Local luthier knows guitars from the inside out

J.W. Wasylik sands the body of a guitar he is building in his basement workshop in Niantic on Sept. 11.
J.W. Wasylik sands the body of a guitar he is building in his basement workshop in Niantic on Sept. 11. Peter Huoppi/The Day Buy Photo

Most of the Guitar Kids who grow up to be Rock Dudes can tell you — with clinical detail — what type of ax their respective hero had growing up. Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix with their Fender Stratocasters; Randy Rhoads with his Flying V; Johnny Winter with his Gibson Firebird.

Chances are, even over the years, the all-grown-up rock dudes still continue to play a model identical or very similar to that original hero's — or at least have one in their collection.

Niantic's J.W. Wasylik goes you one better.

An accomplished player who spent his formative years idolizing the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, Wasylik built his own version of Garcia's iconic and gorgeous "Tiger" guitar, an instrument custom-made by a famous guitar-builder named Doug Ingram.

"The one guitar player that has been in my life the most in terms of inspiration and awe is Jerry," Wasylik says. "He played that guitar from the late '70s until the day he died. It had a great tone, and it's a beautiful guitar."

Of course, by now, Wasylik is fairly adept at such things. He's a professional luthier who builds guitars for his own company, J.W. Designs, because, early in Wasylik's musical sojourn, he decided he liked the minutiae of guitar design as much as he liked playing the instruments.

Wasylik played in a series of bands, attended music school and went through the whole struggling-band scenario.

"I'd been a musician my whole life and found it kind of hard to go out and gig and make money," Wasylik remembers. "So I also worked in a lot of restaurants, and it was really stressful."

During one job as an oyster shucker, after a 60-hour work week, Wasylik cut his hand with an oyster knife — and began to seriously re-think the big picture in the context of his relationship with guitars. As far back as music school, Wasylik had a fascination with the architecture of the instrument; he was fluent in carpentry from years of household woodworking projects with his father.

"I'd started getting really deep into how a guitar is constructed," he says. "I thought maybe it would be interesting to see if I could reproduce or build an instrument of good quality that sounded great and played great."

After the oyster knife incident, he decided to get serious about building instruments and, after researching luthier schools, enrolled at Atlanta Guitar Works. Wasylik found the process fascinating and proved a quick study.

"After the first guitar I built, I saw how it all went together," he says. "And I learned that it's not some big mystery. I got some confidence and, maybe more important, I felt a real connection. I kind of felt it was right, and I pretty much knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life."

Wasylik, now 25, is in the brightly lit basement workshop that serves as the headquarters for J.W. Designs. Throughout the area are space-age tools and molds and pieces of beautiful designer lumber — and what seems to be three guitars in various stages of completion. There's a comfortable scent of sawdust and varnish and, in a stand to one side but in plain sight, like a six-string sentry, perhaps, is an electric guitar Wasylik built in the shape of the immortal Fender Telecaster.

It's a beautiful instrument and betokens not only the builder's skill but also his clear affection for music and the possibilities of guitar.

J.W. Designs is a venture that is slowly growing through the best of all possible reasons — word-of-mouth enthusiasm from customers. As time allows, Wasylik is also expanding his social media and website skills.

"I think there's plenty of work out there," he says. "You think of Martin, Gibson and Fender guitars, and you know they make great guitars even though they're cranking them out. But every guitar is different, and absolutely there's room for luthiers who make guitars for specific people who are really into it and can feel the love you put into it."

Wasylik has the best of both worlds. While building guitars is his chosen calling, he still enjoys getting out into clubs and sitting in at jam sessions or with friends' bands.

"It's all fun and rewarding," he says. "I never get tired of any aspect of it. But the instrument has done so much for me, and each building project is special. I'm still in awe of the little things you do on each instrument, the little steps you have to take. But it's more than just following a procedure or a set of plans."

He shakes his head and grins. "My idea when I build a guitar is to imagine someone picking up the instrument and playing that first chord. I want that sound to suggest that the player isn't limited by anything - that whatever sound you hear in your head, you can play it. That's the goal."

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