STORY AND PHOTOS BY CATHY FINK AND MARCY MARXER | FROM THE WINTER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Jayne Henderson is one of the few women luthiers to specialize in making ukuleles. Her original career goal was to become a brain surgeon. She pivoted to environmental law, getting a master’s degree and working in the nonprofit sector. Strapped with huge school loans, she asked her famous guitar-maker dad, Wayne Henderson, to make her a guitar that she could sell to pay off the debt. Wayne said he’d help her make a guitar, but she had to do the work.
Daughter learned from father, sold the guitar, paid off a large portion of the loans, and loved the experience. She continued making instruments, drawing the attention of Doc Watson, who asked her to make him a guitar. She then made a guitar using all sustainable materials to donate to the environmental organization she worked for, and she was hooked. Her husband, Nick, encouraged her to follow her joy and build custom instruments full time. That was 11 years ago and now her E.J. Henderson Guitars & Ukuleles, based in Asheville, North Carolina, is a thriving business.
“Having that passion to do something with my hands, I got to see a little soul get made from my hands and it was really cool,” she says of her early lutherie efforts. “I didn’t end up as a surgeon, but those skills and that want manifested in a different way. It’s an artistic outlet and I needed it.”
Today, her ukulele- and guitar-building are split about 50/50, with around 150 instruments to her credit so far. Following her environmentally conscious heart, she specializes in using sustainable materials.
“I love using walnut because it is beautiful with spectacular figure and it has a bright tone similar to mahogany, but also because it’s found in abundance out my back door. I love koa for the honor of using traditional material, but I’ve also used sassafras, mango, rosewood, oak, ash, and anything else that tells me it wants to be a ukulele.”
Much of her wood comes from the “burn pile” of discarded woods left over from guitars and other projects by a community of builders. She goes through those piles and chooses choice woods for ukuleles. The rest of that wood might be going into a high-end guitar, so why not rescue the “scrap” wood for a top-notch ukulele?
Her father has been her main influence as a luthier, but she says she has also benefitted from the generous advice and mentoring of guitar makers such as Grit Laskin and Kathy Wingert. Linda Manzer has been an inspiration for her ingenuity—specifically her use of watercolor designs instead of traditional inlays for some instruments. Henderson also connects with other female luthiers in a Facebook group created to inspire and encourage each other. But it was her father who taught her how to tap on wood and listen closely to how it resonates. She thinks of that sound as the wood’s soul, and strives to bring it and the “personality” of the instrument to life.
“I meet a person, get a hint of their personality, and I see their instrument in my mind.”
In fact, she says that when she sees an instrument she built after the owner has had it for a while, she often thinks, “‘I miss you old friend, I miss what it felt like when I was building you.’ With the ukulele, I get that feeling when I’m building: ‘I can’t wait to hear you; I can’t wait for you to sing with me.’ When I make a ukulele, I connect with it so personally because I can play it.
With guitars, my clients get that joy, but I can’t really play them. So ukulele drives a larger passion.” It helps that she loves playing uke and singing with her two-year-old daughter Matilda.
Henderson is petite and has most enjoyed making small guitars and ukuleles, rather than larger instruments. This also gives her an opportunity to stand apart from her father’s work. A lot of guitar-building skills transfer to the ukulele, though there are also differences, of course, particularly when it comes to bracing. She exclusively builds custom instruments, with a list of over 100 interested buyers at any one time.
“I meet a person, get a hint of their personality, and I see their instrument in my mind,” she says. “Everything I make has so much of me in it.” Her favorite clients say, “Hey, I have this idea, but I want you to build me what you think that is.”She enjoys the partnership of helping someone’s instrument dream come true.
Henderson says she loves to experiment. She’s taken jewelry-making workshops that inspired her to use brass and copper for inlays. Using scrap copper and other metals, she is happy to be “taking something discarded or ugly and making it beautiful and desirable.
“The process of inlaying copper wire is very different than inlaying pearl,” she notes. “You have to use a little scribe and stuff it in there, hammer it in. It’s very delicate. It has to be done in a way that you can sand the fingerboard.” She has inlaid brass dots on the side of a fingerboard and even fashioned one of her logos out of a copper sheet.
Asked to pick a couple of her favorite ukes, she mentions one made of blistered maple that looks like it’s “boiling” and features a “tree of life” inlay; another, made for a goat farmer whose goats love to eat kudzu vines, has extensive inlays of kudzu that “fall” off the fingerboard onto the top of the instrument.
One more specialty: Henderson has made ten matching guitar-and-ukulele sets for clients; a great challenge and it’s fun to see them side by side. “My favorite match was the one I made to go with my dad’s old #52 guitar, a dreadnought made of red spruce and Honduran mahogany,” she says. “The bracing is slightly different, though I often X- brace my bigger ukuleles, and the neck angle on the ukulele is more permanent given the lesser amount of tension from a shorter scale, plus the stretchier nylon strings so the neck won’t pull up when it is strung which you can pretty much count on in a guitar. Those elements require different ways of approaching the neck angle.
“Otherwise I put exactly the same amount of care and work into an ukulele as I do a guitar. String spacing, nut width, all the measurements that go into solid intonation, low saddle height, and a comfortable-playing neck are all things I have to perfect on ukuleles as well as guitars. One thing I like about ukuleles is that I feel like I can experiment with scale length and try out different things more on ukuleles. That freedom is exciting to me.”
As ukulele lutherie evolves, Jayne Henderson evolves with it, loving every instrument she makes with her own hands. Her website, ejhendersonguitars.com, has awesome photos of her work, her pals (from Vince Gill to Doc Watson and more), her inlays, and shows her deep love of wood. And while she is not inclined to brag about her work, the media page includes pieces from NPR’s All Things Considered, Blue Ridge PBS, NPR’s American Roots, and Acoustic Guitar magazine. No doubt about it—the word is out.
Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer are the artistic directors of the Strathmore Ukefest, Grammy Award-winning artists, and “general social music conductors.”