his finger goes tap-tap-tap against a thin rectangle of wood held on his shoulder close to his ear, Dana Bourgeois listens carefully to the quality of the sound.

By his tapping, Bourgeois is drawing out the wood’s very first musical notes. The tapping tells him what tonal color and resonance will come from this wood as it’s shaped over coming weeks into a fine acoustic steel-string guitar.

It will be one of only about 400 guitars that are produced each year in Lewiston with the Bourgeois logo on the head stock, and it will be a prized instrument that may be played by one of today’s best known guitarists.

Dana Bourgeois, a luthier whose work is known and respected throughout the world, is just one person who might find a place on a remarkable list of local influences on the world of guitar playing. Guitarists around the world know about Lewiston-Auburn and the influence of the Twin Cities on players down through the years. Bourgeois is a major factor in that kind of recognition.

Lewiston will be in the spotlight of the guitar world Saturday, June 26, when a new music and art event called The Source Guitar and Arts Festival debuts. A cooperative effort by L/A Arts and WCSH-6, The Source will celebrate Lewiston-Auburn’s rich guitar history. Performing in free concerts on three outdoor stages that day will be people with local connections to some legendary guitar players.

Denny Breau, a current top country performer and a Bourgeois guitar aficionado, will recall his late brother, Lenny Breau, widely recognized as a jazz guitar genius.

Roland White, brother of the late Clarence White, will play with Breau and Dave Rowe, son of the late Tom Rowe of Schooner Fare. Clarence White was a Lewiston native and an extraordinary flat-picker.

Peter Finger from Germany, a top acoustic guitarist in Europe, will be here, as well as Johnny Hiland, another Maine native, whose playing is gaining wide recognition.

Flat-picking and fingerpicking will be the focus of much of the festival’s music, and those are styles usually played on the fine Bourgeois instruments.

The Bourgeois guitars are made in a small factory at the river side of Lewiston’s historic Continental Mill. It’s a no-frills workshop where eight or 10 skilled luthiers practice their specialized trade. The process is labor-intensive, but it’s a labor of love and artisan pride for every worker who puts a hand on each guitar. Nothing is hurried. Each step takes just as long as it takes to do it just right. Each final product is a unique instrument built with wood chosen for a particular sound and look. Bourgeois gives a final hands-on quality check to every guitar that goes out of his shop.

Understanding each wood

The extraordinary quality of his guitars comes from the skilled handwork and the knowledge of each wood’s quality of sound and beauty. The shop’s workers know just how to place braces under the guitar top and where to shave off fractions of an inch of wood to produce the right tone and resonance.

“In all the braces, the wood is a little bit different in terms of stiffness and resonance. We try to bring out the optimum response of the wood when we tap it,” Bourgeois said.

He described the woods for tops and backs, noting that the top “is the speaker, so to speak. When you play the strings, it makes the soundboard move.”

He said the back is “a sympathetic resonator.” It adds a lot of tone color, he explained, so the material that the back and sides are made of is also important.

A special jig is used for steam-bending the side wood. There’s also decorative binding and fret-board inlays to be made, and the final finish can range from sunburst patterns to wood tones that show off the grain.

Starting in his dorm room

These lutherie skills originated when Bourgeois made his first guitar in his dorm room at Bowdoin College.

From there, using the knowledge he gained primarily from repair work on guitars, he launched into lutherie full time in 1978. His first experience with a more extensive production approach came when he received a request from noted luthier Eric Schoenberg to build a guitar in a traditional design. This initiated a decade-long partnership with Schoenberg, which involved the engagement of Martin Guitars in the final assembly of guitars with tops Bourgeois had individually voiced of a design he had personally established.

More than 300 guitars were built in this fashion bearing the Schoenberg label but carrying the signature of the Bourgeois design and sound.

Bourgeois was then retained by Paul Reed Smith Guitars in 1990 to spearhead acoustic development for that organization, and later by Gibson Guitars to assist in the construction and setup of their new acoustic production facility in Montana.

With this experience and knowledge behind him, Bourgeois went on to establish his own small-production company, Bourgeois Guitars, in 1995. For several years, Bougeois Guitars were made at a factory on Goddard Road.

“I really love Lewiston,” Bourgeois said. It’s a very alive town and there’s a good workforce here.”

Beautiful isn’t enough

The parent company is now Pantheon Guitars, but the Bourgeois guitar is its principal product. The Pantheon association offers a network of distributors, the nearest of which is in New Hampshire.

Bourgeois, who has written extensively in guitar magazines, also has lectured at Guild of American Luthiers conventions about his voicing techniques.

“Since wood is graded and priced strictly on the basis of appearance, it’s not enough to simply buy the most beautiful or the most expensive woods,” Bourgeois said. “The trick is to know what a piece of wood is going to sound like before the guitar gets built. After the wood is graded for appearance, I tap and flex each piece, carefully noting the wood’s individual qualities.”

“One top might work well with a maple back, but not so well with mahogany. It’s our job to know the difference,” he said.

He shares his views on various woods and their uses in tops and backs. He emphasizes that Adirondack spruce is used exclusively in his bracing. He compares the qualities of mahogany and koa, as well as Brazilian rosewood. He talks about bear-claw patterns in spruce and the range of colors in Western red cedar from honey brown to light chocolate.

Bourgeois guitars have come to be recognized as some of the finest steel-string acoustic instruments made. They are used by such artists as Ricky Skaggs, Bonnie Raitt, Doc Watson, Natalie Mains of the Dixie Chicks, Keith Urban, Steve Earle, Ry Cooder, Norman Blake, Del McCoury, Vince Gill, David Lindley, Lee Roy Parnell, Marshall Crenshaw, James Taylor, Ron Block and Dan Tyminski (with Union Station), Andy York (with John Mellencamp), Clay Hess (Kentucky Thunder), and Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek).

Bourgeois recalls that Bonny Raitt’s guitar required a custom neck because of her small hands. He put an extra wide neck on a guitar made for Doc Watson.

For a schedule of the June 26 performances at Railroad Park, Bonney Park and Festival Plaza see www.laarts.org.


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