A World-Class Guitar-Maker Sifts Through the Ashes

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A half hour’s drive from Roseburg, Oregon, the air smells of fresh-cut pine, a fragrance released as a team of loggers fells and clears several thousand charred trees on the property of Todd Clinesmith, a world-class maker of steel guitars. The wildfires that swept through Oregon in September killed nine people, destroyed several thousand homes and businesses, buckled bridges, and gave off smoke that left the city of Portland, in the state’s northwestern corner, with the worst air quality of any place on earth. About half of the state is forest (thirty million of its sixty-one million acres); the wildfires burned more than a million acres.

The fires in Douglas County, south of Eugene and southwest of Bend, destroyed Clinesmith’s workshop. Fire collapsed the corrugated-steel walls, burned a stash of tonewoods, ruined bulky woodworking and metallurgy equipment, and annihilated half-finished guitars. And fire claimed a number of instrument forms and patterns from the workshop of Paul A. Bigsby, a pioneer of electric-guitar design in the nineteen-forties.

Like many other twenty-first-century craftspeople, Clinesmith has practiced craft as a way of life, working at a personal scale and using natural materials and time-honored processes. Fire undid that way of life in a few moments. Now, slowly and deliberately, he is reconstituting it—making forms and patterns that are meant to last the rest of his working days, while keeping in mind how precarious a life it is.

Clinesmith, who is forty-nine, grew up in Los Angeles, and got into guitar-making in his twenties. After making resonator guitars and Hawaiian guitars—acoustic steel instruments—he focussed on the electric lap steel, a descendant of the Hawaiian slack-key guitar that is set on the lap, tuned to a chord, and played with a slide. An aluminum “frying pan” lap steel made by the Ro-Pat-In Corporation in 1932 is often called the first electric guitar. In 1945, Leo Fender, a radio repairman in Fullerton, California, started making lap-steel-and-amplifier sets and then expanded to electric guitars: the Telecaster, the Stratocaster. Lap steel is heard on countless records from the nineteen-fifties: “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Sleep Walk.” The ecstatic swoop of sound that begins the Looney Tunes theme is a lap-steel riff. Sliding or moaning, twangy or atmospheric, steel guitar has since lent texture to records by Pink Floyd, Jackson Browne, k. d. lang, and Ben Harper, who plays lap steels made by Bill Asher. Asher, based in Los Angeles, specializes in wood-bodied steels resembling Gibson Les Paul guitars; Clinesmith specializes in svelte aluminum steels, each about the size of a squash racket.

For ten years Clinesmith moved from one town, and one shop, to another in California and Oregon. In 2009, he and his wife, Shelly, bought property in Douglas County—house, pond, land—and settled there with their two children. They amassed a brood of pigs and goats. Ducks floated on the pond, where the children swam in the summer. Clinesmith built a barn and a workshop that he hoped would be his last; in his free time, he was a steel player in a Western-swing band called the Barn Door Slammers.

Meanwhile, he was gaining acclaim for his steels. He builds about fifty instruments a year: six-, seven-, eight-, and ten-string steels made out of bird’s-eye maple, curly maple, aluminum, nickel, and steel. He gets aluminum bodies cast to his specifications at a foundry nearby. He shapes wooden bodies and makes the pickups himself, winding copper wire around a magnet several thousand times. Customers pay a deposit on the cost (ranging from fifteen hundred to eight thousand dollars) and receive the instrument a few months later. Jonny Lam, who, before the pandemic, was a fixture on the Brooklyn club scene as the steel player in the Honeyfingers, has two Clinesmith steels, one aluminum, the other maple. “There is something magical about a cast-aluminum instrument,” he told me. “It has a zing that is unmatched by any wood guitar.”


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