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Making music: Local pickers craft their own instruments

For most people, the desire to build a musical instrument is culled from a belief that if you really want a specific sound, you have to create it yourself.

For most people, the desire to build a musical instrument is culled from a belief that if you really want a specific sound, you have to create it yourself.

To David Mack, however, it was more of a desire to muzzle his brother-in-law. The Fargo man was tired of hearing his cowboy poet brother-in-law Shadd Piehl kick off readings with the outrageous boast, "I am a member of a one-man jug band and we are Frog Point Landing."

The poet's math was a little fuzzy but his ideology was solid - to be a member of his group you had to make your own instrument.

Mack did just that, constructing a stand-up bass out of objects found along the Red River and scraps lifted from neighborhood trash.

A handful of area musicians have submitted to their imaginations and crafted their own instruments. The bassist and fellow Frog Pointer, guitarist Steve Beckermann, show off their creations tonight at the Hotel Donaldson.

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Moorhead musician John Peterson displays his handiwork Friday night during a singer/songwriter showcase at the Great Northern Restaurant and Brewery.

Though he calls his instrument "the ugly bass," Mack takes a certain amount of pride in his construction.

"Everyone thinks building basses and guitars, there's a precise art," he says in his living room/practice space. "I fall back on where there's a will, there's a way."

That will took six hours to complete a modified upright bass over one weekend. The instrument is essentially a box made of salvaged raw lumber, a pine 2-by-4 for a neck, maple flooring for the finger board, acoustic pick up stuck to the body with putty and bones (he thinks deer) as the bridge and nut.

The only part of the instrument purchased is the $120 set of strings, which are tuned with a B,-inch box wrench, which is currently lost.

With no woodworking skills, Mack attacked the wood with a Skil saw and chisel. The roughhewn quality and the lack of sanding or finish has led some to refer to it as the "grain silo." The au naturel appearance has its advantages - when gig time comes, Mack straps the lumbering bass to the top of his car and drives to the show.

The guitarchitect says people often behold the instrument with a sense of disbelief, and questions about the construction "tend to be punctuated by the word, 'dude.' "

Bassist Bill Law, who performs tonight with Frog Point Landing, doesn't use the word "dude," when talking about the bass, but is impressed by it.

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"In some ways it's sort of a hideous recreation of a stand-up bass, but genius in that he used discarded materials," the musician of 41 years says. "It's got a big, fat, beautiful round sound and it plays nice. It's half-art, half-instrument."

Mack's second stab at constructing an instrument is more conventional. Slightly. The electric bass has a vaguely Stratocaster form, as if it were raised on growth hormones.

What the "ugly bass" lacks, the "Flintstone bass" has in abundance. There are fine woods, finishes and even tuning pegs that don't require hardware. It also weighs three times as much as most electric basses.

Mack says his constructions fit in nicely with the organic flow of Frog Point.

"The fact that I can make it musical is an accomplishment," he says. "The three of us have different approaches that complement each other."

Shirking shortcuts

Beckermann is a good complement for the bassist. When Mack was starting his second construction, he consulted his band mate, who has built three guitars, one mandolin and a number of dulcimers.

The guitarist started making instruments a decade ago. After repeatedly asking his father-in-law questions about woodworking, Beckermann received a stack of wood and a blueprint for a flat top mandolin.

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His first steel string guitar was constructed from two pieces of wood - one piece rosewood and one piece mahogany.

"This was an experiment," he says, estimating the wood cost $40. "Most of this came from Menards."

A year later he spent almost 10 times as much on finer woods, constructing one with a spruce top, rosewood back, black ebony fret board and mahogany neck.

The first one has a quiet, colder, more precise sound and must be played attentively. The newer guitar has a louder, warmer, softer and richer sound.

To form the wood, he first dampens it and then heats it with a hot iron, bending it around a form. He's started using three 150-watt bulbs as the heat source for 10 minutes to achieve the figure.

The final details are the hardest part, getting the neck set for final play and getting a good joint between the body and neck. If the frets are poorly set there's not much to do to save the instrument.

"Shortcuts don't save any time. Take time to do it right the first time because it's hard to go back and do it again," says the father of two. "If I make one guitar a year, I'm doing pretty good. That's my goal."

Smoking guitar

John Peterson would probably align himself more with Mack's aesthetic sense. The Moorhead entertainer's first construction was an electric cigar box guitar.

With a maple 1-by-2 for a neck, Peterson carved holes on the lid of the wooden box, and then had his wife, a Minnesota State University Moorhead physics instructor, solder the wiring.

The first time he played the ciguitarbox was at a church talent show.

"It was kind of like when Dylan went electric," he recalls. "I don't think the senior citizens liked it but the kids did."

The rudimentary instrument suits Peterson's musical style. Raised in North Carolina, he holds a degree in Appalachian studies and sprinkles his performances with banjo, dulcimer, spoons, washboard, traditional story telling and is working on learning to play the saw.

"I like bringing something different to the mix," he says.

His next project is an acoustic mailbox guitar, which features a Yamaha neck he bought from eBay bolted on to a domed mailbox. He hopes to have it done by an April 22 show at Ristreto Coffee & Tea.

"It's a challenge because I'm not much of a wood worker," he confesses. "You don't want to build a nice acoustic guitar the first time, so that's kind of how the electric cigar box came along."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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