Try 1 month for 99¢
Bob Long one of few in Iowa to handcraft guitars
Bob Long strums on his latest guitar, which is still waiting for its finishing touches.
GREG BROWN / Courier Staff Photographer

WATERLOO -- A visitor might easily mistake the oddly shaped beams and blocks for fireplace scraps.

A white slab of spruce salvaged from a junked 1918 Steinway piano. A rust brown leg of cherry wood cut from a tree north of town. A stack of dark emery slats sold off by a veneer manufacturer.

Guitar maker Bob Long collects it all in his basement workshop, from the plain to the exotic. Some come from faraway tropical jungles, and a few are finds from the Menard's across town.

"There's something special about taking something very old and at the end of its life and giving it a new life," Long said.

Each piece of wood kindles a story and vision; as he explains an origin, he holds it alongside another to see how well the two might form a guitar back, for example.

Long, 50, a stocky man with thick gray hair and a dimple goatee under his lower lip, always enjoyed building things, and always liked playing guitar. Ten years ago he put the pieces together and started crafting his own instruments.

The hobby started around the kitchen table, taking apart other guitars and reading books about building them. The first was a success. A second and third quickly followed. Long just finished No. 21.

"There's something about the satisfaction of having built an instrument that plays good and sounds good. It's certainly an incentive to build more," he said.

These days Long sells his creations as quickly as he completes them -- which typically takes about eight weeks. Side jobs still help pay the bills, but he's considering the leap to guitar making as a full-time venture.

So far, the only marketing he's done is playing the instruments out at open mic nights, where someone usually asks about buying them within a couple nights, he said.

"Here, try out your new guitar," Long said with a sly, joking smile Wednesday night at The Cellar, as he placed a slim black guitar case at the feet of guitarist Jim Gardner.

Gardner gently plucked a some bluesy notes on No. 21 before admiring the symmetrical zebra wood patterns running up and down its back and sides.

This attracted the attention of another player, Jim Birkes. The instrument exchanged hands like it were an infant. Birkes lightly caressed the box, commenting on the smoothness of its finish.

Long's first customer was a friend, Bob Smith, who co-hosts The Cellars' Wednesday open mic nights. Smith said Long brought over to his house a guitar made of African bubinga wood "and it was love at first sound."

"I have some Martins, and as far as I'm concerned, those are for sale," Smith said.

Long said designing is his favorite part of the process. After he has an idea what the instrument will look like, he starts sawing. Larger pieces are spliced into thin panels and glued together to form the body.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

The rough pieces are then sanded to the precise shape and height. An assortment of small blocks are glued to the inside and carved to precision -- the pieces help determine how sound travels through the guitar.

The curved side panels are bent using a self-made contraption that heats the wood so it can be flexed into place. It's one part science, and one part sorcery, Long said.

"The guy is meticulous," Smith said. "Not only do they sound good, they're works of art, too."

Long is among a small handful in the state who handcraft steel string acoustic guitars. Musicians interested in owning one will pay several times more than they would for mass produced models, between $3,000 and $5,000 on average.

Raldo Schneider, a Cedar Falls guitarist whose band plays several festivals each year, decided it was worth the expense. He bought a guitar two months ago made of citrus spruce and Honduran mahogany.

"It's just got a real good feel to it. It makes me a better guitar player," Schneider said. "It's the only one in like it in the world, and if anything happens to it, Bob will fix it."

Long also records music with his wife Jovita, a singer. The couple celebrate the release of their new CD, "Moonshine Martini," which features exclusively guitars Long crafted, with a concert in Overman Park at 7 p.m. Friday.

Contact Dan Haugen at (319) 291-1565 or

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Load comments