Mother’s Guitar: The Fretboard, A Lifetime Project

Fretboard and a chart showing corresponding notes

As a teenager, I found a guitar at Bill’s Pawn Shop in El Dorado, Arkansas. I strummed a few chords while in high school and figured out the introduction to Fire and Rain by James Taylor. Drumming became my focus, so guitar fell by the wayside.

Years later, while teaching elementary music, I picked up the guitar again and strummed some chords while the kids sang, but never got out of the first position on the fretboard.

While looking at the neck of his guitar, John Prine said, “Most of this is virgin territory.” I could relate. It seems appropriate that another definition for the word fret is “to cause or suffer emotional strain” because the frets of a guitar can be intimidating.

When I retired from education, I decided it was time to grab my 1991 Yamaha guitar and try again. I found a great teacher, Randy Soller in Fayetteville, and we do distance lessons using Facetime. His degree was music and guitar, so he’s helping me explore all that virgin territory up the guitar’s neck while relating it to what I know about music and past keyboard percussion experience. Frets continue to be a challenging precess, but I’m encouraged with progress, and the fun increases as skills grow.

Watching my Pledger Guitar take shape has been fascinating, but nothing excited me quite like seeing the fretboard construction, knowing I’ll spend the rest of my life exploring that challenging landscape. When I pass this instrument down to a grandson someday, he or another family member can take on the fretboard challenge.

Mother set the example as a lifelong learner. I think she’d be pleased to see her gift motivating me to continue my musical learning.

In February, with frets firmly installed, Clayton Pledger tuned the guitar and let it “settle in” for a while as he checked the function and tone of the instrument. He sent the following photos showing the instrument essentially complete and almost ready to ship to Arkansas.

This is the fourth post about this instrument. Earlier posts can be found at the following links.

1 Mother’s Guitar on the Builder’s Bench: Beginnings

2 Mother’s Guitar: A Work in Progress

3. Mother’s Guitar: Calling Our Best Self

Mother’s Guitar: Calling Our Best Self

After six coats of finish

Watching this guitar take form has given me a new appreciation for those who dedicate themselves to a craft. Looking at recent photos sent by luthier Clayton Pledger, I thought of something poet Amanda Gorman said in a recent interview. “Poetry and art means showing up with your best self, whoever that might be, and that in itself is beautiful.” 

Those who create art in any form do their best work when their “best self” shows up. I’ve had the experience of my “best self” playing percussion and, on occasion, my “not-so-good self.” Whoever shows up is evident in the performance or product. A benefit of making music, or art in any form, is learning to call on your best self when needed.

My mother gave her best self to her family and teaching. Reading her journals, I realized she felt inadequate as a teacher. This surprised me because many have commented how much she meant to them as a teacher. Her peers said she was the go-to person if something needed to get done. At my last high school reunion, a friend who is now a doctor and leader in his community told me her class made medical school a possibility for him because she helped him increase his reading speed and comprehension.

Mother’s journal taught be a lesson. I think maybe part of bringing our “best self” to any task is the courage to continue doing a hard thing in spite of inner doubts. I need to remember this when I get frustrated trying to learn something new on guitar.

Clayton did multiple coats of finish on the back, sides, and neck recently. He’ll be spraying coats of finish onto the spruce top, then doing the final sanding and polishing later in the week.

Sanding to level off the finish on back

After the finish on the back is leveled, he’ll spray two more wet coats, level that off with 1500 grit wet sandpaper, then polish it under a buffing wheel. As beautiful as these photos are, the finish isn’t complete.

I knew there were many steps in building an instrument, but following the process gives me a better understanding of the skill and work involved. Clayton said, “It’s always exciting getting the finish done, but once it is, there’s still a lot to do!” I thanked him for putting his “best self” into the work of making this special instrument. Seeing it take form is exciting, and I look forward to playing this musical symbol of the gifts Mother shared during her life.

