Ed Stilley, God and Guitars
Guitars are a thing of measurement and precision. Intonation, tone, expressiveness, color: the artisan strives to craft each instrument to have the best of these nebulous, yet integral qualities. Many luthiers (guitar builders) spend their entire lives learning centuries-old techniques in order to craft the perfect body, perfect neck, every detail of the perfect instrument. Ed Stilley is a luthier. But unlike most luthiers, Ed Stilley never learned the techniques that go into making a guitar. In fact, Ed Stilley doesn’t know the first thing about the tradition, but that doesn’t stop him.
Stilley lives and works as a farmer in Hogscald Hollow, Arkansas. In his spare time, he makes guitars, which he gives away for free. In 1979, while plowing the field, Stilley collapsed. He was convinced he was having a heart attack. As Stilley lay there, he received a message. A vision from God, he claims. God would spare him his life is he began making musical instruments, and gave them away to kids.
So, over three decades ago, Ed Stilley started building. Without any knowledge or formal training, he sought about making guitars, dulcimers, violins, and other acoustic instruments the only way he knew how: out of scraps, making everything up as he went along.
Stilley’s guitars are the stuff of legend, memorialized in print for the second time in an anthology photographed and assembled by Timothy Hawley.
“They sound just like they look,” Hawley says of Stilley’s hand-hewn creations, the inner cavity of which is often filled with metal, wire, old saw blades, and a primitive amplifier he termed a “Jangler.”
Hawley’s anthology is called Gifted: The Instruments of Ed Stilley, and his photos, or rather the instruments of Stilley’s he photographed, speak more than words ever could.