By Matt Wehling | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Strings Magazine recently asked bow maker Matt Wehling: Of all the instruments that have passed through your hands, which one do you most wish you could have kept?
If I could have any instrument back in my hands, it would be (gasp!), a guitar. To top it off, it’s not even a particularly well-made guitar. Flash back to the late ’70s. I’m starting to play, and there are no good guitars (even halfway-decent ones) under about $400 (that’s about $1,600 today). So, as a precocious seventh grader, I decided to build my own.
I made a copy of a rather odd electric guitar, the Gibson Firebird. This guitar was designed in 1962 (it hit the market the following year)—not by someone who knew guitars, but by a man who had spent his career designing custom automobiles. It was big, it was curvy, it was voluptuous, and it was gorgeous. A guy who worked at a local guitar store had one and let me pore over it for many days, trying to figure out the little details that made it unique.
The guitar turned out better than I had a right to hope, though I was a pretty confident middle-schooler with a fair bit of woodworking experience. Making that guitar taught me at least five things that still serve me well as a bow maker:
- Thinking a process through and preparation are as important as any other part of the project
- Use the best materials you can find
- There are always people who know more than you do: find them, ask them questions, then shut up and listen
- Don’t try to reinvent the wheel until you understand why the wheel is round in the first place
- The dedication to making the last one percent great is what will set your work apart from others
Twenty years after I made that guitar, I was an apprentice bow maker in France and being pressured to come up with “my” model of bow. At the time, common terminology for bow aesthetics (which is understandably losing favor these days) was to either refer to something as feminine (curvy, light, and petite) or as masculine (angular and a bit more massive). I didn’t want to be in one camp or the other; I wanted to cross over, and was inspired by streamlined trains, 1950s pickups, Marilyn Monroe, bathtub Porsches, and the Citroen DS, and, I would come to realize, the curvy, voluptuous Gibson Firebird. Looking back, I can really see a Firebird influence entering my work in 2001.
Sadly, the original guitar I made was stolen while I was in college. Anyone who has had an instrument stolen knows the sense of disappointment and loss that accompanies one’s memories of the instrument, but I also have a great deal of gratitude for what making it taught me, which is still with me today and continues to inspire my work.