Courtesy photo, Jesse Stearn
Husband, father and guitar maker Jesse Stearn believes in creating beautiful things. And if his guitars are any indication, he will tell you that the secret is in the details.
But those details don’t come without a lot of hard work and an equal portion of ingenuity.
“Americans are so amazing with their ingenuity. That’s what I’ve figured out,” said Stearn, a resident of Holladay, Utah.
Stearn, 36, who has been a woodworker all of his life, got his start in his dad’s custom furniture shop at the age of 12. From there, it was on and off at the shop until he was 28. The experience turned out to be defining for Stearn.
After a seven-year stretch at college, Stearn graduated with a degree in English from the University of Utah in 2005. Shortly after, he began teaching at AMES Charter School in Salt Lake City.
Stearn said he knew it would have taken a lot of work for him to become a good teacher, and after three years he decided to call it quits.
Going back to his roots, Stearn found himself searching the Web for information about guitar making. Meanwhile, he bought a kit guitar and started to assemble it.
During his online searching, Stearn came across an option he had never considered — schools specializing in guitar making.
“ ‘Whoa,’ I thought to myself,” Stearn said. “I never knew that was an option.”
The next task was to convince his wife.
“Want to go to England for six months?”
She agreed, and in 2008, Stearn and his wife packed up their then 6-month-old daughter and flew across the globe so he could attend the Totnes School of Guitar Making in Devon, England.
The school, established in 1985, welcomes beginners and experienced woodworkers, giving students the opportunity to build the guitar of their choice in 12 weeks.
“It was an amazing school. All the tools were hand tools. That’s a huge difference. I learned how to use real woodworking tools.”
His guitar, which still sits on the workbench in his shop, was made entirely by hand.
Though he has shifted from making guitars entirely with hand tools, the principles he learned remain intact.
In January 2012, Stearn studied for a week at the American School of Lutherie with Charles Fox, a renowned luthier among the who’s who of guitar makers. Lutherie is the term used for making wooden, stringed instruments.
Fox’s methods and wisdom became pivotal in Stearn’s trial-and-error methods of constructing his own tools and guitars and later, his success.
“I told him I went to this school in England,” Stearn said. “He told me, 'Those guys are stuck in the past and are so snooty.’ That set me free. I realized I can do whatever I wanted.”
After additional training, Stearn’s determination to create quality guitars was only strengthened, and he channeled skills wrought with ingenuity to create his own tools and a unique guitar body.
“If I’m going to make guitars, they are going to be at least as good as everyone else’s,” he said.
Stearn now makes his $4,500 custom guitars in a week-and-a-half.
For Stearn, it’s not about the money. It’s in the creation of works of art that Stearn finds his joy.
“I found meaning in making something beautiful. I realized that I’m so creative. People in general are so creative; people were made to create,” Stearn said.
Stearn believes that creation is a central part of this life. It is a belief that is strongly tied to his belief in God.
“We are creators just like God. We are meant to (create). I’m doing what I’m meant to do.”
And it’s not just the sound of the guitar that’s important. It’s the look as well.
Stearn said the wood he works with is pure art.
“If any human did anything this beautiful it would be in a museum. If you tap into creation, that’s awesome stuff. If I can ever make a guitar that sounds as good as it looks, then I’ll know I’m in heaven.”
Part of Stean’s business is about giving back. His admiration for other artists prompted a local artist discount for regularly performing musicians.
“They are so passionate about what they do that they have set aside commodities they think they need. Those are the people I want to make guitars for.”
Salt Lake City-based artist Daryl Stevenett, who has a custom-made Stearn Guitar, said the guitar spoke to him the first time he played it.
"There is something about the way he is very exact," Stevenett said. "There is something to be said about full craftsmanship. I consider Jesse a good artist."
Stevenett said the intonation of the guitar was absolutely perfect.
"(Jesse) is going to be one of the great ones."
Emmilie Buchanan is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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