April 15, 2021

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A World-Class Guitar-Maker Picks Through the Ashes

7 min read
A 2020 wildfire destroyed Todd Clinesmith’s workshop.Photograph by Thomas Boyd

A half hour’s drive from Roseburg, Oregon, the air smells of fresh-cut pine, a fragrance released as a team of loggers fells and clears several thousand charred trees on the property of Todd Clinesmith, a world-class maker of steel guitars. The wildfires that swept through Oregon in September killed nine people, destroyed several thousand homes and businesses, buckled bridges, and gave off smoke that left the city of Portland, in the state’s northwestern corner, with the worst air quality of any place on earth. About half of the state is forest (thirty million of its sixty-one million acres); the wildfires burned more than a million acres.

The fires in Douglas County, south of Eugene and southwest of Bend, destroyed Clinesmith’s workshop. Fire collapsed the corrugated-steel walls, burned a stash of tonewoods, ruined bulky woodworking and metallurgy equipment, and annihilated half-finished guitars. And fire claimed a number of instrument forms and patterns from the workshop of Paul A. Bigsby, a pioneer of electric-guitar design in the nineteen-forties.

Like many other twenty-first-century craftspeople, Clinesmith has practiced craft as a way of life, working at a personal scale and using natural materials and time-honored processes. Fire undid that way of life in a few moments. Now, slowly and deliberately, he is reconstituting it—making forms and patterns that are meant to last the rest of his working days, while keeping in mind how precarious a life it is.

Clinesmith, who is forty-nine, grew up in Los Angeles, and got into guitar-making in his twenties. After making resonator guitars and Hawaiian guitars—acoustic steel instruments—he focussed on the electric lap steel, a descendant of the Hawaiian slack-key guitar that is set on the lap, tuned to a chord, and played with a slide. An aluminum “frying pan” lap steel made by the Ro-Pat-In Corporation in 1932 is often called the first electric guitar. In 1945, Leo Fender, a radio repairman in Fullerton, California, started making lap-steel-and-amplifier sets and then expanded to electric guitars: the Telecaster, the Stratocaster. Lap steel is heard on countless records from the nineteen-fifties: “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Sleep Walk.” The ecstatic swoop of sound that begins the Looney Tunes theme is a lap-steel riff. Sliding or moaning, twangy or atmospheric, steel guitar has since lent texture to records by Pink Floyd, Jackson Browne, k. d. lang, and Ben Harper, who plays lap steels made by Bill Asher. Asher, based in Los Angeles, specializes in wood-bodied steels resembling Gibson Les Paul guitars; Clinesmith specializes in svelte aluminum steels, each about the size of a squash racket.

For ten years Clinesmith moved from one town, and one shop, to another in California and Oregon. In 2009, he and his wife, Shelly, bought property in Douglas County—house, pond, land—and settled there with their two children. They amassed a brood of pigs and goats. Ducks floated on the pond, where the children swam in the summer. Clinesmith built a barn and a workshop that he hoped would be his last; in his free time, he was a steel player in a Western-swing band called the Barn Door Slammers.

Meanwhile, he was gaining acclaim for his steels. He builds about fifty instruments a year: six-, seven-, eight-, and ten-string steels made out of bird’s-eye maple, curly maple, aluminum, nickel, and steel. He gets aluminum bodies cast to his specifications at a foundry nearby. He shapes wooden bodies and makes the pickups himself, winding copper wire around a magnet several thousand times. Customers pay a deposit on the cost (ranging from fifteen hundred to eight thousand dollars) and receive the instrument a few months later. Jonny Lam, who, before the pandemic, was a fixture on the Brooklyn club scene as the steel player in the Honeyfingers, has two Clinesmith steels, one aluminum, the other maple. “There is something magical about a cast-aluminum instrument,” he told me. “It has a zing that is unmatched by any wood guitar.”

Clinesmith’s instruments are inspired by those of Paul Bigsby, who has a Nikola Tesla-like reputation as a brilliant, idiosyncratic innovator in the electric-guitar world. Bigsby made electric guitars, lap steels, and custom motorcycles in the nineteen-forties while working at a machine shop in Los Angeles. He built instruments one at a time for musicians he knew. His electric guitar is thought to have inspired Leo Fender’s. But he was a craftsman, not a businessman. When a vibrato unit of his design gained popularity on other makers’ guitars, he focussed on making them—one by one. Overwhelmed, he stopped making instruments, and sold his company, and his patterns and forms—the wooden outlines for his instruments—to Ted McCarty, who helped develop the humbucking pickup for Gibson.

