How music changed my life, Part 3: Climbing up

When you are down, negative, depressed, burned out, or even just tired from everyday routine, having some form of creative outlet is a wonderful thing. It doesn't matter *what* you do – it can be writing or painting or really anything you like – but it does matter that you do something. For me, that is largely music.
This is a story of how, over the first 38 years of my life, I grew out of touch with myself and my values, got into a depression, and almost ruined my family. Reconnecting to music was a key element to understand where I was at, in life.
This post is the third in a series. If you have not read the first two parts, please do, starting at the link below:

How music changed my life, Part 1: Falling down

How music changed my life, Part 2: Recognizing and acknowledging the issue

Continuing the story from where we left it in the second post, I had come to the realization that I had to change track. My soul needed that. My family needed me to be my better self. The world needed me to be my better self. We all need to be, if we want to do something about the planet, and our health. Eat organic, eat more veggies, plant trees, make love, talk about your emotions, make music, play with your children.

My wife also wrote a very compassionate post about my depression, our relationship, and how she helped me tackle it. I invite you to read it as well, before I continue on rambling just about music…

My partner's depression was a growth opportunity for our family

Making guitars made me remember and gave me courage to say again that sometimes old versions work just as well. A piece of wood with strings is a piece of wood with strings, and it still plays.

Real human relationships need to be nurtured and shared time is what makes you happy, not all the stuff you fill your house with or the apps you have on your phone, or how many 'likes' or 'friends' you have on Facebook.
You don't need the fake plastic guitar with colored buttons in the same shape of the one a certain famous singer is using… the one you use while watching yourself in the game console mirror and pretend you are that chosen rock idol, while you live in fear you have not made it, unlike he did. He or she (your idol) is just a guy or girl like you and me. He might have something wonderful to sing and to say, but so do you!
As a society, we have largely become just consumers of music, not producers. Besides the very few who actually become rock stars, I know a lot of people who used to have bands but dropped them as they became 'mature' and went to grey workplaces that dimmed their light. We listen to selected famous singers but we don't play as much anymore. And a lot of those who play always try to replicate what those idols do, buying the same iconic instruments from the same three large corporations which are doing very little innovation and just selling large volumes.

We need to compose, CREATE original music. Simple music – doesn't have to be complex – but we need to be in touch with our creative side. We are CREATORS. We need that sparkle. That light. It is only dimmed – it never really dies, but it will kill you if you don't let it shine – but you need to have courage to dig really deep and go beyond your fears to find it back.

And it will hurt, but then it will liberate you.

You need to step in your power and BE your idol. Be the example you want to see in the world, not just blindly follow the largely unquestioned (but very questionable) way of life that someone else has chosen for you.

While wars are being perpetrated around who owns the oil, 'charitable' donations are being used to fuel even more the pharmaceuticals, our food is being genetically modified, Mother Earth is not being respected and invasive technologies are turning us into cyborgs… we need to be the change we want to see. If we don't like the way the world is going, we need to change it. And changing it means standing up for our values and not buying, supporting or producing 'progress' we don't believe in. We don’t have to always compromise.

Building guitars, during meditative hours of sandpaper work, made me go thru all this.

And I decided I was tired of complying, that I needed to stand up for my values. To be a better husband, a better father, a better citizen of this world, a better man. It was time to re-prioritize my life and what I was contributing to.

My wife had helped me, with her patience and her talks, to figure things out, but by now she was sick, I was in an un-diagnosed (and un-noticed at work), but real, depression and I still had a ton of stuff in flight for the project I was working on…

The first thing to reduce our level of fear and start moving forward was moving back to Europe, where we could have extended family around us to help, to at least help relieve the pressure on my wife, to start with. With miraculous help I managed to maintain my job even from abroad, so we had some time to buy a house and settle.
In the Netherlands, the family started coming back to life. Especially my wife and the kids started slowly getting rid of their fear (see article about my daughter's experience in American public school linked from the first post in this series). We could send the kids to a Waldorf school, now, which in the Netherlands is affordable to all, not just by very rich people, and they started coming down from their stress too. They reconnected with their manual abilities and bodies. They finally had cousins and new friends and grandparents close by. They started having the freedom to wander around the neighborhood on their own without social services threatening to take them away. My son started talking to me again and we did things together. He stopped being obsessed with Darth Vader.
Things did look better, and I started making some time for my kids and my family, i.e. now I could bring the kids to school – and talk to them – and then do grocery shopping in the morning, because I had no office to go to at standard 'office times'. My in law's also could give some attention to the kids – we were not alone anymore! – and gradually my wife got a little better with her tummy problems, she got some color back, she finally had some mental space and started studying.

