Music has always played a significant part in my life. The good times, the bad, the sad and the happy all unfolding to a sound track as eclectic as they come. I was a Freshman in High School in 1994, a lot of my friends were in bands and playing guitar and of course, I wanted to as well. I wanted to play the bass. I asked my parents for a guitar and was told that we couldn’t afford it, which was true. I decided right then and there that I was going to make a guitar. I already had the model in mind I wanted to emulate, a Hofner viola bass, just like Paul McCartney’s. I had no idea what I was doing. I knew nothing about guitar construction, the tone woods used or truss rod compensation for string tension. I did have a picture of what I wanted to accomplish, use of the family laundry room as a shop and pure determination.
Using only hand tools and a friend’s band saw, I started to build my first guitar. I had done a lot of things I was passionate about up to that moment in my life, but nothing so completely satisfying as building that guitar. Everyday after school and water polo practice I’d go home and work until it was dinner time, then I’d be right back out there until it was bed time. Nights, weekends and holidays I’d work little by little on that guitar, listening to Beatles music all the while. After a solid few months of working, learning by trial and error and a lot of patience and trips to my grandfather’s garage to borrow tools, the guitar was finally taking shape. It looked like a guitar, now it was time for it to sound like a guitar. I knew nothing of instrument electronics, but lucky for me my Grandfather was an electrician and was happy to help with my project.
I took the guitar body and the six string single coil pick up I bought at a little guitar repair shop on El Cajon Boulevard here in San Diego to my Grandpa. He found some volume and tone pots in his box of parts and with some wire, soldering and a cord jack, my guitar had a voice. Knowing nothing of how a guitar is built lent itself to some non-traditional features and the use of many found and recycled materials; a trait that has stuck with me even as my knowledge of Luthierie has grown and now have access to traditional materials. I still like doing things nobody else is doing and I like using many different materials in my inlay designs that aren’t traditionally used for instruments. I am always looking to raise the bar on my builds. I strive to learn and improve with each guitar. Most of all, I try to have fun.
I finished that first guitar in 1994. I was hooked. I loved every second of building it. To this day I can’t smell Minwax stain and not think of that guitar and the sheer joy I had making it.
Many years passed between that first build and my second. Twelve years to be exact. It wasn’t until I moved to Germany and found the wood shop at the Wiesbaden Army Airfield. Having access to production quality machines and professional woodworking equipment sparked that old feeling. I knew what I had to do and it wasn’t long until I was in the design phase of my second guitar. As much as I love working with my hands and wood working, it may come as a surprise that I have never taken a woodworking course. Not even the popular “shop” class in Middle and High school. I was a drafting kid. I love design and putting pencil to paper.
Knowing that I had a lot of catching up to do I got to work learning as I do best; I bought a few books on how to build guitars. The first was Make your own electric guitar by Melvin Hiscock. That was my only reading material for the good part of a year. The second was Guitarmaking, Tradition and Technology” by William R. Cumpiano and Johnathan D. Natelson. This book was an eye opener to just how much I didn’t know about Luthierie. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention a book that changed my life, The Art of Inlay by Larry Robinson. I’ve joked that I only build guitars so that I can inlay them. (That isn’t far from the truth.) As I studied and absorbed all the precious information these books held, I would try different techniques on scrap wood just so I could associate the words with actual hands-on woodworking.
Days and months passed and my skills and knowledge increased with each chapter. It wasn’t too long until I pulled the trigger and purchased wood and materials for my second guitar. Feeling like I had a pretty good grasp of “how to”, I planned to build an acoustic electric guitar of my own design. Putting all my new skills to the test I completed the guitar in a little over 6 months and I was thrilled with the results. To this day I have never taken a woodworking class, nor have I had any formal Luthier instruction. I still reference my books now and again and have even pioneered some of my own building techniques and jigs. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have taken wood shop, and maybe a few college woodworking courses, but hey, who knows where I’d be now. I’m very happy with the knowledge and skills I’ve gained and how I’ve accomplished what I have in this field.
I prefer to make acoustic guitars, super jumbo bodied acoustic guitars to be specific. I have made several solid and semi-hollow body electric guitars, but my passion is in acoustic instruments. I have always had a fascination with acoustics. I love the Gibson J-200, ES-335 and anything Taylor Guitars has made.
Not only do I build acoustic guitars, I specialize in themed instruments inspired by the San Diego County Fair’s “Design in Wood“ show. Each November the Fair Committee announces the theme for the next year’s fair. From that time until the deadline in late April, I design, build and fully customize a guitar from scratch. I have entered the competition, which is the largest juried woodworking show in the United States, every year since 2013.
Over the past six years I have entered six different themed instruments. My first entry was a Monopoly themed electric guitar. I was granted special permission by Hasbro to use the Monopoly theme. I was honored with the Theme Award that year and have won that honor five out of the last six years. When I set out to design I delve head first into the theme. In chronological order, I have made a Monopoly themed guitar, a Beatles themed acoustic viola bass guitar, a 1920’s style parlor acoustic honoring San Diego’s Balboa Park guitar, an Alice in Wonderland themed Super Jumbo acoustic six string guitar, a Wild West themed thin line electric guitar and most recently, a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory themed Super Jumbo acoustic six string guitar.