Still much work to be done

Previous posts #2: Mother’s Guitar: A Work in Progress

Previous post #1: Mother’s Guitar on the Builder’s Bench

Next post in the story #4: 4. Mother’s Guitar: The Fretboard, a Lifetime Project

Mother’s Guitar: A work in progress

Clayton Pledger, Luthier, sent several photos of the continuing work on the guitar that is a gift from my mother, Elsie Warnock. I tell how this little project came about in my previous post, Mother’s Guitar on the Builder’s Bench

Mother made journal entries from time to time. I noticed one entry that mentioned my interest in music generated many gift ideas when I was a teenager. Back then, it was all about drums. One time she selected drum sticks for me only to learn that they were neither balanced nor straight. The sweet owner of the music store, Rebecca Roberson, let me return the sticks and make another selection. Mrs. Roberson enjoyed watching me roll drumsticks across the glass display case until several straight sticks were collected. Then I dropped them lightly on the concrete floor until two rang with the same pitch indicating they were close to matching weight.

I did this stick selecting ritual until my senior year in high school when my percussion teacher, Gary D. Cook, told me about Vic Firth sticks that came from the factory straight and balanced. I’m still using Vic Firth sticks today.

After Mother’s experience picking out my drumsticks, she gave me gift cards for anything musical. I think she would enjoy knowing that an instrument is being created by hand as a keepsake of her memory.

Using a laser to align the neck connection structure.
Guitar neck in early stages.
Some neck shaping and the ebony fretboard in place.
Continued shaping of the neck and headstock
Headstock and fretboard in process.
Slotted headstock taking shape.

This photo gives hints at the future beauty of this instrument. The emphasis is on sound, but this guitar will also be a work of art that would make Mother proud.

Below is a short video from Clayton Pledger’s website.

The story continues at the following posts:

3. Mother’s Guitar: Calling Our Best Self

4. Mother’s Guitar: The Fretboard, a Lifetime Project

Mother’s Guitar on the Builder’s Bench: Beginnings

Me around a year old with my mother and father

I usually walk with a song in my head, especially on long trails. Since music is an important part of my life, I’ll exercise a little personal privilege in this first of several posts that will follow the journey of one guitar.

When I was three years old, my mother took out a small life insurance policy. I can just picture my 28-year-old mom making those quarterly payments of $15.24 in an effort to protect her family’s future. She and my father never made huge salaries, but they saved and planned carefully. At their passing, we were not left with expenses because they had planned and avoided burdening their children. My sister and I were surprised to receive notification of this small life insurance payment resulting from mother’s long-ago paid-up policy.

Mother always encouraged my interest in music. As her health declined, I would sometimes sit in her bedroom and play my guitar quietly during the night while thinking about her life and commitment to our family. I decided to put the small amount of money from her policy along with a death benefit from her teacher retirement toward purchasing a guitar as a keepsake to remind me of her life.

While listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s winter concert, my cousin, Sue, and I were impressed with the sound of one of Mary’s guitars. I found out that the builder was John Greven and emailed him to offer praise for his beautiful work. It was at this point that the thought of having a guitar built entered my mind. I was disappointed to learn that health and age had conspired to put a pause on John’s guitar building. He said it hurt for him to say he couldn’t build a guitar for me.

When I asked if there was another builder he might recommend, he had high praise for luthier Clayton Pledger, who had been his understudy years before. I visited Pledger’s website and listened to recordings there and at other locations before deciding to contact him.

Several large companies and shops build excellent guitars, but I determined that Pledger Guitars were excellent and competitively priced. Having a personal connection with the builder was important to me for this instrument. Clayton had just begun working on a cutaway OM-13 (Orchestra Model) with the qualities I wanted. Since an OM-13 connects the body with the neck at the 13th fret, I decided a cutaway would be best for reaching the upper range. My guitar teacher, Randy Soller, has been helping me learn to play up the neck as opposed to only using a few chords at the low end.

Clayton sent photos from his shop in Portland, Oregon. The Sitka Spruce top and Madagascar Rosewood back had just been cut. I loved seeing wood chips on the workbench surrounding the beginnings of this instrument that would become a reminder of my mother.

A few days later, scalloped Sitka Spruce bracing was in place and the top and back were firmly bound to the rosewood sides. I was pleased with the subtle ebony binding along the edges.

I look forward to Clayton Pledger’s next steps as this guitar takes shape. Below is part of a poem I wrote while thinking about how difficult it must be for John Greven to stop doing this work he loved for so many years. I’m thankful that he was a good teacher and that I’m getting to work with one of his excellent students.

The rest of this instrument’s story can be found at the following posts.

2 Mother’s Guitar: A Work in Progress

3. Mother’s Guitar: Calling Our Best Self

4. Mother’s Guitar: The Fretboard, a Lifetime Project