Within the mid-Seventies, William Eaton, then a current enterprise college graduate coming from a protracted line of bankers, opted to pursue a decidedly unconventional path. He teamed up with fellow guitar fanatics John Roberts and Bob Venn to kind one of many first guitar-making faculties, Roberto-Venn College of Luthiery, in Phoenix, Arizona—all whereas residing within the desert in his Citroën station wagon. Eaton additionally began constructing his personal uncommon devices, like a harp guitar and a double-necked quadrophonic guitar. He would throw the latter—together with a Honda generator, just a few amps, and a handful of 100-foot cables—in his automobile, drive out to distant places, and play for hours, the canyons and wildlife serving as his solely viewers.
Whereas Eaton has made a bunch of equally unconventional devices within the a long time since then, some even displayed in museums, he has helped college students learn to construct rather more easy guitars at Roberto-Venn. Graduates from the college have gone on to work in just about each a part of the guitar trade, together with the best ranks—to call only a couple, Mike Voltz, former vp at Gibson, and Steve Nall (profiled within the January/February 2023 problem), director of producing at Collings Guitars.
Eaton has additionally been musically energetic through the years, having launched greater than two dozen albums impressed primarily by the pure world, and incomes 4 Grammy nominations. He performs solo, often collaborates with Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai, leads the William Eaton Ensemble, and performs with the Knowledge Tree Ensemble and the Electrical Harp Guitar Group.
I spoke with Eaton over the cellphone to study extra about his distinctive background within the guitar world. In our dialog under, he displays on how he obtained into lutherie, the evolution of Roberto-Venn, and his ongoing ardour for unconventional devices.
What’s your historical past with music?
I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and began taking part in ukulele once I was seven years previous. Not lengthy after that, I took up tenor and commonplace guitars. I performed in bands in highschool, however once I went to varsity, I bought my devices for some purpose. I want I nonetheless had my stereo Gibson ES-345, in addition to my burnt red-orange Fender Jaguar—each would have been very helpful devices at this level. However I missed taking part in the guitar and my dad and mom despatched a little bit Goya parlor. Then I wished a bigger guitar. I went to retailer after retailer for 4 or 5 months, and I couldn’t discover one which I preferred. None of them have been straightforward to play, as they simply weren’t arrange correctly.
How did you get into lutherie?
At Arizona State College [ASU], the place I used to be finding out enterprise, a man was going door to door exhibiting a guitar he had made. I virtually purchased it on the spot, simply because it was arrange correctly. He had made the instrument at Juan Roberto Guitar Works, not too removed from the college, and I assumed I may discover a guitar there that was even higher. I keep in mind getting into and simply being transfixed by the odor of rosewood sawdust and the sight of all of the guitars hanging on this previous Quonset hut.
That’s the place I met John Roberts. He thought I used to be there to enroll in his guitar class—proper on the entrance of the constructing there was this little signal that learn “Juan Roberto Guitar Works: Construct Your Personal Guitar.” And I mentioned, “No I simply got here to see if there are different devices on the market.” I keep in mind going again to my dormitory and considering, “When will I ever have an opportunity to make a guitar? I ought to do that.” And that’s once I determined to make my first guitar; it was 1971, and I used to be 20. If I had purchased any a kind of devices that I noticed at Juan Roberto Guitar Works, I by no means would have been excited by making one. I cherished that guitar, and I performed it on daily basis. I assumed it could be a one-time expertise. I couldn’t think about myself being a guitar maker or having something to do with that.
How did it flip into one thing aside from a one-time expertise?
After ASU, as an MBA scholar at Stanford College, I used to be in a brand new enterprise challenge administration class, and we needed to write a marketing strategy. Simply two nights earlier than I obtained that task, I had this very vivid dream about constructing one other guitar. I keep in mind getting up early within the morning and making a drawing of it. Once I obtained the task to do a marketing strategy, I assumed, “Properly how a few guitar-making college?” I figured I’d go right down to Phoenix, construct the guitar that I noticed in my desires, and collect data from John Roberts and Bob Venn, who had come to work with him by that point. I put collectively a 60-page marketing strategy and handed it in for my task. Later that spring, I made a decision to actually do the guitar-making college, and John and Bob each have been all for it. In order that’s how it began.
Did you’ve another lightbulb moments?
