For Freeman Vines, Guitar Making Is a Way of Life

Art of Craft is a series about specialists whose work rises to the level of art.

Freeman Vines was chasing a sound.

He couldn’t remember where he’d heard it, but it reverberated in his mind. His attempts to replicate it on mass-produced guitars were fruitless, so Mr. Vines took matters into his own hands: In 1958, he started to make guitars.

“I didn’t care how the guitar looked. I didn’t care what color the guitar was,” Mr. Vines said in a 2020 documentary called “Hanging Tree Guitars: the Art of Freeman Vines,” produced by Music Maker Foundation, a nonprofit that supports Southern artists like Mr. Vines. “I was looking for a tone.”

Mr. Vines, now 80, never did replicate the sound, but along the way he crafted dozens of unique guitars, using wood from barns, troughs and other unexpected — and meaningful — sources. A series of his guitars featured in a traveling exhibition (currently at the Maria V. Howard Arts Center at the Imperial Centre in Rocky Mount, N.C.) came from wood extracted from a tree that had been used to lynch Black people.

Mr. Vines, who now works out of a storefront in Fountain, N.C., grew up on a plantation in nearby Greene County during the Jim Crow era, working alongside his mother in the fields for meager wages.

When he got older, he toured for a bit as a jazz musician. But the quest to recreate that one sound proved to be the animating force of his life. He carved guitars in different shapes, with specific designs and electronic configurations. Some are crafted to look like traditional African masks.

“These guitars here got a character and a sound of their own,” Mr. Vines said in a video accompanying his exhibition. “To somebody else, it’s just some wood glued together. To me, it’s something else.”

Chris Bergson, a musician and associate professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, said there had been a big jump in independent guitar-making in recent years. “You’re going to get something really special and unique, like the opposite of a guitar you just buy off the rack.”

Mr. Vines has multiple myeloma but hasn’t slowed down. “He cat naps a little bit and just keeps working, keeps creating,” said Timothy Duffy, founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation.

Mr. Vines was recently discharged from a rehab facility after a stint in a cancer ward. “They really wanted him to stay there,” Mr. Duffy recalled. “He said, ‘Look, I can sit here and be bored. Or I can go back to my shop and tinker around. They say I’m dying, but you could be dead in three minutes. I’m living now.’”

The wood used to make the “hanging tree guitars” has a “characteristic of its own,” Mr. Vines said. “All that stuff in there, people thought I carved and put in there — I didn’t do it. It was in there.”

“Wood talks to me,” Mr. Vines is quoted as saying in the book “Hanging Tree Guitars.” “Wood has a character.”

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