While my guitar gently heals

2012-08-28 00:00

IF life serves you lemons, make lemonade — or guitars if you’re John Soderlund. When this guitar-playing psychologist-entrepreneur-artist from Pietermaritzburg smashed his wrist in a mountain-biking accident a few years ago, it seemed like a particularly cruel blow.

He’s been strumming guitars since he was 12 and is an accomplished player.

“I panicked when the surgeon said I may not play again,” he admits. One solution was to play an instrument called a lap steel guitar, which rests on the lap and requires a different wrist action. He set about making one, which, although new territory for his woodworking skills, wasn’t a problem for this self-confessed autodidact.

“The Internet is a treasure trove of information and luthiers [stringed instrument makers] are very generous with their knowledge. There are also really good texts available.”

He chose to use only indigenous wood — because he has a passion for local plants and because “it’s a challenge. It’s never been done before” — and began collecting suitable pieces.

When I visit him he takes me to see his collection stashed outside his workshop under the house. His face lights up as he pulls out thick planks with names like Snake Pod, Hard Pear and Red Ivorywood.

“People contact me and pass on information about where to find wood,” he says, adding with delight that sometimes the source is a tree that’s met an interesting end, like being knocked over by an elephant. He describes the local wood he uses as “exceptionally good and hard. It gives you the resonant qualities that you want and the beautiful figure that befits a high-end guitar.

“I mill it myself and turn the best pieces into book matched [mirror image] tops for the electric guitars.”

Getting the right sound was not as complicated as imagined because with electric guitars “about 80% of the sound is in your pickups”. These are magnets, around which are wound a few thousand coils of hair-thin copper wire. When a string vibrates inside this magnetic field, it induces a current, which is the sound that is sent to the guitar amplifier.

Soderlund describes guitar-making as “meditative’’. It takes him about 90 hours to construct one and he always makes a few at a time. As he’s progressed, it has taken less time and he’s now on number 19. He stopped making lap steels after the first three.

“Once I started it was such an enchanting process I couldn’t stop.

“I was told by one luthier that he had never met anyone who only made one guitar.

“I learnt woodwork from my dad and made a lot of furniture, but it was never as thrilling as this. You build furniture because you need it, but you build guitars because you can’t stop.”

His instruments have won accolades. This year a guitar he entered at the Royal Show won the prize for best exhibit in the woodworking section.

Another experimental instrument, a seven-string, baritone, multi-scaled work of art hewn from Tamboti, Sapele Mahogany and African Blackwood, was also recently judged to be one of the best entries in a global guitar-making competition.

The contest is organised annually by luthiers who specialise in making telecasters, the iconic electric guitar first designed by Leo Fender 62 years ago.

Every year they get together and have a build challenge, which is peer judged.

Contestants have to make a guitar that looks and sounds like a telecaster and then post a video of it being played. They are rated on how “covetable” it is. Soderlund and his “Africaster” came 13th out of 119 who started the competition, which is high praise as, he says, the judgment of his fellow custom luthiers is “exceptional”.

As with most objects made by artisans, there is a big difference between a mass-produced and a custom-made guitar.

“Factory guitars are all exceptionally accurate. I can’t make as accurate a guitar, but I can make one that’s more spirited. If you want a unique instrument with a spirited sound and a really customised look and sound, you buy a custom-made guitar.”

He says the instrument he now plays is much better than any he’s ever bought because it’s better quality than anything he’s been able to afford before.

Uniqueness comes at a price, however.

“Nobody pursues this because it will make them lots of money,” he says wryly.

“Most guitar-makers have a day job and then this is what feeds them. It should make money, but it doesn’t.”

So, while he feels ready to start selling his creations — at R16 000 to R24 000 each — he has no illusions about getting rich.

“I won’t ever make a living out of this, [but] that’s not really the point. If it was, it would lose its joy.

“When you get it right — you take a slab of dirty wood and turn it into a thing that will look and sound beautiful for 60 years — it’s amazing.”

Looking at the sleek objects with their warm, earthy tones and woody integrity, each with its own unique personality, it’s hard to disagree.

And the wrist?

The surgeon was wrong. It’s playing again.


• To see John Soderlund playing one of his Africasters click here.

• To see his guitars click here.

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