Slipstream — Unique Vision of Music
Published September 4, 2020
Local Homemade at Studio 62
Ron Lutz shares about making his instruments at Studio 62, his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
By Bambi Grinder
With Dale McCurry
Photos by Ron Lutz
Lap Steel Guitars
My fascination with instruments began with my grandma. She collects a plethora of unusual instruments and without fail can immediately find a tune, even on those she’s never seen before. I always love the different sounds they produce, wondering who came up with the design for such instruments, how, why? Do those creators already have an idea of how it will sound or does the design just make sense and whatever sound it makes is the right one? Does the instrument dictate the sound or the sound the instrument?
I marvel at the masterwork of an elegant instrument, the precision of craftsmanship in an intricately detailed design. But what I find most interesting are those instruments crafted from unusual materials, like PVC pipe, plants, scavenged wood, marbles, and in one particular beautiful case, pet parrots.
How do these truly unique instruments produce such lovely perfect sounds?
My search begins with our guest for this article, Ron Lutz, photographer and instrument craftsman in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He often repurposes skis for wood in his homemade guitars—and once used a dog bowl for a resonator. He fits into that curious and fascinating category of being an instrument maker and not a musician. I’ve wondered about this since I was a child. My grandfather crafted a truly beautiful violin and wasn’t a musician himself. He liked making things with his hands. Ron is the same.
~ Bambi Grinder
Bambi: Are you a musician?
Ron: No. Not really, I’m more of a work-with-my-hands kind of guy. I’ve attempted to learn to play, but it’s a slow process and I’ve had more success so far in building guitars for people who really do know how to play.
Guitar made from a 2×4
Bambi: Is it difficult for you to build an instrument and not really know how to play it yourself?
Ron: I’ve always had an interest in music, maybe not like some other people, but it’s always been in my life. But like I say, I’ve always worked with my hands. And I’ve always been fascinated with offbeat instruments—sources of sound. I guess that’s where it all started.
Ron’s first banjo made in 1975
Dale: And when did it all start? When did you make your first instrument?
Ron: Actually like back in 1975. I was working at a world-wide company, a manufacturing company, in a machine shop. A lot of the guys were musicians and we got to talking about their instruments, their guitars and how they were made. And I thought I could probably do that. I was interested in bluegrass, this was in Colorado, there was a lot of interest in it at that time. And I thought, ‘I really like the sound of a banjo; I think I’ll make a banjo.’
There was a long span of time between then and now. I’ve only been doing these guitars for two or three years. I’ve always had this banjo that I made. I was pretty proud of it. It’s always been kind of a sentimental thing. I took a couple of years of lessons, but I wasn’t really that accomplished so I kind of just set it aside. But Ron Landis, a local musician [The Hogscalders, Sprungbilly, Opal Agafia and the Sweet Nothings and more], renowned for his playing, his banjo broke so he put out a call on Facebook looking for a loner. So I messaged him saying, ‘You know I’ve got a banjo I made like forty-five years ago, you’re welcome to use it.’ And he thought that was pretty cool and he had a gig that night so I loaned it to him. He liked it and thought it sounded great.
Dale: So is this more a traditional style than what you are doing now?
Ron: Yeah, this was a five-string banjo. I laminated the block for the rim and everything, used seven different pieces of wood, you know got professional components, made my own neck, got tiger eye for the thread markers. Chemical milling out of brass on the head stock. I incorporated some of the stuff I was involved with at work into that. It’s a nice little circle that after all these years of sitting dormant it’s able to actually be used by an actual musician in a real gig.
Dog bowl resonator guitar
Bambi: How and why do you choose the materials you use to make your instruments? The dog bowl is a really interesting choice, I think.
