This country has hidden treasures. A natural formation that isn't listed in the guidebooks, a ritualistic gathering only for those in the know, or a secluded craftsman creating an unlikely amount of beauty in the context of function. If a close friend visits Vermont, I often show off the beautiful Languedoc guitar that I've used extensively, and I sometimes like to take the person to see Paul Languedoc's shop. And Paul often obliges; he's usually in the shop, and while he enjoys his solitude (his business card says, simply, "Paul," and nothing else), we've known each other for a long time. I can remember back in 1988 or so when my Phish bandmates and I had a "Paul appreciation party" at my apartment. We hung up signs saying, "Paul fixes things" (one time he hammered a dislodged bass fret back in while I was playing), and "Paul makes things." Well, that was an understatement. After the visitor and I drive from town to country, and from rural paved road to miles of winding dirt road, we get to a woodshop deep in the backwoods that Paul made by himself. His structure includes a practice room, an office, a lounge, and a bathroom. And a tour of his shop reveals that he's also made many of the tools he uses in guitar building ("...they make, for instance, carving duplicators, but I designed and built my own because what they were making wasn't ideally suited to what I was trying to do..."). And then there are the guitars in progress. I find it breathtaking to look at any part of one, like the hand-carved back piece, and the edge where it meets the binding. When I was little my Dad told me it's nearly impossible to design a chair because what looks good doesn't often feel good to sit in. So I interviewed Paul recently, and I set out to learn a little more about the person who makes these instruments that sound as awesome as they look and feel.
As with many people who are great at things, Paul started young. When he was six his parents gave him something called "Power Shop" for Christmas, which included safe versions of an electric lathe, a circular saw, and a planer. He disassembled the Power Shop to see how it was put together and then reassembled it*. Later on Paul worked for a piano rebuilder near where he grew up, on Boston's North Shore (coincidentally, I met the guy myself when I went to the rebuilder's house during high school to buy a tape recorder). But here's the part that's unexpected for a luthier: Paul went to Bates, a prestigious Maine college, and graduated with a degree in philosophy (one time on tour we visited his old study closet and saw a banana he had hung ten feet over the desk). To me it just seems so fitting that these instruments were made by a philosopher, and I don't know why, so I tried to investigate this correlation in my interview. Paul noted that philosophy enthusiasts often cross over to physics, and that in either field you are analyzing in smaller and smaller bits, while also looking from a perspective that gets bigger and bigger. With an instrument you are looking at very small details, like a tiny curve where the neck ends and the headstock begins, but you have to "step back and look at it as a complete thing." And in typical Paul fashion, his experiences have allowed him to see a much broader "complete thing" than the average luthier. I say this, especially, because Paul was the soundman for Phish for many years. Not only could he hear for himself how a Languedoc guitar, as played by Trey Anastasio, was sounding, but it was his responsibility to make it sound right in the overall mix. And acknowledging an even bigger picture, Paul's favorite thing about music is how it brings people together, and moves them in a deep, profound way. He is able to understand and follow a vibration, if you will, on the wood and strings of a guitar he built, through the magnetic coils of speakers, across the air of a concert hall - as determined by his mix, and see how it resonates with peoples' souls around him (on a good night).
Our relationship with Paul began in the mid 80's when Anastasio visited Time Guitars, the electric guitar company in Vermont where Paul was working. First Trey wanted some work on his factory-made instrument, but soon he bought a Time guitar, and had ideas for custom features and other guitars. I remember going to Time Guitars with Trey once or twice - it was in an old barn, and there were a bunch of employees. One of the first projects Paul completed for Trey was a "mini-guitar," which was only half the size of a normal electric guitar, and was made out of Bubinga. It was Paul who eventually conceived of the hollow-body models that Trey has been using for many years, based on Trey's desire for an organic tone. At around the same time, Paul became our soundman, before Phish had any other employees. For fifteen or so years he created mixes that fans describe as clearer than the sound of other bands. And now that Phish isn't touring anymore, Paul is able to concentrate on the craft he has been refining since the days before Phish. He finds that building about twelve guitars at once is more efficient than making just one, but that any more would be a sacrifice of quality. And even though interest in his instruments continues to grow, he still prefers to work alone. The only employee he could imagine hiring is an administrative assistant. When I cut to the chase and asked Paul why he goes for such a high quality product, he said, "I don't like to be criticized. Consequently, I try to make something as nice as possible." But it's clear that his work is the result of a broad range of personal pursuits and discovery. We talked about a guitar show that we had both attended at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There were many rooms of guitars dating back hundreds of years. He was particularly moved by an ancient Stradavarious guitar - "It was just so clean and pure. It wasn't heavily adorned or anything. Simple, very elegant, perfectly proportionate." Though Paul is modest about his long-term goals, I think it would be appropriate for that show to include a Languedoc display the next time they come around. Paul is a true American craftsman and it's a joy to see his career develop and thrive.
Blowing Rock, North Carolina
*Note: this isn't all true. The Power Shop was possibly the most dangerous toy ever marketed, except maybe for Lawn Darts. Also, as I recall, I took it apart to see if any electricity stayed in the machine after it was unplugged, but was unable to reassemble it.