Making Dead Wood Sing

by Namali Premawardhana

When it first comes into the back of the store, it is only a roughly hewn tree-trunk, sometimes with the bark still on, but Jason Booth hears music in it.

So he sets to work, to have the wood cut to the required length and then sent through the bandsaw to be sliced to the right thickness. Once it’s been through the planer Booth holds the piece up to his ear, lightly between his thumb and the knuckle of his forefinger, and taps it, very gently.

And like he knew it would, the wood sings.

Booth’s eyes go wide as the ringing sound reaches his ear. Even before the wood is book-matched with the grains symmetrical and given any real shape, in his mind, it has shape and personality. While the top has braces vacuum-glued onto them to further define the sound, the sides are soaked in water, steamed between hot lights and steel moulds and then put on keeper forms to set into the correct curves.

The owner of Dead Wood Guitar Company is in his workshop, building a guitar.

“It’s like opening a Christmas present every day,” he says. “Coming here is really not like work, it’s almost like fun. Every day you come in here and every time you take a piece of wood and start working with it, it’s almost like a new toy!”

The venture is only two years old, but Booth is satisfied with the progress they have made.

“Its going pretty good,” Booth says. “it’s like any business, really busy sometimes, sometimes not. But we’re having a lot of good response – people really like what we’re doing.”

In the last year, 50 to 60 guitars have passed through the workshop at the back to the front showroom and out to different homes. Booth is currently working on 15 more pieces.

When he first began teaching himself the craft of the luthier in 2004 though, work was much slower. He was a carpenter who created interior fittings for homes, and assumed that combining his love for music with his craft would be a simple affair. But the art of guitar-making was not as easy as he thought it would be.

“I actually trial-ed and errored it through and made a lot of mistakes” Booth says, laughing. “I started out thinking I built this great guitar and looking back – oh my god – that thing is terrible. I wouldn’t dare show it to anybody!”

By 2011, seven years into the journey of stumbling four or five hours a day through teaching himself the trade, Booth was confident enough to open up the showroom on the Macon highway. But his dreams don’t stop at the Athens Perimeter.

“I’m actually working on my own line,” he says. “That’s my whole ultimate goal, to have my own line of guitars that are sold nationwide or even worldwide.”

One thing that Booth wants not to change is his process of building a custom guitar. Michael Doke of the Rick Fowler Band knew exactly what he wanted for the sound and look of a new electric guitar when he first met Booth about getting one made. Demanding as Doke was, Booth had everything he wanted.

“We spent a month or so going back and forth trying to design and decide what would work for me,” Doke says. “The guitar turned out to be a beautiful guitar, and it sounds fantastic!”

All of the pieces hanging in Booth’s showroom have a rich and resonating sound. They are also very mellow and haunting in tone because he likes to put the sound hole on the bass side of the bridge and experiment with different types of wood and brace patterns.

With Booth, a lot of love goes into the process of shaping his custom-built guitars.

“Back and forth, back and forth, for an hour or so” he gently shaves the back of the neck, testing the smoothness under his palm from time to time because “this is where you rub your hand, where you’re playing.” When he is satisfied with the neck of the piece, the fretboard gets the steel pressed into it, and the ornamentation begins. This is inspired work.

“When I went to a guitar shop I’d look at all the guitars, and they’re beautiful, but they all really just looked the same,” Booth says.  “Obviously you could pick them up and play them and they have different tones but everything just looks the same and it’s just kind of boring to look at. Nobody’s doing anything different, nobody tries anything different on the acoustic guitar, and I’m like you know what I’m just going to go on the other end of the spectrum, really go different with it, try something different, new, odd.”

“And I’ve had some strange requests,” he says, with an amused smile.

One of the most unusual is for a piece he is currently working on, setting shark teeth deep into the wood of the fretboard, in the shape of a fish-hook. But he is very cool with that.

“We actually let you design it so you pick out everything that you want,” he says. “You pick out the wood and the body size and the body style and have it sound how you want. The inlays, every piece of it we set down and go through it and you pick out everything you want. Then we build it. So it’s absolutely 100 percent custom to what you want. It’s not ‘we got this, this and this and you pick one of the four’.”

The effect of the shark teeth is surprisingly wonderful. The dark resin which the animal-parts sit in complements their ivory color, making them look like secret treasures hidden in deep water. Another of his favorites hangs in the showroom, maple leaves in all the glory of their autumn colors blowing over the top. How does he get the colors?

“Not with a fifty-thousand dollar machine,” he laughs, but the Pinterest way, “with an ink-jet printer and a roll of freezer paper!”

Once the ornamentation is done, the sound holes are cut. These too are, some of them, quite crazy, reflecting further on Booth’s creative strength. A popular sound hole design is the company logo, the skull that he jokes one day will be branded “like the Georgia ‘G’ or the Nike ‘swoosh’.” Another he is quite proud of has the head and upper part of the body of a snake coiling out of it, it’s tail flicking out of a second hole on the opposite side of the box. He pulls out all the stops, seemingly every time.

Finally, the different pieces assembled, and the guitar is on its way to the “final destination” to be brought to life.

For Booth, building a guitar is not simply about creating a musical instrument. Its about taking the tree that has already died and shaping it into something you can give new purpose to.

In Booth’s own words, “When you pick up a guitar and you play it, you’re putting your lifesong into it, it’s like you’re bringing it to life.”

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2 comments

  1. This is a good piece, Namali. It’s informative and engaging. My favorite line was “And like he knew it would, the wood sings.” Nice!!

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