Guitar Hero: Merced High woodshop teacher helps students build electric instruments

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 11, 2013 

— The buzz of power saws and the pounding of hammers are sounds one normally expects to hear in earshot of a high school woodshop.

If you happen to walk by Tom Post's classroom at Merced High, however, don't be surprised to hear a live rendition of the thunderous opening bars of Metallica's "Master of Puppets," or maybe the blistering guitar solo from Megadeth's "Hangar 18."

That's because Post, a woodshop teacher at Merced High, recently began teaching some of his students how to make electric guitars.

Guitar godfather Leo Fender would be proud. But Post said his primary goal is to renew students' interest in woodshop in a way that's fun and educational -- as well as build enrollment in his classes.

And because building an electric guitar isn't an easy project for a novice to complete, Post said it presents numerous opportunities for the students to use their problem-solving, design and creative skills.

"There's quite a bit of hands-on to put these together," said Post, holding one of his creations -- a guitar shaped in the style of a classic Gibson Les Paul.

"We're all, kind of, as electives, trying to stay alive and teach our subject," he said. "With budget cuts and (class) sections just shrinking, we're trying to find stuff to keep us going. And I think this is going to turn out pretty good."

Ironically, Post doesn't have much of a musical past -- and hadn't played guitar prior to building them.

His initiation as a builder of electric guitars began in June. He attended a guitar builder's workshop in Ventura County, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

The students involved in Post's project are members of the Guitar Club, meeting once a week in the woodshop for about an hour and a half after school. It takes about 30 hours of work to build one guitar.

Start to finish

Students learn how to build the guitar from start to finish, from connecting the neck to the body, to soldering the electronic components and eventually laying down a fresh coat of paint.

Whatever challenges arise during the process, Post and his students work through them together.

"Getting the frets so they're nice and smooth, and not jagged, that was a little bit of work," Post said. "The fretwork is very important to the sound of the guitar. Not just the spacing, but the proper seating of the frets -- that's something that these guys are going to do a lot more of in the future, so that they learn that process."

Getting supplies for the project isn't cheap. Each kit, which comes with the parts and components needed to build the guitar, costs about $175.

Post has found creative ways to fund his project. Those interested in owning the guitars created by his class can buy $5 donation tickets. A drawing is held, and the winning ticket holder gets the guitar. All of the proceeds go into the school's Guitar Club to make it possible for students to purchase guitar kits for the class.

Post said his guitar-building class is the only one of which he's aware in the area -- and he plans on starting a similar program at Golden Valley High.

"It's not very common," he said. "There's a lot of academic curriculum that's included in the workshop that can be shared with math and science teachers. And it's designed to have those teachers use the guitar and the concepts about music ... and how to use it in classes."

Students involved in Post's project said it offers a greater appreciation for the level of attention and craftsmanship that goes into making a guitar. They also remarked about the joy that comes from building a guitar from beginning to end.

"Me being a guitar player, it's kind of a dream to be able to build your own, so I was excited," said Avery Escobedo, 17.

A guitar player of about five years, Avery can play many of the songs made famous by guitar greats such as Dave Mustaine of Megadeth and Kirk Hammett of Metallica. He also spoke about the thrill of eventually playing a guitar made by his own hands.

Brandon Padilla, 17, president of the campus Guitar Club, said the allure of the guitar spans generations, cultures and genres.

"There are guitars in rock, country, pop -- pretty much any music you hear, there's going to be some guitar in it," he said. "They've just become a symbol of good music."

Brandon, who started playing guitar last year, said building his own will provide an extra incentive to learn more about the instrument.

"I don't want it to just become a piece that I hang on my wall. I want to be able to use it," Brandon said.

Drawn by versatility

Kendall Helms, 17, another Guitar Club member, said the versatility of the instrument makes it attractive.

"With the electric guitar, you can change the sound with them so much, it can grow with the times," he said. "It can become more modern with the different sounds that you can produce from it."

Teachers at Merced High, such as fine arts teacher Matt Bogard, commended Post for instilling important skills in the students with a project that grabs their attention and is relevant to them.

"There's a lot of critical thinking that goes into it," Bogard said.

He also got one of the guitars built by the class, after winning the drawing from buying a ticket. "It will be an inspiration for me to learn how to play," Bogard said.

As word gets out about his class, Post expects more students to take interest in building guitars -- and some may move forward to designing and assembling guitars in their spare time.

"It's possibly a hobby, or maybe a career," Post said.

Post, who's been a woodshop teacher for 19 years, the past nine at Merced High, hopes to start building acoustic guitars in the future. It will be more challenging because of the level of workmanship that's involved.

He's also hopeful the public will help support the class by purchasing donation tickets to win guitars. Anyone from the community can buy a ticket, and there's no limit on how many tickets can be purchased.

Post said the students pay about $50 for their kits; ideally, the rest of the cost is offset by the ticket sales.

"We're trying to make it affordable for them," he said. "Something like this gives them confidence and opens up job opportunities."

To buy a guitar ticket, email Post at tpost@muhsd.k12.ca.us.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: 'Merced Matters' appears every Monday. In it we will tell the stories of Mercedians -- ordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing ordinary things and a lot in between. We hope you like our effort to let you know more about others in our community, and we welcome your suggestions. Please contact Victor Patton at vpatton@mercedsun-star.com or (209) 385-2431 with your ideas for 'Merced Matters.'

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