Part of my days were 'free' because my job position was still with the American team. This also meant that I had to still be online and at work during part of my evenings and do nightly conference calls to match the timezone of my coworkers, or I would not get anything done.

Good luck sleeping after having been in a 'morning' status meeting at 10pm. My insomnia – and nightmares – became worse, and more frequent.

So, while I was starting to take some time to be a better dad and husband, I was still really in need of some time to heal myself too, and to completely detach from what I knew was the core issue: I had never felt aligned with 'scientific' and 'innovation' values pushed by the industry. I was still compromising with them. I was still doing 'poker face' with the world, to get my salary. We had changed country, but I was still not following my heart.

One of my recurring nightmares was that of my daughter having been replaced by a robot, 'for you cannot stop progress'. I kept waking up in cold sweat and with a cramped tummy. Another particularly vivid one was about Bill Gates telling me I didn't stand a chance on my own, that I could not go away since he owned me, and he was closing with 'where the heck did I think I would be going?' before I woke up feeling awful. Bill, don't take it personal, please – it's just a dream after all, and I don't control those. In my psyche, you were a symbol of the technocratic culture and this world that you helped creating, which has never felt my own, but which I infiltrated for a few years while wearing a mask, because that's what everybody else was doing with their lives – or so it seemed to me at the time – and because I really liked to understand how machines and systems work, so that I could control them, and not be controlled by them. It was a fear-based choice, and those are never good. Don't worry – the mistake was mine to join it in the first place but, like every mistake, it provided great learning. So, thanks for all that I have learned in that industry.
It's noteworthy to point out that, somehow, the mask I was wearing – or rather the restlessness that wearing it caused me! – got confused with 'drive' by that culture, and made me 'successful'.

Anyway, it was time for me to cut that cord. And to be done with fear.

So, I finished off all the last pieces of work I had agreed/promised to finish – because I like to maintain my words – but after that I was really done with 'innovating'.
By now we were in a relatively safe harbor, we had drastically scaled back our needs and monthly budget and had some savings set aside – it was time to really unplug, own my shit, change path and fix myself and my family emotionally and completely. So, in October 2015 I finally quit the corporation

Three quarters of 2015, my IT career and various ramblings

Now I was free to start going after my dreams and reinvent a career (or two) for myself that would be compatible with my values.

Now I was without a job but with some savings. A great weight had finally dropped off my chest, I had a good roof on my head, and plenty of time.

A week later, my sister in law stumbled across the FabLab in Alkmaar, which just at that time had set up a workshop on 'cigar box guitars'. I had never heard of them before, but once I saw what it was about, I got completely jazzed! It was *exactly* the type of idea I was searching for: not 'full blown' guitars, but simpler ones, that can be built inexpensively using recycled materials such as old cookie tins, cigar boxes, wine boxes, broom sticks, old screws, etc… and with this 'recycling' theme in mind I launched Plank Guitars.

With Plank, I therefore make custom, one of a kind guitars that are also pieces of art, for musicians who want to play blues, rock or other kinds of music (even techno!) on very special and unique instruments. Besides, my guitars have zero environmental impact for their production (excluding that I use some electricity for my power tools), since I reuse old 'junk' I collect at the local thrift stores such as cookie tins, cigar box guitars, pieces of old hardwood floors, etc.

I don't claim to be an 'expert' luthier (just like I never claimed to be an engineer in IT!) – I am still learning a lot, in fact I am also going to school at the Dutch School of Guitar making by Frank de Haan to improve my skills, and I am learning some cool tricks there!

While at the school more complex guitars are made, some of the instruments I make on my own are left intentionally extremely simple and 'down to basics' so that they can be played by kids or people who have never played any instrument before. For example some have three strings and a diatonic fret board (for the un-initiated, it means you can only play 'full' notes A-B-C-D-E-F-G but not sharps or flats – it's like a piano without black keys) which makes it really difficult to play 'bad' notes. See the 'Gnome's Dulcimer cookie tin guitar' here as an example

Gnome’s Dulcimer cookie tin guitar

There is a freshness and a power in making something simple – not 'over the top' – which actually gives joy to others!

