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An Old Woodpile Is His Sounding Board

Music: Orville Gholston has a passion for crafting guitars. Barbara Mandrell and other musicians have used them.

January 20, 1998|MATTHEW YI | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LINDSAY, Calif. — Just about everything in Orville Gholston's guitar shop is old.

A pile of spruce, maple and rosewood boards on one side of the room is decades old. A band saw that sits on the opposite side was purchased about 30 years ago. On a high shelf near the door are several dust-covered guitars and broken strings that look as if they've seen better days.

His shop sits on the upper level of what once was a two-story boarding house, a brick building believed to have been built about 1900 in this Tulare County town of about 8,900.

Although Gholston is a watchmaker and jeweler by trade, his passion is not in precious stones, but aged wood.

"I've always been good with woodwork, and I was always the top student in my shop class at school," he said.

That was well before the Great Depression of the 1930s, which forced him to move from Oklahoma to Hot Springs, Ark., and eventually to California.

Gholston, who turned 86 in November, has been making guitars since the 1960s.

He's not afraid to call himself an Okie because he says he is one.

"I'm from central Oklahoma. I came to California in 1946," Gholston, with white thinning hair and sparkling green eyes, said proudly.

Gholston's knobby hands can still work the dovetail saws that he uses to make grooves for the frets on guitar necks.

Gholston began tinkering with guitars when "an ambitious guitar player" who worked across the street at Western Union asked, "How do you make an electric pickup?"

"I said I don't know, but I told him I'll find out," Gholston said.

So he went to the Sixth Street Library in Los Angeles and learned how to make his first electric pickup, an electronic amplifier. The next step was to actually build an electric guitar from scratch.

With help from a guitar maker in Los Angeles, Gholston learned to repair and then build guitars. He labeled them Farber guitars, in honor of his mother's maiden name.

The man across the street "would criticize them, and I began to realize what it was all about," he said.

It wasn't too long before he started making adjustments and changed the name to Gholston. The latest improvement is to place one bolt on top and a second on the face of the guitar to hold the neck and the body together.

"I've seen that design on Taylor guitars, but I don't think anyone else does it," he said.

Some artists who have used Gholston guitars include Norman Hamlett, who played steel guitar for Merle Haggard; Little Jimmy Dickens and Barbara Mandrell, when she performed at nearby Porterville as a child.

"Barbara used to eat lunch here," Gholston said. "She used to just play her guitar and dance. She didn't get famous until she started singing."

*

Gholston first met Barbara Mandrell's father, Irby, years before in Hot Springs, Ark. When Gholston began making electric pickups and guitars, he sold a few to the elder Mandrell for his music store in Oceanside.

Most of Gholston's connections with celebrities are in the past. But he still makes guitars, not because there's high demand for them, but because he loves the work.

After his current batch of electric guitars, he plans to make acoustic guitars next spring. Although they sell for as much as $1,000 apiece nowadays, they were never a reliable source of income for him in the past and he doesn't expect that to change now.

"When I say I don't get much money, I'm not lying," Gholston said. "But I'm sure I can sell them at stores at some kind of a price."

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