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Updated 10:00 AM August 9, 2004



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Spotlight: The music man, with strings attached

If you had asked John Sargent five years ago what his hobby was, he would have had a hard time telling you. But with the help of a few good how-to books and plenty of trial and error, today Sargent is the proud maker of more than two-dozen archtop guitars.
(Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

Sargent, a refrigeration mechanic for the University, had played guitar for 30 years when he became interested in building one. A longtime lover of jazz music, he knew he wanted a nice guitar, but Sargent could not find one in his price range. When his friend loaned him a book on guitar building, Sargent knew what he needed to do.

"I kept saying, 'I can't do this, I can't make this.' But the more I read, the more I started to say, 'OK, this is something I could do,'" says Sargent, a featured artisan in the South University Art Fair July 21-24.

Converting his garage into a workshop, Sargent began building his first guitar from pallet wood. The poor quality of the wood was a challenge he could not refuse.

"I wanted to get the building process in my head and in my hands," he says. "Two knots fell out of the back right away. The wood was cracked, stains were everywhere and it was badly discolored. It was exactly what I wanted."

Archtop guitars, the style Sargent builds, are a unique form of the instrument. Built with a slightly domed or arched back, the hollow creates a more resonant, woodier tone than flattop guitars, Sargent says. The instrument may be constructed from a variety of woods, though Sargent primarily uses pine, ebony and rosewood.

One guitar, marked with Sargent's signature "S" formed from a flattened nail at the top of the fretboard, was constructed out of wood collected from a demolished building site. It is one of the many unique guitars that comprise Sargent's collection.

He occasionally sells one or two of his pieces and admits it would be a fun profession, but Sargent says he plans on keeping guitar building a hobby. Besides, Sargent knows all the fun is in the building, not the sale.

"When I'm in my garage, I have to remind myself, 'Go to dinner, go interact with the family, go to your meeting,'" he says of the Jehovah's Witness Bible meetings that he attends with his family. "I have to make sure first things are first."

At the art fair, Sargent will have many of his guitars on display and for sale. As a first-time vendor, he hopes his guitars get the attention that other, more decorative guitars might receive.

"[My guitars] don't have the bells and whistles," he says of the simplicity of his design. "I look at this instrument like a tuxedo—just keep it black and white."

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