Grants Pass guitar fabrication class hits all the right notes
Grants Pass High School senior Lily Sloan is an artist, not a woodworker.
A guitar fabrication class was the first time Sloan, like a lot of her classmates, had set foot in the career and technical education buildings on the sprawling campus's west end.
The popular class guides students through making their own electric guitar, hitting all the STEAM education notes while fostering intense student engagement. Teachers and administrators say they have seen ripple benefits in attendance, behavior and confidence.
“We have students in here that that’s the reason they come to school,” Principal Ryan Thompson said.
During a recent class, Sloan was working with drills and saws to create unique fret marks for her guitar. She is planning to study painting in college, but the class has her considering other career possibilities, such as surfboard design.
“This class has really turned me onto 3D objects,” she said.
The class, now in its third year, includes science, technology, engineering, art and math as well as how to use tools and attend to details. Students must precisely calculate parts placements, install electronics and put their artistic stamp on their guitars, among other things.
“It cracks me up when the kids don’t realize what they are learning,” teacher David Brannen said. About half his students would not normally take a building-related class, he said.
The National STEM Guitar Project shows educators how to teach the curriculum. Brannen earned a National Science Foundation grant for a five-day Guitar Building Institute course in 2017 hosted at Grants Pass that included educators from around Oregon.
Brannen is a manufacturing and woodworking teacher, and he doesn’t play the guitar. But he saw an opportunity to capture students who wouldn’t normally take a trades-related class and give them a hands-on experience. Grants Pass included engineering teacher Brenda Bunge and math teacher Elaine Rozell in the training because of the lessons involved.
STEM Guitar provides designs and most of the guitar pieces. Grants Pass buys blocks of alder or poplar for the bodies.
The class costs $175, but the high school works with students who can’t afford it. Students keep the guitars they make.
About 20 students a semester enroll in the class, a mixture of grade levels and students who have taken the class before and who are new to it. Students say that mix is one of the keys to its success, as they help each other out.
The course has a long waiting list, and Brannen chooses who takes the class. He said attendance, grades and behavior are key criteria, a motivation for potential students. He interviews students with problematic records to see whether they are willing to make the necessary commitment to attend every day and work hard. It takes daily attendance to finish a guitar by the term’s end, and a workshop is a dangerous place for disruptive behavior.
For the first class, students choose from seven body shapes. The focus is to build a high-quality, playable instrument. Later classes allow students to indulge their creativity.
Senior Makayln Tucker is making a ukulele in her second time through, the first time that has been tried in the class. Senior Melody Clark’s guitar is an homage to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride.
Senior Shjon Petersen is attempting an intricate carving to look like octopus tentacles.
Some students buy separate pickups and other electronics to upgrade their guitars. And all of them design their own peg heads, the piece at the neck’s top that is a guitar builder’s signature.
The class requires students to use computer-aided cutting machines and hand files. They must wire the electronics in precise sequences and express themselves artistically through paints, shapes and textures. They must calculate cuts and parts placement to a thousandth of an inch and figure out when imperfect is good enough.
“You can always make it perfect in the future,” said senior Danielle Nelson.
Learning you can fix mistakes is an important class lesson, Brannen said, unlike some classes where you are simply wrong.
Senior Ben Hart, who was in the first class, is taking it for a third time. The first time, he had to scramble to finish his guitar on the last day. He said the experience has improved his work habits.
“The stress of procrastinating in this class has put me off procrastinating,” he said.
Volunteer John Page, an industry-renowned master guitar builder, has raised the class’s guitars to another dimension. Page started making guitars at Fender in 1978 and was co-founder of the Fender Custom Shop. He left the company in 1998 and became executive director of the Fender Museum of Music and the Arts. He moved to southern Oregon in 2003 and started John Page Guitars in 2006.
Page’s experience has steered curriculum improvements and helped create templates and tools. Some of the early techniques demanded a high level of woodworking or motor skills. Page believes in setting students up for success so they can spend more time on the science.
The class throws together students from all sorts of social groups, and they tend to bond over their shared struggle.
The class excites students because building a guitar is just cooler than making a bookshelf or lamp stand. Many of the students don’t even play guitar. Some want to learn. Some want to display their work. Others plan to sell it.
The lessons stretch beyond the classroom.
Senior Noah Brelsford is taking the class for the second time. He said he enjoys playing the guitar he built far more than the old Stratocaster he owns. But the real value comes from the repair skills he figures he will need if he owns a home someday.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA