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HomeArts & CultureMusicCrafting Harmony

Crafting Harmony

Photos by Daniel “Keebler” McKay

Tucked somewhere in the space between the Kawkawlin River and his own vivid imagination sits the workshop of luthier and slide guitarist Jason Mills.

It is from the locale that Mills creates and crafts a wonderful line of stringed oddities and accessories. As you enter the shop you see it is evenly split between tools of the wood crafting trade and an eye-catching assortment of guitars of unusual designs.

Incorporating anything from driftwood to faux road signs to cutting boards, over the years Mills has developed a signature ability to turn almost anything into a serviceable slide guitar. 

As he tells it, a few things drove him to pursue this vocation that has wobbled between a hobby and a career for nearly two decades.

A retired journeyman electrician, Mills learned many of the skills to make instruments from his grandfather, Alton Conklin. Conklin picked up the art of making “makeshift” instruments, like cigar box guitars, during summers in Highwood, Michigan. Along with washtub bass, the cigar box guitar was a staple of barn dance bands back near the turn of the 20th century.

Encouraged by local players Larry McCray and Cash O’Reilly, and by his own curiosity, Mills continued to refine his designs and his understanding of the various elements that informed the sound and playability of a slide guitar. Some of those elements remain random in a product line based largely on found or repurposed materials. The rest became figurative levers he learned to pull to get consistent results.

“Everything plays a part in the sound of a guitar. Wood, bridge, pickups. How you attach the neck. It all matters.”

Mills guesses he has produced somewhere around 2,500 guitars at this point, with the examples sitting around his shop representing a mix of his favorites and well-intentioned rejects.

Cigar box and similar guitars are typically meant to be played in slide style. Often using alternative tunings or even “missing” a few strings, pitches and chords are created with a smooth, round slide. These may be made out of glass, bone or steel, depending on a player’s preference. Some will even get creative and use anything handy, with anything from a beer bottle to a battery sufficing in a pinch or as a schitck.

If there is a standard feature of a Mills design, it is that there are no standard features. Guitars and basses might be six-strings, or they might only have two or three. Tunings vary based on what works best with the guitar and its tone once it is produced — open tunings, unison tunings, and various string gauges. The designs are really only bound by Mills’ imagination and the unique variety of parts available from a growing legion of specialty parts suppliers.

As Mills explains, “Cigar box guitar has really taken off since I started in it. You see players like Samantha Fish playing a gas can guitar as part of her show.”

Mills’ designs have been featured in national media, like Guitar World Magazine, and he is now well-connected in the world of rustic instrument builders. 

His work has also branched out into amplifiers. An amp stack featuring an “Electrolux head” and a “whiskey barrel cabinet” is a current example of that craft.

Mills also has plans to get out more as a performer, as years of building, testing and demonstrating his instruments has allowed him to build his own signature style and repertoire.

It’s hard not to come away inspired by a visit to a spot like Mills’ workshop. It is a place that oozes creativity. There’s a similar feeling when you grab one of his guitars and work through the familiar yet strange world that exists in parallel to the standard tunings used for guitar and bass.

There is also some irony that an endeavor that started with picking up a few pieces of driftwood turned into something that is about keeping things alive. Traditions are passed down. Trees are given another long-term task, strapped up with steel and brass, well after they thought their days were done.

Now that’s a full life’s work.

Follow Highwood Guitars on Facebook.

Matt de Heus
Matt de Heus
Despite his background in chemical and manufacturing engineering, Matt's true passion lies in music. Matt has received local awards from REVIEW magazine, recognizing his achievements in country songwriting, single releases, music videos, and more. His captivating song "Gone" has garnered particular acclaim. Alongside his musical pursuits, Matt is an accomplished freelance writer, lending his expertise to REVIEW magazine. He now joins LLL as their resident music expert. By following Matt and LLL, music enthusiasts can stay informed about Michigan's exceptional artists, captivating venues, and remarkable music scene.
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