Decades later, Clinesmith acquired Bigsby’s patterns and forms and put them to use. They hung on the wall in the Oregon shop, always near at hand, at once tools of his trade and emblems of the legacy he was carrying forward. On a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville, the guitarist and collector Deke Dickerson identified a three-neck console steel in a back room as one that Bigsby had built in 1948 for the steel ace Speedy West. He obtained it in a trade from the estate of Buck Owens, a proponent of the “Bakersfield sound” and co-host of “Hee-Haw.” It was broken down and water damaged, so he shipped it to Clinesmith.

For a year and a half, Clinesmith spent spare hours in his shop restoring it: maple cabinet, necks, pickups, electronics. “It’s kind of the holy-grail instrument,” he said, “one of the first pedal steels Bigsby made.”

This past summer, Clinesmith was away from the bench, working outdoors, with a chainsaw. The authorities had warned that the 2020 fire season would be fiercer than most, so he thinned out the forest on his property, where some of the trees grow a hundred and fifty feet high. He was especially concerned about the house, which had cedar siding that he’d meant to replace. “Cedar siding is like having kindling as the sides of your house,” he said.

In previous years, wildfires in Oregon had burned mainly in remote forests and grasslands. This year, high winds drove fires toward cities and towns, and the stuff of civilization served as fuel. Fires approached Douglas County swiftly on Labor Day. The Clinesmiths evacuated, arranging to stay with family an hour away. “I grabbed a few of my instruments,” Clinesmith said, “my personal guitar, an old Rickenbacher frying pan, and a Bigsby steel I’d bought.” He spied the Bigsby forms and patterns on the wall—the links between himself and the pioneer. “The pickup pattern kind of looked at me,” he told me. “I grabbed it and put it in the truck.”

The fires came on a scale that would overwhelm the most determined fire-prepper. They rose high above the tallest trees; they burned so hot, Clinesmith told me, that the heated air ignited fresh fire. “I figured the house was gone and I prayed for the shop,” Clinesmith recalled. “It turned out the other way.” The house was spared. The barn was left standing, goats and pigs huddled inside. The workshop was destroyed: walls, roof, lathe, milling machine, drill press, “and all the jigs and molds that I’d been using for at least ten years,” Clinesmith told me, adding that some neighbors lost everything.

He had plenty of good will stored up among steel players. One, Mike Neer, credits Clinesmith with saving his career. Some years ago, Neer, who lives in New Jersey, was among the first musicians to order a Clinesmith steel, a double-neck console. A few years later, thwarted in the music business and short of money, he sold it. He told Clinesmith that he was going to quit lap steel for good. From Oregon, Clinesmith sent him a reason not to: a prototype walnut lap steel. “Some instruments say ‘play me,’ and this one kept inviting me to play,” Neer said, in a video conversation, brandishing the instrument. He recommitted to lap steel and hasn’t let up; “Steelonious,” his 2016 record of Thelonious Monk tunes, was made with a Clinesmith.

As word spread about the loss of Clinesmith’s shop, Neer set up a GoFundMe account for him. Other players considered ordering new steels and paying in full up front. On the Steel Guitar Forum Web site, Clinesmith was stoical: “This is the only life I know and at about 50 years young I am moving forward with vigor. I ask that folks not be afraid to place orders for any of [the aluminum] models with my usual small deposit. And as usual, I prefer no early payments as I like to work for what I get and hate feeling in debt.”

He has rented shop space in Roseburg, and he is assembling fresh forms and patterns, nearly fifty in all, so as to begin making new steels again this year, and for many years to come—“unless things burn down.” When I spoke with him recently, he was about to drive six hours to Reno, Nevada, to pick up a secondhand milling machine he’d bought. I asked him about the future. “I’ve always been pretty self-reliant, and working on the property has kept me strong,” he said. “I normally enjoy this part of the craft”—the pattern-making—“but right now it’s daunting. You peck away a little bit each day. You feel behind the ball all the time.”

As a player, Clinesmith told me, he hasn’t touched a lap steel since before the fire. He is busy reviving his working life, the way he helped revive Mike Neer’s, and the way he restored the instrument Paul Bigsby made for Speedy West. He hopes to ship his first new lap steels in March. Meanwhile, the several hundred steels he made before the fire are in the hands of people who are making bright, sweet, sliding music with them.

Paul Elie


2021-01-28 16:06:55


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