Rare skill, unique sound

Guitars favoured by blues musicians in 1920s are making a comeback

When Canadian blues legend Harry Manx first plucked the strings on the guitar that Grant Wickland built, he listened quietly before speaking.

“My, my, away it goes,” Wickland recalls Manx said, as the notes rang out.

That’s what people who try out his guitars listen for, Wickland says. The way the instrument holds a note, the way it rings.

Manx bought the guitar. He said his son would learn to play on it.

If you’re interested in getting your hands on one of these guitars, too – a cutaway parlour guitar made of German silver – Wickland is the guy to talk to. The Salt Spring Island resident is one of only three people in North America making the rare instruments.

Resonator guitars – defined by their spun metal cone in place of the conventional wooden soundboard or face – are experiencing something of a revival, especially among contemporary bluegrass bands.

But they were most popular among 1920s blues musicians. As venues grew and people moved out of church halls and living rooms, they needed something louder than the acoustic instruments they had depended on earlier. The metal cone amplified sound.

“The guitar has a big voice,” Wickland says of the stepping stone between acoustic guitars and the electric ones to come.

Wickland, who also builds banjos and harps, didn’t begin crafting instruments until his 60s.

After learning how to build banjos from a friend, he saw a metal bodied guitar.

“I bet I can build one faster than you,” his friend challenged. And off they went, exchanging instructions and information as they found it online.

While the friend didn’t continue with metal-bodied guitars, Wickland explored more – learning how to sustain a note longer, how to make a deeper sound. “I re-engineer things, as I always do.”

Originally trained as a biochemist, Wickland moved to construction, before he started a pile driving company, where he built his own equipment. So “re-engineering” fits.

He learned about German silver – a nickel alloy of the more traditional material – after building a few traditional brass guitars.

“The transformative thing that happens is it takes brass and makes it look silver,” he says of the material.

“They really look like a ’56 Chevy bumper.”

The tougher material also made for a clear sound – made stronger when he deepened the body and the sound well.

Combined with a few other trade secrets, the result is a very unique, hand-crafted guitar.

Wickland said he’s toyed with the idea of building one of pure silver, but his wife isn’t too keen.

“The price of silver would have to drop rather dramatically,” he said.

That said, if there’s a buyer, he’ll gladly build one. asmart@timescolonist.com

July 2nd, 2015|