St. Norbert College Magazine - Building guitars and building community St. Norbert College
 


Building guitars and building community
By Paige Caulum ’11

Dean Kumbalek
Dean Kumbalek (Facilities) plays one of his hand-crafted instruments.

The guitar looked like something I would be wary of picking up at a music store, its craftsmanship was so apparent. As Dean Kumbalek (Facilities), its builder, handed it to me for closer examination, he tried to relieve my anxiety. “These aren’t museum pieces, these are working guitars,” he said. “Anything with wood can be fixed, and I’m not concerned about scratches or nicks or anything. It’s just part of the history.”

Kumbalek, manager of grounds and vehicles on campus, says: “If I can build an instrument in a year, I’m happy. There really isn’t anything that’s very difficult; it’s just a bunch of little steps. There is a preciseness to it, but the most difficult part might be just thinking ahead a bit.

“The secret is to just get started.”

Building guitars is more than just a solitary hobby for Kumbalek. As administrator of an online forum for wooden instrument builders, Kumbalek has been introduced to people around the world who share his interest.

“It’s a great way to meet people. It’s sort of a ‘build circle,’ where people can ask questions and others will address them,” he says. “Being able to see how people do things online allows you to be exposed to experienced builders and learn trade secrets.”

In addition to exchanging ideas on guitar building, members of the online community trade materials and even completed instruments. “I’m working on a guitar right now as an exchange with another builder who lives in Oklahoma. When we’re both done, I’ll go down there,” Kumbalek explains.
 
During a trip to Mississippi, Kumbalek met a forum member who built him a guitar and visited other builders in New Orleans: “It was really ironic, because I’d never really met these people before, but because we had these ongoing dialogues for five, six years, I’d created this mental image of them and it was really accurate. They’d respond and I could almost kind of predict their reactions to things. I’m still in touch with them now.”

Along with trading advice and materials, Kumbalek points out, members of the forum are often generous toward both those who have offered them advice and those who are in need.

“There have been builders whose shops started on fire, and people will send them things to get them started again,” Kumbalek says. “Some of the people were hit by Hurricane Katrina, so some others built guitars and donated them to churches down there so people had instruments for ceremonies. I guess that’s the value of it, connecting with other people through this musical exchange.”

Fall 2010 Magazine

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  St. Norbert College • De Pere, Wisconsin http://www.snc.edu/communications/magazine/2010v42n3/buildingguitars.html