FAIRBANKS — Karl Monetti is a modern-day renaissance man. He has built things from gunstocks to dog sleds to cabins and, most recently, has taken his passion for working with his hands and wood to create one of his greatest loves — a guitar.
And not just one, but a handful, all with slightly different designs.
The local artist was a veterinarian for 36 years, a wood worker for 45 years and has been a musician for 50 years. His first instrument was a tiny Roy Rogers guitar he received as a Christmas present as a small boy when his aunt taught him to play at the age of 12. He’s been playing ever since. And, while there are plenty of Alaskans who can strum a few tunes on a six-string, few can say they’ve made their own instruments.
Building that first guitar
“When I moved to Alaska in 1971 and got my hands on a double-bit ax and a chainsaw for the first time, I was in hog heaven,” Monetti said. “Out came whole houses, log cabins, dog sleds, road graders and sledges.”
Guitars also came out of that bliss for working with his hands but not until much later.
“I started making things out of wood at age 10, by 16 I was making gunstocks, at age 26 making log cabins and dog sleds,” he said. “I took up guitar making at age 62, after I finally quit wondering if I could, and just did.”
Monetti said he’s always admired good guitars and felt for years that the level of expertise required was far above anything he could ever achieve. But on a visit to Hawaii to see his daughter in 1997, he bought two thick koa boards with the idea of someday building a slide guitar with them.
The wood sat in his basement for the next eight years. It wasn’t until 2006 that he had the wood sliced into useable thickness for a guitar.
“I was really dreading the idea of ruining that beautiful wood and I was not looking forward to trying to connect a skinny neck to a flimsy box,” he said.
Monetti refers to that feeling of dred as a perceived weak spot in his imagination. But he’s overcome this with a little perseverance, a little research and a lot of experimentation. It also helped that he had electricity installed in his North Pole cabin that fall, making it easier to work on the instrument in his shop during the winter.
Though he’d never played a lap steel guitar in his life, Monetti wanted to recreate the smooth sounding Hawaiian instrument anyway.
The hollow-necked guitar with raised strings was made popular by Herman Weisenborn in the 1920s and is also known as a slide guitar. It’s typically played on a musician’s lap and is recognized for it’s smooth, resonating and hollow sounds. The instrument has been absorbed by blues, jazz, swing, country and even, to a lesser extent, rock and roll over the years.
“I figured I’d build it first
and that would give me the reason to learn how to play it,” Monetti said. He admits he’s still trying to figure out how to play the lap-based instrument. But he said the process of building his own has been worthwhile.
“That was the culmination of years of desire and I finally got it out of my way,” he said.
“It was so thrilling and I get goose bumps to this day just thinking
Crafting the Medusa
Monetti went on to experiment with other types of guitars, eventually creating the Medusa, a hollow-necked acoustic traveling guitar. He has since made “about 10” of that particular model, some he still plays, other’s he passed along as gifts.
He explained that he built the Medusa — his second guitar — with a solid piece of maple for the neck and more of the Hawaiian koa wood and some extra walnut he had laying around. Though he had his doubts along the way as he hurried to build it, playing his own guitar for the first time was an experience Monetti said was unforgettable.
“The sound was so full, the overtones incredible, the guitar just rang for what seemed like minutes,” he said. “I was, and still am, totally awed.”
Monetti said he’s carried the Medusa as his traveling guitar ever since and everywhere he goes he comments on the looks and sound.
“I consider myself a modest, honest person,” he said. “...I’m not the best craftsman in the world; there’s nothing fancy about these guitars, but I do believe I have come up with something very functional that is structurally sound and really cool looking, and that sounds very good.”
Since then, Monetti said his passion for the guitar has deepened and he has made about 25 instruments of five original designs, including hollow-necked ukuleles.
Monetti designs and sells his guitars made from local woods like Sitka Spruce and a number of other scrap materials like birch and maple, lyptus and rosewoods. He also uses Alaska fossil ivory for the nuts and saddles of the guitar.
Monetti said he’s spent a lifetime learning firsthand how to enjoy, live in, get along with, and nurture nature. These days, he spends his time strumming his guitars and writing letters to the editor.
“I’ve developed more of a conscience about everything I do,” Monetti said, referring to the environment. “I find myself now with time and energy to devote to helping address global warming, climate change and environmental issues in any way I can.”
At 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10, Monetti will share his talents and instruments at the Noel Wien Public Library as part of the Northern Voices Speaker Series. The lecture is free and sponsored by the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. For more information, contact the center at 452-5021.