Heart of Louisiana: Abita Springs Guitar Company

In a backyard shop in the woods of St. Tammany Parish, an old-fashioned musical sound is brought to life.

Joe Manuel got his first guitar at the age of ten, although his first lessons didn't work out.

"My teacher wanted me to play Mary had a Little Lamb and somebody showed me the opening chords to 'Whole Lotta Love' by Led Zeppelin, a friend down the street, and the teacher said don't bring him back," said Manuel.

Phil Patterson was introduced to guitar at the same age.

"There was no one to give lessons, I didn't know how to play it so I just took it apart and put it back together over and over again. So I guess that started it," Patterson said.

That childhood curiosity and a broad interest in music has turned into a labor of love for Joe and Phil. Back in the 80's, they began selling and repairing guitars and teaching lessons at a Covington music store.

"Over the years we have seen a lot of really nice instruments that we've gotten a chance to repair, look inside, stick the mirror and the light in there and see what they're made of," Patterson says.

"I was always into the vintage instruments and the specifications and the studying of them and Phil was into the nuts and bolts of putting them together," said Manuel

Joe and Phil own and operate the Abita Springs Guitar Company. They consider themselves luthiers, skilled craftsmen who turn pieces of fine wood into beautiful sounding stringed instruments. their instruments are similar to the vintage guitars of the early 20th century.

"These guitars are classified as flat top guitars, and flattop guitars are used and always been used in Louisiana music. The Delta Blues Musicians played flattop guitars. Cajun musicians are accompanied with the flattop guitar. All of these instruments have their roots in Europe; classical guitars from Spain and Germany. They weren't invented here, they were just perfected here," said Manuel.

Building one of these guitars by hand can take anywhere from four to six months to complete, depending on how many details a customer asks for. But each of these guitars is truly a one of a kind musical instrument.

There are standard shapes and sizes, but customers select the type of wood, the finish, and custom inlay designs, at prices ranging from $3,000 to as much as $10,000.

"It has an aged cedar top. It has Peruvian walnut back and sides. Some woods are darker sounding, they absorb some of the highs," said Patterson.

Those sounds are fine-tuned by the wood used in other parts; the guitar's neck, the bridge. The thickness of the wooden top and the curvature of the braces that hold it together.

"Right now you tap this top and it sounds like cardboard, but when you tape a braced one, it sounds like a bongo," Manuel said.

John Greene started taking guitar lessons from Joe seven years ago. Now he owns two of the custom made Manuel and Patterson guitars.

"It's a real pleasure to have something made to your specifications," Greene says.

These hand crafted instruments have gotten great reviews in a vintage guitar magazine and from customers from around the world who find the Abita springs Guitar Company on the internet.

These Louisiana craftsmen enjoy the challenge of helping musicians get the exact sound they're looking for. It's a process that relies on their hands and their experience to create the feel and the beautiful tone of a vintage guitar.

The Abita Springs Guitar Company has been in business for more than five years, and so far, they've made about 80 of the custom guitars.