By Zac DelVecchio
In a world where boutique luthiers seem to be coming quite literally out of the woodwork, the bandwidth for unique seems to be getting thinner. While many acoustic makers all make extraordinary instruments based on golden age classics or cutting-edge technology, there seems to be a dividing line between the two worlds. Canadian luthier Reuben Forsland breaks that line by blending traditional luthier practices and finding inspiration from unique and exotic sources. The results are exquisite sweet-sounding instruments and wildly unique.
Guitar Connoisseur: How did you start getting into guitar building?
Reuben Forsland: I was a carpenter my whole life and went to buy a guitar. At the time, I built my longboards, Street skates, and even an electric cello. I was standing in the shop looking at this instrument I was about to purchase when I decided it was time to make a guitar. I built my first guitar in 2008 and have been a full-time luthier since 2013.
GC: How did you find that transition from carpenter to luthier?
RF: Knowing the tools was half the battle and allowed me not to think and create. I feel this gave me the initial freedom and confidence to dig into guitar making. I wanted to challenge myself more. I also love the challenge of bringing in woods that would be frowned upon or questioned. A lot of the acoustic world is not as purist as the classical world, where tradition is everything. I didn’t want to look at designing instruments this way. I wanted to use the materials and decide how I wanted to use and maximize them, not be limited to the “rules” say I can use.
Your instruments are unique both in material choice and in design. Tell me more about that.
I look at building instruments the same way a musician looks at music. There are different kinds of music, each distinct and their own, just like different kinds of luthiers. While the typical acoustic luthier is more classic in the study, in precision, much like a classical musician, I wanted to go the route of Nirvana! I wanted to make something the way I wanted to. Of course, I needed to appreciate and learn the traditional ways to create my work, but I ultimately wanted to be limited only by my inspirations.
Each instrument I make has a story to tell, and for me, the woods are story pieces and storytellers. I search for what inspires me and connect with it. There are so many stories that can be written. For my brand, I want my pieces to be individual. They’re something more than just the instrument itself.
GC: Why acoustic over electric?
RF: I used to be into triathletes and loved the pain and mental challenge of it all. The stress, the effort, an acoustic guitar is much like this! I love the risk, the patience, and the care needed. I love the challenge of designing an instrument that needs so many factors to be considered and executed perfectly to create a beautiful sound.
GC: Your bracing is very interesting; how did it come about?
I use the eclipse bracing on the back and Martin X style on the top. I chose that both from the initial design challenge perspective but also from a tonal standpoint. The back actually is braced in equal dimensions. The idea was how can I have structural strength with a single pivot point. This allowed me to make a thinner back but have the strongest possible structure. This also allows me to play with other materials that otherwise could be considered too fragile.
GC: Another different approach is your use of carbon fiber in your sides. What inspired that?
RF: I use carbon fiber rods in the neck, and I use the sandwich on the sides because of its strength. It holds true flatness. For the sides, I use a Mahogany/carbon/mahogany sandwich then the outside wood. The benefits of this are like having the drum skins on both sides; It’s stronger and more kinetic. The strength is crazy with the triple lamination as well. I found it the most intriguing because the carbon fiber added no tonal changes outside of the structural changes. Since the carbon fiber is laminated between 2 pieces of wood, it acts more as enforcement than anything else.
GC: Your body shape plays between modern classics such as Klein and traditional shapes. What made you go this route?
RF: I’m not trying to be modern or traditional, really; I’m trying to find somewhere in between. The body matters very much, but for me, the tone is what matters most. I look to maximize any body size. I want a good-sized lower bout. I notice modern guitars are really right around the waist and have smaller tops. My thought is that the wider waist has better tonal transfer.
GC: Tell me about your bridges.
RF: I wanted a bridge that transfers the energy with no sharp points like transitional bridges and better holds the vibration. The tension of the low E, A, and D strings is distributed to the soundboard through the lower right extension. The high E, B, and G tension extensions are on the higher left side of the bridge – effectively shortening the distance between the front of the bridge with the guitars’ front edge to tighten or brighten the sound coming from those higher strings. Because of the feet, this allows me to thin the bracing and produces a 25%-30% lighter bridge.
GC: You designed a guitar for Slash, correct?
RF: Slash commissioned a guitar from me in July. In May 2014. I wanted a guitar that was one of a kind for Slash and began to search for tonewoods that would really stand out. We used back and sides from “The Tree” and ancient glacier Sitka spruce dating back to 1000 BCE.
This guitar challenged me because of the material choices but is a great example of how my inspiration process typically works. The world around me constantly inspires me, and the rosette design came to me while walking along the ocean. I found a broken piece of electrical equipment that reminded me of a guitar volume dial. I immediately brought it home and cleaned it up. I eventually decided to inlay the material into the guitar alongside Ebony and pure silver wire. I wanted the guitar to be even more unique and wanted to source something from Jimi Hendrix to include on the guitar.
GC: Is this what started the Jimi Hendrix project?
RF: It was! I wanted to incorporate actual Hendrix pieces into the build because, to me, he’s the guitar God of Gods. I wanted Slash to have a piece of Jimi every time he picked up the guitar. I knew I had to find something for him. After 3 hours a week and 5 months’ worth of searching, I finally was able to get in touch with the current owner of Jimi’s childhood house. I was imagining Hendrix playing the broomstick guitar I’d read about and thought of just how powerful a moment that was.
I found the current owner from an article from a Seattle periodical that had talked about the owner assisting in creating a new studio. I contacted the studio owner, and he made the introduction. The next day I was driving down from Seattle and got to pick through the wood.
GC: What was the process like after you finally received the wood?
RF: I learned that was just the first half of the journey! As I discovered, there is a lot of red tape surrounding the estate, and I had to go through 2 years worth of license agreements to secure the rights and meet approval from all. The results were that I was allowed to make only 10 instruments total.
GC: What parts of the house did you use?
RF: I got to pick through the wood and choose anything I wanted. I chose the floorboards, which were ¾’ X 7″ painted fur. These came from his bedroom and living room. I was looking for light and toneful pieces.
GC: What was challenging about working with this wood?
RF: It was all old-growth pre-WWI wood, so it was dry and, to my surprise, not too hard to work with. The hardest challenge was preserving the aspects of the wood the best I could. This meant keeping flecks of the paint or even some of the nails that held the wood in place. These guitars were meant to be an extension of Jimi, and I wanted you to feel the history not just by holding it but by even just looking at it.
GC: Can you walk us through the design process?
RF: The first 3 guitars had the JH signature on them. I incorporated the paint chips on the rosettes. The first 3 were album or movie inspired. First was “Black Gold,” which was an acoustic album. The second “Rainbow Bridge” because of the movie. The color of the pins inspired me for that, and Lukas Nelson ended up receiving the instrument. “Little Wing” and “Legend” are the next two. Each guitar has to have a story to it, and my goal is to create an experience evoking Hendrix, whether it is his style, his music, or even just his energy.
GC: Are your standard specs brought to these instruments?
RF: I used the floorboards and 3 Ebony strips laminated together and then cut and shaped for the neck. This lamination is then further enforced by 2 carbon fiber rods. I used nails from the house, used them as fret markers, and encircled them with sterling silver tubing. I even used the electrical copper wiring from the home that had been circled with the same sterling silver tubing for the side dots. I chose to use an extra thin polyurethane lacquer to finish the guitars.
GC: Are you expecting to complete them all this year?
RF: I build each instrument as they are ordered and as the inspiration for each design comes to mind. There can and will only be 10 of these instruments, so each must be perfect.
To learn more about JOI Guitars, please visit: www.joiguitars.com