Bill Brunton: The Winding Path from Ethnographer to Luthier

LAURA ELLEN BRANDJORD | THE SPECTRUM

After battling arthritis in his thumb and struggling to play with short fingers, Brunton developed a shorter guitar perfect for him to play.

If you think an ethnographer turned luthier seems like an impossible career path, buckle up. I’m about to introduce you to someone who will prove you wrong.

Allow me to introduce you to retired NDSU anthropology professor Bill Brunton. Brunton is a happily retired ethnographer who possesses a penchant for filling his time by quietly handcrafting exquisite classical guitars.

As one might imagine, this transformation took many years and the path was anything but straight. The more I talked with Brunton, however, the more clear the path became, albeit with a few surprising twists remaining in the story’s topography.

It all started with a violin. Unfinished and collecting dust, it was Brunton’s only connection to his paternal grandfather. As a child, Brunton developed the habit of taking it out and inspecting it with awe. “I had this somewhat magical notion that this came from somebody’s hands and a vague idea that it was my grandfather. I was intrigued by the violin itself as a little boy because it was fashioned by somebody’s hands. In my little boy understanding of the world, everything came from a factory, but this came from somebody’s hands and I couldn’t figure out how anybody could do that. So it was there as kind of a symbol of what people can do.” The violin was eventually varnished by his father and now holds council in Brunton’s luthiery shop.

The third stall of Brunton’s garage serves as his luthiery, which he keeps humidified and heated at as constant a level as he can manage. He explains that the humidity under which each guitar is made is important. “Someone on the west coast should never buy one of my guitars unless I make it in the summer when it’s more humid; same thing with someone in the southwest where it is drier. I’d probably work on that in the summer when the humidity is closer to what it will be living in,” Brunton explained.

Brunton witnessed the importance of this while taking flamenco lessons in Hawaii.  Brunton and his then wife attended the University of Hawaii for a semester of their college careers. It was during this time that a poster for the lessons caught Brunton’s curious eye. Venturing to a music store and purchasing a cheap Japanese acoustic guitar for the purpose, he set off to further his guitar skills.

The Englishman who taught Brunton used a crude handmade guitar that despite its terrible appearance managed to carry a tune. His teacher revealed the guitar was of his own fashioning, made under the direction of Spanish gypsy guitar makers he met in California. Once he moved to Hawaii, the humidity caused the animal glue holding his guitar together to release. Without access to many of the tools needed, Brunton’s teacher managed to cobble it back together well enough so that it was playable.

“It got me thinking; if he could make this horrible looking guitar playable, maybe I can do it too.” Brunton made a promise to himself that he would build a guitar by hand after he finished his Ph.D.

And that is exactly what he did. Hidden away in a downstairs closet, Brunton never shows it to anyone but admits it technically plays. It’s only been uphill from there, as he believes he was overall quite happy with the end product by his 12th or 14th.

The entire journey of guitar making has been one of discovery for Brunton. He has discovered through experimenting with different woods that would usually be deemed unsuitable, that some of them actually make wonderful guitars. One guitar in particular breaks the rules of utilizing only narrow grain wood, yet is a guitar that everyone falls in love with when they play. He has also used “festival grade” rosewood and variegated ebony to great success.

Through experimenting with different brace options, Brunton has also begun to develop his own “lattice bracing” technique of intersecting fan braces. He has also started adding an open “port” in the top side of his guitars as he discovered it added to the magnification and sweetness of the guitars’ sound.

Below is an insight into our conversation. I found the longer we talked, the more useful advice I was picking up on that applied to my life. I am sure others will too.

Laura Ellen Brandjord (LEB): What area or group was your focus during your career as an anthropologist? 

Bill Brunton (BB): I focused on Native Americans of an area of North America called “The Plateau.” I worked mainly with a tribe called the Kootenai which were a language isolate … The Kootenai speak Kootenai around any of these other tribes, and no one knows what they are saying, and they take great pride in that. They consider themselves different from everyone else and there is a certain secrecy around their culture, so it was a great honor to be allowed to work with them.

LEB: When did you come to NDSU? I know you retired in 2001, but you were there for a while before that.

BB: 1969. I was the first anthropologist. I came when NDSU was called NDSC or something and was known as the ag college or the land grant college. But when I came in 1969, there was a change underway. They were becoming a university, and they were adding other fields such as anthropology.

LEB: Do you consider yourself a curator of an art form in a sense by still hand-building guitars?

BB: Well, once you ask the question I can say yes, but do I stop and think of myself that way? No. As a luthier and as an anthropologist I consider myself a part of a lineage. My ancestors, not my literal ancestors, have left the world and me a body of work and a body of knowledge and perspectives that I have to understand and discover. A Brunton guitar is based off of certain Elliot classical guitar things, which is based off of the Hauser discoveries, which were based off of the Torres Spanish-style guitars.

LEB: If you had to narrow it down to one critical point in the guitar making process that if you mess up on you can no longer continue, what would it be?

BB: Here’s the thing — a guitar is a constellation of features. All of which are critical if any one of them would be screwed up badly enough. There are lots of things that can happen, so I don’t think there is necessarily one point where you would decide not to continue. I once had a guitar I made where the sides cracked when I was bending them … I went back to the shop and ended up coming up with a technique I now use on all of my guitars. So, it is an accumulative thing, but not just one thing. And that is true of anything in life. Anything that doesn’t completely stop the process is an opportunity for discovery and gaining knowledge.

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