Before there was ever a website, an operational classroom of guitar lutherie, or a logo, there was only an idea to make a guitar I’d never seen or heard anywhere before. I was after something that I struggled to described: a timeless guitar, nylon string but not strictly classical, big-bodied, voluptuousness that you’d want to curl up with and never let go of. A delight to touch, to see, to hold and to hear. It would be perfect for jazz (especially bossa nova and latino jazz), blues, classical, flamenco, Americana, country, jazz country, and maybe even for styles not yet known. I wanted it to be a piece of art. I wanted it to be the one I’d never let go of. I wanted it to be my Trigger.
I never was able to find that guitar but one day the sky opened up and lit an unmistakable path so I could find that guitar. That was about two years ago almost to this very day. Despite having worked as a carpenter, having learned to and made numerous West African drums called sangban, kenkeni, and dununba, it had never occurred to me to try to learn to build a guitar. I thought lutherie (the art of making stringed instruments) was something you were born into, like people are born into wine-making families, farming families, investment firm families. It was for other people who were not me.
Two years ago I was on a short drive from Athens, GA to Lexington to visit friends I had not seen in over a decade. There was a store in the turn-of-the-century brick downtown of Lexington that had a window display of some of the most interesting guitars I’d ever seen. I was on summer vacation as a public school teacher with money in pocket and always open to getting a cool guitar so I pulled into the parking space in front of that store and went in. The showroom was cool. It was perfectly small, cozy, warm and inviting. It was full of the coolest guitars I’d ever seen. Turns out, dude in the store, a guy my age, was the owner of the store and he made all those guitars himself. They were unique in shape, size, and build. I played a few of them and instantly wanted to drop a lot of money into his cash register.
This is the good part. After a few minutes of playing and chatting, he asked me if I wanted to see his shop. We walked through a curtain door into a room that opened up to three, four, or a thousand times the space that was in the showroom. In a space of one second:
- I saw a room full of guitar necks in different stages of development.
- I feasted my eyes on all sort of old-fashioned woodworking tools: hand-planes, chisels, clamps, you name it
- I saw guitar bodies, sides, tops, backs.
- I knew I was going to leave teaching and that I was going to make guitars.
Yes, that all happened quickly. Things didn’t start rolling immediately, it took at least two hours for me to get back home to Atlanta, get on Amazon, and buy Guitar Making Tradition and Technology (but I had to be cool and pay triple the price to have the original 1st edition hardback). Then, it took another 5 minutes or so to find a guitar building workshop to attend, one that aligned perfectly with my fall break at school.
But, where to set up shop at home? By the grace of God, I had a full, unfinished basement under my 1200 square foot upstairs living space. Not only was it completely unused space but the basement also has a very clean concrete floor and no moisture problems, at all, which had actually been the tipping point when I decided to buy the house.
I found inspiration in this nook. I wanted to transform it. It would become something special and that would be the kickoff project for the transformation I was about to undergo. I bought a Japanese pull-saw, some framing 2x6s, and found a stash of old wood I’d been hauling from place to place each time I moved for the last 5-10 years. After a couple of days, the nook was something new. I still have not found a perfect use for it, but it has filled many roles.
The learning curve is quite an elliptically exponential and seemingly never-ending trudge through hard decision$ to make concerning purcha$ing the necessary tool$ and then learning how to use those tools. Millions of videos on how to: use the tools, sharpen the tools, calibrate the tools, fix the tools, but nothing on how to slam the tools on the floor or throw them across the room when they won’t do what you want them to do.
Highlights from the first bend in the learning curve.
Along the way, I lost a very special friend, soul mate, son, brother, BFF, homie and once in a lifetime sorta pet. I probably might have finished the guitar in 6 months, but the emotional high of becoming a luthier was crushed to bits with the rest of me. Binah will always live inside this guitar. He was there with me through the beginning and all the way up til this moment: As soon as I got to this point, attaching the sides to the top, I put the guitar down and headed out for Thanksgiving. It was the last time I ever saw my little man alive.
There’s no way I can ever tell the story of my first steps into guitar-making without placing this footnote where it belongs. I’ll never forget Binah.
I didn’t have a blog when I finished this guitar, so it never had its own article. Out of all the ones I’ve built so far, it’s definitely the one that deserves it the most. In celebration of two years on this journey, I can think of no better way than to hit the publish button then go grab a spot on the couch with this beauty until it’s bedtime.