Community volunteer infuses class with meaning
Grants Pass High School senior Brandon Price cut a fret channel too wide, but master guitar builder John Page knows how to fix it. Page regularly lends his expertise to the school’s popular guitar fabrication class. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
After the first term of Grants Pass High School’s guitar fabrication class, student Jake Dutton told the school board that the course was the reason he showed up for school each day.
But there was another reason: a community volunteer who gave of himself.
Nearly the entire class came to that 2018 school board meeting, many with parents, to show off their guitars and offer an emotional testimonial about the class.
Manufacturing and woodworking teacher David Brannen calls the class a labor of love, and students respond to his enthusiasm. But when he started the class three years ago, the entire sum of his guitar building knowledge consisted of a five-day course he took earlier that year.
Fortunately for Brannen and the class, southern Oregon is also home to acclaimed guitar builder John Page.
Page has more than 40 years of guitar-building experience, first at Fender where he launched the Fender Custom Shop known as “The Dream Factory” and now running his own custom guitar brand.
He completes about a dozen guitars a year, and aficionados pay dearly for the fruits of his knowledge.
He gives that knowledge freely and liberally to teens hacking out their first guitars.
“There are kids who need to know people care about their education,” Page said.
Page has been involved with volunteering in schools going back to the 1980s. He helped a couple of high school programs in California and led the Fender Museum of Music and Arts, which offered free music lessons to children. He started John Page Guitars in 2006 in a backwoods shop he built himself north of Grants Pass.
Before the first Grants Pass class began, a student’s grandfather asked Page to get involved. Page did a presentation to faculty and saw how much more help they needed.
“As great as this program is, the teachers are taught in a week,” he said.
In that first year, he visited the class pretty much weekly, often staying into the evening and returning on Saturdays. He showed Brannen guitar-making tricks to make the class more accessible to students new to craft work. He gave out his phone number to every student.
That first class changed Dutton’s life. He had moved to Grants Pass from Arkansas before his freshman year. He struggled to make friends in Grants Pass. He felt alienated. He started missing school and acting out.
The guitar class his sophomore year gave him a reason to come to school, and its structure helped him make new friends. The class throws together students from all different social circles and backgrounds. Students are moving around tables, sharing tools and talking about their projects. They are all working on the same kind of project, but each with their own ideas. They can collaborate without competition.
School Board Chair Gary Richardson said the class has been successful in large part because of the dynamic efforts of Brannen and Page. That combination is hard to replicate, he said, but the formula holds true: Passionate teacher + knowledgeable community volunteer + a project that interests students = student engagement.
“More than half the battle is getting them to want to engage,” he said. “Once they are motivated, the learning happens.”
Page downplays his importance. He said there are skilled guitar makers all over the state who could help a guitar class if asked.
This year, business and personal needs have limited Page’s time in the classroom, but he still tries to get there at least once a month to help with some of the tough spots.
On a recent afternoon, he moved easily about the class, answering questions. He relates to students on a different plane, dealing with them as fellow craftspeople. He’s not a staff member, nor does he particularly look like one with his long white hair and long goatee. He offered technical advice and life lessons.
With two young women, he talked about how long it can take to create art as they struggled with their ambitious design plans. With another, he talked about the best materials for a design and how different textures interplay.
A student showed Page a cutting mistake he made on the neck. They talked over ways to approach the problem, and Brannen learned a new technique too.
“Just because you don’t do it perfectly, that doesn’t make it wrong,” Page said.
Page said that before the class started, he told Brannen he had seen it all. The very first class disabused him of that notion.
Experience tells Page there are certain things you do when building a guitar. Then a student with no preconceived notions starts down an entirely new path.
Page said the students are inspiring his art. He pointed to senior Shjon Petersen’s efforts to create tentacles as part of an octopus motif.
“It’s the bonus plan,” he said. “I’ve never left here not feeling good.”
Students are vaguely aware that Page is famous in his field, but it’s not as if he’s famous to them. They do recognize that a local expert is giving his time.
Senior Lily Sloan wants to be a painter, although building a guitar has made her consider other styles of art. Page helps make the art dream real.
“He’s not some intangible, crazy person,” she said.
Page said it’s a special feeling when you make a guitar for a famous artist. But he soon realized musicians don’t care about “John Page” signed on the back. They cared only about “Fender” on the front.
He said seeing a student finish a guitar was more satisfying than seeing his instruments played on stage.
“At the school, I get to see the magic in a kid’s eyes when they plug their guitar in for the first time,” he said.
Building guitars has become Dutton’s passion, although he and Page both say he was not a natural with tools.
“I didn’t know what a thousandth of an inch was until I started building guitars,” Dutton said.
When Dutton couldn’t pay to take the class a second time, Page offered to pay it for him and let him work it off in Page’s shop. That arrangement evolved into Page taking Dutton on as an apprentice.
Page said he chose Dutton because of his desire. Dutton now helps in the class too.
Dutton left school last year after his junior year, earned a GED and enrolled in Rogue Community College to study business. He has a plan and a dream to open his own guitar shop.
“This program taught me you have to go to college,” Dutton said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA