What do Dave Matthews and the Philippines have in common? A guitar.

Peace Corps volunteer Tommy Schultz is here to tell you all about it. His story begins a monthly feature that will bring you first-person accounts of people of Arts & Sciences who are working and living outside the borders of the United States.

By Tommy Schultz (Environmental Sciences '98)
Schultz

Schultz.
Photos courtesy of www.tommyschultz.com.

Only a few dizzying days after I stepped off a 17-hour flight from San Francisco and into a steamy Manila night, I found myself in a van, bouncing down a narrow dirt road. Densely inhabited huts lined our path, and peaceful views of the Mindanao Sea flitted through the thick vegetation as we sped along. After a bit of searching, we found the winding footpath that leads to Jun Reputana’s legendary guitar workshop in the Philippines Bohol province. The afternoon sunlight streamed through the broad leaves of the banana trees that surround his guitar-making studio. Within, yellow wood chips and hand-cut planks of curing wood glowed like pirate’s gold.

I am in the Philippines serving as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer; I’m helping protect the unbelievable biodiversity of the coastal environment here. I’ve also been a guitar player since my junior year in high school, and rarely do I go more than a day without picking up an instrument. But because of the tight weight restrictions on overseas baggage, my beloved acoustic guitar had to remain in my bedroom back in Virginia while I left to live in Southeast Asia for two years.

Truthfully, I didn’t expect to go two years without playing the guitar. The Philippines is full of great guitar makers, thanks to the 400-year colonization by Spain and their introduction of instrument making. It seemed like it was only a matter of finding the right guitar maker, and I would be back to playing music again.

Jun was sitting on a worn stool outside his workshop when he saw us approaching: me, his high-school buddy John and the staff member from the Peace Corps office in Manila who had told me about the incredible guitars Jun builds. Jun learned to make guitars from his father and makes each one by hand using only locally available materials. He has an incredible talent for building instruments and can make any one you’d like to play. The possibilities might have been endless, but I knew which guitar I would ask Jun to make.

I’ve been a fan of the Dave Matthews Band since I was a first-year at the University of Virginia when the band kicked off their tour to support “Under the Table and Dreaming” in the amphitheater. I never did find the keys to my first-year dorm room that slipped out of my pocket when I was crowd surfing during their encore performance of “Tripping Billies.” At the time I thought the Gibson Chet Atkins SST that Dave used to play was pretty cool — until he brought out his jumbo Taylor W65 12-string when the band first started playing the songs from the album that became Busted Stuff.

So I asked Jun if he could build Dave Matthews’ 12-string guitar.

Jun had never heard of Dave Matthews, but he told me if I brought him a pattern of half the guitar with the dimensions, he could build it.

I had no idea how to make a pattern for a guitar, but I decided to start with a good photo that I downloaded from the web over a crackling dial-up connection. Using Adobe Illustrator, I traced the shape of the guitar body over the photo to create a clean outline that would enlarge easily. With the outline completed, I blew it up to actual size using the real-life dimensions. Finally, I printed the pattern out on three separate sheets of typing paper, taped them together and cut out a paper approximation of the guitar body.

I realized then how large this instrument was actually going to be if this worked.

I think Jun was surprised when I returned to his shop a few days later with the paper pattern. When Jun is happy, a wide smile spreads across his face, and he makes a little clicking sound like the noise a kid makes when he’s pretending to cock a toy gun. As he inspected the pattern, Jun was clicking away and nodding his head. I didn’t really think this paper guitar would become the real thing, but I now had to make a choice.

“Jackfruit or bamboo?” Jun asked.

The best locally available woods for making guitars are jackfruit and, surprisingly, bamboo. I decided to go with the jackfruit wood, because Jun could stain it a dark brown to approximate the claro walnut finish of Dave Matthews’ guitar.

With a handshake and a small deposit, Jun agreed to begin work on the first instrument that I have ever heard of to be downloaded from the Internet.

