Siena Heights Art Professor John Wittersheim Teaches Out-of-the-Ordinary Guitar-Building Class
This fall a Siena Heights University professor has been instrumental in using art to create music.
During the fall semester, Professor of Art John Wittersheim conducted his first acoustic guitar building class.
Wittersheim has been crafting string instruments since the mid-1970s. He has built a large assortment of instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitars, harps, banjos, mandolins, ukuleles and kotos, a Japanese string instrument.
Usually teaching sculpting and metalsmithing courses at Siena, he decided to try a little something different this fall.
“It has been a really interesting diversion from the usual routine. It’s refreshing, a little ‘spice,’ if you would,” Wittersheim said.
In past years, Wittersheim has worked closely with individual students and taught them how to build a guitar, but he never formally taught it as a class until this fall. ART200A, also known as Acoustic Guitar Building, was a three-credit hour class that was offered to all Siena students – not just those majoring in art or music, including Siena alum Joseph Balusik, class of 1990.
Students started from scratch and built an acoustic guitar in 15 weeks. They were responsible for their project from start to finish, from carving the neck of the guitar and choosing its stains and colors to putting on the strings and making sure they got a decent sound out of the finished instrument.
In guitar-building process, students learn the fundamentals of their instruments, like how the sound vibrations are affected by its different components of the guitar. Wittersheim said that added to the importance of building it correctly.
The class was limited to about 10 people so Wittersheim could work closely with each student. He said he wanted to be sure the job was done right and that each student received the full experience that the class offered.
“Whenever a student showed enough interest and commitment, I was more than willing to work with them in teaching them how to build an instrument,”Wittersheim said. “But this is the first time I’ve taught it at a formal capacity like this.”
His guitar-building experience includes making custom instruments for local musicians – even blending two different styles of guitar into a hybrid instrument that was easier for a disabled musician to use. Wittersheim said he likes a good challenge, and to do something out of the ordinary once in a while.
When asked if he plays any of the instruments he builds, Wittersheim said, “It’s a very curious thing to me, that whenever someone meets a musician, they don’t ask that musician if they built the instrument they’re playing. But the instrument builder is always asked if they play.”
Although he occasionally picks at a banjo or guitar, Wittersheim considers himself a craftsman, not a musician.
Students had their own reasons for enrolling in the class. Some already knew how to play the guitar, some of them just wanted to learn how to play. Others went through the course from purely from a crafter’s perspective and have no intention on playing. Others had a homemade Christmas gift in mind.
He added that every instrument is a unique piece of art, and requires a substantial amount of time, energy, care, commitment and creativity.
“Most people don’t realize how much time and commitment it really takes,” Wittersheim said.