There’s Something Fishy About These GuitarsComments (0)
Billy Rhinehart of Athens, Ohio, has been making guitars for more than 30 years. But they’re not just any guitars; they are unique creations that defy traditional instrument making, each with its own theme and colorful finish. Designed from scratch, hand carved, hand painted and hand assembled, each one is a work of art and an interesting conversation piece.
THE FISH GUITAR
His business—Fish Guitar—is aptly named after Billy’s first creation, the fish guitar. Why a fish guitar? Because why not a fish guitar? His doodle on the back of an envelope spawned his first work in the early ’80s, followed by an eclectic list of more designs of varied uniqueness.
The first fish guitar was constructed with three pieces of recycled oak barn siding and a single piece of redwood as the back. “This is where I started,” Billy said. “My joinery was naively unprofessional, with a hot mix of glue and sawdust to bridge the cracks. To stabilize the whole thing, I laminated it to a solid plank of redwood.” The neck was constructed of maple and mahogany, with a rosewood fingerboard. After some trial and error through three different necks and a couple changes of pickups and tone options, the final configuration has endured and serves as an example of all that followed. The fish design was carved on the guitar body using a few flat chisels he had purchased at Odd Lots discount store and some dental tools. He scalloped the fins with a sanding disc in a Dremel tool. Color was added with oil paints and topped with polyurethane.
Billy, who is also an avid guitar player, said, “Somehow it all came together and it remains a great player.” Yes, these guitars are actually made to be played.
HOW DOES ONE MAKE A FISH GUITAR?
To make a one-of-a-kind instrument, Billy first draws out his idea on paper, and then transfers it to wood—usually a single piece of wood, but frequently two or three pieces. He uses a lot of reclaimed wood, including some from trees in his own backyard or his neighbor’s yard.
He next uses a bandsaw to cut around the outline and “if planned well enough,” he does the machine work first rather than as he goes — routing for the pickups, the neck joint and the electronics control cavity.
PHOTO: Billy Rhinehart carving a walnut guitar body
Next comes the carving and “a lot of sanding,” he said. Over time, he acquired much better quality carving tools than those he started out with. He bought a pfeil Swiss tool set at Woodcraft and added singles as he needed them. A few of his “workhorse tools” are the V-parting tool, #5 radius gouge, #7 radius gouge, #5 sweep gouge and #15 parting tool. Sometimes he’ll use “big honking gouges” when he needs to hog off a lot of wood. For the sanding, he uses a combination of belt sander, disc sander, palm sander and often a Dremel to get into tight spaces. Billy created this simple rack with holes to store his tools when not in use.
The neck is fashioned by bandsawing the wood, doing some router work and adding a reinforcement rod. Billy carves it and adds an inlay if the design calls for it, and wires in the electronic controls, pickups and harness. Then he’s ready for paint. He typically uses artist’s acrylics or oil paints, but occasionally he will “pick up some weirdo stuff” at the craft store. He finishes and protects his work with brush-on water-based varnish, giving all surfaces 3-4 coats, and then uses a cloth and Swirl Remover to buff out the swirls, leaving a high-gloss look.
The final part of Billy’s guitar builds is adding the strings and knobs, and then adjusting the guitar to play properly. He typically spends 6-7 hours on this step, which includes filing, cutting, notching, polishing and tuning. Some of his musical supplies, like pre-radiused and slotted fingerboards, come from Stewart-MacDonald, a national luthier supply company that happens to be located in his town. The fretboards for the lap steels are laid out and painted on.
WHERE DOES HE GET HIS IDEAS?
Some of Billy’s guitars are made to order, like the mahogany and maple “Sweet Tea Music” guitar pictured below, featuring a fleur-de-lis design inspired by that business’ logo. He used the client’s design feature of the black crosspiece to create a unique pickup mounting. The second image shows the mother-of-pearl neck inlay in progress.
“MumblyPeg Blue” was created in September 2013, inspired by the abstract inlaid headstock of another guitar he made, “Tears of Joy.” The entire guitar was built from recycled parts, with the exception of the chrome pickup ring for the neck pickup and the three chrome control knobs. The body is swamp ash, the neck is maple, and the fingerboard is rosewood.
