilot also requires a lot of “touch and feel” of the airplane – feeling the stick, applying minute pressure one way or the other.

“At that level, it kind of becomes art,” Quarles said. “When you get past the preflight checks, all the procedures and such, you get down to the art of flying.”

It is the artistic, creative drive in the man that unfolds and blossoms in his new métier. Thanks to using the left and right side of his brain, Quarles is able to marry beauty, science, form and function in equilibrium where one does not compromise the other.

Quarles’ foundation is never to compromise, and he welcomes the internal challenge to achieve superior craftsmanship in everything he does. Besides the manual, organic aspect of his craft, Quarles relies on technology like the precision CNC laser, Computer Aided Design software to achieve the delicate and sophisticated inlay designs. A very sensitive app on his phone and a more advanced one on his laptop measures the frequency of the different elements. Quarles demonstrates the use of this frequency app and the graph it makes – the peaks, the shapes – to check if the guitar is functioning at the sweet spots he wants for the top, the sides and the air frequency out of the sound hole.

“There are a lot of really good guitar builders; some way better than me,” Quarles said. “But my goal is eventually, to be the best. If I actually get there, that’s awesome. It doesn’t matter if I get there or not. But you have to strive to do it, or you’ll never get there. I’m not doing this to be just okay at this.

“I challenge myself on every wood joint, trying to get it perfect and to give the guitar perfect sound. But I’m never satisfied. I see my mistakes, and it drives me crazy. At a certain point though, they’re done. But I still haven’t gotten to the point that I can say this is as good as it’ll ever get.”

It is that self-critique and drive to perfection in itself that is the mark of any artist and master craftsman – they are their own worst critics. They know where they struggled; they know where perfection was not achieved. The wood joints and large components usually meet Quarles’ extremely high standard and approval. It is typically in the design elements, aesthetics and cosmetic stuff where he is most critical and sees areas for improvement.

At the end of the build process though, Quarles and his customer will know that he paid extensive attention to each and every detail, on all the different and complex steps it takes to build a guitar. Each small and big step is equally important to the process and the end product. Quarles produces the guitar with relentless patience, great expertise and precision, whether it is applying the many layers of lacquer, applying the special glue or sanding down a strut a hair.

“There is no compromise on sound; there is no compromise on craftsmanship,” Quarles said to emphasize that point. “The structural stuff is either perfect, or they are broken and thrown away.”

And many a time, he has had to discard a piece of inlay wood, so thin that it broke upon handling. With endless patience, a new 1/11,000 or 1/25,000 of an inch piece is cut and placed, very, very carefully.

Passionate about his craft, Quarles researches and studies a lot. And he is always looking to improve himself and his product, always making changes. With every single guitar he makes, Quarles strives to make it better than the last one; always pushing himself with new techniques, creating new designs, using out of the box solutions to accommodate the nature of the wood or a customer’s special request.

Even though Quarles is reluctant to call himself an artist, his customers would emphatically disagree. In their eyes, Quarles is a master in the art of building unique, intricately decorated, beautiful and perfectly sounding guitars.

Phrases his customers use when describing a GQ guitar are “a well-rounded, very full sound,” “all of the notes are very even.” Country singer John Berry – a regular guest at the Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry – was especially impressed with this aspect of his new guitar, which is inlayed with his initials on the sound board and a specially-formed head stock.

Recording artist since 1979, the Grammy-award winning Berry has recorded more than 20 studio albums, including one platinum album and two gold albums. The Berrys and the Quarles happened to meet when they were all helping out in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston with Samaritan’s Purse.

With his extensive country music network, Berry has gotten his GQ guitar in the hands of some of the world’s famous guitar players, like the Grand Ole Opry’s resident guitarist Mike Noble and Australian Tommy Emmanuel – also known as the best acoustic guitarist in the world. Quarles has video of Emmanuel playing “his” guitar. Others impressed by the GQ guitar are Texas Country singer Deryl Dodd who is a regular guest at the regular GQ jam sessions, Ranger Doug of the Riders in the Sky, and Christian and Gospel musician Jason Crabb.

Quarles is absolutely thrilled with this accolade from the renowned country musician and found himself smiling big the whole time.

A month later, Berry played the guitar at the Grand Ole Opry. After his first song he recognizes Donna and Glenn, saying “Glenn and Donna Quarles are here with us tonight; first timers at the Opry. Glenn is the man who took this hunk of wood and carved this guitar for me.”

There is just no better advertisement than that. And even more so, many recent photos of John Berry prominently display his GQ guitar.

With raving reviews from customers and people seeing and hearing his guitars on stage, Quarles has had a waiting list since day one. Depending on the inlays, a GQ guitar build takes about two to three months of solid work, with over 300 hours of labor. So, with making four to five guitars a year, the wait for a GQ guitar is now two to three years. But the musicians are happy to wait that long for their all custom, superior, mesquite wood guitar.

