In the pantheon of great guitar makers, Ed Stilley’s work stands alone like a castaway on its own musical island.  Imperfect, bizarre and some even un-tunable to the modern equal temperament scale, his crudely made stringed instruments would make the most adventurous guitar collector shudder.

And yet, his instruments (and even more his story) are just as fascinating as Leo Fender or C. F. Martin.

A gorgeous new hardcover book by The University of Arkansas Press has just been published, documenting the life and work of this outsider luthier.  The book,True Faith, True Light: The Devotional Art of Ed Stilley captures his story and features stunning full color pictures of his work.  It is authored by musician and folklorist, Kelly Mulhollan of the duo, Still on the Hill.

From the book’s intro:  In 1979, Ed Stilley was leading a simple life as a farmer and singer of religious hymns in Hogscald Hollow … Arkansas. Life was filled with hard work and making do for Ed, his wife Eliza, and their five children, who lived in many ways as if the second half of the twentieth century had never happened.

[In 1979] while plowing his field, he became convinced he was having a heart attack...  [A]s he lay there in the freshly plowed dirt, Ed received a vision from God, telling him that he would be restored to health if he would agree to do one thing: make musical instruments and give them to children.

… Beginning with a few simple hand tools, Ed worked tirelessly for twenty-five years to create over two hundred instruments, each a crazy quilt of heavy, rough-sawn wood scraps joined with found objects. A rusty door hinge, a steak bone, a stack of dimes, springs, saw blades, pot lids, metal pipes, glass bottles, aerosol cans—Ed used anything he could to build a working guitar, fiddle, or dulcimer. On each instrument Ed inscribed “True Faith, True Light, Have Faith in God.”

Author and musician, Kelly Mulhollan paints a picture of a man driven by faith to make guitars for every child in his area, even though he has no training in instrument design and construction.  His instruments are built from lumberyard scraps and other unthinkable wood choices.  The shapes are equally unusual because Stilley would boil the thin oak sides overnight and then bend them into whatever shape they dictated in the morning.

The most fascinating part of Stilley’s instruments is what’s hidden inside the soundholes:  Saw blades, springs, aluminum tubes and other metal objects.  Stilley added these parts to create natural reverb inside the instruments, or as he was quoted, “to better speak the voice of the Lord.”  The book uses X-Rays and diagrams to chronical Stilley’s wild sound designs.  Kelly Mulhollan discovered in his research that Stilley created ‘sonic loops’ through the internal metal pieces. 

In his wild setups setups, Stilley had the string vibrations captured by a string tree bar at the headstock and delivered down the neck in a truss rod to the saw blades and other parts inside the body.  They were further amplified by an invention called The Jingler hidden inside the neck.

Yes, his designs are that intense.

But how do they sound?  Here’s author, Kelly Mullholland and his wife, Donna (as the duo, Still on the Hill) performing on an Ed Stilley guitar and fiddle.

As a sound searcher myself (and collector of instruments & instrument books), True Faith, True Light should be in book collections of any instrument fan or builder.  Kelly Mulhollan’s portrait of a man driven by faith and the gorgeous photos by Kirk Lanier make this a winner.  The book is as much an art piece as Stilley’s guitars.

In an era of perfection dictated by Autotune and CNC machines, the world needs Ed Stilley.  This book is essential.

Bonus Feature:  Take a tour of Ed Stilley's workshop and hear him perform a hymn on one of his guitars.

True Faith, True Light: The Devotional Art of Ed Stilley has just been released.  It is for sale for $35 at http://www.stillonthehill.com/shop/true-light-true-faith

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An art exhibition has already taken place in celebration of his instruments.  See info here:  http://waltonartscenter.org/true-faith-true-light/

Wayfinder, this kind of mean-spirited response to a man's work guided by his faith is not cool. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, visually and aurally. I suppose you feel it is necessary to deluge the boards with comments to just about every topic posted though, and a few cruel remarks are just part of your way of contributing. And if you had paid attention, he did know something about guitar design, since he played for many years before he had his vision. 

This made me cry.  What a sweet man and what an amazing vision.

Fantastic Article. Thanks for posting.

I had a chance to see some of these instruments in person. Each instrument was accompanied by an X-ray. To each his own vision but I saw nothing but-ugly about these instruments. To me they were awe-inspiring works of folk art.

This Kelly, the author of Ed's book, and I am fascinated by the conversation here.  I certainly took no offense with the term butt- ugly.  I new it was just a playful term being use affectionately.  It is clear that you appreciate Ed's gift.  And, I appreciate Dane coming to Ed's defense as well.  Its all OK. 

I am just thrilled that the SN community has taken such an interest in Ed's work.  I certainly see why it resonates with builders of unconventional instruments.  It is true that Ed has a profound sense of what is considered 'finished'.  I added a photo here that demonstrates this well. In some ways, Ed made a guitar in the same way he would make a wooden gate to his chicken house.  Somehow it comes out looking like a Picasso.  Sorry- I should have compressed this picture.

Kelly Mulhollan

Fascinating and inspiring!

They remind me of the Spanish Rabel.  Homemade instruments have so much sould and passion to them. 

This perfectly embodies what homemade music is all about.  Making do with found objects, letting the materials dictate the form and function, and pursuing a vision based on passion and faith.  No rules, no marketing, no profit motivation.  Just music.  For everyone.  This book is going on my Christmas list.

Amazing work and intriguing story, thanks for posting.

What a story.A great man ( Mr Stilley, not you, Shane lol)

Book looks good, on sale in UK anywhere ?

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