“Have you considered getting one like Dave’s?”
Mark sat across from me in the studio. We were talking guitars, and concerts; reviewing how our last gig had gone; reliving the sweetness of certain moments, and lamenting or laughing about others. The topic of my guitars and how they come across, the sound travelling through that space between my fingers and the listener’s ears, has been broached more than once. For years Mark Robinette, who plays bass with me, writes with me, and is a brother not of my mother; along with his twin brother Eric, who masterfully massages the sound board to mix and blend auditory ingredients into a palatable concoction; have been trying to get my guitar to sound like it ought to when amplified.
“It’s not the instrument”, I contend. “It’s the player. Sorry guys.”
But they argue otherwise, and we try different pickups and mics, knowing my weaknesses on stage. The average ear may not even notice it. But we have to live with ourselves.
“Have you considered getting a guitar like Dave’s?” Mark repeated.
Dave Eskelsen plays a sweet guitar. Seriously sweet.
“I love Dave’s guitar. It sounds as sweet as any guitar I’ve heard. But I don’t think it’s the instrument, Mark. It’s the Dave.”
I think Dave Eskelsen could play an old Stella with rusted strings and it would sound sweet. It’s the touch of the master’s hand.
Dave himself, along with his equally gifted wife, Carla, who is a sister not of my mother, have wished a Stika guitar on me for at least a decade, maybe two. They both play them; custom made creatures of wood that sing and ring and vibrate with clarity and warmth. But they’re Dave and Carla Eskelsen, for goodness sakes! They will make anything sound good!
Then one night this winter, a few months back, we drove through a blinding snowstorm up to Brigham City to do a gig. We lugged our instruments in, set up equipment and began a sound check. When the Eskelsens gig with me they are the heart of my band, making my little songs feel full and happy. Dave plays a lot, and sings occasionally, and Carla sings harmony and occasionally plays her dulcimer, drum and auto harp. Carla rarely plays her guitar lately, because of pain in her hands. But for this Art in the City Concert Series gig they were opening the show and had a set of their own, singing their own fabulous songs. For that, the Eskeltones, as we affectionately call them, played two guitars: both Stika’s.
The audience was beginning to arrive as they ended the sound check. They had tested everything but Carla’s guitar. Carla asked where her instrument was, and Dave looked up from tuning his guitar, staring her straight in the eyes with that deer in the headlights look, his mouth opened as if he were going to say something, only it froze half open.
“Your guitar. Yes, your guitar. Your guitar is on the steps of the entry hall at home.”
This is not typical Dave Eskelsen language. Dave is…well, he’s a Dave. Much like my Dave. So dependable; so steady; so logical and count-on-able. In all the years I’ve known them, decades now, I’ve never known him to forget an instrument. We were 80 miles from home and that instrument was not going to make it to this gig. So I handed them my guitar and told them to wing it. It’s a good instrument, finest quality machines can make, and it works well for me. Carla, stunned, was on the verge of losing it. She can sometimes be delicate, even though she can shovel manure for hours in knee high boots like the best of men. So, even though Dave plays many more notes on his instrument than she does, he handed her his Stika and strapped my guitar against his chest. The night unfolded beautifully. No one would know that neither of them was playing their own instrument. Their songs are so stunning, and delivery so warm that we got lost in the stories they told in their songs. But I sat there, curious about Dave Eskelsen playing my instrument, getting the chance for the first time, really, to hear it from the outside looking in. And it is true, Dave has magical hands for getting a sweet lilting sound from any instrument. But because I know their songs so well, I could see where the music that flowed from his guitar hovered just barely on the underside of magic. That’s when the idea planted itself in my head.
I wanted a Stika guitar.