A charismatic – but modest – singer, Seasick Steve, also uses very simple and beaten up instruments in his songs, and I love a quote from his song 'Diddley bow' (which is the name of the simplest ever 1-string instrument used to play it) that says it all:

"With only one string you can't go wrong. Go and make yourself a song." – Seasick Steve

That's the spirit: just sing and don't worry. Don't try to be perfect, just be yourself and enjoy!
Other famous people said that too

"Express yourself don't repress yourself" – Madonna

And there I got that my mission and differentiator was not about selling guitars by the pound and build the next cool label with a big factory, but make simple artifacts that give joy to people.

Earlier this year, with my wife, we also launched the Sanctuary of Joy, a holistic healing organization. We aim to help people to (re)discover who they really are: discover their passions, be true to themselves, improve their relationships and life in flow and abundance.

Sanctuary of Joy is operational

At the Sanctuary we do energy healing, we read Tarot and Oracle cards, and we counsel couples and individuals about their lives, their relationships, their work and their health. Our emphatic and intuitive abilities and our life experiences taught us to see the world – and people – from a unique perspective: over the years we traveled and studied with Indian and Western spiritual teachers; we lived in three different countries while raising our 3 children; we dealt with autoimmune diseases, miscarriages, burnouts, discrimination, bullying, corporate management jobs, and more. We gained deep understanding of cultural patterns and how they can block us from finding our true selves, and how communicating from a place of Love is an art that can be learned.

We think that music fits wonderfully into this picture, therefore we are going to cross-over the Plank Guitars brand and theme with the activities of Sanctuary of Joy, where we think that other people dealing with stress, depression, and all those people who 'locked up' in their emotions – like I had done – can also benefit from using music as a way to express themselves.

Practically this means that we offer:

To give you some Joy right now, in the photo below you can see an extremely simple instrument that my 6 years old daughter was able to build all by herself with a shoebox and some elastics:

Sara with her shoebox guitar

Find out more about our activities under 'Music Healing' at the Sanctuary of Joy's website

Music Healing

We are at the end of the tale. I described how music, and a number of other tools such as Tarot and Oracle cards for self-analysis (We are currently writing a book on this topic – stay tuned), with the help of my wife by my side and copious blessings from above, helped me get in touch with my real locked up self, and start a new journey. I hope the reading was informative and maybe helpful to some people who might be navigating similar times of fear and doubt like those that I went thru, or maybe now they are awakening as well.

Music is not the only thing that I do. I am quite busy with the counseling work of the Sanctuary, I am writing, I spend time with my kids, I cook. I take pictures. I paint. I occasionally do some IT to help small shops or individuals get visible, but not the big scale stuff. As someone else already wrote, I make guitars, but I am not a "guitar maker".

We are all composite people, and the jobs we do to make a living are just things we do, they don't define who we are. We are more that those.

And you don't need a lot of 'things' to be happy either, you just need to have enough, and bring out your light into the world.

All good things are wild and free - Henry David Thoreau
[Image previously shared on Sanctuary of Joy's Facebook page]

Cigar box (cookie tin) guitar 'Cellocan' and upcoming builds

I started building electric guitar bodies out of recycled wood while I was in the United States. Anyhow, it wasn't until recently, here in the Netherlands, that I really started looking at the 'lower end' of the instruments world (something I should have probably done earlier, but it's never too late): I discovered a thriving community around 'Cigar box' guitars – enthusiasts have written a manifesto , you can find forums for builders someone has filmed and documentaries about the phenomenon (external sites).

Wikipedia introduces them as follows:

The cigar box guitar is a primitive chordophone that uses an empty cigar box for a resonator. “Guitar” refers to the traditional instrument and to a string bass. The earliest predecessors had one or two strings; the modern model typically uses three or more. Generally speaking, strings are connected between the end of a broomstick or 1″ x 3″ wood slat and to the resonator, the cigar box.

This makes Cigar box guitars perfectly suited for being 100% built off recycled materials (maybe excluding the electronics). Even on this side of the world (Europe) where we have less actual ‘Cigar’ boxes, there are plenty of biscuit tins and wooden boxes out there for reuse as resonators!

There is of course political aspect to this – we live in a society that more and more and more just produces and ‘throws away’ stuff; it’s good if we can make our items live longer, or give things (that would normally be thrown away) new life. This is why – even for ‘regular’ guitars and custom builds/designs – I try to use recycled materials as much as possible.

