Bill Whitsett has made many accomplishments in his career as a guitar repairman. He has won the recognition of many major guitar manufacturers and his Whitsett Guitar Works shop is one of only 30 Fender Custom Shops in the world. Whitsett and his Lowell-based shop are unique in other many ways too. The guitar repairman, who took time out of his busy repair routine to talk about his work, is a plainspoken guy who says what he thinks.
Essentially, Whitsett went into this business because he himself used to have a hard time finding people who could fix his guitars to his satisfaction. He couldn’t find too many who could fix both electric and acoustic guitars. “I was very fortunate,” he said. “I got to work with a couple of good guys, one guy in particular taught me the trade. I enjoy what I do.”
Whitsett said he and his assistant Alex are like Prozac for their customers. Their repairs make people happy. “I was looking for something to do that meant something,” Whitsett said. “There were a lot of years when I wasn’t making a lot of money. This isn’t a lucrative business by any standard. But I figured I could stay in business until I was the old guy doing it. Now, I’m the old guy doing it now.”
Whitsett enjoys coming to work every day. He has had his Guitar shop since 1999, since he apprenticed with another guitar repair serviceman, after he graduating from The Guitar Hospital in Michigan.
Whitsett has relationships with all of the major guitar manufacturers in the world. Those companies all refer many of their northeastern customers to Whitsett Guitar Works. Just a few hours before this interview was conducted, a guitarist had driven up to Whitsett’s Lowell shop from Connecticut because Martin Guitars had recommended the shop.
“The majority of my customers are not from Lowell,” Whitsett said. “We have a very broad range of people who come here from around the country. We have a lot of people who travel here who own multiple guitars. They load up their cars with their stuff and come out, depending on what needs to be done. People travel for their instruments, man.”
WhitSett has a very loyal customer base. In fact, musicians who have moved out of state will ship him stuff because they were always happy with what he could do. He’s had pretty steady clientele since opening in 1999. His business model has changed over the years, no longer as volume driven, the jobs are bigger and more detailed. “It’s pretty much a steady climb,” Whitsett said. He also said those small jobs and minor repairs were like the Jiffy Lube of the industry. “I still do all those things,” he added.
The economy hasn’t really affected Whitsett’s shop all that much. “Playing an instrument is a luxury. Most people never give up their luxuries,” he said. “I’ve got customers who love their instruments as much as they love their kids.”
Whitsett’s huge customer base come from different levels of musicianship. Some are players at the beginner level all the way up to the enthusiastic hobbyists to professional musicians who play out in Boston area working bands. “They want their guitars to play better,” he said. “Hopefully, this is where they’ll come.”
Whitsett has learned how to use Facebook as a marketing tool. He takes Pictures of his customers’ guitars as they’re being worked and he posts them on his page. “They want to see their guitars being worked on. They want to see themselves on the internet,” he said. Customer satisfaction is only one reason he does this. Customers can see the adjustments and repairs as he is making them so they are not likely not to say “that‘s not what I wanted“ when they come to pick up their instruments.
“The customer is going to sit down and play it and be satisfied with the work, and then I’ll take the money, and I always get paid. It’s not cheap,” Whitsett said, “and I want to make sure my customer is satisfied with the work that’s been done. I want to make sure I give them what it was they asked for.”
Whitsett’s repair shop is one of only 30 Fender custom shops in the world. He also has contacts at all major guitar companies, C.F. Martin, Taylor, Ibanez, Guild, Ovation, Hamer, Yamaha, Gibson, and EVH. “Being affiliated with the companies has been very good for business,’ he said. “They will come here because those companies will send them here.”
When asked how he markets a business like his guitar shop, Whitsett said. “I have no idea.” The guitar repairman said that in the long run the only real way to build business is by reputation. “The best way to get somebody in here,” he said, “is to do a good job for somebody who happens to tell somebody else. At this point we’ve helped a lot of people. When you do something bad, it travels fast. When you do something good, it takes a long time. Fortunately, we’ve been here for a long time.”
Whitsett has got demanding customers. “These people are not the easiest to please,” he said. “They have this image in their minds of how it’s supposed to be, and whether it’s a reasonable image or not, you’ve got to get as close as possible. Sometimes it’s not possible.” By and large, though, his shop sees repeat customers who were happy with another instrument he had previously fixed for them.”
Just before the interview ended, a customer came in to pick up his newly repaired guitar. That customer played a few notes, wrote out his check, and left happy.