Some of his ideas are his own personal vision, “ideas that just come up in my own head,” Billy stated. The “Hawk and Raven” was his second guitar build, “created in a frenzy and guided by luck” after riding on a high after the success of the fish guitar. The three-piece mahogany body has a bolt-on maple neck and ebony fingerboard with carved feathers on the headstock. He said this design has been popular, but he only created one.
Modeled after a python, the “Stratoconstrictor” is definitely a conversation piece. The two-piece walnut body has a sassafras top that features a “big snake tempting you with not one, but two too-red apples,” Billy said. The headstock has a tiny green snake carved into it, attached to a factory made maple neck. Always improving as he goes, he thinks “it may need Adam and Eve squeezed in there somewhere. There’s always something to do.” This piece is for sale.
Another talent Billy has is poetry and songwriting. Many of his pieces have their own poem, like this catchy verse on the “Stratoconstrictor”:
“The devil snuck back to the garden
to find his old lost skin
reflected in the crystal moon
shining down on him.
“What's that old snake up to now?”
He heard the angels' jealous moan.
"I got two souls with one apple," he said,
“I'll steal the rest with rock & roll! ”
Some of Billy’s other guitar creations include “Octo-Fish,” “The Sweet and Hot Peppers,” “Scare Crow and Scared Crows,” “All-Mardi Partiers” (pictured below), “Cyborgian,” “Shoot the Moon” (below), and a couple of zodiac-inspired pieces called “Taurus: The Bull” and “Aries: The Ram.” He has also made four different “Alligator Lap Steels” (#4 pictured below), which was carved from Douglas fir for a lighter weight, fine-toned instrument. Two of his lap steels were made from oak that was salvaged from 100+ year old floor joists from the American Legion Hall in Jacksonville, Ohio. The fourth was made from poplar found in Billy’s backyard.
"Shoot the Moon"
Alligator Lap Steel #4
A man of many creative endeavors, he has also done some “non guitar things,” as he calls them, such as relief carved art pieces and other carvings. His wooden ice cream cones range from 7" to 12" tall, called “The Problems with Heaven.” What are the problems with heaven, I asked? “Dripping, stickiness, headache, toothache, unexplainable weight gain, loss of appetite and feeling of excessive fullness,” he replied. “See your doctor or your soda jerk if problems persist.”
That songwriting talent? He has a 20-song music CD called “Heavy Orchids and Tattoo Dances” on which he sings lead vocal and plays guitar. And of course, he wrote the songs and designed the cover art. Billy said the band isn’t currently together, but he hopes the members can play some this summer. To learn more about Billy’s folksy-style music and purchase or download the CD, click this link on cdbaby.com.
FINE-TUNING & SHARING HIS ART
How long does it take to make a guitar? Billy said a typical build takes place over the course of 6-8 weeks, usually totaling 100 hours or more. When asked which guitar is his favorite, he replied, “Either the first one I ever made or the most recent one I finished.” He refined his process over the years, often going back and re-doing parts of older models with new techniques and materials.
Though he claims his pieces don’t really appeal to “real guitar players,” some of his custom work brings in a pretty penny. Customers find him at online at fishguitar.com, as well as guitar shows, art galleries and in his local Blue Eagle Music Store in Athens. Often the journalism and film students from nearby Ohio University find out about his work and stop in for interviews.
This summer he will have his several pieces on display at “The Art of Our Appalachian Woods” exhibit at The Dairy Barn Arts Center in Athens, from June 29 to September 3. This show is devoted to the creativity, artisanship and education of artists working with local woods found in Appalachia.
Billy also has an upcoming show at the ARTS/West Gallery in Athens, a former church building that is now dedicated to fostering art opportunities in the area. He will exhibit 16-18 of his guitars and possibly a couple of relief carvings. That show will run through the month of July.
PHOTO: Image by The Athens Messenger
To see more of Billy’s work, check out his website where several items are currently for sale at fishguitar.com. He includes a narrative, specs and a little insight into the design process for each one.
If you are interested in learning how to build your own guitar (though probably not a fish guitar), many Woodcraft stores offer classes on different types of instrument making. Find a store near you and check out the class page online or inquire within.
We hope you'll be inspired!
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