Notes from the Road

Curtis Rockwell sells custom-made guitars but gave this one away - on the condition that each successive 'steward' send back tales of its musical journey.

June 07, 2005|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

It's not a found-it-on-eBay kind of guitar. The back and sides are Malaysian black wood. The binding, flamed koa. The sound is as rich as a double latte. There is an inlay of the Big Dipper low on the fingerboard and one of a compass high on the guitar's head cap.

The guitar was clearly built for traveling. So travel, guitar. Change hands and cities and music styles.

Just don't come back without a story.

Guitar makers Curtis Rockwell and Johanna Mutti built the "Traveler" guitar in their guitar shop, Oriskany Stringed Instruments, in Huntingdon, Pa., east of Altoona. The guitar normally would cost $4,300 - but it's not for sale. Last year while attending a folk festival, Rockwell says, it occurred to him to give away one of his high-end guitars. The idea is to allow a musician to have the instrument for three or four months, then pass it along to any other musician.

No strings attached, so to speak.

The Traveler is in the hands of folk singer John Gorka, who played a music festival this past weekend in New Jersey. Before Gorka, the guitar had been played by Doug Anderson, a folk singer and philosophy professor at Pennsylvania State University. And before him, the guitar had started the "Oriskany Traveler Project" in the hands of another folk singer, Karen Hirshon.

Who are these people? In a sense, it doesn't matter. Where will the guitar go next on its magical mystery tour - Maryland? Siberia? Coffeehouses or bars in between? It doesn't matter. The stargazing guitar has no permanent home or owner. It's an open-ended journey.

"It will go until the guitar dies - or gets lost - or stolen and sent to some pawn shop," says Rockwell, 35. "But I'd like to think of it winding up in the hands of a 16-year-old girl playing it for her boyfriend. That would be wonderful."

Think bigger, guitar man. What about Springsteen playing the Oriskany Traveler guitar on an acoustic tour?

"That would be wonderful, too," says Rockwell, who with Mutti was in Baltimore last week showing and telling his guitar-making skills - and his singing - before pupils at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

Rockwell is a geologist by trade (Oriskany is white quartz sandstone) who, by 2001, knew he wanted his life to involve music and guitars, and not rocks. He became a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments. He turned his grandfather's old chicken coop in western Pennsylvania into a luthier's workshop with just enough room for two. Mutti, 23, a biology major who also preferred music, became Rockwell's apprentice then business partner last year. She is thought to be one of the few female luthiers in the country working at a small guitar business.

In their climate-controlled shop, they build three acoustic guitars at a time. Their standard guitars - which can include ergonomic upgrades for disabled musicians - typically are sold to friends and area folk singers. They've made 23 guitars - and one they gave away. It's not every day a small business donates $4,300 of its inventory.

"Well, we can't keep them all," Mutti says.

Rockwell and Mutti decided to ask the "stewards" of the Traveler to not only care for the guitar, but also to keep in touch by sending pictures, sound clips and stories. Call them postcards from The Edge - except from lesser-known guitarists.

Where are they playing the Traveler? Who is hearing them? Some folk festival crowd or teenage boyfriend? What style of music? And how did they meet the person who handed them the guitar for their three-month stint? Did they re-string as instructed? More importantly, is it being used? The last thing the guitar makers want to discover is that the Traveler is cased under some bed - lonely and humidifying.

"It's kind of like putting a child out there and hoping he will write home once in awhile," Mutti says. "It would be nice to hear from them, but if not, we'll just know they are having fun and don't have enough time to write."

The guitar comes with instructions and gear: a black Kyser capo and blue nylon guitar strap. Users are strongly advised to use the accompanying humidifier and to re-string the guitar before passing it along to a trustworthy soul who won't, for instance, pawn the thing.

Inside the guitar, a label tells the back story:

Dear Musician & Friend,

You are holding the Traveler, a guitar crafted by our hands. It is a gift to be shared by those of you who use musical instruments as tools of expression, who share in this wonderful realm called music. Play it. Keep it for a while. ...

We only ask that you share some of your stories, photos and songs with us. ...

Curtis and Johanna.

So far, the story-sharing part of the project hasn't clicked. The first steward, Karen Hirshon of the folk group Simple Gifts, wrote on the company Web site that the guitar was "one of the most balanced, responsive instruments I've played" and praised its "warm full sound." All nice things to mention, the guitar makers say, but more of an advertisement than a story of the guitar.

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