UW-Washington County (UW-WC) is hosting The Art of the Guitar, an exhibition of handcrafted guitars, made by West Bend native, Brian Eckert. The handmade musical instruments along with some of the tools utilized and photos of the building process will be on display in the campus art gallery, located on the second floor of the campus adjacent to the theatre. The exhibit will be open to coincide with upcoming concerts at the campus. Dates include: Friday, November 18 (Venere Lute Quartet concert, 7:30pm), Friday, December 2 (John Doyle Trio, 7:30pm), Saturday, December 10 (Moraine Symphonic Band, 3pm), and Sunday December 11 (Moraine Chorus, 2pm). Brian will be available at the November 18 and December 2 concerts to answer questions about his guitar building hobby. Admission to the art exhibit is free of charge.
Guitar building requires strong woodworking skills as well as an artistic flair and so it isn’t too surprising that Brian’s father, Dale is a carpenter and his mother, Eileen is an artist. Eckert, himself is a toolmaker by trade. He developed his interest in guitar building about seven years ago. His mother was President of the Barton Historical Society at the time and was working with Neil Ostberg of Slinger who did blacksmith work. It turns out that Ostberg also built guitars. Soon after visiting Ostberg’s woodworking shop, Brian decided to build his first guitar. Ostberg had also told him about a website, http://myplace.frontier.com/~nostberg/ that provided helpful information about guitar building. Working with a block of spruce, Eckert used some power tools, including a band saw, table saw and drill press to create the basic shape. Most of the remaining work is done with hand tools – including chisels and planes.
Now an official “luthier” (one who makes stringed musical instruments), Eckert likes the idea of “playing something that you make.” “A lot of art hangs on the wall, but this is art that makes art,” he said.
Each guitar takes about 150 hours to build and Eckert has completed eight guitars (seven acoustic and one electric). As wood is not uniform, each instrument has a different sound. “There are lots of variables when you build a guitar,” Eckert explains. “I try to get it right the first time by tap tuning and checking as I build it.” Each guitar’s rosette is different too. Most are adorned with intricate colored herringbone patterns. One has a beautiful heart pattern done in red tones. Eckert has entered his work in the Washington County Fair where it won grand champion twice, as well as the Wisconsin State Fair, where it took a blue ribbon.
In 2009, when the economy took a nosedive, Eckert found himself laid off. He had built several guitars at this point and unsure whether he would ever be called back to work as a toolmaker, he decided he would learn how to repair guitars as well. Eckert enrolled in Galloup School of Guitar Building and Professional Guitar Repair in Big Rapids, Michigan and completed the eight-week journeyman program that focused on repair and construction. In addition to learning how to repair guitars, Brian learned the industry standards for guitars and was also able to fine-tune his guitar building techniques. His training as a toolmaker, a profession where precision is so critical, helped him succeed. Now when Eckert requires a fixture for a particular repair, he has the knowledge to build it himself.
Brian who lives in West Bend with his wife Sherry and their three sons, Aaron, Kyle and Jonah, wound up being called back to his full time job at Weasler Engineering about seven months later. His love of guitar building and repair now continues as a hobby. In his spare time, Brian serves as the certified repair technician for “Play it By Ear,” a guitar store in downtown West Bend.
UW-Washington County is located at 400 University Drive in West Bend. For information about the Fine Arts program, visit the campus website at washington.uwc.edu or phone 262-335-5208.