April 1, 2003
Sherwood T. “Woody” Phifer
LOCATION: Garnerville, New York
DUTIES: Designs and crafts guitars and basses
SALARY RANGE: $60,000-$80,000
While most children simply play with their toys, Sherwood T. “Woody” Phifer spent his childhood deconstructing them. By the age of 4, he was making his own Phifer built go-carts, bicycles, kites, and remote control glider planes. “If it was a tool or a toy–if it was something I couldn’t afford or [something] I simply wanted, I would just make it,” he says.
Phifer no longer makes toys: He now builds exquisitely handcrafted electric and acoustic guitars that range in price from $4,900 to $12,000. His 20-year clientele includes musicians such as Ronnie Jordan, Mos Def, Will Lee, Ron Carter, Stanley Clark, Wyclef Jean, and George Benson, all of whom subscribe to Woody’s personally coined phrase, “If you don’t have a Woody, you just have a guitar.”
Although long-standing companies like Fender and Gibson have cornered the market on mass producing electric guitars, Phifer has found his niche. “Most companies use generic hardware parts that are made out of metal and composite materials,” he explains. “I have designed my own bridge and tailpiece systems. My bridge is made of wood and is fully adjustable. It provides a more acoustic sound with a longer sustain. I’ve also developed my own internal structures that enhance the instrument’s tone.”
Phifer’s instruments are carved from maple, Sitka spruce, and African Ribbon mahogany in finishes that include bing cherry, indigo blue, purple, and lemon yellow.
Breaks in the rhythm: It was Phifer’s love for the intricacies of mechanics that directed his college study. Although he majored in mathematics and physics at Central State University in Zenia, Ohio, he was simultaneously developing another passion. Enamored by the musical dexterity of legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix, Phifer taught himself to play the guitar. But for Phifer, playing was only part of the attraction. “I borrowed a friend’s [Fender], took it apart, and put it back together,” he says.
Don’t stop this groove: During a summer break in 1971, while looking for an electronic component in New York City, Phifer got off the subway at the wrong stop and found himself in front of the famed Guitar Lab. “Nothing is ever by accident,” he concedes. “I had done wood sculpture and had a lot of skills, but [I] wasn’t familiar with the procedures used to make musical instruments.” It would be a perfect marriage. The shop’s owner, Charlie LoBue, was seeking an intern. Phifer never returned to school.
“Inside of six months, I stopped doing electronics and moved to wood,” he says. “I was primarily doing repairs and restoration, which requires more skill.” He remained at the shop for five years honing his talents. In his spare time, Phifer played with bands throughout the city. In 1980, however, a machine accident caused Phifer to lose the tip of the ring finger on his left hand. “The doctor, also a classical guitar player, told me I would never play again. I switched gears and concentrated on building guitars.” The