Kevin Zollinger never really thought he would find a link between his bluegrass minor and his engineering technology major at East Tennessee State University.
But he did. And as he carefully crafted the head on the neck of what will be an electric guitar, he reflected that his experience as a musician certainly helped in creating an instrument.
“It gives you a reason to the madness,” Zollinger said.
Zollinger is an ETSU senior in Bill Hemphill’s class on manufacturing technology, where students actually build a functioning electric guitar as their culminating project for the semester.
Matt Crum, a graduate assistant for Hemphill, said the course is a capstone class that encompasses everything stu- dents have learned through the years about manufacturing technology, including computer-aided design programs and woodworking equipment like the computer numerical control machine.
“You have to have a lot of classes before you can get into it,” Crum said of the electric guitar class.
This was the first semester the electric guitar course was offered to the general student population; however, it was previously available as an independent.
“It’s gaining popularity, because, I mean, in the end you end up with a guitar,” Crum said. “It’s your own. There’s not going to be another one like it. It’s quite rewarding, actually.”
Hemphill went to a workshop where he got the idea to let students make guitars. He said the class was not intended to teach students to become luthiers, or people who specialize in building string instruments, but rather to be exposed to each aspect of a design and manufacturing process.
“We’re teaching process here,” Hemphill said. “We’re not teaching people to go out and build guitars, because if you can design and build your own guitar, you can design and build anything.”
The students can do their own fretting, chose the particular kind of wood to use in the instrument and customize the instrument in just about any way.
“It’s one of the cooler things you can do, I think,” Hemphill said.
Hemphill hopes to do a guitar workshop for high school students, because he thinks it would be a good way to encourage interest in the so-called STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math.
Creating an instrument can also be challenging, depending on the instrument.
Zollinger took the guitarmaking course as an independent study this past spring, so he came back to build a banjo for his thesis.
“It’s been a challenge, really, especially when I started trying to model the neck,” Zollinger said. “The banjo neck has been considerably more difficult than a guitar neck. It’s got a lot more curves and more material, angles.”
The students in Hemphill’s class are building five electric guitars this semester apart from their personal instruments. One guitar is for the department, one is for retiring President Paul Stanton Jr., one is for incoming President Brian Noland, one is for donation to Bristol Motor Speedway’s Children’s Charities and the final one is for donation to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer auction next September.
Andrew Smith, a junior, is one of the students making the Komen guitar. The instrument body will be cut in the shape of one of the pink ribbons signifying breast cancer awareness and be made from pink ivory, a rare and expensive wood imported from South Africa.
Smith also plans to make the guitar head in the shape of a ribbon, too.
“That’s the thing I like about it,” Smith said of Hemphill’s class. “If we can draw it, we can build it. There’s no limitations. That’s what I love about it.”