As a self-styled aficionado of stringed instruments, I’ve asked a number of players and builders over the years a pretty standard question: “What makes a good guitar?”
When I recently sat down with luthier Jason Mills, the founder of Highwood Guitars, he gave me perhaps the most interesting answer I have gotten to date: “Curiosity.”
When you look at Mills’ work, you can see that this answer informs the process by which he designs and builds stringed instruments. Where most of the trade is focused on tonewoods, sometimes rare or often expensive, Mills product line is actually based on components such as cigar boxes, driftwood, license plates or, as he calls them, “found objects.”
His designs have been featured in national media, including a feature in Guitar World Magazine and regular appearances on the Cigar Box Nation (http://www.cigarboxnation.com/) website.
His instruments are also beginning to make their way into recognizable players from around the world, including our own Larry McCray and Belgian slide ace Vincent Slegers. Local players, such as Cash O’Riley and Bianca Henika are now also proud owners of Mills crafted instruments.
Mills, a journeyman electrician, began his journey into the world of guitar construction a little over eight years ago. “I was repairing guitars for myself, friends and family. One day I stumbled across a video about cigar box guitars on Youtube and went from there.”
While Mills’ story as a builder began in the last decade, the story of Highwood Guitars has much deeper roots. To some degree, the company is an homage to Mills’ grandfather, Alton Conklin. As a youngster in the early 1900’s, Conklin would take a train from Highwood, Michigan to Bay City. These trips to Bay City combined work and play in an interesting way. Even back then, Bay City knew how to party and Conklin attended many barn dances in those days. As Mills described, “People just brought instruments and jammed. Some of these were instruments they made themselves.”
“Basically, he introduced me to the idea of guitars. Those are my first memories. I really wish I would have listened harder.”
“Cigar box guitars” actually have a proud tradition, dating back to the 1840’s. The signature feature of this style of guitar is that the body is made of a hollow “household object,” like a cigar box or an empty kerosene can. They are often played slide style and have a strong associate with primitive Blues styles.
Mills also branched out into a signature series of guitars built from driftwood. Players are regularly astounded at the playability and tone from rustic looking instruments that have Mother Nature’s mojo all over them.
If there is a standard feature of a Highwood Guitar, it is that there are no standard features. Guitars and basses might be six strings, or they might only have two or three. Tunings vary based upon what works best with the guitar and its tone once it is produced – open tunings, unison tunings, various string gauges. The designs are really only bound by Mills’ imagination and the unique variety of parts available from specialty parts suppliers, like CB Gitty Supplies (https://www.cbgitty.com/).
Mills indicated it is the neck of the guitar that takes the most care in crafting. While many builders buy their necks, he will typically make his own. Most Highwood guitars are fretless, designed to be played with a slide, though Mills also makes fretted instruments.
From guitars and basses, he has branched out into violins and to instruments that are truly experimental, even by Mills standards, such as the one string driftwood log with an electronic drum trigger incorporated into the body. It’s like a combination of Theremin and drum machine that takes on a character all its own when plugged into a tube amp.
As is common in niche markets such as this one, Mills has become part of a community of truly gifted people who put a unique form of craftsmanship into their products. Companies like Mojo Bone Works (https://www.facebook.com/MojoboneWorks/), a maker of slides and microphones, and Swamp-Witch Guitars (http://swampwitchguitars.weebly.com/), run by a “mythical” figure who goes only by the moniker “The Anonymous Pick,” are now competitors, friends and sometime collaborators with Mills.
The popularity of Highwood Guitars has taken Mills somewhat by surprise. He now has several guitars in progress at any given time and sells dozens of custom instruments a year. His plans for the near term include continuing to establish a presence in retail booths at guitar shows and music festivals.
You’ll find Mills at the Freeland Blues Festival, in August, for instance. He has also contemplated bringing in help; someone who can take on some of the tasks that are hard to balance when you have several instruments in process at once.
You can hear sample clips of Highwood Guitars at (http://www.highwoodguitars.com/about.html) and on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Highwood-Guitars-by-Jason-Mills-234739436599814/)