An average Joe builds a guitar from scratch.

Yesterday was my day off, so instead of focusing on the guitar, I’m going to tell a little story about the people in and around this little rumspringa of mine.

It all starts with Monday night.  I have the good fortune of playing in a folk/old timey/bluegrass jam session with a handful of the greatest people every week.  It’s always at my friend Sally’s house.  Sally is in her 70s and plays the auto harp.  She is a noted anti-death penalty advocate and has a concert poster from some anti-death penalty rally.  It’s signed by Eddie Vedder.  I think this is awesome.

I have heard Sally say more than a few times, “I remember the first time I heard that song.  It was 1939…”  It’s amazing that I get to play the great old tunes with people who were there when they were written.

Then there is also Walter and Milly.  Walter just finished his last year as a professor at the UC Berkeley.  You know the theory for dinosaur extinction, where an asteroid hits the earth and killed all the dinosaurs?  Yeah, that’s his theory.  He is brilliant.  Milly is too, and has more compassion than most people I’ve ever met, running a clinic for people with mental disorders.  And they are great to sing and play music with.  And Milly is awesome to have dinner with because she cooks like an Italian, but with southern flair.  Viva ya’ll!

Then we have Charles.  Charles taught high schoolers in Berkeley for decades and the city even deemed his birthday “Charles Kratz day.”  He has a big white beard, plays the banjo and harmonica, and knows the words to thousands of songs.  And loves Katherine McPhee in Smash.  I think this is hilarious.  And I think Charles is fantastic.

There is Dick S. and Susan S.  Dick was a cowboy.  Seriously.  A real cowboy.  And a poet.  And he built his house with his own two hands when he was in his 70s.  Susan is a published writer, who I think is on a book tour right now.  And Michael, who grew up in a communist family—and plays the bass.  And Josh, who ran away from home at 15, and then ran a bike shop, and then became a teacher, and then wrote the music to “Julius Caesar: the musical” for 20 6th grade boys.  He’s also fighting Parkinson’s with a courage and grace that I admire.  And Dick W., who was chair of the Electrical Engineering department at Berkeley—he plays banjo.  And Karl, who used to run with some pretty heavy bluegrass circles in NYC, but is now a psychologist—and mandolin player.  And Nancy, who has the voice of an angel and is a designer and is so close with Sally that it’s fun to just watch them sing together.

And Charlie, who grew up in Kentucky playing traditional music, and then majored in ethnomusicology.  Then went to law school and has had an unbelievable career, with cases argued in front of both the CA state and Federal supreme court.  But he put his guitar down for something like 20 or 30 years until he found this jam session.

There are more people who come in and out, and I’m sure I’m forgetting someone.  But the point is, here I am, a 33 year old single guy, surrounded by unforgettable people who are decades older than I am, all playing the same tunes (often poorly, sometimes quite well).  Telling stories, drinking wine, laughing and even crying now and then.  It’s an unusual situation to find oneself in, and yes, it’s pretty corny.  It’s also extraordinary.  I count these people as my very close friends, and it doesn’t matter that some are more than twice my age.  They appreciate my youth, and I their experience.  It’s a nice balance.

This isn’t relevant to guitar building, I know.  But we’re getting there.  The next step is Barbara.  Barbara was a peripheral friend of Sally’s who happened to be in town the Monday I announced to the group I was headed to Portland, OR for a few weeks to build a guitar.  Barbara happens to live in Portland.  She invited me to stay minutes after meeting me.  And I am writing this from her spare bedroom as we speak.

It’s the most amazing thing, surrounding oneself with incredible people.  I am a stranger to Barbara, but because of my friends on Monday nights, she invited me into her home, and treated me with unbelievable hospitality—I’ll be here for almost two weeks!  Two weeks!!!  And even though we don’t know each other, we share a common humanity, of which Monday night is a prime example.  

And this, finally, is where it starts to become relevant with guitar building.  All of this stuff—Monday night friends, Barbara, great old songs, singing, dancing to irish reels, feeling like you are with family—is what this is all about.  To my surprise, I’m not self-indulging during this incredibly self-indulgent activity (I mean seriously, guitar building school?  Give me a break.), but rather how proud my friends will be.  How I’m glad that I got to know Barbara.  That I got to visit with my friends Anna and Victor who also live in Portland, and meet their incredible two kids.  And that I have great stories to tell them all from class, and feel like I can be better friend because of it.  Sure, the sense of pride and accomplishment from building a guitar is awesome, but meeting and sharing it with people is even better.  I suppose that’s one reason I’m writing this blog.

And the work itself—cutting and shaping the wood, gluing, sanding, chiseling, all by hand—is so filled with human error and variability that you can’t help but look at it and say a human being made that.  In a world filled with plastic, IKEA, and all things digital, a healthy dose of humanity in an inanimate object is awfully refreshing.

In the end it is incredibly obvious.  A guitar is just an object, and two weeks come and go in an instant.  But the music that comes out of the thing, the pride and hard work that went into building it, along with the people who share in it last forever.  (Holy crap, this is corny.)

Here is a photo from Saturday’s class.  Inlays!

7 months ago