By Jenny Neyman
One might assume that a guitar maker is a guitar player. One would be flat wrong. But that doesn’t mean the maker doesn’t know B flat from A major, or lacks interest in the other intricacies of music.
In the case of Tim Gale, of Soldotna, it’s the very broadness of his interest in music that drew him into instrument making — not only an enjoyment of listening to and participating in music, but a fascination with instruments’ history, culture and engineering.
“It’s this worldwide phenomenon of music we as people just need to have. I think that’s the fun part of it,” said Gale, who handcrafts drums, didgeridoos and cigar box instruments. “That’s the fascinating part of it.”
Guitar types of instruments developed in India, China, Spain and elsewhere — with different sounds and designs, but with enough similarities to bridge those cultural divides. Same with drums, which emerged independently in cultures across the globe, but all coming from a universal human desire for rhythm and music. That universality of connection speaks particularly strongly to Gale’s Christian beliefs.
“All these different drums came from these different parts of the world and some of them are similar in how they’re made but the cultures made them completely independently of each other. And yet there’s this ingrained human need for human expression beyond just our voices, whether it’s drums or stringed instruments or something else,” he said.
Clay, ceramics, pottery, sculpture — that’s more Gale’s bailiwick in the arts. He grew up in Illinois, playing trombone in band as a kid and singing in choir through college. He enjoyed music growing up, but wouldn’t consider himself a serious musician and hadn’t ever become familiar with stringed instruments.
But he is familiar with church bands, and the power music can have to unite worshippers. In Colorado, where he and his wife and kids lived before moving to Soldotna in 2010, Gale worked with a multidenominational worldwide mission organization, and now is active at Mo Adim Messianic Fellowship of Kenai. It was participation in worship music that kick-started his interest in the instruments used to create music. He was at a Christian music festival years ago and was enthralled by the hand drumming going on.
“You get in with these different drum circles, and there’s Native American drums, African, Irish, Middle Eastern, all playing together and they sound great together,” he said.
“I was like, ‘These hand drums are awesome. I need to get one of those.’ But they were way too expensive to buy. So I thought, ‘I wonder if I could make one out of clay,’ since I already have clay anyway,” he said.
Historically, many drums were made out of clay, and Gale found that he could achieve good sound quality with his ceramic drums. But he got frustrated with their fragility, so he started experimenting with wood. Making drums from wood is an age-old tradition around the world, but in today’s world, especially in Western culture, it’s not a tradition practiced with much regularity on a small-scale basis. So where is one to learn the basics, much less the higher-level intricacies?
The Internet, of course. He started by buying shells of African-style hand drums and putting heads on them himself. Eventually he started making the shells, as well, in an ashiko style — a smaller version on the African djembe drum — and branching into other types of drums and making didgeridoos. The pieces have all the finishes of fine woodworking — elegantly carved and shaped, with multiple types of wood joined and inlaid into seamless patterns, yet they have a resounding aural function, as well. Interesting to make, beautiful results and fun to play — all the hallmarks of a successful hobby, the products of which were on display in December in an “Emmanuel” art exhibition at the Kenai Fine Arts Center organized by a woman at Gale’s church.
A few years ago, cigar box instruments struck a chord.
“I don’t even know how I came across something about cigar box guitars, I think it was just on the Internet, but I thought, ‘Oh, that looks cool,’” he said.
Just like that a new project with a new learning curve stretched before him, this one even steeper, given he had less familiarity with stringed instruments to start with.
“I like to challenge myself to see what I can come up with,” Gale said.
Once again, the Internet proved a useful beginner’s guide. Gale got online, finding designs and how-to instructions, YouTube demonstrations, parts retailers and chat rooms for other instrument makers. And once again he took off in his own directions.
“In building them myself I come up with different ways of doing them. Each one I build I do differently than the last. For me, the fun of making it is not just doing the same thing I did before but going, ‘What can I do differently this time?’ Which means a guitar usually takes me a long time to build. I spend a lot more time thinking about it than building it,” he said.
A cigar box, or similarly sized wooden box, serves as the resonator of a basic chordophone, with a wooden neck — even something as simple as a broomstick — and anywhere from one to three or more strings. This design can be used to make guitars, mandolins, bass, fiddles and the like. Early evidence of cigar box guitars dates to about the 1860s. Cigar box instruments were a staple of early jug bands, as most those musicians couldn’t afford “real” instruments, and saw a surge of popularity during the Great Depression. More recently they’ve gained cache among musicians with some big names performing on cigar box guitars, including Tom Waits, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and Ed King of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they’ve become particularly popular among hobbyists and craftspeople, which was Gale’s entry point.
“They’re fun to make. I’ll work on one for a while and get an idea for another one so I’ll start working on that, then go back to the first one. I go back and forth between different projects as I get ideas for things I want to try,” he said.
He started with how-to descriptions and videos online, but he’s long since ceased needing the beginner’s guides. At first, for instance, he was making simple designs, with the neck extending through the box so that the tension from the wires isn’t borne entirely by the box. But cigar boxes are already small, and having the wood neck in the box cuts down on its resonance, so he worked on ways to connect the neck and box without compromising acoustics, and designing enhancements to increase the resonance.
“For an acoustic sound you want as much volume as you can. I always wanted my guitars to be played acoustically so you could sit down, pick it up and enjoy playing it without having to plug it in,” Gale said.
That’s always a treat for him — to have someone play his creations.
“I’m not really a guitar player, myself. When somebody else picks them up and plays them I go, ‘Yeah, that does sound good, cool,’” Gale said. A search for “Alaskancbg” on YouTube will bring up videos of his guitars being played.
Frets, wires and tuning knobs come from suppliers online. He carves and shapes the necks himself. He gets most of his boxes from various sources around town.
“I have a friend who worked at one of those tobacco stores. He would get the nicest boxes that came through and set them aside for me. Of course, now he’s making his own guitars, so I don’t get boxes so much from him anymore,” Gale said.
Gale said that he likes to incorporate objects on hand into his instruments, such as pieces of antler or bone, to infuse a little nature into them.
“I do them because I get inspired to make one, whether that’s because someone asks me to make them one or because I see a box and think I really want to make a guitar out of that one,” he said.
One mandolin that was part of the Kenai Fine Arts Center show in December was made of a smoked salmon gift box with a Native Alaska salmon motif painted on the lid.
“I got to enjoy the smoked salmon and got a box for a guitar. That was a win-win all the way around,” he said. “It was kind of neat to be able to include something that was an Alaskan thing into the guitars.”
And why not? That’s what the style is about — participating in the larger music culture in your own unique way. Musicians share in that culture by playing, and instrument makers can contribute their talents, as well.
“We’re putting all these instruments from all over the world into this awesome sound. I think that’s really cool,” Gale said.
Editor’s note: This story was corrected to note that Gale attends Mo Adim Messianic Fellowship of Kenai, and his YouTube profile as Alaskancbg. The Redoubt Reporter regrets the errors.