“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but I was pretty ambitious as a kid,” says Bill Asher. “I liked to work, and I liked working with my hands. I had a passion for guitars, and fell in love with wood somehow: the maple and the mahogany and the cool finishes, it really lit me up. I just got excited about that.”
Photo: Jackson Browne
Bill’s passion shows in his work. Receiving one of his guitars is no small thing. His business, Asher Guitars and Lap Steels, has a loyal clientele which includes Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon, The Dixie Chicks, and Ben Harper. In the course of his career, he’s worked on thousands of guitars for musicians at all skill levels.
His Los-Angeles-based boutique guitar company is dedicated to handcrafting guitars, vintage restoration and designing guitar accessories. In 2017, he’s celebrating 35 years in his profession.
Bill comes from Hollywood legend. His mom, Elizabeth Montgomery, is forever beloved as Samantha Stevens on Bewitched; his dad, William Asher, directed the series, as well as other iconic shows such as I Love Lucy and The Patty Duke Show. However, Bill Jr’s path was not destined in the same direction.
“I was a decent guitar player,” he says. “I wasn’t an ace at it. I didn’t have a great singing voice. Singing was kind of tough for me. But I found myself playing guitar in bands all through high school. The guitar heroes of the Sixties and Seventies really influenced me to pursue a career in the craft of guitars.”
At L.A.’s University High School, Mr. Rosenthal’s woodshop class presented a perfect opportunity for Bill: to build his first guitar project.
“It was an early dream of mine,” Bill says. “I was fascinated with the idea of building and modifying guitars.”
It became his senior year high school project. Bill didn’t want to just directly copy a Fender; he wanted to design his own.
The career started with a spark and passion, but also due to a lack of any better idea.
“I hoped to bypass college because I had a rough time in school,” he says. “I was strong in the arts but not very strong in academics. I had to find some kind of job or I was going to college.”
An informal but learning-intense internship with local guitar repair shop owner Jeff Lunsford led to Bill’s lifelong career. Jeff was a left-handed guitar player and a great craftsman, with a full-on, dedicated guitar repair shop. Bill paid him to help finish his own guitar, assisting with the electronics. It then led to an apprenticeship for Bill.
“Jeff saw the passion I had and knew that school may not be the best place for me,” Bill says. “I worked under Jeff for four and a half years. By that time I was doing refrets, full repairs, setups and restoration work on both acoustic and electric guitars.”
In a twist of fate, Jeff was called to build a studio for Bob Dylan; he sold his shop to Bill. At 24 years old, Bill was running his own business, and venturing out beyond repair. Demand for his custom work started to expand.
“Being a guitar designer [as opposed to only repair] gave me a lot more advantages,” he says. “Players were coming in and having guitars modified all the time. The ‘80s were a big era for guitar modifying. It was a very creative experience for me.”
He didn’t really like buying premade necks and bodies. He just wanted to develop his own thing, and get feedback from musicians as well, most all of them well worth listening to.
“Jackson Browne has been a big influence of mine,” he says. “He had me maintain and modify his entire guitar collection over the past twenty years. His live acoustic sound has always been very important to him and his fans. His live sound is based on the Trance Audio/FRAP acoustic system. He first heard it being used by Neil Young, around 1970. So this is an acoustic system that truly amplifies the real character of each guitar.”
Bill still played guitar, but the performance high was now in the shop, not on stage.
“I played, but boy, it took second seat to guitar work,” he says. “Maybe I wasn’t good enough to be a great guitar player, but I was great at working on guitars. Gigging and playing in bands took a huge commitment as well. At this point, I knew my career was established in building and repairing instruments.”
Over the next 12 years, he honed his skills. Then he met musician Ben Harper. Harper’s career was taking off with his band, The Innocent Criminals. Harper had grown up in a world of guitars and his family-owned guitar store, The Folk Music Center, in Claremont, California. He needed somebody to design his idea of an electric lap steel, based on his collection of 1920s Weissenborn guitars.
“We totally connected on this new electric lap steel slide guitar concept,” Bill says. “I built the first prototype for him in 1997. These became his main touring slide guitars, and graced the cover of Guitar Player magazine in 1999.”
This instrument became the Asher Ben Harper model lap steel. With a few upgrades over the years, it has now become his signature model go-to slide guitar for studio and stage.
Joy comes from making your passion your life’s work, but that joy is intensified when you see something you’ve created live and loud on stage.
“When I saw Ben Harper play live, it is the most high I’ve ever been,” Bill says, “because it was the first guy who was a big pro player on a big stage who plugged in an instrument that I built. It’s when I really felt like I had designed something of my own. It really got my creative juices going for designing my line of Asher Guitar and Lap Steels.”
These days, Bill sells direct to the customer and carries select dealers in the United States and abroad. Among his merch are branded pickups, strings, straps and accessories. He also supplies one import model: the Electro Hawaiian Junior lap steel guitar.
His business is now by-appointment-only, and he gets to pick and choose his work. However, that doesn’t mean that he’s trading on snob appeal; he just prefers the craft and the restoration, as opposed to the showroom sales.
“I don’t care if you’re not a well-known guitar player,” he says. “That doesn’t matter to me.”
Business in the digital age is both easy and difficult, as Bill finds when working online. The age of the guitar god is not what it used to be; the population of guitar bands is slimming.
“A lot of the new bands are fine with playing old guitars,” Bill says. “Players still love the vintage guitars of the Fifties and Sixties, which influence my own unique design.”
That design offers guitar players a familiar look and feel, thanks to Bill’s attention to detail and setup work.
“The guitar is something that people get connected to,” Bill says, “and the older it gets, the more worn and torn it gets, and the more attached they get to it. It’s unlike any other product in the world. For the most part, guitars don’t get turned in and recycled into raw material.”
Modern guitar builders like Bill are dedicated to creating heirloom instruments that last a lifetime and will get handed down to the next generation of guitar players.
“It’s about how to get this cool, funky thing to play and sound great,” he says. “It’s never a dull moment on my workbench. It’s a constant creative process. It’s never boring. I’m in a musical wood shop every day, and I love it.”
Going digital also changed the dynamic of his business.
“It enabled me, which is a blessing for a lot of boutique builders,” he says. “The competition is heavier than ever, which is good and bad, but the digital age has made the world so small. Where before, you needed costly advertising; now with Facebook, Instagram and a website, the cost of advertising is so affordable and you can reach the entire world. I have guitars shipping to Australia and New Zealand and all the way to Europe and Brazil. We are able to be exposed to players all over the world.”
It’s a gift: making a living doing what you love. Bill is aware that it’s rare, and he’s grateful for it, offering advice for those who have the courage to make their passion their life’s work.
“If you have a passion for something, and it’s a trade or a craft, you have to just find somebody to teach you,” Bill says. “Find somebody who’s had success in the field you want to go into, and follow those steps to success. And be willing to work twelve hours a day. I did that for a lot of years. There was no way to work an eight-hour day and build a company . You have to go hard at it. If you’re really passionate about what you do, the success will follow.”
Click here to find out more about Asher Guitars and Lap Steels.