Ken Stika has been building guitars for over thirty years. He owned and operated the Great Salt Lake Guitar Company in Provo, UT until very recently, when he sold it to his son Reo, who has learned the trade from his father. Ken decided to devote himself full time to the building of instruments rather than the running of a store. His guitars are all completely hand made, hewn and cut and shaped and sanded, assembled and polished like children of a good strong parent. He had so many back orders that he needed to work on them full time. Before I could meet with him and make an order the news came that Ken had cancer. Esophageal Cancer. Those who know and love Ken gathered round, rubbed their hands together and held them up, palms out, before him…willing him to overcome, trying with all their strength to shift their own energy into him and make him well. But his foot was already on the path and the hill had a steep downhill grade and he had to keep on walking that path through those therapies in cancer that make people ache in their bellies and lose their hair. Their soft, snowy white hair. But Ken is not a whiner, and he is a philosopher, and he is a believer in living life while you have it. So he smiles and continues to work. But the word was that Ken was no longer taking orders for guitars. They were, in fact, just hoping he could complete the orders he already had.
Yesterday I had a gig in Orem, UT, the city next door to Provo. Dave and I had been in St. George for judicial meetings on Thursday and Friday. Orem is between our home in Farmington and St George, so we arranged our return trip to include stopping in Orem to perform in a benefit concert at Mountain View High. We left St George early, deciding to just get on the road and drive the 5 hours in the earlier part of the day. So it ended up that we arrived in Utah County a few hours before the time arranged for our sound check. We hadn’t eaten a meal yet, and we thought maybe we’d get dinner somewhere before the gig.
“Let’s stop in at Ken Stika’s” I said, the words falling out of my mouth as I stared out the window of our car, the road cutting through a vast mountain desert, the low rolling mountains looking all chaffed and bushy, uneven tufts of cedar and sage covering them like a massive rugged old mountain man who needs a shave. A good long drive lets the mind go where it wants, and mine was on an evening spent in the back room of the Great Salt Lake Guitar Company where we had held a song circle the week before.
I don’t know Ken very well. I only knew him, really, through the people I love who know him: Dave and Carla, and Tom Shults, and Larry Pattis. And I knew him by reputation of course. But mostly I knew his instruments. His instruments speak well of him. I hear his handiwork whispering from back there, behind me on stage, where Dave E. dresses my little songs in such finery I hardly recognized them at first. Now, when I sing those songs without Dave’s sweetening, the songs feel all naked and exposed and I worry that they’ll be embarrassed up there before an audience. I hear Ken in those sweetening's. And I hear pieces of Ken in Carla’s song Mary Tallman, when Carla wails “A way-a-hey-a” in her best Navajo, her hands dancing against the strings like there are moccasins on her fingertips. I know Ken through his instruments as much as through his friends.
We walked into the shop yesterday, a typically lovely March afternoon. Walking down the narrow space between workbenches we heard above us the squealing of saws, and the thumping of mallets. Ken was there. We could feel it. Upstairs in his workspace, shaving the time away in full labor, pushing through the birth process. The fellow manning the store told us Reo had just stepped out for a short lunch, he’d be right back.
“We just want to see that little concert size Stika in the case,” we said. We knew it was sold, but thought maybe since Ken wasn’t taking orders we would see if Reo could build one; wanted to see how it felt. He said we’d better wait for Reo to get back. Though the case has no lock on it, he didn’t feel right opening it. His reverence for the handmade pieces was evident.
“Do you have a Stika?” I asked.
“Oh no. I wish! I could never afford one.”
“Well at least you get to play them here, right?”
“Oh no, I’ve never played one. Don’t want to fall in love with something I can’t have, if you know what I mean.”
He was obviously a student, and I did know what he meant.
Reo walked in and opened the case and handed me the sweet little thing. And, to my great surprise, he said “This one’s not spoken for.”
“Seriously? I thought there was no hope!”
“There’s always hope.”
So we ducked into that sweet room where the humidity is just right and the guitars on the wall feel content in their space. Sat there and tuned it up and tickled the strings lightly, like my fingers and the instrument were schoolchildren meeting each other for the first time, my fingers feeling like the timid new girl in class and the lovely guitar was a confident but friendly boy who could kick the ball all the way to the fence in kickball and was always in the center of a circle of friends. As I warmed to the possibility of owning such a creature, I played with more intent. Just then Ken walked in the room, another instrument in his hands. I could feel the energy shift when he entered. He greeted us with his gentle friendly smile. I stopped playing and let him tell me about his children, his lovely wooden children. Like Gepetto alluding to Pinocchio, he spoke of the wood in each, the shape and the talents they each had. One was new, and bight and precise in her speaking. The other, the one he had carried into the room, had been up in his workshop since 2003.
