Hidden under the High Strung music shop on Durham’s Ninth Street, the Gadow Guitar factory buzzes with activity and ambition. The noise of sanding and the loud hum of the exhaust fan are constant.

Guitars hang around in various stages of construction. In the milling room, several thousand dollars’ worth of maple wood from Washington sits on three shelves, waiting for the huge automated machine to stamp out Gadow’s distinctive body shape.

In another room, sleek, shiny guitar bodies are lined up for the installation of electronics and chrome hardware, after which they’ll be strung up, set up and shipped out. Most of the process in between involves repeated sanding. Dust coats nearly every surface.

Most people don’t know about the 2,500-square-foot guitar factory under Ninth Street. Gadow Guitars is a small, up-and-coming player in the industry, producing traditional handmade electric guitars and basses with a unique design for distribution across North America and in Europe.

“It’s a constant uphill battle against the big guys. Fender and Gibson have been around for 50 years,” says company founder Ryan Gadow, “and we’re still competing with traditional guitar makers. What sets us apart from smaller guys is that we want to be big. They’ll be happy to make about a thousand guitars a year, but we want to be the next big thing.” Another thing that sets Gadow apart is the price, he says. “We are handmade, but we don’t cost $5,000.” The company’s nine models of guitars and basses run fom $1,295 to $3,195.

Gadow grew up in a family of woodworkers and furniture makers. “I never fit in with that,” he says. “I can build nothing but guitars.” The first one he made, with chisels and a router, wasn’t playable. “Not until my third one did I get one I could play.”

In 1998, he bought High Strung, the guitar repair shop that had been upstairs in the funky Perry Street space in Durham for many years. “It’s really hard being in your house and your garage and selling guitars, so I bought High Strung to give me an audience.” He and business partners Paul and Christine Della Maggiora jumpstarted the business, moving it to a storefront location on Ninth Street’s main drag. High Strung continues to sell and repair guitars, violins, mandolins, banjos and other stringed instruments. Gadow Guitars spun off as a separate company about two years ago.

With a team of seven employees, Gadow expects to produce about 500 guitars this year. Each guitar takes about three weeks to make, and they’re made in batches of six. All the work is done on site–the milling of the wood into one of nine original Gadow body shapes, the sanding, painting, finishing and assembly. Then they’re shipped out to 33 dealers.

The factory is operating at capacity now. “Every guitar that we build is sold,” Gadow says. The company is looking for a new sales rep and hopes to keep expanding. He expects to outgrow the current space within two years. “We want to build 5,000 guitars a year, eventually.”

A review of the Custom Hollow model in Guitar Player magazine has helped boost the company’s reputation. The review described it as combining “elements of Tele, Les Paul, and ES-335, all rolled into a unique-looking, cool-sounding package.” It praised the “comfy neck and clean fretwork” and the “beautifully figured carved maple top.” As for the sound, it says the “amplified tones flat-out rule.”

That model has been popular at World Music in Nashville, according to salesperson Brian Speight. “We’ve had a lot of really good luck with those guys,” he says of Gadow. “They’re really nice guitars.” Word has been spreading, he says, drawing customers from across Tennessee and Kentucky. “They hear about it through the grapevine and want to come check it out.” Speight says he likes “the attention to detail that they give. They’re really well crafted.”

A new model called the Nashville will be released in 2006, Gadow says. It’s an adaptation of the Telecaster with Gadow’s own design.

“Right now we’re really going strong with the country market,” he says. “We have the guitar players for Sarah Evans and Brad Paisley playing our guitars.” Getting musicians’ attention isn’t easy, which is part of what makes competing with the industry heavyweights a challenge. “The Fenders and Gibsons just shower them with their guitars. We can’t shower them with guitars, but once they get it in their hands, they like it enough to play it.”

The main thing, Gadow says, is to sound good and to look good.