In the pantheon of great guitar makers, Ed Stilley’s work stands alone like a castaway on its own musical island.
Imperfect, bizarre and some even un-tunable to the modern equal temperament scale, his crudely made stringed instruments would make the most adventurous guitar collector shudder.
And yet, his instruments (and, even more, his story) are just as fascinating as Leo Fender or C. F. Martin.
A gorgeous new hardcover book by the University of Arkansas Press has just been published, documenting the life and work of this outsider luthier. The book, True Faith, TrueLight: The Devotional Art of Ed Stilley, captures his story and features stunning full-color pictures of his work. It is authored by musician and folklorist Kelly Mulhollan of Still on the Hill.
From the book’s intro: In 1979, Stilley was leading a simple life as a farmer and singer of religious hymns in Hogscald Hollow, Arkansas. Life was filled with hard work and making do for Ed, his wife Eliza and their five children, who lived in many ways as if the second half of the 20th century had never happened.
[In 1979] while plowing his field, he became convinced he was having a heart attack... [A]s he lay there in the freshly plowed dirt, Ed received a vision from God, telling him that he would be restored to health if he would agree to do one thing: make musical instruments and give them to children.
… Beginning with a few simple hand tools, Ed worked tirelessly for 25 years to create more than 200 instruments, each a crazy quilt of heavy, rough-sawn wood scraps joined with found objects. A rusty door hinge, a steak bone, a stack of dimes, springs, saw blades, pot lids, metal pipes, glass bottles, aerosol cans—Ed used anything he could to build a working guitar, fiddle or dulcimer. On each instrument Ed inscribed “True Faith, True Light, Have Faith in God.”
Author and musician Kelly Mulhollan paints a picture of a man driven by faith to make guitars for every child in his area, even though he has no training in instrument design and construction. His instruments are built from lumber-yard scraps and other unthinkable wood choices. The shapes are equally unusual because Stilley would boil the thin oak sides overnight and then bend them into whatever shape they dictated in the morning.
The most fascinating part of Stilley’s instruments is what’s hidden inside the soundholes: saw blades, springs, aluminum tubes and other metal objects. Stilley added these parts to create natural reverb inside the instruments, or as he was quoted, “to better speak the voice of the Lord.” The book uses X-rays and diagrams to chronicle Stilley’s wild sound designs. Mulhollan discovered in his research that Stilley created "sonic loops" through the internal metal pieces.
In his wild setups, Stilley had the string vibrations captured by a string tree bar at the headstock and delivered down the neck in a truss rod to the saw blades and other parts inside the body. They were further amplified by an invention called the Jingler hidden inside the neck.
Yes, his designs are that intense.
But how do they sound? Here’s author Kelly Mullholland and his wife, Donna (as the duo, Still on the Hill), performing on an Ed Stilley guitar and fiddle.
True Faith, True Light should be in the collection of any instrument fan or builder. Mulhollan’s portrait of a man driven by faith and the gorgeous photos by Kirk Lanier make this a winner. The book is as much an art piece as Stilley’s guitars.
In an era of perfection dictated by Autotune and CNC machines, the world needs Ed Stilley. This book is essential.
True Faith, True Light: The Devotional Art of Ed Stilley, $35 at stillonthehill.com.
Shane Speal is the "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at ShaneSpeal.com. Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.