While Jun built guitars in his open-air workshop at the edge of a small fishing village, I was preparing to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Training lasts for more than two months, and at times I felt like I was in school again. Classes in language and technical and cultural training began at 8 a.m. and weren’t over until just before dinnertime. A few times a week I would catch a jeepney (a local form of public transportation that is a cross between a bus and a jeep) up to Jun’s house to say hi and see how the guitar was coming along.

Each visit to see the developing guitar was like watching an Amish barn being built by hand with organic wooden curves and tightly fitting seams. Jun chuckled at the size of the guitar and maybe wondered how Dave Matthews plays something the size of a small coffee table onstage each night.

Once I was done admiring the progress of Jun’s amazing craftsmanship, we would chat a little while, usually with me trying to practice my slowly progressing cebuano, one of the 17 major regional dialects in the Philippines. But since music was a language that we both spoke equally well, many times we would end up trading songs back and forth. Jun taught me some traditional songs in tagalog, the official national language of the Philippines. I didn’t understand what the lyrics meant, but I won’t forget sitting in Jun’s shop and learning the chords. I even showed him how to play DMB’s “Grey Street,” which Dave Matthews usually plays with the 12-string like Jun was making in his shop.

It takes Jun about a month to build a guitar by hand, and as the weeks went by I was amazed to see how the guitar would change between my visits. In the first week, thin planks of aged jackfruit were cut using Jun’s handsaw to form the resonating back and front of the instrument. Later in the week, Jun had glued the planks together and traced out the complete guitar body.

On my next visit, the front of the guitar lay flat on a workbench, held under tension by what seemed to be about 50 short splints of wood while the glue dried. “X”-style braces crisscrossed the guitar body; I was told the placement of these is very important to the finished tone of the guitar. The sound hole was traced out with an ordinary compass in pencil on the wood. Several roughly hewn wooden blocks were lying on the floor, soon to be carved by Jun into the gracefully arching necks of his guitars.

On my next visit, I was amazed to find that Jun had done it. By done it I mean he had built Dave’s guitar. The fret board still needed to be varnished, but the body was completed. The front of the guitar had a glassy shine, and the sound hole and the entire edge of the top of the guitar were inlaid with black pearl. Each tile of pearl was painstakingly cut from shells that Jun had combed from the mangrove flats across the dirt road from his house.

His pride was contagious when he showed me how each piece was cut perfectly and set into the guitar; he clicked with happiness while he watched me admire his work.

The next week seemed to take forever as I waited for the finishing touches to be completed so we could put a set of strings on it and hear what it sounded like. Finally the day came, and I went over to Jun’s to see his masterpiece. As a little nod to the guitar’s inspiration, the first song I played on it was DMB’s “Grey Street.” The sound was beautiful, with a tone like a pipe organ that boomed out to fill Jun’s workshop.

The day I picked up the 12-string was also the day that I was due to finish my Peace Corps training and have a swearing-in ceremony to celebrate. Jun had agreed to be a musical guest for the night and perform with his son during the entertainment portion of the ceremony. He asked that another volunteer and I  play with them on stage, so we all spent the afternoon learning the songs that Jun wanted to play.

We agreed that Jun should play his new 12-string masterpiece that night for the first performance. We played two songs, a version of Styx’s “Boat on the River” that rocked the house (most people thought Jun had written the song) and a traditional song in tagalog. Jun seemed a little nervous about playing in front of the assembled dignitaries including the chargé d’affaires from the U.S. Embassy in Manila, but once he had the guitar in his hands he had the crowd’s complete attention. When the last note rang out in the humid night air, everyone was applauding enthusiastically. Although it was tough to be sure with the din of the clapping, I think Jun was clicking with pride as he took a quick bow and stepped off the stage.

Adapted from an article that originally appeared in Acoustic Guitar magazine. Read more and see breathtaking photographs at tommyschultz.com.