Mill Point is a blink-and-you’ll miss it wide spot off the twisty mountain roads of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. It’s also the home of Bill Hefner, a luthier who isn’t just making guitars, he’s passing his tradition of meticulous craftsmanship down to the next generation.
A Music-Filled Life
Bill Hefner grew up in a house filled with music. His mother and aunt would harmonize to popular songs on the radio, and his Uncle “Dude” Irving played guitar, mandolin and banjo. Bill and his brother Richard both learned to play on Harmony Archtop guitars, delivered by Santa Claus in the late 1950s. Richard said Bill was inspired by county music star Chet Atkins.
“He ordered a Chet Atkins book, and he’d play that guitar and study that book,” Richard said. “And he’d come down every now and then and ask Uncle Dude how Chet Atkins did this or how Chet Atkins did that or how he would do it, and he would show him. Billy would take the guitar and go back upstairs again.”
When Uncle Dude formed his band, he recruited Bill to play guitar and mandolin. Richard played the banjo. And with the addition of a couple of cousins, they formed the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys, a group that still performs in Pocahontas County and surrounding areas.
Bill played with the band until Uncle Dude passed away in 1973. These days, Bill performs with his wife and daughters as The Hefner Family Band in church and at local festivals.
Bill has played the guitar for most of his 76 years, but about 14 years ago, he decided playing the guitar wasn’t enough; he wanted to make the instrument. So, he prayed about it.
“I told the Lord, I feel like I’m supposed to be doing this,” he said. “I told the Lord if He’d get me in this business, I was going to dedicate it to him for the rest of my life.”
Bill quit his job at the rock quarry in Mill Point and started making guitars full time. His workshop is right next to his house. There are pieces of uncut wood everywhere and a few guitars under construction. Local sign maker Eric Warner taught Bill how to bend wood and cut semi-precious stone for the guitar inlays. Bill also learned some tips from luthier John Greven, who built guitars for musicians like Johnny Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
“I used to call John when I first started, every week,” Bill said. “I called him up and asked him questions hundreds of times. And he was nice enough to explain everything and talk as long as I needed to.”
Bill said the most important component to guitar making is the wood. He used to import walnut from Oregon and Sitka Spruce from Alaska, but then about 10 years ago, he switched to woods native to Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties in West Virginia, because they were easier to acquire. Wood such as Black Walnut, Maple and Cherry.
He’s used Pocahontas Red Spruce in his guitars because John Greven told him it has a real high head room.
“It means that the harder you play it, the better it sounds,” Bill said. “And some of the other woods will start breaking up if you play them real hard, the notes won’t be clear. Red Spruce just gets louder and prettier.”
Bill sold one of his Red Spruce guitars to old-time musician Doug Stalnaker, who said he loved it for the sound and the ease of playing it.
“Just like playing with butter, it’s just so smooth,” said Doug. “And the fact that I got what I wanted: I got a West Virginia artist doing West Virginia woods!”
Retired naturalist Pat Parr purchased two guitars from Bill. She said she loves them not only for their deep sound but for the intricate stone inlays she designed and Bill handcrafted. One is of a Swallowtail butterfly. The other is more complicated, with mountains, trees and a stream. She remembered the drawing she gave Bill.
“When I showed Bill the picture, I said, ‘Can I get this inlay?’ I said, ‘that’s going to be hard to do, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah’ [he said], but he did it, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.”
The Next Generation
The gamble to quit his day job paid off. Bill has been able to make a living, crafting guitars, for several years now. And he’s passing on what he knows about guitar building to his 24-year-old grandson Levi Hefner. Levi is mostly into rock music, and he builds and repairs electric guitars, but he and Bill are also building an acoustic guitar. Levi said the process has taught him a lot about patience.
“It’s a lot of fine finesse work and you’ve got to take your time with it and really slow down, that’s something I’ve never been great at so it’s really helped me out with that,” he said. “I’ve gotten to learn more about why a body is shaped this way and how different woods and different densities have a different sound to them and a different ring.”
Levi said the best part of making a guitar is imagining what a musician will do with it.
“Getting to see the progress of making something knowing that wherever it goes, someone else is going to make something else with it,” he said. “There’s always a unique sound to each guitar and each musician has their own unique sound so you can see how far it travels and how far things can go with it.”
Bill said he’ll keep teaching Levi and his other grandson Ben what he’s learned to extend the craft as far as possible, even beyond his own lifetime.
“I’d like to teach them everything I can do, the tools and the woods and stuff,” he said. “There’s a lot I don’t know but I’d like to get them started and keep this thing going from now on and bring it on down to their kids later.”
Bill said passing on his skills is the best way to inspire his grandsons to create their own legacy.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. It was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stores of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.