Local Luthier Creates Unique and Colorful Guitars
As the lights flicker on at the little one man shop that is Oak Creek Guitars, Josh Stotler settles in at his work bench. The walls of his shop are lined with specialized tools, guitar templates, shop drawings and awards. Josh is a Luthier, someone who builds and repairs stringed instruments and today he is working on his latest piece, a themed hollow body electric guitar for the San Diego County Fairs “Design In Wood” show.
Stotler, a native San Diegan, has been making custom guitars since 1994. As a Sophomore at El Capitan High School in Lakeside, Stotler longed for a bass guitar. Not being able to afford one, he took it upon himself to make one. ” I had no idea what I was doing. I knew nothing about guitar construction, the tone woods used or compensation for string tension. I did have a picture of what I wanted to accomplish and use of the family laundry room as a shop.” Working after school and on weekends, Josh finished his first guitar, a copy of Paul McCartney’s Höfner viola bass. “The guitar sounded pretty good, I still have it to this day.”
This first guitar was all that was needed to spark Stotler’s passion for making one of a kind instruments. It wasn’t until many years later that Josh got serious about making guitars. It was at the MWR wood shop in Wiesbaden, Germany that Stotler honed his skills. Designing and building a guitar from scratch, he soon got the attention of the locals, not only as a fine craftsman, but in a military community always on the move, an able repairer of broken instruments. It wasn’t long before Josh had a seemingly endless line of instruments that needed repair.
It was in Germany that Josh entered his first woodworking contest. Having never taken a woodworking class, he entered and took first place in the “all Army Arts & Crafts contest” Stotler went on to claim “best in show” two years in a row. Fast forward to the present, Stotler has come a long way in a very short time.
Having no formal Luthierie training and using knowledge acquired from reading books on the subject, Josh creates amazing one of a kind themed guitars. “Every November, the San Diego County Fair releases the theme for the next years fair.” Stotler anticipates the release of the theme every year, it’s only then that he can start the design process.
“I start with brainstorming, sketches, referencing source material and total immersion into whatever the theme might be. I often bounce ideas off my friends and family, who are so supportive of my work.” Stotler has entered themed guitars for the last five years and has racked up many awards with his offerings. Some notable instruments of his include a Beatles themed acoustic bass, an Alice in Wonderland Acoustic and a solid body electric six string guitar with a Monopoly motif, made for the 2013 “Game On” theme.
Stotler was given special permission by Hasbro games to use the Monopoly brand. This guitar was the start of a three year sweep of the “Best Theme” award at the Design in Wood show, one of the largest juried woodworking competitions in the United States. All in all, Stotler’s instruments have tallied up 26 awards including this years entry in the “Design in Wood” show which received first place in the musical instrument division, excellence in finishing award and the theme award.
“ This was my best showing yet” says Stotler. “ I’m proud of all of my guitars and this one is no exception. Following the theme of the fair gives me a challenge and also allows me to do some themes I wouldn’t normally choose.” One example is Josh’s 2015 fair entry. The theme was “ A fair to remember” celebrating Balboa park and the 1915 Panama – California Exposition”. Using historical photographs and giving a nod to the period, Stotler constructed a 1915 style six string parlor guitar featuring art-deco designs, inlays of historical Balboa Park landmarks and crowned the head-stock with a stunning likeness of the California Tower, the jewel of Balboa Park.
The amount of detail in Josh’s instruments is phenomenal and can only be fully appreciated by picking one up. “Often times people are afraid to handle the guitars. I think it’s important to emphasize that these are musical instruments first and pieces of art second. After all, if it’s pretty and doesn’t sound good, then it’s just wall art and that’s not what I do.”
With this last guitar, Stotler is gaining more and more notoriety. “I make these instruments because that’s what I love to do. Hearing what people have to say about them is just a perk.” Stotler strives to improve his craft with every instrument he completes. This year’s entry, a semi-hollow body electric six string is exquisite. keeping with the fair theme, “Where the west is Fun”, this guitar is heavily detailed with a western motif. From the shotgun shell volume knobs to the cow hide pick guard, there isn’t an inch of this instrument that doesn’t scream “Yee Haw”. Titled “Desperado” , this guitar is both rugged and beautiful. “Its not only about how it looks. A lot of what goes into a fine instrument are things you can’t see. Wood selection is important to resonance and sustain, bracing is vital, even things as trivial as finish thickness are major factors in how an instrument sounds. A great deal of mathematics is blended with Stotler’s artistic talent to give life to these amazing guitars.
When Stotler isn’t working on his fair entry, he can be found completing repairs for customers. “Restoration and repairs are so welcome in my shop. I like taking on challenges that other shops won’t even touch. I enjoy keeping these historical and treasured instruments alive. I think it’s important to preserve our past and teach our future generations not only about music, but the important role music has played in our history.”