Besides these one of a kind builds, I also do custom inlay, instrument restoration, repairs and custom leather work. Some of my more popular guitars are my “tribute” guitars. These are instruments that I build and are painstakingly accurate replicas of some of the most famous guitars ever played. Some of my tributes include Johnny Cash’s 1959 Gibson J-200, Waylon Jennings’ leather bound Fender Telecaster and even Willie Nelson’s “Trigger” a 1969 C.F. Martin N-20 Classical. “Trigger” is fun to play; I’ve made a few of them now and they are always hard to part with.
As I mentioned, I build 100 percent custom themed instruments, so I like to add special touches and unique aspects to really make my instruments stand out. It takes me a full six months from design to final set up. In that time I’m in my shop doing things most people aren’t doing to build guitars. For the Alice in Wonderland guitar, entitled “Curiouser & Curiouser”, I built the neck like a checkerboard butcher block; reinforced, like all of my necks, with a square steel tube non-adjustable truss rod.
The bodies of my Super Jumbo acoustics are very large, allowing for very big sound. I believe in solid construction, the finest materials and attention to detail. When it comes to my themed guitars, it not only has to be a work of art, first and foremost it has to be a fine musical instrument. I believe in making the entire guitar the best it can possibly be. Even the parts you don’t see, like the bracing and the kerfing, are immaculately crafted, some with laminated profiles made of exotic hardwoods.
I like a lot of inlay. I use a lot of mother of pearl, abalone, and many other unique materials you wouldn’t expect on a guitar. Custom touches like hand engraved metal plates, intricately scroll cut sound holes, hand made binding, carved wooden bridges and hand-cut bound and inlayed fretboards. I believe each guitar tells a story and I have the entire canvas of the instrument to do so. Not only do I inlay the headstock and fretboard, I usually have a large scale inlay on the back of the guitar.
Little surprise touches can also be found hidden on each of my instruments. Engraved pickup covers, custom switch plates, pick guards, themed Luthier labels and custom cast tuning pegs. I want people to stop and look at my guitars. I want them to take pictures and talk about them on the drive home. I put every ounce of my creativity, patience and heart into my instruments. The result is a high quality, beautiful sounding, eye catching one of a kind instrument.
Since each of my guitars are unique, I use a variety of woods. I mostly stick with tried and true tone woods; Maple, Mahogany, Rosewood, Ebony and Ash. I also use many woods that aren’t traditionally used in instrument construction. I have used recycled Pine, Wenge, Pallet wood, Zebrawood, Purple Heart and many others. I hand pick my woods based on the specific build that I’m doing. This makes it extremely challenging when it comes to completion time. I don’t build a guitar and just inlay it. Every piece is tailored to the specific theme.The neck I alluded to earlier, for “Curiouser & Curiouser” was made up of 130 individual squares of Wenge and Maple, making a beautiful checkerboard that you rarely see for a guitar neck.
I also hand carved a bridge to look like a rose bush, for the same guitar, out of a solid piece of Wenge. I enjoy using reclaimed wood too. Every guitar I build has at least one piece of wood that is from one (or a few) of my previous guitars.
I have a California Black Walnut tree that grew on my Grandparents’ property. The tree was destroyed in a fire, but the trunk remained. I harvested the trunk and I’m in the process of building a very special guitar from this tree I’ve known all my life. This guitar will be exceptional in every way. I estimate it will take 3 years to complete and I look forward to unveiling it.
As a rule I try not to let myself get tied down with something just because “that’s the way it’s always been done”. I believe in pushing the boundaries of the craft, blazing my own trail and inspiring other builders want to do the same. It’s not just the wood choice that makes a fine instrument. Yes, it has a lot to do with it, and the choices you make most certainly effect the sound of the guitar, but as Bob Taylor proved when he built the Taylor pallet guitar, a great Luthier can build an outstanding instrument regardless of the wood used. I always have this in the back of my mind.
WHAT MUSICIANS LOOK FOR IN YOUR INSTRUMENTS?
I think what initially attracts someone to my instruments are the looks. Most people have never seen a guitar like mine. When I’m at trade shows, I usually have to let people know that its okay to play my guitars. They are often intimidated by the bold looks and think they are only art, doubting they are even playable. I’m often asked “does it work?” and most people seem surprised when I respond with “yes, quite well.”
After all of the design work is done for the theme of my guitar, the sides are bent and the instrument is takes shape I get down to the fine tuning that makes it a cut above the rest. I use a steel non-adjustable truss rod, ensuring the neck stays dead straight without adjustment. I then radius and level the fretboard, fret the neck and then crown and level the frets. There is a great deal of fine detail work that ensures this guitar plays as beautifully as it sounds. Other than my custom themed motifs, quality is what musicians can rely on with my guitars; attention to detail, quality parts, precise woodworking and upscale appointments that anticipate what a player wants to feel and hear in a fine instrument. I get requests from musicians not only for instruments, but custom inlay, set-ups and aftermarket parts like pick guards, truss rod covers and custom tooled leather straps.
