The Quest for Artifacts
Friends of Artifact,
It's been a while since our last post. Here's a personal note from Jes on how he was drawn to the luthier profession.
I have always been impulsively drawn to music. It's amazing to me that I didn't attempt to play an instrument until college. We had a piano in our house growing up, but I never felt any sort of relationship to it. Pianos in my mind have always been very binary. You play a key, you get one type of sound. You get the same sound every time you play it. Skilled players will probably disagree with me here, but I think you understand my drift. Stringed instruments I have always seen as more organic, free-flowing, living things. You play a note and you can bend it into another note, you can slide to another note, pull off and hammer on, you can add vibrato, the type of material you use to pick the note can alter the sound you get. I understood this on a deep level, but was absolutely baffled by the piano. Perhaps that's why I never played an instrument growing up, despite my insatiable need to always be connecting with music.
My first experience with playing guitar was in an elective course I took in college. My parents bought me a La Patrie Etude that they got a great deal on, and I set about learning classical guitar. My instructor was complimentary of my playing. He would tell me "I love your interpretations of these pieces of music, but I wish you would just play something the way it's written for once." My response to this was that I thought I was playing the music the way it was written. I took that as a sign I would probably never be a virtuoso instrumentalist.
Besides, my main draw to music was lyric based. Words have great power, especially in combination with music, and I had always been a talented writer. My approach to music shifted drastically. I picked up the acoustic guitar. Next to the piano, it is probably the most helpful song-writing tool, and as we already established I did not like pianos. The guitar I had, as I've learned since, was very difficult to play and as a result I lost a lot of good habits I had developed when initially learning on a classical guitar. I lost track of playing scales entirely, and forgot the little I knew about reading music. Bad habits formed over the next handful of years, but my song-writing and lyric writing ability caught the attention of someone who is now one of my best friends: Jeromy Darling. He took me under his wing and encouraged me to keep writing and to keep persevering through some very difficult times in life.
I developed an interest, seemingly out of nowhere, in building my own unique instrument. I had picked up mandolin as well in the years following picking up the acoustic guitar, but I wanted more variety. Jeromy had lent me an electric guitar of his, but I didn't like it. That was partly due, as I now know looking back, to it being atrociously set up. I wrote off electric guitars entirely as "not for me." I came across plans to build a cigar box guitar online one day, and decided that would be my next adventure in tonality. My first attempt was a disaster, and I literally threw it out of a window in disgust and cried. I am passionate, intense, obsessive and a perfectionist, but I'm not quite as emotionally unstable as that might make me sound. There were a lot of very difficult things going on in my life other than simply failing to make the perfect instrument in my initial try. I had a solid job that I had been promoted within, and although it compensated me decently I hated going to work. It was one of those jobs where you have all the responsibility, take all the blame and get none of the credit and sometimes you get stuck at work and have to cancel plans with friends. There were other personal trials going on in life as well.
I went back to the drawing board and came up with some solutions to the poor stability issues I encountered in making my first cigar box guitar. My second attempt was successful, and although it's something I look at now and laugh, friends and other musicians were impressed by how it sounded and that I built it with my own hands and imagination and not from a kit.
Fast forward several months and my friend Jeromy presented an idea to me to go out to Philadelphia and learn how to build guitars the right way from an accomplished luthier. It was a scary step, but after thinking about it and seeing Jeromy's confidence in me I thought "what the hell, it's worth a shot." The worst that could happen is I find out I suck at being a craftsman and get re-hired at my old job.
It is incredibly fulfilling to have a profession where I help people make better music by having better tools. As stressful as it is starting a business from nothing but your skill and a small circle of contacts, I could never go back to the 9-5 bullshit. There's nothing like making something out of raw materials, presenting it to a client, and seeing the awe on their face. I'm creating functional art here, tangible tools to help others create the music I want to listen to. I'm taking instruments with potential and making them greater than the sum of their parts. I love it. I'm compelled to do it. I obsess over it. Sometimes I hate it but I can't quit it. Even if I wasn't getting paid, I would find a way to keep doing it.
When you find something in your life that makes you feel this way, I believe the name for that is purpose. Chase after it and don't let anyone hold you back, especially not your own self-doubt. Otherwise you will look back decades from now a bitter old man or woman, always wishing you had taken that chance and wondering "what if?"