Some of the most famous rock ’n roll and country musicians spanning the decades can trace a treasured possession to a tiny hamlet near the New York-Canadian border, and to Dave Nichols ’66, Ph.D.
They include Johnny Cash, ZZ Top, Del McCoury, David Grisman, Aerosmith and Merle Haggard. Nichols, a luthier (one who repairs stringed instruments), guitar maker and custom pearl inlayer for clients including Martin Guitars, has meticulously crafted the fingerboards, bodies, pegheads and inlays of the instruments played—or collected—by musicians and art aficionados alike.
In fact, one of his guitars, originally gifted to B.B. King, is now in the collection of the Vatican. Merle Haggard has purchased 16 guitars. A guitar, which has an inlay of Spiderman, was used in the movie of the
Nichols works out of his shop in Whippleville, N.Y., which is “103 feet long with varying widths of quite a bit to quite a lot,” he joked. On the shop’s walls are memorabilia from more than a half century of work, including letters from George Jones and Johnny Cash, who loved his own custom inlay guitar that was painted black with a tree of life on the fingerboard and his signature on the peghead. B.B. King fans might recall a guitar named Lucille; that, too, included the inlay craftsmanship of Nichols.
Exotic woods like curly eucalyptus and Brazilian rosewood, as well as the less unusual but superior quality Adirondack spruce, are stocked in the shop for Nichols’ students who come from as far as Texas to attend his guitar-making classes.
In summer, Nichols travels from Maine to Virginia playing mandolin—yes, he built it himself—with his bluegrass outfit, David Nichols & Spare Change. While he built his first guitar in 1959 as a high school student who had served as “free labor from a young age” in his father’s woodshop, helping to make clocks, guns and boats, he still remembers the guitar he built while he was an industrial arts student at SUNY Oswego. He can’t recall the instructor’s name, but he clearly recalls the grade he received.
“C,” Nichols said with a laugh.
Fifty years after his first guitar, Nichols built an anniversary guitar as a tribute to his career with custom inlays of his own face, then and now, on a backdrop of Brazilian rosewood.
“It is my best work,” he said.
Nichols is a 2017 inductee into the SUNY Canton Hall of Fame.