I mostly build Super Jumbo bodied six string acoustic guitars. These instruments are hand crafted and designed by me. Each one has a unique theme and I make only one or two a year. I do build other body styles, I have a thin line semi-hollow body electric guitar and a parlor style six string. I also design and build cigar box guitars and amplifiers. I can’t keep those around long at all; people just love them. The Super jumbo is my bread and butter though. I love the size, the delicate radius of the neck, and the sonorous voice. It’s a beautiful thing. I fell in love early with the Gibson J-200. When I started really building guitars, I knew that was the body style that I wanted to focus on. I also like that there is ample room to use for whatever my theme is for that particular instrument. Some of the fun pieces that have graced the bodies of my instruments are clock hands on the Alice in Wonderland themed “Curiouser & Curiouser”, real Winchester shotgun shells on the western themed “Desperado”, authentic game pieces inlayed into the fretboard of the Monopoly guitar and most recently, a sculpted wooden Wonka bar which serves as the bridge on this year’s guitar, “Pure Imagination”. My tribute to the fantastically sweet world of Willy Wonka and5 the Chocolate Factory.
I’m never exactly sure what the next build is going to hold for me and that is difficult because I’m a planner. I would love to have a few different bodies and necks just laying around to get the jump on next year’s guitar, but I can’t. Each guitar is born from the ground up and I believe that inlaying on a pre-made guitar, even if it’s pre-made by me, cheapens the final product. My process is organic, it’s a winding journey that starts in November and ends in May. Each guitar is a story, a work of art and a fine musical instrument. Some day I may have a line of “normal” guitars, with dot fret markers, plain pick guards and simple binding, but that day is not today. Today I build show pieces; amazing musical works of art that get people talking and asking questions. What questions? I don’t know, maybe “when can I buy a normal guitar from this guy?” I’m not sure the answer to that one, but I’ll keep you all posted.
For now, I work directly with musicians. I don’t advertise and my business is strictly word of mouth and from the exposure I receive from the San Diego County Fair’s Design in Wood Show. I am a member of the San Diego Fine Woodworkers Association (SDFWA) and I appear in their woodworkers’ directory, I attend a few trade shows here and there and I do have a website, www.OakCreekGuitars.com. I get quite a bit of business from that. I receive many inquiries from not only the United States, but Europe, South America and Great Britain, most asking about having a custom instrument built, some asking about one of my many themed, tribute or replica guitars or inquiring about an instrument they would like restored or repaired. I pride myself on quality, giving the customer exactly what they want and doing so at a fair price. I also take on repairs and restorations that most shops would not. I remember someone brought in a 1920’s Ukelin, a 32 string lap played instrument, a combination of violin and Hawaiian ukulele, played with a bow and finger picks. I had never seen one in person, but I was eager to take it on. I completed the restoration and it’s one of my favorite pieces.
I have a few tribute artists that use my instruments. One is the very talented Shawn Barker, a Johnny Cash tribute artist based in Las Vegas, Nevada. His show is phenomenal, you should check him out. I’m always open to doing custom builds not only for artists, but for anyone who wants a guitar that is superiorly crafted and has details that are unique to that person. I am always happy to talk with perspective customers, and estimates from my shop are always free.
Born and raised in San Diego, I was lucky to have several world class instrument makers right here in my home town. With Carvin Guitars, Deering Banjos and many other smaller Luthiers in town, I am definitely in the right place. Without a doubt, Taylor Guitars is my biggest influence. The quality of their instruments and their continuous innovations in the industry are truly things strive for. I grew up in El Cajon, the exact city where the Taylor factory resides. They have a factory tour every Thursday and I have taken it a few times, each time keeping my eyes peeled to learn something new. They are happy to show you exactly how they do everything, from their wood stacks to the proprietary side bending machines all the way through the build process to the amazing ultra violet finishing machine. It really takes me aback to see the scale of their operation. Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug have streamlined the entire process into an amazingly efficient fine instrument producing machine.
On the other end of the spectrum are Luthiers that work from their own shops. Not everyone can have the success that Gibson,Taylor and Martin have, but there are world renown instrument builders that with a side by side comparison, can hold their own against the best and largest in the business, That’s what I strive for, that’s what I want to be. People like Luthier Linda Manzer, the mind blowing inlay of Larry Robinson and the fine instruments that come out of the Santa Cruz Guitar Company. I’m also a big fan of Alembic Guitar Co. and Paul Reed Smith. In my opinion PRS is the zenith of what a guitar finish should be. There are so many fantastic instrument makers, I am easily influenced and my range of influence is broad. One day I hope to be the influence for the next generation of Luthiers, until then, I will keep producing one of a kind, high quality instruments.
As I wrap this up I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to talk about my instruments with you and your readers. It’s a thrill for me to get to reach out to so many people who enjoy some of the same things I do. I think it’s important to keep the art and craftsmanship of Lutherie alive. It’s important to share our passions and skills with the next generation and hope that they will do the same. It has been a pleasure sharing my instruments and story with you. Thank you.
Josh Stotler – Owner/Luthier
Oak Creek Guitars
San Diego, CA