From the outside, one may not know what all goes on inside the little brick building nestled on a gravel lot right past the railroad tracks on Winn Avenue. A small gold logo on its side gives a hint: RS Guitarworks.
The venture happened by accident, company President Scott Leedy said. Leedy moved to Winchester in 1995 seeking a quieter life away from the hustle and bustle of Lexington.
Leedy needed his guitar painted, and by luck, Roy Bowen, now vice president at RS Guitarworks, had recently placed an advertisement in The Winchester Sun for guitar repairs and painting.
And just like that, Leedy and Bowen became best friends.
“Everything he had at his house was just like what I had at my house,” Leedy said. “So, when we met, we obviously hit it off.”
Bowen and Leedy had always been passionate about guitars. Leedy traveled with several bands, and if something broke, he would try to fix it. Bowen, on the other hand, started playing guitar in 1979. Winchester native Paul Martin, the former guitarist for Exile, taught Bowen how to play and helped channel his passion for guitars.
“I was always fascinated by why one guitar sounded different than another one,” Bowen said.
Bowen said he would read about what one artist would do with their guitar, and five minutes later, he would have a chisel out working on his guitar. After breaking his 15th or so guitar, he figured he would learn how to do it right.
In 1985, Bowen started doing repairs as an apprentice at a guitar repair shop in Lexington and even became Fender Gold certified. Bowen did that until 1990, then took over and was the chief repairman for the next four years.
“Working on these things is pretty much all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Bowen said.
Leedy said, when they met, he knew Bowen was much more knowledgeable about the business, but somehow, they filled each others’ gaps. When one didn’t know or couldn’t think of something, the other had an idea. They were the perfect duo.
“I said ‘Hey, let’s start something,’” Leedy said.
“And we started something,” Bowen said.
In 1996, the two became partners, repairing guitars in their spare time. In the meantime, Leedy got Bowen a job working at a cabinet company in Lexington.
“We were bringing guitars to the cabinet shop, sneaking them in, and working on them when the boss wasn’t around,” Leedy said.
But the side business was growing by the minute.
“We had 75 guitars in his basement,” Leedy said. “So, we looked at each other and said ‘I’m quitting my job tomorrow and I’m going to do this full time.’”
Leedy quit his job the next day, and Bowen followed the day after.
And the business kept growing.
Eventually, they needed to move out of the basement. In 2002, RS Guitarworks found its first home on Taylor Avenue, and in 2007, moved to its current home on Winn Avenue.
Upon entering RS Guitarworks, Blaze, head of security and the resident yellow lab/pit bull mix, greets you, ensuring you are there on business. Guitars of all colors hang on the black walls, and framed photos from concerts featuring RS guitars cover the remaining wall space.
Just past the shop is where the magic happens.
In the first room, electronics are assembled for the guitar and its accessories. Through the door on the right, among the various stacks of lumber, Monty Weaver mans the woodshop, building the bodies of the guitars and sanding them down. Off in another small office, employees test the sounds of an almost-finished acoustic guitar, and in a back room, freshly-painted and soon-to-be-painted bodies line the place from top to bottom.
David Barrentine puts on his mask and prepares to paint the next RS Guitarworks masterpiece. It’s one of about 150 being worked on throughout the shop.
RS Guitarworks is a local shop and boutique builder that makes custom guitars that have been purchased and used by some big-name people. They are currently working on a guitar for Jeff Pilson, the bassist for Foreigner.
Over the years, Leedy and Bowen have met hundreds of artists, evident by the pictures and binders full of guitar picks Leedy has collected. They have met Joe Walsh of the Eagles, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, all the guys in Cheap Trick, Steve Stevens, Marty Stuart, Kenny Vaughan, Dave Baker and more.
The business has about 20 years of hand-building custom guitars and basses to specifications in Winchester.
RS Guitarworks can refinish guitars or basses to a different color or age a guitar. RS Guitarworks pioneered the aged finish and restores vintage guitars from the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. The business even offers easy-to-install pre-wired upgrade kits to improve tone quality and response.
“We’ll fix about anything, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, acoustics repairs, amp repairs,” Bowen said.
The folks at RS Guitarworks have rescued and repaired thousands of “lost causes, basket cases, flood damaged and amateur modifications,” according to their marketing material.
Leedy said it takes anywhere from three to four months to build a custom guitar, starting with a chunk of a tree tand ending with getting it into the client’s hands.
They have a lifetime warranty on everything the create, too, Leedy said.
He said they saw the business take off when people began using the Internet. At Office Depot, Bowen said he picked up a book that was sort of like “Web Design for Dummies” and started looking up how to build a website for the business.
“I looked through this book and looked up everything I wanted to do and wrote down our first website in a spiral notebook and would put it up a page at a time,” Bowen said.
RS Guitarworks’ website was up and running in 1999, and they have kept going with it since. It wasn’t the same after that, Bowen said. They started getting phone calls a couple of states over from North Carolina, then, across the world from New Zealand.
“Here, you put this one little page up,” Bowen said. “And the phone starts ringing.”
Now, Leedy said they are trying to refocus some effort on the local market. Leedy said that’s why they recently opened the shop in the front of the building. They are now selling picks, strings and supplies.
“You don’t have to go to Lexington now,” Leedy said. “We’ve got all of the accessories you need here, and if we don’t, we can order it for you.”
Leedy said RS Guitarworks has just as many small repairs as they do custom builds.
“The reality is we have people come in every day who just need the strings changed,” he said.
Over the years, many artists have been through the building. Artists from France, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and more have wined and dined in Winchester. Lisa Swafford, the office manager, said she gets especially excited when she sees celebrities wearing the merch such as hats, which she embroiders. Her hats are especially popular in Japan. The bassist of the Japanese band Suchmos can be seen wearing an RS hat in the music video for “Pink Vibes.”
Leedy said RS Guitarworks is currently seeking more dealers in the U.S. to sell RS merch and to offer more services through them. Every part that goes into an RS guitar is American-made, preferring quality over cheap parts.
“We are really proud they are red, white, and blue guitars all the way through,” Leedy said.
The business wasn’t always booming, though. A flood in 2007 presented a setback for RS Guitarworks. At one point, Leedy and Bowen considered shutting down.
But the duo said they don’t know what else they would be doing. Just about everyone at RS Guitarworks is working musicians or at least big fans of music.
“It’s a passion,” Bowen said.
“It’s a labor of love,” Leedy agreed. §