So, after experimenting with a couple simple diddley bows (single string chordophones), I built also a 3 strings cigar box guitar, and featured that in my guitar site. This is a very crude build, here's how it looks:

Cookie tin guitar 'Cellocan'

This one's theme was to precisely try reuse as much recycled materials as possible and do *minimal* modifications to it: this led to have a broad but thin neck, for example, just because that was the size of the plank of wood I got out of some weird furniture found in a thrift store.
I have to admit that, after the move, I don't have a garage so I have been temporary constrained to my living room, and that's not the most comfy lab to work in 🙂 Anyhow, we have built a shed in my father in law's backyard that I will share to use for guitar building and he will do his other woodwork in:

Nico's creative space

Nico's creative space

He also has some long and straight hard wood poles that he got from his dad back in the days and never put to use: some of those will become guitar necks, I am working on the designs… Stay tuned!

Below you can see part of the process of building the cigar box (really a 'cookie tin') guitar and some other details about this particular guitar.

 
Partially shaped neck being glued to the fretboard
Clamped!

 
Broad and thin neck compromise – that's how the plank was – you can see there would be space for more strings, but the risk is that the wood is too thin. Anyhow, this makes it actually very easy to play with a slide. I left it fretless, but the action is low enough that it can also be played with fingers.

Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

 
Interestingly enough, albeit the bridge is flat (not an arch like in a violin), the string spacing is enough to allow to play some notes even with a bow – which inspired the name of 'Cellocan'

Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

Here you can see the string spacing and an aluminum (recycled from another box) string holder I hacked for this headstock (which doesn't have an angle like my future builds will)
Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

Cookie tin Guitar 'Cellocan'

 
And here you can see/hear me play it

The recording is horrible, but hope it gives an idea.
On SoundCloud I have some more 'sound tests' too.

 

Soon I'll start working on a batch of new cigar box / cookie tin guitars. Probably some 3, some 4 strings, some fretted, some not…

Below you can see some of the boxes/tins I have been collecting and have lined up to be turned into instruments – let me know if you are interested in any particular one!
I'll keep adding boxes to this Flickr photo set – to track individual progress of each 'body'.

Cigar box Dutch cookie tin Dutch cookie tin Cookie tin
Cookie tin Cookie tin Cookie tin Tea box
Cake tin Cookie tin Wooden ANWB box Wooden box

Then after having done some more of these 'simpler' builds, maybe I'll also do one or two full size, 6 strings, neck thru guitars. We'll see. Stay tuned in the next few months.

DYI Telecaster (Pinecaster) Project

After restoring a guitar around the Christmas holidays, in the early spring I also built one (almost) from scratch!

I started from a plank, hence the name seemed appropriate:

Headstock logo

Here is what it was before the “transformation”:

Can you see a Guitar in this picture?

and this is how it turned out to be:

Almost Ready

If you look at this set on Flickr you can see the whole process I went thru.

It’s quite satisfying to produce something like this. It sounds beautifully. I might do a few more: would you like one?

Restoring an Electric Guitar

I have not posted in a while. New year resolutions? Big plans? Nothing special, really – other than Service Pack 1 of System Center 2012 has finally shipped (this is, in case you are one of my IT-related readers) and I got featured in a video about some of the great things that are in it.

For the rest of the folks who are not working in IT and stumbled here as friends or simply curious, then the rest of this post is for you. During the Christmas holidays I really spent some time on a fun personal project: I bought a cheap Stratocaster copy in a thrift store, and tried to bring it back to life (and was fairly successful in doing so). When I got it, it was full of stickers, scratches, dirt… basically, had been used to play Punk, I assume. Nothing wrong with punk, of course (heck, I have even had a mohawk hairstyle at one point in my teen years!), but it's just that I like to care for instruments better (I never even understood the whole guitar-smashing thing either, for that matter… regardless if Jimi Hendrix did it, it is still a cruelty and a nonsense).

So here is how this guitar looked when I got it:
Guitar Restoration Project - Before

The body was scratched and mistreated (no, don't mention people who "relic" their expensive guitars – I don't get it):
Guitar Restoration Project - Before

The frets were kind of OK (no major dent etc), just horribly dirty:
Guitar Restoration Project - Before

The scratchplate was… well, scratched 🙂
Guitar Restoration Project - Before

And yeah, I had understood that the model of guitar ("Slammer by Hamer") was a cheap mass-production guitar series, but I figured that since I had never done any restoration, it would be worth to try on something cheap, first, before ruining something expensive. In the end it turned out a lot better than even I expected in the beginning.
So I started by unscrewing everything and collected all the pieces, screws, electrical pieces in plastic boxes (a lot of those cleaned separately with a variety of cleaning liquids, canned air, contact sprays, etc – but I didn't take pictures of that phase). So, with the "naked" body I started removing the stickers.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 2

