By Michael Hamad
12:25 PM EDT, April 10, 2013
You're shopping for a new guitar, but you don't want to buy something off the rack at Guitar Center. Or there's a budding harpist in your house, but unloading $4,000 for a new instrument isn't an option.
Look no further than the state of Connecticut, where a small group of instrument builders are thinking outside the sound hole.
Carla Kelly, a specialty luthier and the owner of Barefoot Guitars, has been building her signature "Organic" axes since 1999, after years of working as a technical writer for Pratt & Whitney. "I translated computer-ese into engineering-ese," Kelly said. "None of it was English. I came from a very compulsive place. But when you're a luthier, you find whole new levels."
Luthiery, that age-old art/science of crafting or repairing stringed musical instruments — violins, guitars, harps, dulcimers, what-have-you — is a finicky pastime. One bad slice or trim, a strip of wood out of place, a bad fret, or some unwelcome overtone, and you're better off tossing the thing back on the fire. It's kindling.
Not surprisingly, luthiery, as a profession, is slow to accept change. Traditions that stretch back more than a century are preserved with near-religious fervor. In part, it's demand-driven; the rare, serious player can rarely afford, say, a "Torres" (a guitar built by Antonio de Torres Jurado, a 19th-century Spanish luthier, which is considered to be the Stradivarius of the classical and flamenco guitar). But most cannot. (An 1864 Torres sold at auction for $86,500 in 2009.)
Retracing the steps of the great luthiers of the past, however, doesn't seem to be in Kelly's DNA. "I got sick of replicating what others were doing," she said. "What's the point? Why work 200 hours on something just to make what's already out there?"
Kelly's guitars, which are designed to look and feel like they were pulled directly from trees, take about three years to build. One model, the Stellar Class, is a 28-fret acoustic-electric thinline classical guitar with two Kelly inventions: external top bracing (almost every guitar you see has internal bracing) and a "Splat" bridge. Her first three guitars were assembled on her dining-room table, with tools from her garage. (Several years ago, her husband, who was tired of inhaling rosewood dust, built her a small workshop.) One of Kelly's El Class instruments (the "El" stands for "electric," but also puns on the guitar's Spanish roots) made it to the stage of Carnegie Hall. She has guitarist friends, including the world-renowned classical player Eliot Fisk, who test-drive the instruments before they make it off her property. She uses materials nobody else will consider, including old cedar barn boards, which she purchases for $1 apiece. She's been known to head out to her backyard to grab a piece of wood.
"I'm exploring new materials, designs, everything," Kelly said. "I made a top out of a wood called paulownia, which is one of the lightest woods in the world and one of the strongest... They use it to make kotos [a Japanese stringed instrument]. It's much more durable. It doesn't split, and it rejects water."
Middletown's Dennis Waring started building instruments in the mid-'70s as a down-and-out apprentice in Manitoba, Canada. "I was taken under the wing of a woodworker, and he had a cooperative shop in Winnipeg," Waring said. "They allowed me to come and sweep up the floor and do a couple of odd jobs. I really had limited, almost no woodworking experience besides making a footstool in eighth-grade shop."
Six instrument-building books later (and one Ph.D. in ethnomusicology), Waring has built hundreds of instruments and do-it-yourself kits. He runs Waring Music (waringmusic.com), which sells more than a few of his signature instrument, the Waring Harp, a paintable, durable and affordable ax made out of corrugated cardboard.
Waring's harp has caught on. Jay Batzner, an assistant professor of music technology and electro-acoustic composition at Central Michigan University, recently purchased and assembled a $130 kit for his daughter, who expressed interest in playing the harp. "This isn't the easiest thing to accommodate," Batzner wrote in an e-mail. "It isn't like I can just rent one from the local music store or find a cheap one at a garage sale." Batzner tweeted at Texas-based harpist Shana Norton, who recommended the Waring Harp. "I was fairly sure that I had a study/practice harp lined up for all of it, but I got nervous and wanted one I could carry in my suitcase just in case," Norton said in another e-mail, from the Edinburgh International Harp Festival in Scotland. "No, it doesn't sound like my orchestra harp (which costs roughly the same as a nice new car). It doesn't need to. It does sound really charming and holds pitch well and lets me play simple melodies and 'rough in' a harmony."
"This isn't a chintzy kiddie instrument," Batzner added. "It really is designed for anyone who wants a small, inexpensive, transportable harp."
David Magnuson, a postal worker and Waring's writing and instrument-building partner for many years, started attending drumming groups about 30 years ago. "I came across some different drums that were fascinating to me," he said. "I've always been dedicated to what I hear, musically. It's almost an addiction." Magnuson discovered the tongue drum, or box drum, a wooden box with a top that's cut into different lengths that resemble tongues, each with its own tone. "That's the first time I realized, 'I can build this.'"
Magnuson met Waring at a world music class at Eastern Connecticut State University, where the builder was giving a presentation. "I felt very connected to him," Magnuson said. "He showed me how to build a dulcimer. It began then and there... [In our work together Dennis and I] showed ways to do things in your basement, nothing fancy. Luthiers are incredible builders, but we think that inhibits a lot of people from thinking they can still do it. That was our purpose: to simplify, so that anybody can build an instrument with a few basic tools."
Waring and Magnuson crafted instruments from trash, out of errant two-by-fours, strung with weed-whacker cords or whatever was lying around. Magnuson and Waring were in business together, selling Waring Harps. "I would go to festivals selling it, and I started to get a lot of feedback from harpists," Magnuson said. "They'd say, 'It would be ideal if you had three more strings,' or 'It would be great if you had the curve here, or levers so that you can change the key.' I got all this advice from harpists." He took the feedback to Waring, who didn't want to change the design. They parted ways, and Magnuson developed the Fireside Harp. "It has a few more options that the Waring Harp doesn't have... My model has a few more options."
Magnuson now works with builder David Cross, who runs Backyard Music (backyardmusic.com), offering dulcimers, banjos and harps customers assemble from kits. "People can either buy it from a kit and put it together themselves, or I build it for them," Magnuson said. "I took on working with David, and since then we've developed banjo kits, and my harps got folded into Backyard Music."
Magnuson is overjoyed by the success of the Fireside Harp, which features a cardboard box resonator and a wooden frame to bear the tension of the strings. "It's a different tone [than a professional harp], but it sounds so sweet," Magnuson said. "I've gotten so many compliments. That's one thing that's really pleasing. They get beat up, but so do wooden harps... If the body gets badly damaged, you tear it off and glue on a new one."
Magnuson's Front Porch Harp. (Courtesy Backyard Music)
Luthier Carla Kelly
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