When the Mid-Atlantic Luthiers first formed in fall of 2011, few of the members could imagine how well one of their first major projects would take off.
The organization is a collective of string instrument craftsmen from throughout the region who meet every other month, usually at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in Reading. Many of the members are based in Berks and nearby counties, but some come from as far as the Poconos, Washington D.C. and the Jersey Shore.
As one of their first projects, the group decided to pool their resources and expertise to build a fine guitar that could be auctioned off for charity. They chose the charity Guitars for Vets, a nonprofit that gives free guitars and lessons to veterans in the hopes of enriching their lives through the healing power of music.
“It wasn’t an entirely easy venture to do the joint build,” said John Reitz, a founding member of the Luthiers and the head of the build. “Luthiers are artistic and each one has a strong opinion as to how to build a guitar; therefore, getting consensus on a build is a challenging undertaking. The process did not happen without some frayed emotions and hurt feelings as to how the build should proceed.”
There were some tense moments during the build process, he added, like when he had to return one member’s donated tuners in favor of Waverly tuners from Steward McDonald, or when he had to refuse one member’s offer to do a French polish finish, instead opting for a nitro cellulose finish from professional guitar finisher Dennis Frey.
“Fortunately everyone got over their concerns, because they realized my intention was to build an amazing guitar,” Reitz said.
Collaboration made sense, with various members of the Luthiers having different specialties, such as inlay, neck carving, electronics and more.
Scott Graham, owner of Devon Sound in Morgantown, specializes in electronics, so he was given the final step of the build – the electric pickups and pre-amplifier. Not wanting to cut into the beautiful woodworking done by the other members, he opted to attach a dual pickup combining a sensor for the inside of the soundboard and an under-saddle pickup, giving the player the option of balancing the two to tweak their sound.
He also added an external preamplifier so that nothing would detract from the sound or aesthetic of the guitar itself. It will also prevent potential headaches for future players and repairmen in case the preamp ever needs to be replaced.
As the last person to work on it, Graham also got to string it, tune it and play it for the first time.
“My first thought was WOW, followed by, ‘I’d really want this group of guys to build one for me,’” he said. “I’ve played lots of guitars and instruments, and very few have I picked up and had such a great response from.
“Most great guitars are older and have plenty of play time on them because they’re made to age well,” he added. “It’s rare to find such an excellent guitar brand new. Everyone brought their A-game and we really came out with this fabulous instrument.”
He added that the group took the guitar to the Philadelphia Guitar Show this summer right after it was finished, and the representatives from Martin Guitar expressed interest after seeing it in commissioning a second group build.
It was also important to the members of the Luthiers that all the materials for the build were sustainable and native to America.
Reitz said many of the ideal woods used in guitars are endangered, such as Brazilian rosewood and ebony for the fretboard, so the Luthiers wanted to use woods that wouldn’t be depleting natural resources. It was also important it be American-made to show that “American products can make a guitar that’s just as good as one made with foreign materials,” and because the guitar was being made to help support American servicemen and women.
“So it was really threefold,” he said. “To show that products that are American-made can make a great guitar, to use products that weren’t depleting our world’s resources, and we wanted a product that was American-made because it was for our veterans.”
So rather than African ebony, the fretboard is made of Texas ebony. The back and sides are made from a Pennsylvania sycamore. Other parts use basswood from the great lakes region, Adirondack spruce with a bear-claw grain, cherry and walnut – all American.
With the build completed, the Luthiers had originally planned to auction the guitar off on Veterans Day, but have had trouble raising enough awareness. Instead, they are hoping to showcase the guitar at some Guitars for Vets events Veterans Day weekend, such as a Veterans Day Concert at the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.
Guitars for Vets has also requested the guitar be showcased at a Veterans Day Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at the Ryman Theater in Nashville, with the potential of being played on-stage. The Luthiers are hoping that such events will heighten the guitar’s profile nationally so that the auction can be as successful as possible.
“I’ve always believed in supporting our troops and veterans,” Graham said. “To be able to build something like this, this guitar isn’t just to be given to one player. Guitars for Vets will be able to provide guitars and lessons for many veterans, not just one single person.”
For more information on the build or either organization, see their websites, guitars4vets.org and midatlanticluthiers.org, or find them on Facebook.