Local man not only plays music on a guitar, he makes them
By Leigh Ann Rutledge
After completing a “feasibility study” John Ledford was hooked.
Ledford, of Carrollton, retired from the Timken Company in 2009, around the same time he finished his “feasibility study”. Feasibility Study is not a graph or pie chart nor does it have numbers or percentage signs.
Ledford’s “feasibility study” is a child-size guitar he built from scratch. Holding the guitar, he explained, “I made this first guitar to see if I could perform most of the skills to be able to make them. I still have it. I keep it to remind me where I started.”
Ledford is a lutherie; a person who makes/repairs musical stringed instruments plucked or bowed of wood.
Making guitars is what he calls his “play job.” He began piano lessons when he was in the first grade. This gave him the advantage of knowing music and being able to read it before he picked up a guitar at age 15. A self-taught guitarist, he also learned how to do maintenance and repair them.
His goal when he started building guitars was to make guitars a child could hold comfortably and play. “I wanted to build ‘beginner guitars’ for children,” he said. “Before long I had adults wanting them and I began making larger ones.” His large guitars are still a bit smaller than ones purchased at a store but Ledford feels the size is easier for someone learning to play. Thus began, JL Guitars.
BUILD TOOLS, BUILD GUITARS
Once he decided to make guitars, he began gathering tools and ideas prior to retiring. He quickly found out you cannot go to the store and buy tools to make guitars. His love of woodworking provided him an advantage and he began making his own tools. Building the tools helped him create a consistent size of the parts.
Despite working with wood, he’d never practiced the craft of bending wood. His bending machine creates the sides of the guitar. He chooses the type of wood and planes a rough-cut board down to 3/32 of an inch thickness. The pieces are wet, wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in the bending machine, heated and formed and left to air dry.
Bending wood could actually be called the quick part of the job. Once the piece is planed, it takes about 30 minutes to form. It takes Ledford over a month to complete a guitar. He attempts to make at least eight each year.
After the sides have been glued together, blocks, rods and braces are put in place. These are not only to hold the top and back in place, but also affect the sound the instrument produces.
The top and back are glued on and Ledford adds decorative trim. He prepares the neck, which can be thick or thin, according to the player’s preference. A guitarist himself, he admits, players are finicky about the neck of the guitar – the shape and feel of it.
Looking around Ledford’s garage, you notice clamps of all shapes and sizes. “The most difficult part is figuring out how to clamp it and hold all the parts together while waiting for everything to dry,” he stated.
Using a rod for stability, he places wires on the fretboard in the numerous slits used in conjunction with the strings to make notes. Ledford covers the guitar with a water based clear finish with no carcinogens as the finishing touch. He is experimenting with different shades of the finish to see what they produce.
Choose the wood, cut and form it, glue it, etc., and you have a guitar, correct? Wrong. Many things affect the sound of the guitar.
Different species of wood affect the tone. For instance, maple and cherry create a “brighter sound” while mahogany creates a “darker sound.” How porous the wood grain is, is critical to the tone, he explained.
Holes in the top of the guitar body are also a factor. The position and size of the holes change the sound.
“I’ve learned how to voice the guitar,” Ledford explained. “Alternate hole patterns give more possibilities with sound than one large hole.”
Ledford also noted a guitar will sound different in the summer than it does in the winter because the temperature can affect the wood.
One factor that does not affect the sound that Ledford is working on is the decorative or personalization of the guitar. He is in the beginner stages and recently created an inlaid cross on an adult guitar. The pieces of wood were planed to be paper thin.
“You have to jump in and do it,” he stated. “You can’t be afraid. If it works, it works, if it doesn’t, well…”
Over the years, Ledford has had pieces for the burn pile when a piece would crack or break, but generally he uses all the wood he purchases. He has a large barrel where he keeps pieces for future use.
“We as a nation of consumers have consumed a lot of wood beyond its sustainability. A lot of great wood species, such as Brazilian Rosewood, are all but gone and it’s to the point the US Forest Service has to protect these species from poachers,” said Ledford. “I try to use wood species that are produced under sustaining growth practices. I use cherry, walnut, maple; woods that are indigenous to our area. They produce instruments of good tone.”
Ledford has performed and played with numerous people and, he added, has been on stage with some very important people. He has played on stage in Ohio, Indiana and western Pennsylvania. He and friend and musician, John Schaffer of Carrollton, formed the group Truth North and performed.
Ledford has a recording studio in his basement he and Schaffer used to record advertising jingles. He has also recorded several different people, some of them from the local area.
His guitars can be found in various parts of the United States. To date he has made over 60 guitars. Some remain in Ohio. Others can be found in Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas and California.
“I am fortunate to have the contacts I have in the area,” Ledford explained. “I had a guitar for sale at Minerva Music. An oil worker purchased it. When he was sent to Alaska to work, he took the guitar with him.”
Ledford’s son, Clay, also plays guitar and many of his college friends were interested in purchasing John’s guitars. His venture continues to grow.
He does do maintenance and repairs on guitars and can work on violins and mandolins.
One thing Ledford does not do is give lessons.
“I try to take care of kids with instruments,” he said. “I will help them fine tune their skills and advise them.”