Play Guitar, Play

As I maneuvered the Hartbeat mobile into a parking space on a freshly mowed field, I thought that it seemed like a good place to start on a journey of the healing power of music.  When I opened the door to a workshop filled with people building guitars, I knew I had come to the right place.  I was about to enter a two day experience with a group of volunteers building guitars from kits that would be given to veterans in need of this healing power of music.  You can view the KARE11 story on the guitar building by clicking here.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

Before painting a word picture (along with a little help from our friends, the digital images), I’d like to share a few verses about the Guitars For Vets program.

Guitars for Vets began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2007. The non-profit organization provides guitars to ailing and injured vets.  Many of the vets who receive instruments are managing post traumatic stress disorder.   The founders of Guitars for Vets believe that, in their words, “through self expression and the healing power of music, it is our intent to restore the feelings of joy and purpose that can be lost after suffering trauma.”  To learn about Guitars for Vets, click here.

The Wild Earth Woodworking School on County Road N, a few miles east of Hudson, Wisconsin was where we gathered to try and craft instruments.  A diverse group of 80 volunteers over two days, sanded, glued, sprayed, tuned and set up twenty guitars.  George Vondriska, the owner of the school and several others had done some prep work on the guitars (attaching the necks to the bodies) on twenty guitars.  George offers classes in building guitars from kits as well as other woodworking projects.  His two-building woodshop provided the stage for the project. He, too, was a volunteer.  You can learn more about Wild Earth Woodworking by clicking here.

So what was it like to help build a stringed instrument that could change someone’s life?  Hartbeat would describe the process as exciting, educational, fulfilling and even life changing.

The Hartbeat’s woodworking skills are limited to a 7th grade shop class.  However, I was not alone in being thankful that no power tools[DEWALT Power Tool battery] were being used.  After all, we were building acoustic guitars.  There were some people who had previously put together guitars at the school; they served as leaders.  People formed groups and began taking turns sanding the instruments.   This was more of a one person sands and others observe experience.  Everyone was concerned about over-sanding, so the sharing of abrasive material among the volunteers was a matter of taking short turns and passing the sandpaper to the next in line.

After a generous lunch of food donated by local businesses and coordinated by the Hudson Masonic Lodge, the interaction of small groups began to find the lost chord of team work.  The group I joined (no power tools, only glue) received instruction on gluing fret boards to the necks of guitars.  Several groups worked on this project and we shared glue and masking tape, searched for the clamps and offered suggestions on how much glue was really needed.

The guitars with their clamped fretboards dried, we waited in anticipation for the next component, the affixing of the bridges.  During this drying time, a group gathered by the band saw.  Some of the volunteers brought their guitars and George wrote the chords to Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right on a piece of wood and propped it against the blade of the saw.  Music began to waft through the air and the crews were inspired for the next step.

Like a bridge over…

After a lot of puns about bridges–Bridge over Troubled Water, Love Can Build a Bridge, 59th Street Bridge Song–the volunteers formed small groups and began installing bridges on the guitars.

We used templates consisting of two pieces of wood linked together with picture hanging wire.  One block of wood was held in place at the end of the fretboard snugly against the nut.  At the other end of the wires stretched tightly by another worker, was another block of wood with two small holes fitted with brass sleeves.

Several measurements were taken (measure twice it’s alright taking on a new meaning). The wood block at one end had two small holes with brass sleeves.  A person who felt confident with a power tool drilled[Cordless Drill Batteries] the holes for the two metal pegs; a carefully glued bridge with the metal pegs was fitted on the body.  Since we were in a working woodshop there were plenty of clamps.  Each newly installed bridge got three clamps and the completed guitar was taken to an area to dry.

This Land is Your Land

The next day involved spraying three coats of clear shellac on the guitars.  The spraying area was small and could only handle a couple of workers putting on the protective finishes.

Between each coat, light sanding took place.   When the instruments were dry after the last coat, groups attached the tuning machine heads to the peghead.  Several musicians and a music store owner worked on stringing the guitars.

Light gauge strings were used for easier playing.  The action on the guitars was set close to the neck, also for playing ease.  A variety of tuners were clamped to the pegheads and held up to the soundholes of instruments as tuning took place.  When all of the guitars were setup, those who felt confident enough participated in playing a 20 guitar version of the Woody Guthrie classic, This Land is Your Land.

After the quality control test of playing a song, the group left the woodshop for a bountiful meal that included supper music played by some of the guitar playing participants in the project.

I walked back to the field where the Hartbeatmobile had been grazing in the grass.  I nodded to the horse as I passed by and I think I received a nod back.  It may just be a shake of the head over the buzzing flies, but the horse did seem less fretful than it had a day earlier – before we had built 20 guitars for vets.

The Hartbeat goes on…

What’s cooking on the Hartbeat Grill?

After helping to build guitars, I worked on a C chord on my own guitar.  It still needs a lot of wood shedding for me to be able to play anything that sounds recognizable.

My colleague, Jana Shortal, lent me two cds that are worth a listen.  Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, The songs of John Prine features interpretations of Prine songs by Justin Townes Earl, The Avett Brothers, My Morning Jacket and others.  This cd is a good way to get a taste of many new performers and the liner notes by Justin Vernon are the most descriptive that I have read in a long time.

The second cd, Be Set Free, by Langhorne Slim, has just enough angst to make it worth exploring.  Slim has toured with the Avett Brothers and his sound is in their vein, so If you like the Brothers, give Langhorne Slim a listen.

The Musical Notes

Play Guitar Play was written and performed by Conway Twitty.  It appeared on his 1977 album of the same name.  Conway had a career that started in rock and roll in the 50’s and blended into country in the 70’s and 80’s.  He had forty number one hits.

One woodworker motto is “measure twice and cut once.”  Our favorite Duluth native and musician was most likely not thinking about cutting wood, but rather was thinking about his girlfriend, Suzie Rotolo, when he wrote Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.

Susie was extending her stay in Italy, rather than return to New York and Bob Dylan and her absence gave Robert fuel for a song.  The song appeared on Dylan’s 1963 album, The Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan.  Rotolo was a major influence on Dylan’s early songwriting.  She is featured walking with Dylan on the cover of the album.  Rotolo and her sister, Carla mentioned in Dylan’s 1964 album, Another Side of Bob Dylan which chronicles his breakup with Susie in the song, Ballad in Plain D.

Bridge Over Troubled Water won the draw for the song about fitting the bridges to the guitars.  Bridge Over Troubled Water was the title of Simon and Garfunkel’s final album together released in January of 1970.  The song reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 and stayed at the top of the charts for six weeks.  Elvis recorded his version of the song in June of 1970.  It was a staple of his live shows and was a featured number in the 1970 documentary, Elvis:  That’s The Way It Is.  Bridge Over Troubled Water was part of his last live performance on June 26, 1977.

Since Bob Dylan was featured in the impromptu jam of the band by the band saw in George’s woodshop, what better way to end the guitar building than with a song by Dylan’s idol, Woody Guthrie?  Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land in 1940 and recorded it in 1944.

The Photo Notes

The digital still images were taken with an Olympus camera.  The images of the Hartbeat learning woodworking skills were taken by Emilio Castro.  I had not seen Emilio’s father John Castro in over twenty years.  His family owned an auto body shop on St. Paul’s west side (his brother Tony still operates it) and he did body work on some Hartbeat family mobiles.  He was at the Guitars For Vets event representing one of the businesses donating food.

My KARE 11 colleagues Julianna Olson and Monica Hanson produced a story on the event and I used a still from videotape shot by Monica.

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