Ron: The cigar-box guitars were born out of poverty in the South. People couldn’t afford an actual instrument so they would often scrounge up something to make their own, like a cigar box, a wire from a screen door, to make music. Blues musicians often started with cigar-box guitars. There is a rumor that even Jimi Hendrix made his own guitar to put music to the songs he wrote. I build a lot of fretless type guitars, though lately I’ve been gravitating to lap steel guitars. I make my own from scratch from local woods. And then I’ve been on a kick of making them from wooden water skis.
Rooster Tail water ski lap steel guitar
Bambi: So it’s not so much using strange materials for you. It’s more about repurposing local materials and making more traditional style instruments with what you have?
Ron: I try to make a local connection, a really special connection with each instrument. Just recently one of the lap steels was made from a big piece of sycamore. When Beaver dam gets full in spring they let out the water and several years ago a friend and I were able to reclaim the wood from several large sycamore trees. That was sitting around for several years, and I realized I can make a nice lap steel out of that. So I used that and sold the guitar last Wednesday at Beavertown Jam to a guy who lives down there, so a local connection again.
Bambi: What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever made?
Ron: Oh golly, well I have to default back to the banjo, I guess. I was amazed at how well it turned out. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Golly, why can’t I do something as good as that?’ 45 years ago, you know. A lot of people have commented on how high quality my stuff is. I guess the other of my favorites are a couple of the lap steels where I used some old Snoopy and Woodstock trainer skis. They sounded great. I’ve always liked Charles Shultz and his characters so it was fun to make them out of that. And I’ve found four more of them with Snoopy and Woodstock that are destined to be guitars.
Snoopy and Woodstock water ski lap steel guitar
Bambi: Do you find that each of the things you use creates a different sound?
Ron: Yes, it depends on the wood and the size of the box. On the water ski guitars, I’ve been experimenting with making a little more acoustic sound which I haven’t been really successful with yet. I’ve come up with resonator boxes to incorporate into them on the back side and that helps a little bit, but still a long way to go to get it to sound like a Weissenborn.
Art Deco lap steel guitar
Bambi: How long does it take you to make an instrument?
Ron: It really depends. If I use a cigar box then the main work is the neck and fret work. I do them all in stages and have a lot of things going at the same time. So it’s really difficult to give a time frame to them. One-stringers on a cigar box doesn’t take a whole lot to do those. You can throw one together in a couple of hours or so.
Dale: Did you say one stringer?
Ron: Typically they are called diddley bows. And there are a lot of amazing players who can do amazing things on one string.
Commissioned 4 string guitar
Dale: Do you sell online?
Ron: I just put one up on Etsy a while back and I have sold a couple through Facebook. One woman requested a photograph of the aurora borealis, but I don’t live near there and I’m very particular about copyrights. So I suggested one of my images I made from Fayetteville Christmas lights. I did like a zoom out and it kind of looked like warp speed from Star Trek. She loved that and I incorporated it into that guitar (shown above). As far as actively marketing, I try to go to a few places to talk to musicians here and there. I don’t have a big online presence except for Facebook and Instagram. I sold a washboard guitar on Instagram.
Thank you, Ron, for sharing with us.
Ron Lutz and his wife Jody Stephenson live the American dream at Studio 62—their gallery and home in Eureka Springs. Ron’s resume of photographic accomplishments includes exhibitions in Arkansas, Colorado, California, and Wyoming; publication in Southwest Art Magazine; Artist-in-Residence award at Rocky Mountain National Park; and historical survey documentation for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. He specializes in black and white photography and has a passion for alternative photographic processes. Read more about Ron at https://studio62.biz/architectural/.
Visit their website for stunning photography by Ron and paintings by Jody. https://studio62.biz
Or visit them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Studio62biz/
More of Jody Stephenson’s art: https://www.etsy.com/shop/planeteurekasprings
Writer and Editor
Co-founder/owner of NoteWorthy Music, Bambi Grinder has spent many years as a shaper of words—writing novels and short fiction (which she prefers in first-person present tense). Bambi is delighted to make this foray into the digital landscape with NoteWorthy Music as publisher, editor, writer, and web designer and developer.
You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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