- Henry David Thoreau
I was 23, and teaching guitar lessons when I got the bug. I was young, lost, and wasn’t sure what I wanted. How could I know that my uncertainty would spark one of the happiest and most peaceful times of my life? After a love affair with the guitar, which had already sculpted my life for the better, I needed to know more. I needed to understand how the guitar was made; and, secretly, I thought that, if nothing else, I would at least get a couple of hand made guitars out of it. I decided I wanted to go to Lutherie School.
Being from an amazingly supportive family, it was an easy sell. We started looking on the internet, a new concept at that time, for schools. There were a couple of well-known schools which offered a high quality education and a generic classroom experience, but that’s not what I was after. I needed a change. When I found The Summit School of Guitar Building and Repair, I saw beautiful guitars, beautiful scenery, and trees everywhere. I had read that they used local woods and for the first time I really got excited by the connection between trees and guitars.
I called the school and soon learned it was on Vancouver Island, just off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. I had questions and I noticed that every third response or so, “It’s very rural here,” was worked into the answer. I heard rural, and being from Brooklyn, I thought, “Okay, so it’s like Long Island. Trees between the houses, and maybe you have to drive 5 minutes to the 7-11. No problem, I’m in!”
As I got closer to my destination, I had to change to a small plane, then to a soda can with a propellor that they assured me was also a plane. I crammed into the death trap and remembered the conversation and the nice woman’s voice saying, “It’s very rural.” Um...yeah.
For the next 6 months, I lived in a small cabin with no phone, no TV, and just enough electricity to run the fridge, a couple of lamps, and my guitar amp. Seriously, I had to make sure the amp was off if I wanted toast. It was a one mile bike ride to the shop where I, and the other 2 aspiring luthiers, spent our days taking classes and building jigs, which we would use to make our first guitars.
I immediately started drooling over rosewood, spruce, and the fact that maple can be flamed, quilted, or even spalted. I was fascinated by the amazing way that figured-wood grain explodes with a variation of colors when water is rubbed on it. I was building my first guitar, and I needed to have the finest woods! Remember that supportive family? Looking back, the difference was only a hundred dollars or so; but, to me, it was important enough to start formulating a very convincing, albeit unnecessary, speech. In the end, I got the wood, and it was on! I made my first acoustic with some amazingly beautiful wood. Check it out-----
Figured Hawaiian Koa. Koa… even the name is beautiful. The back and sides of the guitar are made out of a book-matched piece of figured koa joined by a strip of flamed maple. The top is a gorgeous piece of spruce inlaid with an abalone and wood rosette. The neck is mahogany and the fretboard is rosewood. I’ve built plenty of guitars over the years, but this could be the prettiest one. Koa! Look at it, it’s like God is holding up a lighter to the ballad that is this piece of wood.
I built guitars all day and practiced all night. On Fridays, everyone in town would go to the only bar, and the house band would let me sit in. The people were kind, the beer was $2, and the music was all around me.
Living in the woods was one of the happiest times in my life. So simple, so beautiful, so musical. When I woke, it wasn’t to the sound of car horns anymore. It was the sound of the beach outside my front door. When I got bored, I couldn’t turn on the TV, so I read… or went for a walk… or found people to talk to. Ordinarily, I’d find time to practice for a gig or to learn a new tune or technique. On the island, though, I practiced all day. There was nothing in the way of inspiration. No pressure, no one listening, no one for miles. No insecurity, no distractions, and no holding back. If you ever find yourself in a rut, and you’re blessed with the chance to simplify your life and follow your bliss… I highly recommend it.
In the years that followed, my memories of Vancouver Island have faded. Because I didn’t have enough time to properly cure the beautiful wood, the guitar neck warped slightly over time and the guitar is now relegated to slide only. Time changes things, and life gets more complicated, but I still have that first guitar. At this point, it’s mostly a keepsake - a reminder that nature surrounds us, and that joy and peace are simple. We just need to remember to get out of the way once in a while.