Bryce Johnston playing his hand-built guitar in Montana’s beautiful wilderness.

1. Tell me a little about yourself!

My name is Bryce (he/him), I’ve lived in Missoula for two years so far and have done a variety of things around town. I originally grew up in Salt Lake City, went to school at Utah State University studying ecology and sustainability, and ended up in Missoula following my partner for law school. Since living here I’ve worked serving meat and seafood at the Good Food Store, did sustainable transportation outreach and education with Missoula in Motion, and was a cobbler with Hide & Sole. Currently I work at the Adventure Cycling Association, planning cycling tours and helping get more people into bike travel. Outside of work, I spend a lot of my free time cycling, spending time outdoors with my partner and dog, or working on various craft projects.

Bryce playing for friends around a campfire.

2. Tell me about your project. What inspired you to create this?

My original inspiration for this project was wanting to create an instrument that can be more easily brought backpacking and bikepacking. I’ve done it with the harmonica and making drums out of various rocks and sticks, but there’s not a lot of room for good tunes with just those. I’ve been playing string instruments for about four years or so, and have been pondering about trying to bring something with strings out into the woods. There are companies that make travel/backpacker guitars, but are pretty expensive and still pretty bulky. I was reading about cigar box guitars, a form of folk instrument, and it seemed pretty fun to build one. Along with that, I thought it could be a great backpacking guitar due to its smaller size, weight, and ability to separate the body from the neck by taking out the two bolts holding the olive oil tin to the wooden neck. It also looks pretty fun and is the perfect volume for a campfire.

The beginning stages!

3. Were there any unforeseen challenges?

One of the hardest parts was devising a system to be able to quickly remove the strings. Most stringed instruments are fed through a closed hole or grommet at the body, and then run through the tuners and tightened. If I did this, it means to remove the body from the neck I would need to fully detune the guitar, and remove the strings from the tuners in order to slide off the body. Fortunately, I was able to find a solution – I left the holes at the end of the neck open. This means I can slightly detune it to slacken the strings, and slide them out from the neck. To do this, I had to do a good bit of extra work with calculating drilling depth, using the coping saw, and using a thin file. Luckily, having all those tools within twenty feet of each other at MUD saved me a lot of searching! The solution I found saves me a lot of time tuning and running the strings through the tuners.

Bryce working on the neck of the guitar.

4. What have you learned about yourself as you’ve been working on this project?

While I’ve been doing woodworking and general craft stuff for most my life, I found this project particularly enjoyable. There’s a lot of customization that can be made with a cigar box guitar, and I loved being able to experiment with the different tools at MUD to make those custom touches. It feels a lot different to play a tune on a guitar that you’ve built from scratch, and it’s immersed me a lot more in developing my playing style on the short time I’ve had it.

Excitement growing as his guitar is starting to come together!

5. How long have you been a MUD member? Have you worked on other projects? How has MUD helped you with this project?

I’ve been a MUD member for about a year and a half so far, and have loved every day of it! I’m a bit of an attention deficit crafter, so I’ve used tools for multiple projects – sewing bike bags, cutting wood for woodcarving, deconstructing old carbon fiber bikes for upcycling the tubing, popping in rivets for leatherwork, working on my car. The availability and diversity of tools in the library has been invaluable for jumping around different types of work without needing a huge monetary investment on my end. One amazing benefit too is the on-site workbenches free to use. As someone who lives in a small apartment and doesn’t have an outdoor workspace, being able to use all the tools and benches has opened so many doors.

6. Do you listen to any music while you craft?

In terms of music, I jump around genres as much as I do projects! Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Americana, in the realm of Jason Isbell or Gillian Welch, it really matches the aesthetic of using hand tools and breathing in sawdust. There’s also times when I need to saddle up and crank out a project before other commitments – that’s when rock bands like King Gizzard or Led Zeppelin have never failed me.

7. Do you have any advice for people just starting out exploring MUD and building new things?

Whenever you’re starting out in a new type of craft, never worry about your project being perfect. I’ve met a lot of people who couldn’t get into woodworking or sewing because they stressed getting every step perfect, and it still turned out like it was made while blindfolded. A lot of people give up after all the stress and hard work and still getting bad results. Whatever your first project is in a new craft, whether it be sewing a pouch or making a cutting board, expect to be imperfect. It’s far more important to be happy while finishing your project than to have the world’s best cutting board. Perfection comes with time and practice, so start with walking before you break into a sprint. Also experiment all you can! There’s so many unseen connections between different crafts in their methods and philosophies.

8. Is there anything else you want to share?

Everyone should pick up an instrument and play! As someone who doesn’t play one very well despite years of practice, it still provides value to my everyday experience in multiple ways. There’s so many cheap instruments out there like harmonicas, recorders, old synthesizers, and kazoos. And there’s so many that can be made very cheap, such as cigar box guitars, canjos, cajon drums, the spoons, maracas, anything you can make that has tone and rhythm. Between the tools/space and MUD and the materials at Home Resource, one could create enough for their own orchestra. And once you’ve got your instrument, play with friends! Even two inexperienced players with a harmonica and a set of maracas can get a whole room to dance.

Bryce proudly holding his finished product at MUD!

Thank you Bryce for spending the time chatting with us! At MUD we are always inspired by the creative minds that wind up here. Do you have a project you’ve been working on that you’d like to tell us about? If so, reach out to outreach@mudproject.org.


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