All of his guitars are unique. While some design elements and structural improvements might be incorporated in a future project, Quarles unequivocally says he is never going to repeat a guitar. Quarles choice for mesquite – his niche and exclusivity – stems from the aesthetic aspect of the fullness of patterns, whorls and grain for the backs and sides of the guitars. It is a dense, rigid wood, which offers fullness of sound without being too heavy. And being a Texan, he likes the fact that mesquite is synonymous with Texas.

A wood mill in Florisville, Tx supplies him with his raw material. But every now and then, a friend has a mesquite tree they are happy to part with. With a creative wife Donna and son Brady, the scraps don’t go to waste. Donna uses the mesquite to make her personalized charcuterie boards, and Brady, among other things, makes wooden children’s toys.

A large percentage of a guitar’s sound is based on the sound board. Spruce is ideal because it is lightweight, yet strong, making it a very expressive tonewood with well-balanced dynamics and articulate tone. Thanks to Chris Jenkins, a fellow member of the Luthiers of North Texas – a network that helps with connections regarding resources and supplies – Quarles got in touch with an Italian company that supplies him with top quality spruce for the sound tops.

An example of the extent luthiers go to get the best piece of wood,  together with an Italian physicist, Jenkins worked out a mathematic algorithm to quantify and determine a good piece of spruce – entering the weight, size, density, elasticity, sound coefficients, sound gradients. The wood piece has to fall within a certain range to be acceptable. The Italian physicist goes to a company near him that builds guitar tops and does the math, so Quarles knows what to buy. Over the years though, Quarles has developed a subjective feel for a good piece of wood, more or less.

As important as the choice of wood is for the guitar’s sound and weight, every other detail in the build is taken into account, from the different type of glue, the finishing material (nitrocellulose lacquer), engineering the truss rod, using bone (feral hog tusk material) instead of plastic for the bridge. Quarles adds very light but strong carbon fiber for added strength on the inside sides. One customer wanted a piece of wood with large natural knots in the wood. To ensure optimal sound, Quarles added carbon fiber plates to close off the holes.

When defining what is important in a guitar, Quarles pictures a guitar customer coming into a specialty shop. According to Quarles, the customer’s choice narrows down to three basics:

  • It has to look pretty – is the wood appealing, is there pretty paint job and inlays?
  • It has to sound good – when the customer runs the fingers along the strings, does it sound good?
  • It has to feel right – does it feel right in their hands when they pick it up, is the action right, is the fret smooth, is it easy to pick without wearing out your fingers?

GQ guitars hit all the above check marks at an exceptional level, but additionally each customer has a unique story to tell about their guitar, since his customers are involved in the creation of their guitar. Inspiration for the intricate designs usually depends on the customer. One customer said “go crazy, do something nobody else would let you do.”

Knowing the customer appreciated old school hot rods, Quarles spent days researching Von Dutch pin striping designs, before coming up with four or five final designs, discussing it with the client every step of the way. He sends his customers pictures pretty much every day as the guitar develops.

The result is hot rod type of flames and 1950s Von Dutch pinstripe theme, along with a wink to Art Deco angel wings.

“I want the guitar to feel absolutely perfect in their hand, with string height, the action,” Quarles said. “I want it to be the best guitar they’ve ever picked up in just everything about how it feels and how it plays. And they get to say they were part of the build, picking the type of wood and the details.”

Prior to settling on building guitars, Quarles attended a year-long boat building school in Washington state and learned taxidermy at a school in Montana – both activities where attention to detail is imperative and where there is a balance between science and aesthetics. What additionally appeals to him is the art and skill of putting something together perfectly.

Like so many of us, Quarles always enjoyed listening to guitar music – especially to people that play it well.

“I’ve always like looking at nice guitars, and thought ‘man that’s the kind of woodworking I would like to do,’” Quarles said on why he specifically chose to concentrate on guitars. “It’s got the artsy part and design things that make it look special. And then there’s the super technical part to try and get just the perfect sound. So that’s a really good combination of technical and art.”

In 2017, he found the Bryan Galloup School Guitar Building and Repair school in Michigan that offered summer courses in guitar making. As soon as he started there, he knew he was on the right track.

The school offers three training options – Journey man, Technician and Master; each step taking the student deeper into the complicated world of building a good sounding guitar.

The main factors contributing to an acoustic guitar’s sound are the overall build design, the body shape and the tonewoods used for the top, back and sides. Secondary contributing factors include the materials used for the bracing and kerfing inside the guitar body, the actual bracing pattern the materials used for the neck, the materials used for the nut and saddle, the material and gauge of the strings, and the material and gauge of pick used to play the guitar.

There are a lot of elements in the mix, and the combinations and possibilities are endless. With every variable, the physics of the guitar body changes. And failure to get each factor right could potentially result in poor sound and/or poor durability. Even the guitar’s lacquer finish affects how the instrument feels and sounds. It up to the luthier to determine what combination of factors is going to work best for a customer’s special requests. Luthiers are always seeking the balance between strength and durability versus lightness of materials.

That first summer Quarles learned how to build a basic guitar – both electric and acoustic – from the different elements. The first two guitars Quarles made, hang on the living room wall in the family home. The second term taught higher level techniques, taking a guitar to a whole different level; getting the sound and voice of the guitar right, by tuning all the different parts.