Then I used a chemical paint stripper. No matter how much I put on and how long I waited, and scrubbed… it really only helped removing the glossy varnish, not the paint itself, after 2 days. Still it made the paint a lot thinner.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 3

After cleaning up the glossy varnish and the stripper, I attacked the body with sandpaper. Almost 4 hours of sanding with elbow grease (I didn't have a sanding machine – I just did it by hand with a sanding block) to get it back to clean wood…
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 4
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 4
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 4

Then I started filling up some dents in the body and some holes in the headstock: the headstock is actually in pretty decent condition so I didn't do anything to its wood, but a few screws that were supposed to hold the tuning pegs were loose, and dirt was accumulated inside the tuning pegs, so I removed those, cleaned them up, lubricated them, etc.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 5

Then I started applying multiple coat of stain to the body, with a sponge.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 8

While waiting for the first paint to dry, I cleaned up the electrical pieces.

I had roughly tested those earlier (with a screwdriver) and they appear to be functioning (at least, electricity is running thru them – but I am not sure of the quality). Anybody knows what kind/model of GFS pickups these are? They have black/dark blue wiring on the coil… probably some of those on this page guitarfetish.com/Neovin-White-Pickups_c_143.html but not sure which ones.

Anyway, this was a pleasant surprise, and I think they had been replaced earlier – and, albeit the way I found them mounted on the plastic board/cover was horrible (some of the screws were longer than they were supposed to be, which lifted the plastic of the cover and deformed it), it at least meant that the thing would not have sounded too badly (there are reports all over the internet about how bad/noisy the stock pickups in this guitar series is sounding).

Anyway, I planned on using what was there at first, hear how it sounds, and then if I am not satisfied I can always replace those later on.  They turned out to be not bad, in the end, but I only found out several days later. At the time, during the restoration, I just gave everything a good clean and used a contact cleaner spray in abundant dosage, and re-assembled the scratchplate.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 9

Then, as the paint was getting more dry, I started wondering why this body was completely hollow, having the chamber of the pickups directly open towards the chamber on the back, which holds the tremolo system and springs – I imagine they would interfere with each other a lot and cause background noise. Therefore I have carved a small piece of scrapwood and glued it to the body to close and separate those cavities again. I will also be electrically shielding the chamber with the pickups later on.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 10
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 10

In between the various coats of stain, I did a lot of gentle wet sanding with sand paper (600) to make it smooth and even.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 11

After many coats of stain+wet sanding, I then passed many coats of laquer/finish and did even more more wet sanding! I have been busy with this process for several days. And man, this thing stinks – do it outdoor if you don’t want to die by intoxication:
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 12

Then, after a lot of coats of finish and a lot of wet sanding, I have used this product (which is used for cars!) that helps bring out the shine of the paint. After three passes of this product, the day after I wiped the surface and then applied wax to protect the wood.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 13

Time to start assembling the pieces back together! First, I screwed the neck back in place and adjusted the truss rod position (not exactly, yet, but roughly – more adjustment later when strings need to go in place, as part of intonation…).
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 14

Time to screw the bridge back in place. I used wax on the screws before putting them back in place. At this point they are not tight.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 15

Then you flip the guitar on its back and block the weight in place with a piece of scrap wood, to allow easier installation of the springs.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 15

Installed the springs and the whole tremolo system. The guitar had no cover for this but I bought a replacement one. Once the ground cable was also passed in and soldiered (later on), this cavity has been closed.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 15

Soldered the cables for the ground and the jack, and installed the electrical parts back in. I will be eventually be taking all these off again, at some point in the future, because I am planning to electrically shield/isolate the pickups cavity/room – but since the copper foil that I have ordered has not arrived yet, I'll give it a first try without shielding – to see if and how much noise these pickups make. So I will be able to compare later on the "before" and "after" the shielding. And this is how it looks, completely assembled (just missing strings at this point):
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 16
Quite a difference from how I found it! It almost looks like it’s worth something, now Smile

So then I put new strings on, and adjust the bridge/truss rod/string height and intonation.
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 17
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 17
And there you have it, standing next to my other guitar, a Yamaha RGX
Guitar Restoration Project - Step 18
What a difference!

And you know what? After I have been playing it for a couple of weeks, I also like the way it sounds – those GFS pickups aren't bad at all, with a lot of different tone variety, and not noisy as I was expecting them to be. All in all, I was very pleased with the result of this project!

Now, onto the next challenge – I want to build one from scratch! That will be another post, if I actually get to do it Smile