String Music

Tom Bills' unconventional guitars tap the full potential of wood and sound

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Tom Bills takes tight hold of a wadded ball of cotton and rubs on another coat of insect resin, moving in continuous circles, turning the guitar's wood luminous. It's the first of 21 layers, a French polish that dates back centuries.

The rest of this guitar breaks the rules.

Its front gleams smooth and unbroken; its hole hides where no one would look: on top of its curved side.

Just 27, Bills is one of a handful of iconoclasts challenging the guitar's traditional contours and bracing. He makes his unsettling Genesis guitars in his basement workshop in Affton, and they sell for $4,500 minimum.

He also crafts traditional archtop jazz guitars that collectors are paying $10,000 to own. But selling to collectors saddens him a little. He knows they'll cherish the object -- but he builds it for the sake of the sound.

In the 1850s, C.F. Martin Sr. developed the X brace that's still used on virtually every steel-string guitar. Structurally, it's solid. Tonally, it adds nothing. Bills uses arching, sculpted braces instead, deliberately directing the energy of each string vibration. He graduates the thickness of the wood; he curves perimeter bars to narrow the high-frequency vibrations, limiting resistance.

He also puts the hole on the side whenever he dares, leaving the entire length of the guitar front free to vibrate. The method's labor-intensive, but not even the traditionalists can deny its fuller, more resonant sound.

"A hole in front cuts the guitar in half; from the bottom of the hole to the neck is dead as a vibrating space," Bills explains. "Only part of the bass gets transmitted, and the ear has to hallucinate to complete the bottom notes."

His gray-green eyes shine like a cat's. He can talk like this for hours, passion pushing aside his usual shy diffidence. Squatting by a just-finished guitar, he plucks a string. "See how wide it gets?" he asks, pointing to the arc of blurred motion. "Theoretically, when you pull a string horizontally, the ends shorten. That tension causes the bridge to rock, driving the energy to the top of the guitar."

He started thinking about energy when he studied with master luthier Boaz Elkayam, an Israeli with the intensity and flamboyance of his Sephardic ancestors. Elkayam travels the world, lutherie tools strapped to his motorcycle. He appeared at the Sheldon Concert Hall guitar festival several years ago with a lavishly inlaid $60,000 baroque classical guitar, and people clustered around it, oohing. Elkayam walked up and, for some reason, zeroed in on Bills:

"You think you could make something like that?"

Not knowing he was speaking to the master, Bills said yeah, he thought he could. Later he told Elkayam his theories about bracing. Elkayam nodded once, his fierce black eyes flashing:

"Come to Baja and study with me."

Bills, who'd barely ever left Affton, flew to California, walked across the border, took a bus down the peninsula and got lost in a barrio. Elkayam had no address and no phone; he lived on top of a mountain in a pavilion for which he'd built walls. Ten hours later, lightheaded and parched because he was scared to drink the water and he'd used up his cash in bribes, Bills stumbled into the bar where they were to meet and collapsed in a chair. Minutes later the master walked in, also ten hours late, because the Baja race had closed the road.

The next morning they started work, ocean breezes flowing through the pavilion, sunlight streaming across the wood. "He does mostly everything the old way, no power tools," says Bills. "He told me to work in places where they grow grapes for wine because the humidity's stable."

Affton isn't known for stable humidity, and the locals prefer beer. But Bills never planned on making guitars.

He wanted to be a jock.

All through school, he tried. He finally wound up on a hockey team, but he was lousy. He played anyway. And when a girl said he had a nice voice, he should try out for the Lindbergh High choir, he rolled his eyes.

He showed up at the audition unprepared. Pressing her lips together, the director suggested that he sing "America the Beautiful." He shrugged; why not?

He sang one line, and the auditorium fell silent.

It was his first clue.

Next he heard two guys jamming Pink Floyd and begged for a guitar for his seventeenth birthday. His parents bought him a plywood special, assembled in Korea.

He went off to Northeast Missouri State (now Truman State University), joined a frat, found a girlfriend, drifted away from music. Christmas of his junior year, he sat down at the kitchen table and told his mom he was wasting his time. One week later, he'd hauled his stuff home and enrolled in jazz studies at Webster. His grades shot up to A's.

Tuition was steep, though, and he couldn't afford the required jazz guitar. So he decided to make one.

Everybody laughed, said it was too hard. But he took his time, learned how to curve the top, hook the strings to a tailpiece, arch them over the bridge for a thick, liquid sound.

People were impressed. Then, the week after graduation, he helped his dad build a deck and broke every bone in his right hand with the rotor hammer.

"I reacted immediately, cracked them all back into place and went into total denial," he recalls "My bones were grinding and my knuckle was a couple inches lower than it should have been."

The first doctor refused to operate and just clamped the spiral break in place. The second doctor agreed to insert a steel plate but warned that the scar tissue might choke off all motion.

Bills came home in a cast and a foul mood. His mom suggested taking his handmade guitar up to the new guitar center on Watson. Finally, to humor her, he did.

The manager said he'd buy three.

"I wasn't supposed to do anything with my hand," says Bills. "So I made three guitars and prayed."

The lumps of scar tissue dissolved.

He had a career.

"Tom is a very ambitious and motivated young man," says Elkayam, adding that Bills is on his way to claiming "his unique sound."

Local guitarist and teacher Steph Otis owns the holy trinity: archtop guitars by D'Angelico, D'Aquisto and Benedetto. A few years ago, he added a Bills guitar to his collection.

"It's right up there with the best guitars made in the world," he says. "Tom can stand with the D'Angelicos already -- and he just keeps getting better."

Bryan Rankins works at Fazio's Frets and Friends, a Manchester shop that sells Bills' custom-built guitars. "It's neat watching all the old guys go to Tom to see what he's come up with," says Rankins. "He's one of the best builders I've ever seen, yet he is so humble."

So humble that he shrugs off praise, gives the credit to the wood, counts on intuition to fathom knowledge he could never get from books. Slowly, experience itself is giving him confidence.

"Wood is my palette," he says, scanning the edges of a stack of boards. He slides one forward, holds it up and taps.

He taps again.

"Hear how this one keeps ringing? This has a brighter high-end sound, sparkly bright. Another might sound warmer. Even within one tree there can be differences. That's why it's so important to work it with your hands.

"Energy is like electricity," he remarks. "It will go to the place of least resistance."

Then he writes a verse of Scripture inside.

"Sometimes I tell people, sometimes I don't," he shrugs. "This one's for a woman who's been having a rough time: 'Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.'

His next project is a guitar for Carlos Santana, commissioned by a man who wants to repay Santana for the gift of a handmade drum.

He taps another piece of wood.

Looking for the energy.

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