I keep in mind seeing a documentary about Harry Partch, an American composer who designed and constructed some very distinctive devices, largely percussive and some stringed devices [many from found objects], and he was one of many first Twentieth-century composers to work with microtonal programs. [Partch invented an octave with 43 pitches. —ed.] After I noticed the documentary, a lightbulb went off for me, and I wished to make stringed devices that have been fully totally different. So, I constructed a quadrophonic guitar—a 12- and seven-string double-neck.
What have been issues like for you within the early days of the college?
I’d’ve been 24 years previous once we began the college in June of 1975, and that’s once I graduated from Stanford. I used to be as interested in beginning that enterprise as I used to be going to dwell within the desert. I had zero cash, and I keep in mind making $100 a month for the primary 4 months, so it was economically environment friendly to dwell there with my automobile, simply exterior of Phoenix. It was a really fertile interval in my lifetime of understanding the biosphere and understanding learn how to dwell in an area. I realized all in regards to the desert natural world and what you could possibly eat, surviving on all the pieces from cactus fruit to mesquite husks and mesquite beans. I used to be content material with my little knapsack and a sleeping bag, and that’s how I existed for a pair years.
What was your function on the college at the moment?
I used to be the individual dealing with the enterprise facets; I didn’t need to go within the pink, so we didn’t borrow cash. What I dropped at the college was budgeting and advertising. Utilizing a pen title, I wrote a narrative in regards to the college that Guitar Participant journal printed [in 1977]—again in these days you could possibly simply submit an article—a protracted function with images. That stored college students coming to our college for years.
What formed the college’s evolution?
Properly, should you look in the beginning of the college, you see one thing that comes into form virtually by chance. John Roberts brings his wooden to Arizona and begins an import hardwood enterprise. In the meantime, Ron Carriveau and Carl Samuels are two guitar makers in Phoenix. John meets them impartial of one another, they usually each inform him, “You’ve obtained this wonderful stockpile of wooden for guitars, Nicaraguan rosewood and mahogany.” We ended up utilizing these woods for greater than a decade in the course of the early college’s basis. So simply ranging from the useful resource, you’ve one thing that’s virtually self-guided.
John had by no means imagined being a guitar maker and by that point he would have been in his late 50s. Bob Venn labored with Semie Mosely of Mosrite guitars. Bob knew Leo Fender and was early on in a profession of creating electrical guitars and repairing guitars. So, the college was formed by two distinctive people. After which a 3rd individual, myself, comes alongside that is aware of sufficient about enterprise to make it into the executive facet of the college.
So the shaping of the college was by three people who had a reference to each other and located their option to what a faculty is. And what has additionally formed that have nonetheless to at the present time is the requirement that college students construct one acoustic and one electrical guitar—and nothing from a package. They see every instrument proper from the start, from the wooden milling and understanding of the place the timber come from.
It feels like understanding the sources of the woods is a vital a part of the work.
Whenever you lower open a tree, you’ve an entire totally different reverence for the expertise of that. I began the Knowledge Tree Institute, a useful resource website the place I’ve collected details about how timber talk with each other, the lives of timber, and obligations for guitar makers in understanding a few of these relationships.
Inform me about your work as a participant.
I can’t say I’m an excellent technical participant. I studied classical guitar for some time, and I used to be fairly good, however I wasn’t a Christopher Parkening or a Julian Bream. And once I made that first uncommon stringed instrument I assumed, “Hmm, I could make stuff alone and it’s simply going to be what it’s.” It was primarily for the love of sound and sound texture and tone poems and improvisation that form of created a profession in music and efficiency, which I by no means actually imagined—I’ve made round 27 albums now.
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My newest album is named Spiral Rendezvous. My good buddy R. Carlos Nakai performs Native American flute on it—he got here up with that title. It was serendipitous as a result of he didn’t know that I’d been engaged on a spiral-shaped instrument. I ended up utilizing it on the album, and should you take heed to the title observe, the place there’s a modulation from C main to C minor, you’ll be able to hear the strings on both facet of the fretboard. It’s form of sitar-like, however once you strum these it’s a really speedy cascade of notes. Due to how shut the strings are, it feels like a sitar.
Are you continue to constructing devices, and if that’s the case, what’s in your workbench?
I’ve all the time obtained one on my bench. I’m at present engaged on a spiral Fibonacci instrument. There are six banks of strings, with six to eight strings on every financial institution, and once you pluck a financial institution you get a form of chord cluster. I’m form of anxious to get completed, as a result of it’s a distinct idea altogether.
This text initially appeared within the March/April 2023 problem of Acoustic Guitar journal.