MARTIN COUNTY – Good music never goes out of style. Neither, apparently, do good musical instruments.
That is the philosophy of Martin County residents Sean Kalil and Jack Refenning, who have taken “old-time music” to a new level by building custom guitars or – in some cases – making them from other unusual items. They create both full size and small acoustic guitars – which are actually closer in size to a ukulele – out of old wooden cigar boxes and these offer a sound quality that is both soothing and different for listeners.
Mr. Kalil started making the cigar-box guitars in 2004 and Mr. Refenning began working on guitar building in 2006. The two, who are old family friends, decided to get together in an alternative musical pursuit. Although they began their labors of love separately, they have been combining their efforts together for the past year or so.
Mr. Kalil, who has a profound love of music, is a member of Boss Groove, a longtime local Treasure Coast band that has played hundreds – if not thousands – of gigs up and down the coast. He also is a Grammy Award voter and automobile restorer, among other pursuits.
Meanwhile, Mr. Refenning is a builder of custom guitars that have his own imprimatur on them, and the high-end products – called “Dreadnaught Guitars” – are exclusive items that are highly sought after by musicians across the country. “Papa Jack Guitars” got its start when Mr. Refenning was watching a do-it-yourself show called “Hand-Made Music,” and he decided that was right up his alley because it allowed him to recreate the Adirondack spruce guitars of the early 1900s. The trees were mostly used for paper and airplane parts, but the wood is exceptional “tone wood” for acoustic guitars.
“That’s what kind of got me,” Mr. Refenning said. “It’s all about the wood … but you use an old French polish and shellac with grain alcohol, and we follow that same path here and it’s been a lot of fun. That spruce is getting a lot easier to find now.”
Mr. Kalil said the guitars produce a richer sound because of the wood – despite the thinness of it – but also the way the guitars must be built and the bracing in them. There also is extra attention paid to tuning the top two strings to pull the sound out of it. “You can take the finest selection of wood in the world and get horrible sound out of it if you don’t know how to fit all the puzzle pieces together,” he said.
Mr. Kalil uses one of these guitars to perform free shows for dementia patients, and he said that something in the music opens their minds. In many cases – despite their individual conditions – when he returns for future performances the patients routinely remember not only his name, but songs he has played in the past that they request. Mr. Kalil works with Brianne Bennett of Mind & Melody to set up the shows at nursing homes on the Treasure Coast.
“It’s amazing the response of people – who usually have trouble putting together sentences or remembering what they did a short time ago – when you start playing a song that they heard when they were kids,” Mr. Kalil said. “They start singing the words when I start playing the guitar, and I also bring the cigar boxes into that because they are small enough that you can put them in their hands and they can strum them and make noises and they enjoy it.”
The cigar-box guitars are made from pine or mahogany, which offers some of the same qualities because they are almost perfectly tuned – for lack of a better word – to the acoustical world. Its nature is not impacted by warping nor is it influenced by knots and other inconsistencies that might render other instruments useless.
“We’ve learned how to build them so that they have warmth in them, and there are a lot of them that are built that don’t sound good acoustically,” Mr. Kalil said. “We discovered that doesn’t have to be so if you apply the techniques you use in building larger guitars and take the time to build them and choose the right box.”
The cigar-box guitars are about 8 x 12 inches long and wide – in dimensions – and they also build dulcimers from the cigar boxes, which by adding a longer neck to them changes the sound.
The experiment has turned into a hobby that the two have grabbed with both hands – so to speak – and they foresee their musical partnership continuing for a very long time. Because the two have known each other for so long, they see no reason to stop now.
“Our families have remained friends all that time, and when I found out Jack was building guitars – and I’ve been playing music since I was at Stuart Middle School – my antennae perked up,” Mr. Kalil said. “He’s still a successful racecar driver – who is still winning races in retirement – but spends his time tinkering with wood in the workshop.”