Read the full story as written by Ed Berg.
If musical instruments have souls, then handmade ones might start out with more than machine-made ones, and those made out of once-living trees might have even more. People love the stories about the origins of guitar woods, like The Tree; that mahogany log found on a Honduras rainforest floor, or the redwood log found suspended above a ravine in California. Woods from these logs bring premium prices, and are carefully allotted to builders of exceptional guitars.
The Farm Guitar is one of these rare instruments made from storied woods, and built by an exceptional luthier. The woods in the instrument came not from an exotic rainforest, but from a family farm in the Texas Panhandle. They did not cure hanging miraculously over a ravine, but were parts of a water tank and a cotton trailer, or grew in windbreaks, then were dismantled or cut down, and saved in sheds or discarded on junk piles out in the harsh Texas weather.
I started collecting planks and logs from the farm almost as soon as I married into the family in 1967. Discarded wood tends to end up in lawn furniture, picture frames or other forms of re-purposing. I like to believe that the Farm Guitar is the ultimate Tree Reincarnation.
Wood that ended up in the guitar has been out in the weather for about a century, either in use or on a discard pile. The back and sides came from a Black Walnut that was planted during the Great Depression. My wife’s uncle, now 90, watered it as a boy during its first few years. A grass fire took it in 2002, and fortunately it was saved and sawn, and is being resurrected as beautiful family furniture by a cousin in Boulder, Colorado. He re-sawed two back and side sets. At my wife’s mother’s funeral in 2013, I received one set, and my wife’s brother-in-law, Aaron Morris of Thomasville, North Carolina, received the other. Aaron builds traditional Martin and Gibson designs from the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Morris Martin Triple-0 he built for me in 2002 introduced me to the joy of a responsive, beautifully-voiced, easy-playing instrument made to fit my tastes and playing style (back porch ballads).
Jeff Bamburg, a friend and neighbor in Salida, Colorado, builds designs of his own, and is willing try anything that contributes to creating a beautiful, music-making tool. He has a gift for elegance in form as well as tone.
The top came from a plank that was part of a windmill water tank on the adjoining farm of the same uncle who watered the walnut sapling. The grain is dead straight with nearly zero runout, and growth ring spacing runs from about 1/32” down to less than 1/100”. The tree was probably felled in California around the beginning of the twentieth century. The water produced black iron stains that create distinctive banding in the eight matched, perfectly quarter-sawn strips needed to make the 15” wide top. The wood was quite brittle, but when it was glued up, it sounded good enough to try it out. Concerns about splitting gave me the idea to laminate the inside surface with an ultra-light web of carbon fiber. Jeff made it so, and the guitar’s voice proves that it works.
The neck is a fir timber from the frame of a cotton wagon built by my wife’s grandfather in the early 1960’s. The wagon was damaged in a fire at the local cotton gin in the early 1970’s. This timber was about 3”x 4”x 30”and contained several screw holes and scars. Jeff split and book-matched the grain, then shaped it, and filled the holes with black epoxy.
The only wood in the guitar that is actually from a tree native to the Great Plains is Bois d’Arc, or “Wood of the Bow”, as Plains Indians used the wood for their bows. It is also called Osage Orange and Hedge Apple, as the trees are common in windbreaks in Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. It is extremely tough and durable; I bought Jeff a new bandsaw blade when he was done cutting it. I have a Lakota flute made in 1996 from a tree that was thinned from one of the farm’s windbreaks. It not only has a beautiful tone, but has survived numerous soakings on wet canoe and kayak trips without splitting. Jeff made the fingerboard, and I carved the bridge from the same log the flute was made from.
The guitar itself is a twelve-fret Venetian cutaway, very close in dimensions to a Martin Triple-0. The neck is cantilevered, and the bridge is a hybrid of the Martin Pyramid and Belly shapes. It has a full-bodied bass, rich mid-range, and clear, ringing treble with great sustain. The tapered-radius fingerboard is 1 3/4” at the nut, built for finger style playing, but it holds up well when flat-picked. That may be due to the carbon fiber web; who knows? The bracing and kerfing are the only woods not from the farm. Jeff voices his tops by ear and by using Chladni patterns formed by a magnetically-driven top vibrator. It’s a clearly effective combination of art and science.
.22 caliber bullet (shot at a bird by one of the cousins when he was a boy) surfaced while milling the Walnut. It is now memorialized in the headstock above the 4th string post.