Ever thought of building your own guitar? It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about woodworking – or even how to play a single chord. Shady Lea Guitars founder Dan Collins and apprentice luthier Ariel Rose Bodman, who teach guitar making as well as building their own custom instruments, know exactly where you are coming from.
About a decade ago, Dan went to Vermont to take pictures for a post-college photography assignment; he came home a luthier – an expert in making guitars and other stringed instruments. Dan, a Matunuck native, was invited to shoot for George Morris, co-founder of Blueberry Guitars, who was working on a book at the time. The two got talking, one thing led to another, and Dan ended up dropping photography as a profession and spending three years learning guitar-making from George.
“It was my first woodworking experience, but I was always into making stuff,” says Dan. “Functional art has always been interesting to me.”
Likewise, Ariel knew nothing about building musical instruments two years ago when she first met Dan, who by then had established Shady Lea Guitars in the Shady Lea Mill in North Kingstown. Ariel, a violinist and singer, walked in the door looking for someone to build her a Saxon lyre, a rare and ancient stringed instrument. Instead, “I got completely hooked on the idea of working on something like that, making it come to fruition and giving it its own voice,” says Ariel, even though the guitar was an instrument she did not play – and still doesn’t.
So far, Ariel has built nine guitars and Dan has 20, many of them commissions from amateur and professional guitarists (the Saxon lyre, alas, has not yet been completed). Even more remarkable are the 60-odd instruments that Shady Lea Guitars’ students have built for themselves over the past three years, many devoting hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to their labor of love. “Making an acoustic guitar is all about manipulating wood and bending it to your will,” says Dan, to which Ariel quickly adds: “And it will fight back!”
“When someone completes an instrument it’s always very emotional,” continues Dan. “It’s exciting to see someone stringing up their guitar for the first time. It’s like something is being born.”
“We love taking on students who have no woodworking experience or even play the guitar, but feel like, ‘If I build it, I will play it,’” says Ariel. “It’s really humbling to know that anyone can do this.”
As Dan points out, working with even the most inexperienced students makes he and Ariel better at their own craft by allowing them to work through problems and learning from the mistakes and successes of others. “Of those 60 guitars, there are many that I never would have designed the way students have done,” says Collins.
Acoustic guitars are surprisingly delicate instruments; they rarely outlive their original owners. Each Shady Lea guitar is made from fine, “instrument quality” wood carefully selected by Dan and Ariel. The materials used – which can include rosewood, mahogany, Western red cedar, Sitka spruce from Alaska, or even “sinker” redwood salvaged from the rivers of northern California – greatly affects the sound each instrument produces. Choice of wood, like the shape and decorative elements worked into the guitar, is very much a matter of individual choice for buyer and luthier.
Shady Lea’s guitar-making classes have rapidly grown to include more than 30 students, and the small company is setting its sights on diversifying its product line: Dan and Ariel just completed their first electric guitar, and want to soon start making bowed instruments like violins, as well.
“I love creating something that is functional and beautiful and expressive,” says Dan of his work. Ariel, whose parents are both professional musicians and who trained as an opera singer at Julliard, revels in the intimate connection between players and their tools. “Having grown up with instruments, I know how much they mean to musicians and how they become a partner in what they are doing,” she says. “Music is so personal, so making an instrument that is equally personal creates a beautiful pairing.”
Shady Lea Guitar Company
215 Shady Lea Rd, Suite 104-107
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