“I’ve had six guitars up there in my shop for years now. Each of them had some flaw that made me not feel comfortable releasing them. I’m eight months into a two month sentence, handed down from my doctor. And I figured, since I’m still here, I’d get those instruments to the place they were meant to be.”
He handed me a beautiful creation he had named Sanpete, after the place where the mahogany came from.
“I was born in Sanpete County, you know. There’s something about that wood that is pretty sweet to me. People will order their $6000 Brazilian Rosewood instruments and I’m happy to make them, but I always tell them that if it were me I’d go for the Sanpete mahogany. I just think it sounds better.”
I can hear his voice saying those words, not 24 hours ago. I can see him sitting across from me, one knee swung over the other in those soft comfy jeans, his arms crossed in front of his chest, leaning forward in that simple grey tee shirt, his eyes happy to be seeing whatever they rested upon, his snowy white curls of newborn hair adorning his head like a halo under the lights of the showroom.
You’d have to know me well enough to understand how unusual it was for me to play anything at all in front of someone in a guitar shop…let alone the maker! How uncommon it was to actually play like I meant it, not wishing I was good enough to show off. My purest intent, yesterday, was to hear what the instrument wanted to tell me, regardless of who else heard it. And to top it off, I started to sing. I am not one to pick up an instrument and start playing anywhere, and I am even less likely to just up and sing without being asked to. But I guess the guitar itself must have requested it, because I shocked myself and opened my mouth and started singing along. I think it needed to know how well it played with my voice, and someone somewhere wanted me to know it as well. My Dave and Ken sat there for nearly two hours, while I took turns playing those two instruments, and a third one…a twelve fret…who put himself in the running as well. There were aspects of each of them that were brilliant. Ken had Reo change the strings on two of them, making sure they were in top form so we could make an intelligent and heartfelt decision. 30 seconds of a song on one, then the same song on the others, pondering and discussing and listening and trying on love. It was like speed dating for guitars.
In the end we settled on that sweet little Sanpete Ken had rescued from his spot up there in his shop. I actually get teary now, thinking about him reviving that piece. Admire him for never releasing an instrument that is not perfectly suited for performance. But adore him for resuscitating those who were breathless up there in his workroom. I pause from this writing and bow my head at my computer, thanking the Lord that Ken has used his gifts, and that he uses them well to serve others. Thanking Him for the extra spoonful of time Ken has been given to finish his work, to allow this wood to fill the finest measure of its creation. Thank Him for sending us to Provo yesterday, and for Ken being there, and Reo, and for the beautiful interchange we could see between a father and his son, the comfort they seem to have with each other and the mutual respect, and the mentoring. And, unbelievable as it seemed before yesterday afternoon, that I got to walk out of that place with my own beautiful new instrument. I felt like an adoptive parent leaving the birth mother, my head tucked into the baby cradled in my arms, swearing to the mother and the child that I would take good care; that I would love and nurture and always respect and cherish the one who gave her birth.
I played that Stika last night in that benefit concert. Ken hadn’t wanted me to. He was so worried that we were not used to each other yet, that maybe the new strings would buck against being in tune. But she played perfectly, and felt completely comfortable in my arms, like we have known each other forever.
I think about some tree stump down there in Sanpete county; some old forgotten stump of a tree in some unknown place. I think about wood, and its purposes, and the variety of ways a tree can give new life to itself. I imagine, if I were that tree, the dreams I could have! What grandeur we contrive in dreams. And I imagine how stunned that tree would be; how honored and grateful I would be, if I knew that Ken Stika had used my wood for such a purpose as this. That under the skilled hands of a craftsman and artist my wood could fill the finest measure of its creation.
Beautifully crafted, fully loved, he makes of things the best they can be, then releases them to a new life. He has a master’s hands.
To see a short video about Ken Stika click HERE.