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About the Builder

 

 

John Morton is a machinist by trade, but traveled other roads as well before arriving at his present occupation as a builder of metal stringed instruments. After several years as an engineering student, he dropped out and veered between many types of work. 1976 found him building a house and shop in the woods, where he made some banjos from scratch, hardware and all. He later came to focus on the clean and exacting work of the metal shop, and underwent machine shop training. He found his way into the marvelous shops of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in 1982. Seeking more variety, John later spotted an opening in a machine shop at the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley, where he was to spend 23 years in support of engineering research. Development work and functional design projects took him on detours through the fields of woodworking, sheet metal fabrication, welding, soldering and general tinkering, to arrive at a place where he is now able to build most of what pops into his head. Music has always dominated John's off hours, so not surprisingly he has landed at the convergence of music and metal work.

In 1992 an acquaintance turned up with a broken National Duolian guitar. This afforded an opportunity to dismantle it and derive a method for building metal resonator instruments. There followed a lot of experimentation with materials and techniques, and some interesting and sometimes violent sessions on the lathe before he could make the cones reliably. At this writing (2015) he has made around 130 guitars, tenor guitars, ukuleles, mandolins and Hawaiian lap guitars. And one resophonic banjo.

Perhaps the most rewarding moment of the instrument builder's work is when music first emerges, to reveal what has been coming together over the weeks and months. But another favorite time is at the very beginning, when the project is all in his head and has the potential to go almost anywhere. The artistic and musical choices at this stage draw upon the history of music and design. They offer a chance to pay tribute to the builders and players of the past, while opening a place for a new voice and a new member of the family of instruments.