Give It Back or Pass It On
Homer-area resident David Gerard never took music lessons and can’t read music, but he has an incredible ear for the sounds of guitars. He will, lovingly, pick up any one that comes his way, play it more than ably and expound on its qualities. For listening and playing, he favors acoustic folk music related to working lives —bluegrass, Celtic, and what he calls “sailor trash.”
About 15 years ago, when he wanted to get serious about his own playing and didn’t own more than a beater guitar, he decided to build his own. It helped that he had been building custom homes for years and was known as a fine woodworker. He had a shop and tools, a knowledge of woods, good hands and some long winters. And, he embraced his passion for what makes a beautiful instrument, both in appearance and sound quality. He calls what happened next his “lutherie addiction.”
His first guitar, with parts ordered from the Martin factory, is made of Sitka spruce, East Indian rosewood and mahogany. It is still his “go-to” instrument, and professionals who try it out are amazed at its quality, especially when they learn that it was his very first attempt.
Twelve instruments later (plus another five he helped students build), Gerard can count himself among the small fellowship of luthiers; the number of Alaska luthiers could fit easily into a toolshed and leave room for a bandsaw and a bending iron. A luthier, originally a maker of lutes, is now the name for anyone who builds stringed instruments, especially guitars and mandolins.
In the living room of his hand-crafted barn-style home (a tribute to his New England roots), Gerard showed a visitor that first guitar, now with some well-earned wear, along with his latest, a smaller sized instrument made entirely of American woods, including Sitka spruce from Anchor Point. Increasingly, Gerard takes pride in customizing with delicate (usually Alaska-themed and often humorous) inlay work, and the newest creation sports a Grateful Dead-inspired moose rack, a mountain, the state of Alaska and moose tracks.
He estimated that another partially-built guitar had about 40 hours of time into it, and that 70 hours might complete it. When he works with students, the time expands by three. He says, “I want them to know ‘why’ as much as ‘how.’ It’s fun to hear a former student explain to others all about their instrument and what makes it tick.”
What Gerard wants, eventually, is to build “one of everything,” every style of acoustic and electric guitar as well as mandolins, bouzoukis, and other traditional stringed instruments. So far he has built different sizes of acoustic guitars, with both flat tops and arch tops, and electric models. When his daughter was 15, she built a mandolin with him.
There’s only so much a person can learn from books and experimenting, and Gerard has sought out highly skilled luthiers to study with. Eight years ago he learned of master luthier Nikkos Apollonio, “a brilliant, brilliant guy,” and convinced the elder to take him on as a student. Gerard traveled to Maine and worked with Apollonio for two weeks to learn advanced techniques in sound board bracing and adjustable neck construction.
Two years later, with his first Rasmuson Foundation project grant, he took an advanced electric guitar building class in Oregon with master luthier Charles Fox.
Most recently, with his second Rasmuson Foundation project grant, he attended the American Archtop Institute in Pennsylvania for a weeklong class with renowned father and son luthiers. The archtop, Gerard explains, has a distinctive top carved into an arch and is a unique American style favored for jazz playing. “I wanted to learn the next — if not the top — level” of guitar design and construction, he says.
Guitar building can be a lonely pursuit, “not that fun by yourself.” After his first build, Gerard says, “that’s when I started finding victims to come work with me.” He first invited adult friends to work on their own instruments alongside him. He later invited teenagers he met playing music to do the same, if they would commit to a very disciplined schedule. He provided materials, tools, space and training one at a time, in exchange for their pledges “to pay it forward in a big way.” Each one must, at some point, “teach something of value to another, and keep the circle going.”
Gerard is generous in more ways than one. After watching a pre-teen girl — “a kid with so much passion, amazing and fearless” — play publicly with her father’s big old guitar, he decided to give her a smaller one he’d built. His one condition: she can never sell it, but, if she no longer wants or needs it, she’s to “give it back or pass it on.”
What’s next for Gerard himself? In a few years he’d like to “take a log off,” to change from building homes, cabinets and countertops to building fine instruments exclusively. He has never sold a guitar but plans to begin doing that, building and selling perhaps four a year. He is a strong supporter of vocational education — shop classes back in high school are what got him started — and wants to continue teaching young people. He’s still trying to arrange more study with Nikkos Apollonio, the luthier he holds in highest regard, and to build with him another kind of traditional instrument. Next on his list are a multi-string mandolin; a bouzouki (a Greek instrument with an Irish adaptation); and a parlor guitar, a smaller instrument to take traveling. He also wants to continue having fun with inlays and scrimshaw, giving his instruments distinctive signature themes and embellishments.
Then there’s the old guitar he found in someone’s barn. He’s restoring it with love.