Handmade guitars string together math, science

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The unmistakable riff of The Guess Who's "American Woman" echoed through a lab filled with students making final adjustments on their class projects -- handmade guitars.

Professor Mike Aikens, who is 53, looked like a teenager as he enthusiastically played the chords. He couldn't wipe the grin off his face as he pushed his amp to the limit. His students in this Butler County Community College class appeared to be enjoying every moment of the performance.

"I love it," he said as he put a newly finished guitar through its paces before handing it back to Travis Elder, a student from Emlenton.

Mr. Elder is one of 12 students who built a guitar from scratch as part of a drafting class at the college. Each guitar is an individual creation that both sounds and looks unique. Mr. Elder painted his shiny black and decorated it with white flames.

The paint job was a joint effort between the student and his father, Mr. Elder said.

It's all part of a creative program at the college spearheaded by professor Aikens and assistant professor Michael Robinson of Mars. Both teach in the natural science and technology program at the school and worked together to get a National Science Foundation Grant to find ways to interest students in science and technology as careers.

It was a visit to Purdue, the principal school in the grant program that convinced professor Aikens building guitars would be a great way to excite student interest. "We need to find innovated ways to get young people excited about engineering. As a country we're falling behind," he said.

Professor Robinson concurred, but stressed the class was more than just fun. It's deeply rooted in the curriculum of the college.

"They are getting their dose of science, technology, engineering and math, but they are getting it with something that's very palatable and I don't see anything wrong with that," Mr. Robinson said.

Both professors said they were astounded one day as they worked with students to figure out the correct spacing for the frets in the neck. They found some rudimentary formulas online, but nothing to the exacting specifications they wanted.

Before they knew it, some of the students were doing calculations to determine where to install the frets.

Professor Robinson reflected on what he sees as a longterm win for both students and faculty. "That guitar is something that's going to bring them back to this program. It think it's going to be a matter of pride for them. [They'll say,] 'I built that when I was in college, it was a great experience.' How can you beat that? You can't."

The program is heavy on teamwork.

"The bottom line is, in industry, that's how people work together. You build on each other's strengths," Mr. Robinson said.

The guitar bodies, necks and fingerboards are sent to the school in a rough form. They need to be contoured and fitted to exact specifications. Other parts come from different sources all over the country, something the students coordinate. A lab fee of $165 covers the costs of the materials.

"You're never too old to learn," 49-year-old Ben Faruquee, of Cranberry, said. He's majoring in machine design with computer-aided drafting and said he used a lot of math, physics and graphic design to create his guitar.

"It's a great project because there is a lot of collaboration," he said. "There's various skills involved whether it be electronics, woodworking, assembly, things of that nature and not everybody has them all."

Mr. Faruquee said he had spent 60 to 70 hours since January on the build. Holding his finished guitar in hand, he reflected on the day he and his classmates finished. "It made me smile," he said, "seeing guitars that look good and play."

And that's one of the most important parts of the program. Each guitar must be playable, stay in tune and be tested by Professor Aikens before a grade can be given. Some were perfect this day, but others needed tweaking -- something Chris Hunt, 30, of Slippery Rock was helping his fellow students do.

Mr. Hunt said he loves to collect instruments and hopes to inherit his grandfather's electric organ.

As a painter in construction and at home, he's a man who works with his hands. He shared his talent with the other students to get everything just right.

He said he wants the hand-crafted instrument to be a legacy to his daughter and others in years to come. "It's built sturdy. I think it will last for 100 years."

Doug Oster can be reached at doster@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9177.


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