Local woman turns hobby to business, fitting unique niche market

Eliza Hill
Arts & Features
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Photo by: Eliza Hill                  Ashli Rose Bales, the guitar witch sips tea among her many creations hanging in her home workshop where she tackles larger projects.

Equipped with precision, perseverance, a box of tools and perhaps a secret spell, The Guitar Witch resurrects even the most damaged six-strings.
 Specializing in vintage restorations and fixing the unfixable, Ashli Rose Bales, otherwise known as The Guitar Witch, caters to traveling or recording musicians by coming to them and mending their instruments at studios or venues. While she tackles larger, more tedious jobs in her home workshop, clients rely on The Guitar Witch to save them in the midst of a bind, perhaps at the studio or a late-night show.
 “I never meet anyone in my home. I have a mobile workspace and a big toolbox with pretty much everything I need,” Bales said.
 Guitar Witch client, Michael “Muddy” Welles said Bales assembled a Telecaster for him to play at MerleFest 2019 with The Casey Kristofferson Band just in time for his big show.
 “I needed a backup Telecaster for the show and had been building one at the time but didn’t have enough time to finish it before the show. I arrived at Echo Mountain Studios two days before the show and called Ashli to see if she could help with the guitar,” Welles said. “Ashli actually met me at the studio that night. I basically gave her a half-assembled telecaster and a box of wires, capacitors, pick-ups, knobs and switches. She said ‘No problem!’ Asked me a few questions about my preferences and disappeared with the instrument.”
 He said Bales returned less than 24 hours later, having leveled the frets, installed electronics, refurbished the guitar neck and meticulously fine-tuned the intonation.
 “In fact, the intonation and set-up was so perfect, I used it as my number one the next day at MerleFest,” Welles said.
 Bales, 28, began cultivating skills as a luthier 15 years ago at a guitar shop in Florida where her boss guarded her from many valuable, fundamental skills.
 “He didn’t teach me a lot of the big, heavy-lifting stuff. He said he wanted to keep his job security,” Bales said. “I was just the kid at the shop who wanted to learn stuff. He got me in the right direction and realize what I wanted to do, but I learned most everything from Autumn.”
 Bales journeyed from Florida to Asheville seven years ago for an interview with Autumn Greenfield, otherwise known as The Guitar Mamma, the name of her shop which once graced Haywood Rd. She admired Bales’ work ethic and attention to detail. Realizing Bales encompassed qualities Greenfield looked for, she happily welcomed the young luthier as a valuable addition to her shop.
 “When I had my shop, I was one of two female luthiers in the United States who owned and operated her own shop – the other was Austin, TX. I knew I wanted to hire a female who was passionate about learning the craft of instrument repair,” Greenfield said.
 Greenfield said Bales’ meticulous attention to detail slowed her down at first, as it does most novice luthiers. Bales soon gained speed and swiftly propelled forward into a realm of expertise, dexterity and professionalism.
 “Ashli came to Asheville to work with me and learn. She was great at set-ups; I showed her a few tips and tricks to make them quicker and easier but she had those down right out of the gate. I started teaching her more complex repairs, like making bone nuts, fixing electronics, bridge re-glues, fret dressings and headstock repairs,” Greenfield said.
 The Guitar Mamma proudly recalls her time teaching Bales her valuable trade skills and enjoys watching The Guitar Witch valiantly carry the tune in an industry where women are scarce and hard to come by, especially in the way of on-site repairs and vintage restoration.
 “Ashli and I had to prove ourselves to each and every person along the way, and our work had to speak for itself because we were under so much scrutiny for being females. Breaking old ideas of what women should and should not do is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being a female luthier, and it pushes you to be the absolute best in your field,” Greenfield said. “Over the years since I’ve closed the shop, I have watched her blossom. She took the reins and continued down the path I had started clearing being a female in a predominantly male field, and I could not be more proud of the luthier she has become.”
 Bales introduced her witchy moniker after realizing her title as “the girl who fixes guitars” did not accurately encompass her unique niche in the luthier world, or her love for spooky and mystical aesthetic.
 Since branding herself “The Guitar Witch,” the luthier attracted seven customers with her unique expertise in on-the-spot repairs and seemingly impossible re-vamps.
 “I can practically do everything. I’ve been doing a lot of luthier work as far as rebuilding from scratch,” Bales said.
 She works to restore guitars over 30 years old, often rebuilding parts herself that companies no longer make in order to match the guitar. Bales said she understands and helps to preserve sentimental value customers associate with their instruments.
 “One of my favorite things to do is to take guitars deemed unrepairable and make them awesome,” The Guitar Witch said. “Usually  if it’s going to cost more money than the guitar’s worth, people will say just get another one and they’ll throw it in the trash. It can be fixed because everything can be built again and it’s more so just one of my hobbies, fixing unfixable things because you can turn around and sell them for half the amount of work that you put into it, but it’s good so people can see… if you have something really sentimental and you don’t want to throw it in the trash, I can bring it back to life.”
 Bales plans to expand her Guitar Witch brand into a full-time brick and mortar store within five years, building off her die-hard network of customers cultivated from current business.
 Welles said his loyalty lies with The Guitar Witch and her knack for impeccable repairs. 
 “I wouldn’t let anyone else touch my guitars in Asheville. And whether Ashli likes it or not, she’s my tech for life,” Welles said.