COLUMBIA FALLS — It’s almost lunchtime and Little Bear pushes the door open to Gary Kent’s workshop. The old black-haired mutt ambles inside away from the bright sun and finds a seat near four guitars. The room is filled with pictures and tools and parts. An old-time country music tune plays in the background. Kent, 66, is explaining the secret to the perfect tone.
“It’s really, really hard to describe what it’s supposed to sound like,” he says, holding a guitar-shaped sheet of mahogany near his ear and tapping it lightly. “It’s just through experience that you know if it has a certain ring, it’s going to be a sweet-sounding guitar. This is where the real art of making guitars comes from.”
Inside a tight studio space below his home off Bad Rock Road, Kent has picked back up a life-long passion as a luthier, someone who builds guitars and other string instruments. He began almost 20 years ago after finding a perfect marriage of two of his favorite joys, music and woodwork. His only son, Casey, grew up watching his father work in the shop and pretty soon nurtured a passion for guitar making. Kent saved up enough money and sent his son to luthier school where he could be best trained. His son graduated and gave his father a gift in return; he asked him to partner in opening a guitar-making business. The two became a successful father-son duo, handling and producing countless hand-crafted artisan guitars over the years. But four years ago, when Casey died in an accident at the age of 35, his father stopped making guitars all together.
Little Bear keeps quiet inside the shop. Kent is holding up a giant sliver of wood, Engelmann spruce to be exact. Years ago he and his son found a stash of old trees that could be harvested in the Swan and brought them home. They can make perfect guitar tops.
Every aspect of an instrument’s character, from the type of wood, to the size and shape, determines its quality. The tricky part, or at least one of them, lies in finding a balance between tension and flexibility, Kent says. For example, strings bind tightly overtop, but if the inside foundation of a guitar is not established in such a way, the entire instrument can buckle or vibrations can become stifled.
And to the torment of many, “unfortunately you don’t really get to hear the guitar until it’s strung up,” Kent says. “You have to have an ear for how you want that top to sound.”
“If you don’t have an attention to detail and are not somewhat of a perfectionist,” he adds, “you have a hard time making a fine guitar.”
Kent has worked as a professional counselor since graduating in 1976 from California State University-Fullerton. He moved to Montana after graduating and began work in Thompson Falls. After that he worked with troubled adolescents near Seeley Lake, where he incorporated guitar-making into his rehabilitation work. He gave up counseling indefinitely when he and Casey began making instruments together. After his son’s death, he switched back. He’s been working at the Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency Clinic the last four years. But he has slowly picked up guitar making again. He’s now working three days a week in his shop and producing handcrafted Kent guitars. He’s even started teaching a couple friends the trade.
“I’m totally back into it now,” he says.
Hanging on the wall inside the shop are photos of Casey. His diploma from luthier school is there, too. Guitars that Kent and Casey made together are on a stand above Little Bear. Two frames that the father and son began working on years ago are lying on the table underneath the light. Kent’s ready to finish them.
“This is a still passion of mine. I just love it,” he says, “and I feel in some ways this honors Casey and his legacy.”
For more information about Kent guitars, call 406-892-1392 or email [email protected]
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