High sound from the lake bottom
Schroon Lake man crafts submerged logs into guitars
SCHROON LAKE — Eric Bright held up a thin piece of Adirondack red spruce and tapped it in different spots.
Knock, knock, knock.
“See, you can hear the nice tone in it,” Bright said. “That means it’ll produce a good sound.”
He did it again with a piece of maple.
Knock, knock, knock.
“It’s a little duller,” he said. “It won’t sound as good as the spruce.”
In a few months that thin piece of spruce will be the top of a guitar, handcrafted by Bright.
Bright loves working with his hands, but his day job never really called for it. He worked in special education in the BOCES system for 33 years. He retired a few years back and now spends his days building guitars out of logs he finds at the bottom of Schroon Lake for his company, BassRock Guitars.
“When I was getting closer to retiring,” Bright said, “I took a course from Dave Nichols up near Malone.”
Nichols is legendary as a North Country luthier.
In the class, Bright learned how to build his own guitar in just one week. He loved it so much he started planning how to make his own shop in his house.
Bright’s house rests on the shore of Schroon Lake opposite state Route 9. There’s a back road that connects to the highway, but that takes a while and might not even be passable during the fall and winter seasons. So Bright and his wife, Mary, normally just cross the lake if they need to take out the garbage, pick up mail, buy groceries or visit Bright’s studio where he houses all his finished guitars. In the summer they take a boat, and in the winter, when the lake is frozen, they walk or ski. Carrying guitars back and forth can get straining, so if the ice is at least 8 inches thick, Bright rides his snowmobile across.
On this day Bright skied across the lake to his house. A little over 100 yards away from his house a group of ice fishers gathered in their hut, hoping to catch some trout or salmon.
The basement is dedicated to the guitar shop. It kind of looks like a smaller version of a high school shop class with a drill press, band saw and belt sander. Clamps and tools hang from the ceiling for easy access.
“It doesn’t surprise me when he says he wants to do something and he does it,” Mary said. “He knows plumbing, masonry, electrical work.”
Tacked to the wall in the basement is a list of female names. Audrey, Belle, Kate and Lucinda are just a few of them.
“You always name your guitars after a woman,” Bright said.
He had two finished guitars in his shop that day. The names are written on the inside of the instruments. He lowered a mirror into the sound hole of the first guitar and read the name. “Rosemary,” it said. He read the next one. Her name was Lucy.
“When you play them both,” Bright said, “you can really tell the difference between Rosemary and Lucy.”
He said that’s one of his favorite parts of his work, when people enjoy the guitars and refer to them by name.
“A lot of people own my guitars who I keep hearing from say, ‘I just love Judith,’ or, ‘I just love Pauline,’ or ‘I love Melody.'”
Rosemary and Lucy are guitars now, but their stories began more than 100 years ago.
From colonial times to the mid-1800s, the logging industry played a major role in the Adirondacks. Logs were transported by way water. At certain times rivers would be full of timber, making the water barely visible. Sometimes the logs would jam, and river drivers would have to get them unstuck with long rods used for poking and pulling. Some of the logs became soaked with water and sank to the bottom of lakes. These are the ones Bright goes after.
There’s a defining feature of the logs from the old days: Each log measured exactly 13 feet, 4 inches long. Bright remembers sitting on the dock of his home and wondering if any of the wood in the shallows was from one of the old logging companies.
“I remember going out with a tape measure with my daughter and measuring it, and sure enough, it was right: 13 feet, 4 inches long,” he said. “So because I have all these crazy ideas, we got a rope around it and we dragged it. I didn’t have a tractor back then, so it took five or six of us to pull that log out of the lake.”
The log sat outside the house for a while before Bright decided to slice it up with his chainsaw. After the first cut, he smelled a sour aroma and thought the wood must be oak. He brought the wood to Nichols, who realized it was actually red spruce, which some consider to be the best wood for guitar tops as it creates a loud, yet smooth tone. The well-known guitar brand Martin used to build its instruments out of Adirondack red spruce, but when supply started to run low, the company switched over to Sitka spruce, which is found in the Pacific Northwest.
“Still a good top for a guitar,” Bright said referring to Sitka spruce, “but not as good as Adirondack red spruce.”
Now every summer, Bright and his daughter Katie snorkel in Schroon Lake, searching for 13 foot, 4 inch logs.
“It’s like a treasure hunt,” he said. “Usually they’re in the shallows. We only can dive down 10 to 12 feet at the most and hold our breath and get a rope around a log anyway.”
From there it’s a straightforward operation. The two muscle the log out of the sand and silt, and tow it back to land with their boat.
“Everybody has these great ideas that are real expensive of how to get logs out,” he said. “We keep it simple.”
Bright is currently taking a break from the spruce and working with maple instead. He and Mary like to spend parts of the winter down in Charleston, South Carolina, where he gets maple and is trying to open up markets down south.
“I’ve got kind of a reputation up here,” he said, “but people don’t know me too well down there. It takes years to get a following.”
A handcrafted guitar can cost from $3,000 to $20,000. Bright said he puts a good deal of time and effort into finding the wood and crafting the guitars, but sells them for somewhere between $4,000 and $6,000.
As the Enterprise visited, Bright was helping his friend George VanDusen build his own guitar. VanDusen owns sawmill equipment and cuts logs for Bright in exchange for guitar-building lessons.
VanDusen sprayed water over two pieces of thin, malleable wood, then bent them, making sure they stayed moist and flexible. These pieces would end up being the side panels for the guitar — the curvy parts.
He knows exactly how he wants the finished product to look: a dreadnought style, wedged body with a cut-out — basically, a large guitar with access to higher notes.
VanDusen lives on a piece of property in Stony Creek that his family has owned for four generations. Like Bright, he likes to work with his hands. In the past he’s made gun stocks and ax handles but never his own instrument. He decided to build his guitar back and sides out of cherry wood because those are the trees that grow on his land.
“It’s mine,” VanDusen said.
Bright has enough Adirondack spruce for dozens of guitars, but VanDusen wanted something more relevant to who he was and where he came from. He put himself through college chopping and selling this wood.
The two huddled around a jerry-rigged mold that manipulates the shape of wood. It pretty much looks like the profile of a guitar placed on top of an electric radiator. Bright said you can buy an official machine that does the same job, but it’ll cost thousands of dollars, so why not just build one?
He and VanDusen clamped down the side panels to the mold, making sure not to crack the wood. They secured one set of clamps — all good — then another, and another and another. The wood began to take the shape of a guitar but also looked way too bent, as if it would splinter in half. If that happened, they’d have to start all over again. But it didn’t. They secured the last set of clamps. The wood was fine.
Building a guitar takes time, and VanDusen said he’s a victim of many hobbies such as hunting and fishing, so it will be a while before he can play the finished product. Still, he approaches the craft of building guitars and everything Bright can teach him with enthusiasm.
“You never stop being a student,” VanDusen said.
With plenty of guitars made and dozens more to make, Bright enjoys and finds meaning in his work.
“It’s nice to know that I have some place to go and build neat things,” he said.
For more information on Eric Bright and BassRock Guitars, visit bassrock.org.