Homeschooling? Let's Build A Guitar!
Strumming my homemade guitar built from a recycled cigar box for the first time, I had a big smile on my face. But when I plugged it into the amp I realized I had to share this with others. This guitar only had three strings and so was actually very easy to play. And in the months to come, I'd find with that ease, it became a fantastic way to express myself. You see, without all those strings, chord shapes were simple and combined with the increase in volume from the amp, I could hear subtleties that I never understood playing my acoustic six string.
First, I started teaching Vets who understood the therapeutic value but also the fun of playing a guitar they had built themselves. The Newman Foundation of Paul Newman fame helped me out with this by sponsoring a workshop the the Veterans Healing Farm in North Carolina. My 10 year old nephew was also curious and we built one and even wound the pickup! I demonstrated building at the Art Ovation Hotel in Sarasota where I displayed, performed, raffled off, and sometimes sold my guitars. I performed at open mics in St. Pete.
When the Covid Pandemic hit, more parents started homeschooling their kids. My boss who lives on a sailboat had two that were being homeshooled and I let them borrow a guitar and amp over Christmas break to see if they'd be interested. They were and two of their friends who were homeschooled joined in.
In our first class we made it a field trip and started at a local cigar store. The kids wondered if they'd even be allowed in, and we all were surprised that the manager just gave us all the empty cigar boxes he had for free. Our next stop was Lowe's for red oak lumber for the necks and fretboards. They got to look at the stack of wood and select the straightest pieces. I still smile remembering that trip with Finn, who was 7, putting a 4 foot board flat on his head and spinning slowly around like a propeller. They made a simple shopping trip a lot of fun.
By this time everyone was hungry and so while we waited for pizza, we discussed what parts we'd have to order to build our guitars. It was like a pop quiz guessing game. Rilie said, "Strings!" Ronan said, "The things that tighten the strings." "Tuners," I said. Each kid would think
what actually was on a guitar. All, either had a guitar or ukulele of their own so they were familiar somewhat with stringed instruments. Eventually, we came up with an oral shopping list where each kid had to remember two parts.
We brought our treasures back to their sailboat, pizza in tow and after dinner ordered parts from MGB Guitars, a supplier just north of Tampa who offers free shipping. The kids got to decide what style and color for tuners, volume and tone knobs. And amidst yawns and smiles, our first class was over.
Since, two of our homeschoolers were leaving soon for the Bahamas, the push was on. We met three times a week for 2-3 hours a class. Starting with cutting, gluing and clamping the necks, we then measured, marked and cut slots for the frets. The kids were proud of their newly learned ability to measure to the half millimeter! If you don't know how small that is, take a look. It's about as small as this "l" that I just typed. To do this, often a newly sharpened pencil wasn't sharp enough and we wound up using a metal awl to scratch the line and follow up with the pencil.
And while all this measuring frets, messing around with glue, marking holes for tuners didn't really seem tedious, they really started smiling when they got to hammer in the fret wire! I kept hearing them say how worth it was to be able to do this part instead of just buying a ready made neck.
After the frets were in, I took over to shape the neck with the angle grinder. It was a safety thing, but with a respirator, safety glasses, and ear protectors on, each got to video the transformation from rough lumber to guitar neck. After the angle grinding, they
got to use the palm sander and fine grit paper to smooth it out readying for spraying lacquer. And light sanding between coats, and the contrasting colors really emerged.
Next we installed fit the necks to the cigar boxes and added input jacks, volume and tone controls. They were really starting to look like guitars.
Usually, I just buy premade pickups since they are fairly inexpensive. But since so much learning can happen with winding our own, I brought in the materials to do so. The pickup wire is very fine. Thinner and more fragile than human hair, a one pound spool is almost ten miles long! The body of the pickup is made from a recycled paint can with three tiny neodymium magnets. The body is put on an electric drill and spun to wind on the pickup wire. It takes a steady hand, patience, and a bit of luck to pull it off. I have a special hat I wear for fun with broken wire from all my failed attempts. It probably is about four miles of broken wire! I told the class to come dressed to pay homage to the magnet/force field gods. They came with tin foil hats and swords! In three hours we'd broken 3 pickups and succeeded in one. Pretty much a miracle when you consider how wiggly 7 year olds are!
So far we're around 25 hours in. It will take us at least 10 more hours of classes to finish these four guitars. I'm really looking forward to seeing the surprised looks when we plug these into the that big amp and they strum that first chord!