Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Deltrula (IW#95)

My eldest son, then age 7, and I were sitting in our guestroom one morning about a year and a half ago.  This is the room where a lot of the instruments live that I don't play regularly.  There is the big old jumbo-sized six string made by Seth Hedu, an acoustic baritone guitar made by Steve Wishnevskey, and a banjo that belonged to my wife's uncle.  There is a charango that my mother in law brought back from La Paz, Bolivia after a visit and a five string mountain dulcimer made by the great W. E. "Bill" Young, who was a North Carolina maker of some distinction before he passed.  I am still looking for more information on him, so if anyone has some, send it along.  I'd like to make him a memorial here.

There are also a bunch of things I have made over the years that are of varying levels of recognizable.  The only factory made instruments in the room are the banjo and my own personal most expensive instrument, which is a round-necked Dobro that I bought when I played with the Brooklyn Jugs fifteen years ago or so.

So my eldest and I are sitting there and he says "You should make a guitar with three humps instead of two humps.  "Hm," I say.  "What would that look like?  Could you draw it for me?"  One of the things I LOVE about kids is that there is little inhibition.  "Sure,"  he says, and pads off to find a pen and paper.  He draws what he is thinking of and I say "well, that's cool looking.  What is it called?"  With all of the confidence a (then) seven-year-old can muster he says "It's a Deltrula."

So of course I have to build it.

I had to back-burner it until this past June, when I was at Haystack Mountain School of Craft leading a workshop, and it was there that I filled some spare hours beginning the work of making a Deltrula.  It is...  Weird.

Weird to say the least.

Because I was at Haystack, and because I was surrounded by brilliant humans who make stunning things, and because I like working with people on projects, I appealed to the metalsmith Jaydan Moore (who was teaching the metals class that session) for a tailpiece.  It is a piece of an old serving tray and is just about right for this crazy thing.

Because he was born on the 13th, it has 13 strings and 13 frets.  I played with the drawing a little because I wanted it to have a ridiculously short neck to deal with all of those strings.  It is strung in four courses of three strings each, with one extra bass string.  That extra string is tuned to A, with the four courses tuned to DGBE, which is how I keep my tenor guitar tuned.  Pretty weird to play.

The whole thing is chestnut out of a Shoninger Piano that was built in 1913 I think.  So a combo of wormy and not, with a piece of the original mahogany veneer on the completely silly and massive head stock.  It is pretty loud, and my eldest says it sounds "like a robot," which seems about right.  Not sure it will come out on this video, but it sure is a weird thing.  Sort of like my eldest.

 Here is how it sounds.   It is, truth to tell, pretty hard to play.  But it sounds pretty good.  I could see it being a back-up instrument on something.  And it will certainly get hauled out to any workshop on experimentation. As far as I know, I am one of three Deltrulists in the nation.  Which means that I am one of the three best in these United States.  Here is a little video, as per usual:

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sister Shelf Tenors (IW#'s 93 & 94)

A friend who is a great dancer contacted me a while ago with this story:

"Hi Zeke, i have a potential commission for you.. I have moved back to Toronto and in the move the packers took apart and ruined my grandfather's lawyer's bookcase. I am hoping to get it repaired by the insurance, but my daughter had a lovely suggestion if not. We were wondering if you might be able to make us a cello out of the wood of the bookcase."

Of course I replied that I did not think I could do that, it seeming like too much of an attempt to try something I had never done before with material so precious.  We did end up making two guitars, however, one for each of the two sisters.

The shelves were made out of stained poplar and some other wood that I think was ash, but that had a grain pattern unlike any ash that I had seen before.  These are not the first guitars I have made out of poplar, it's quite a nice tone wood actually.  Very mellow.  I used the ash for the necks, and I did put a Gibson-style truss rod into the necks. One of them ended up with a really gorgeous wavy grain in the neck, which you can see in the photos of the backs.  Of course the green of the poplar will mellow to a honey color over time.  Right now it is pretty dramatically green, as poplar is.

The tops I made out of the Sitka spruce ship's mast that I made Seafaring Ukes out of.  It is also the top of the oak parlor guitar that I made a little while ago.  It has ruler straight grain that is super tight and it sounds awesome.  I am actually running out of that material, which is starting to make me nervous.  I'll have to source some more.

These are both from the 1900 Lyon-Healy parlor guitar pattern that I have used for a couple of other instruments.  I really like the small size of the box, and they are pretty punchy.  I have a couple more on the bench that will be this same size.  

These guitars sound great, and I had the opportunity to have two of the best guitar players I know play them together.  Here are Leo Crandall and Tom Fay testing them out:

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Piano Workshops (2 of 2): Haystack

I first came to Haystack Mountain Shcool of Craft as a teaching assistant for my teacher, studio-mate, and friend Eck Follen.  I should write about her one of these days, but this is not that story.  Suffice it to say that it opened me to the power of this craft school on Deer Isle in Maine, and to the landscape that it sits in, and to a particular way of treating making.  This is one of the craft schools of which Arrowmont is a peer, and Penland School of Crafts and Peter's Valley School of Craft and a few others.  These are rarified environments in which students are immersed in studio time and make in a thoughtful, concerted way surrounded by about a hundred other people that are all doing the same thing at the same time.

It is a safe environment for exploration, a real place for making for the sake of making, and a supportive place for failing forward in all the best ways.

I have taught at Haystack a few times during smaller, three-day sessions, and this summer was honored to be asked to come and lead a two-week workshop in which we disassembled two pianos and built experimental musical instruments out of them, much like at Arrowmont in summer of 2016.

This time the students were younger, and much less unfettered by "musical norms" than one might have expected.  So they made some really weird, very interesting instruments.  An interesting thing about using piano parts is that most students so far have gravitated toward stringed instruments.  This makes sense, but this time one student made a couple of shakers, which was a nice departure.  Here is what they came up with:

A bass/guitar zither.  The Bass stings are on the right of the instrument, at the top of this photo.

This is how you play the bass/guitar zither.
A noise maker walking cane.

When you put the bottom of the cane on the ground, the bridge strikes the strings and makes noise.

This was an attempt at a pedal-operated keyboard.  It did not get finished, but it was a very interesting attempt.

This students made a whole series of objects.  First up:  A shaker filled with rocks from the beach.

The back of the shaker.

This is the companion piece to the shaker. It is a carved ukulele.

While waiting for glue to dry