Wednesday, September 9, 2009

How To Build a Better Guitar

It is not my habit to read books twice.  There are some that are deserving of a re-read, but there are so many books that I want to read the first time, and so many that I know I’ll never get to in my lifetime, that I generally can’t justify to the time it takes to read something twice.
However, a friend of mine, knowing my interest in guitar-building (he’s actually next in line on my waiting list) gave me a copy of Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument for my birthday.  He was hoping that I hadn’t read it yet, and was disappointed to find that I had.  Nevertheless, I was happy to have my own copy since I originally read a library copy two years ago.
The book was on the table the other day, and I picked it up and started browsing through it.  Before long I had read most of a chapter, and enjoyed it ever bit as much as I did before.  So, what the heck, I went to the Introduction and started reading from the beginning.  By the end of the week I was done, and glad for the opportunity to visit an old friend.
There was one episode in the book that I recalled having struck me the first time, and it still does.  The author, Allen St. John, recalls a conversation he had with T.J. Thompson, a world-class guitar builder and repairman.  They were talking about “magical” guitars—guitars in which everything works together perfectly to produce a transcendent sound and an instrument that plays effortlessly.  Guitars that are beyond merely great—they’re truly magical.  St. John asked Thompson what makes such a guitar.
“It’s a freak thing.  It’s a combination of, I guess, about six hundred things.  And it’s hard to say what’s more important than the other.  It’s the amalgam.”
“What would be number 1 and what would be 597?”
“I can probably answer that,” Thompson said.  “Number 1 is…” T.J. paused for eleven more seconds.  “Number 1 is the state of mind of the person building the guitar.  Actually, this could be 1 through 20.  When people ask me how to build a better guitar, I always think and sometimes say, ‘Be a better person.’  You can’t keep your personality out of the work.  It’s impossible.”
“If you’re rigid or you’re distorting reality it goes into the guitar.  And when you play it, it comes back out.  It’s disturbing,” he continued.  “I used to believe that but I never had any proof of it.  But I’ve played enough handmade guitars and then later met the maker.  Sure enough, it’s inseparable.”
I hope every builder gets a mulligan on their first few guitars while we’re learning the craft, otherwise I’m in trouble.
That’s striking, isn’t it?  Wood choice, body shape and size, bracing patterns—these are the things most identifiable as shaping the sound of a guitar, and they would probably be high on Thompson’s list—but apparently no higher than 21.  
Want to build a better guitar?  Be a better person.  It would be much easier if it were a technique for shaping the braces, but no; in St. John’s words, “You need to be a better man to build a better guitar.”
I don’t want to get too preachy or pedantic here—I think most of you are smart enough to see the implications and draw the proper lessons from this.
But I can’t help myself. 
Your work reflects your character.  There.  I’ll stop there.  Whether you’re a teacher, a bricklayer, a systems analyst, or a secretary, your work reflects your character.  If you paint, write poetry, landscape, or build guitars, what you produce reflects your character.  You fill in the blanks.
One final thing, again because I can’t help myself: take hope, because you are God’s workmanship.  His work reflects His character.  Sin cannot destroy that in you, it can only hide it.   But it’s still there.
So, on my best days when I’m allowing God to have freedom in my life, on those days if I happen to be working on a guitar, then I’m building something of the character of God into that instrument.
I don’t know how many of those days there actually are, but it makes me hopeful to think that there may be a little bit of the character of God coming out in the music of a guitar that I built.

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