Midwest gallery celebrates the art of the guitar

Italian guitar
Italian Matteo Sellas built this guitar between 1620 and 1650. Its sound hole is filled with intricately formed parchment. The instrument is on loan from the National Music Museum in Vermillion, S.D.
MPR photo/Dan Gunderson

A hundred years ago, many guitar makers guarded the secrets of their craft. The only way to learn those secrets was through a lengthy apprenticeship.

Now that information can be found on the Internet, or in detailed instruction books.

Wood choices
Wood for a guitar is chosen for its appearance, but also for its tone. Musicians often prefer a traditional look and feel.
MPR photo/Dan Gunderson

"This is the golden age. It's never been this good," said retired anthropologist Bill Brunton, who builds classical guitars in a small shop in his Fargo home. "The guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. you can go anywhere in the world and you'll find an interest in guitars."

Brunton's interest in stringed instruments started when he was a kid, and he saw a violin built by his grandfather. He began building guitars when he was a college professor.

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Now that he's retired, he's spending a lot more time in the shop. One of his guitars is in the Plains Art Museum exhibit.

Several guitar-shaped pieces of wood hang from a wire stretched across his workshop. He's trying to decide which pieces to use for his next guitar. He spends a lot of time looking at the wood, and listening to it.

"You take this piece here, this piece of spruce. Can you hear that? There's a singing quality as I move my fingers across that," said Brunton as he rubbed the wood with his fingertips. "And if I hold it here and tap, you can hear the tone. So the wood is ready to vibrate, ready to sing."

Listen to the wood
Bill Brunton says choosing wood for a guitar is part science, part craft and part intuition.
MPR photo/Dan Gunderson

It takes about a month to turn these pieces of wood into a guitar with what Brunton called a lyrical sound.

Each guitar has personality. For example, a traditional rosewood and cedar instrument has a mellow sound.

Brunton has a guitar made entirely of maple. It's an experiment, and he admitted the odds are that no one will buy it, because most guitarists prefer a traditional look. But this is one of his favorite instruments, because of its bright sound.

Brunton believes a greater interest in guitar building will lead to more innovation.

I like to think of it as a piece of sculpture that serves a higher purpose."

"Maybe the Plains Art Museum's exhibit here will inspire some young person to start building. It's great. Think of all the enrichment from all of these different ideas," said Brunton. "And that gives the players of these instruments all this to choose from -- all this candy to choose from."

Bill Brunton is a relative newcomer to guitar building, compared with some of the people in this show.

Minnesota luthiers Charles Hoffman and James Olson have been quietly building a national reputation for decades.

Olson recently completed the acoustic steel string guitar on display at the Plains Art Museum. Its fretboard is covered with intricate iridescent inlay. Museum curator Rusty Freeman said Olson has been building guitars for musician James Taylor for 20 years.

Harp guitar
The Gibson company built this harp guitar in the early 1900s. Museum curators were unable to find any music written for the instrument.
MPR photo/Dan Gunderson

"It sort of spread word of mouth from there. Now musicians like Graham Nash and Sting buy work from James Olson," said Freeman. "The upper Midwest has some rather significant guitar makers that are connected and well known nationally. As we pursued this, it really became exciting that we could make that Minnesota, North Dakota connection."

It might seem a little odd to have guitars under glass in a gallery, like fine sculpture. But according to guest curator Steve Beckermann, these guitars are built to please the eye as well as the ear.

"The elements of art brought into it would be the unique features that an individual building brings to a guitar. I like to think of it as a piece of sculpture that serves a higher purpose," said Beckermann.

In addition to the work of many regional guitar makers, the exhibit features a 300-year-old Italian guitar. It also has examples of innovations by famous builders like C.F. Martin, whose sound luthiers have been trying to emulate for decades.

Art of the Guitar is on display the Plains Art Museum in Fargo until June 7.