Wood. Strings. Soul.
Wood. Strings. Soul.
You’ve probably heard the names Gibson, Fender, Martin, and Taylor before. You’ve probably even picked one up, slung it over your back, and strummed a few melodic chords. You may not, however, have heard the name Stehr before now but it’s a Washington state name getting more and more worldwide notoriety.
Joel Stehr, a Washington state luthier, or in more layman's terms, a guitar maker, has been custom building acoustic guitars since 2000. He and his friend decided one day to try to build their own guitar by watching videos, reading books, and talking to other fellow guitar makers around town. Though they never finished building that first guitar, Joel knew he had found a passion that he might not have ever thought about.
A few years later and with two custom guitars under his belt, Joel had a moment that changed his life path indefinitely. “There was one moment when I wanted to really get into it. It was sunny. I was standing on my gravel driveway right in front of my garage. The garage door was shut. I hadn't entered the shop yet. I had this wave wash over me just like, 'I'm gonna make this happen. I'm gonna do this. I'm going to start building guitars.’”
It's as important for me for the guitar to look really great as it is to sound great. If it looks good already, it's going to sound good.
After almost 20 years now, Joel has continued to hone in his craft while adding intricate details specific to a custom Stehr guitar. “It's as important for me for the guitar to look really great as it is to sound great. If it looks good already, it's going to sound good.”
Though it hasn’t always been an easy journey. Joel explained that it does take a while to get the perfect bend of the sides and etch the perfect leaf into the wood. You can spend months only learning one new technique. “A lot of it comes from intuition. A lot has come from building a lot of guitars. It takes a whole guitar to learn one little thing and to try it different the next time.”
Today, Joel spends multiple hours and weeks on each guitar, giving each one his own special flair. So much so, one renowned artist even took notice. “For my whole life I've loved Simon and Garfunkel and I built a guitar for a gal in a band called First Aid Kit.” He reminisced while a smile crept over his face. “They played a tribute show award ceremony for Paul Simon and she told me that after the show, he [Simon] came up to her and said how great the guitar looked and sounded. That was probably one of my biggest career highlights.”
Beaming, Joel continued by saying how much he’s grown and how much he’s learned about himself since starting his business. “Me as a person, I need to create. I always have to be creating something. If I'm not creating something, I tend to get antsy and, in the long term, I get depressed.” He paused before continuing. “Creating these guitars, or whatever else, that's what fills my soul.”