The Master program at that time concentrated on making an arch top guitar. Because Quarles had no desire to build one of those, he requested to do something different, expanding fine tuning and voicing techniques, making cutaways and fanned frets. Interestingly enough, most of his orders request cutaways or fanned frets, or both.

In that third summer, together with the instructor, Quarles dove deeper into the science of sound – vibrations, frequencies and how to affect them.

“The instructor [Sam Guidry] is probably one of the best in the world, regarding the science of sound,” Quarles said. “He and I would have lots of technical discussions.”

Quarles was the first student of this special post-graduate course. One of the first guitars he made after that course is a guitar that is played by Pastor Brian Barrett at the First Baptist Church of Cranfills Gap every Sunday. Whereas Quarles can figure out the technical aspects and frequency numbers he knows the guitar should be at every step along the way, he is not a musician. So he has the Chuck Yeager of test guitarists in Barrett to test run the nearly completed guitars.

As a guitar player and musician, Barrett does different chord progressions up and down the neck, assesses the tonality and intonation, the string placement and string height, listens for fret buzz and drop out spots. With this feedback, Quarles sets to shaving braces inside the guitar or sanding down the bridge, fine tuning the guitar as close to perfection as possible.

Barrett usually confirms the things Quarles already suspected. The ability to fine tune the guitar to the specific customer makes all the difference between a GQ guitar and a good production guitar where all the elements are standardized.

“Glenn is a real artist,” Barrett said. “His guitars are completely a work of art that takes hundreds of hours to build. They are so technically precise. But there is usually a 10 percent unknown on how a guitar will sound once the strings are on. It can always be tweaked. And in the end, you get a real masterpiece.”

More general feedback includes how the guitar feels, how the action is, how the neck feels comes fro other “test pilots” including local guitar players Kevin Chambliss of the Chad Holt and the Chiselers, and First Baptist Church of Meridian youth and music minister James Gilbert. Chambliss is the lucky owner of serial #1901, one of the first CQ guitars to be sold. His wife commissioned it for a Christmas present.

“They’re really good guitar players that I trust, and who aren’t afraid to voice their findings,” Quarles said.

Not one to shy away from a challenging project, the guitar Quarles is working on at the moment is a hybrid acoustic/electric guitar for Barrett. The build has the Bosque County luthier once more extending his knowledge and skills. Besides the hybrid character of the instrument with volume knobs necessary for an electric guitar, it has several new and special design features, like triangular sound holes instead of one round sound hole.

As an example of Quarles’ attention to detail – where usually one finds dots on the neck, he made triangles to match the sound holes. The instrument also has an arm bevel to improve the ergonometrics of the guitar and a special truss rod cover. Personalizing the guitar further is the addition of Psalm 33:3 – “Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully on the strings with a shout of joy” – inlayed in cursive on the back of the guitar The text is. The number three is also a nod to Barrett’s early 355 Epiphone guitar and Chuck Berry’s 335 Gibson.

“I wanted the look of an early rock and roll guitar,” Barrett said. “The two sets of triangular sound holes accomplish that.”

Additionally, Barrett felt the triangles loosely resemble the gun ports on the fuselage of F-86 Sabre jets (1949-1980), connecting back to Quarles’ Air Force days.

It has been a year since the build started, and Barrett is excited to use this guitar in his church. But he is perfectly content to wait because “you can’t rush an artist.”

“A GQ guitar is always a precision instrument and a piece of art,” Barrett said “It is an instrument you can always be proud of. And this guitar is extremely special to me.”

As pretty as his guitars are, Quarles emphasizes that he does not make guitars to be hung up on a wall in a collector’s climate controlled basement; he wants his guitars to be used, preferably by good musicians.

“Dude, don’t worry about it being pretty or wearing out,” Quarles told Berry. “If it breaks, I’ll fix it. Don’t baby the thing. I don’t want it to stay pretty and shiny. I want it to look like it’s used.”

With the countless hours of thought, research, building the different pieces, the intricate detailing, a GQ guitar is priceless. But Quarles says, “In the world of good custom-built guitars, I’m very, very cheap.”

He puts it into perspective, though, by saying he doesn’t have the name yet, and with each guitar he is still learning and expanding his knowledge. Quarles says he is still having enough fun where he doesn’t want to increase his prices yet. But with increased name recognition, that might change.

With each GQ guitar made in Bosque County, Texas by a master luthier with amazing attention to detail, and precision, there will be a proud customer with a finely crafted, pretty perfect instrument, with more than just good looks. All of which makes the guitar something worth waiting for and cherishing for years and years and years.

Being the engineer that he is, Quarles enjoys teaching STEM classes to the local 4-H youth. He also guided a young man through his high school senior science project of building his own guitar. One day, he hopes to teach his craft more. But for now, Glenn Quarles is not ready to give up building guitars himself. It's just too much challenging fun in his specialized, sensory stimulating workshop, just steps away from all the satisfying comforts of the family’s Bosque County home.

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS & courtesy of GQ CUSTOM GUITARS

©2022 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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