A one-room studio atop a wooded hill on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island is where the magic happens for master luthier Reuben Forsland. He’s a storyteller, only the stories he tells aren’t made of words, they’re fashioned of wood and metal. Forsland spends his time building custom acoustic guitars—and the stories behind the instruments and collaborations with his clients are just as important to him as the superb build quality and sound of his creations.

Born and raised in central Alberta, Forsland, a master carpenter, has spent most of his life building things, ranging from custom furniture and houses to skateboards and surfboards. He became a professional luthier in 2014. Forsland was nine years old when he saved up for his first guitar; later he wanted to start playing again as an adult, and realized he could build a guitar for himself, and the rest was history. The quality of Forsland’s JOI Guitars, coupled with their customization and unique components and materials, have attracted interest from professional musicians, like Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash. But you don’t have to be famous to order a guitar from Forsland.

The luthier was recently commissioned by Jared Heisey, a contractor based in Virginia, to make a guitar as a tribute to Heisey’s recently deceased father, Richard, a master furnituremaker and amateur bluegrass player. When Richard died, he left a stack of mahogany wood in the family barn, sourced from a tree known in the guitar industry simply as “The Tree.” Toppled in 1965 and dragged out of the Belize jungle to the sawmill only years later, the mahogany tree became legendary for the rare dark tortoise shell patterning and remarkable acoustic qualities of its wood. And for the guitars built out of that wood.

Forsland spoke with Smithsonian by email about his craft and the making of Heisey’s “Legacy” guitar.

What makes a JOI guitar different from other guitars?

It’s the ideas born from each guitar concept, as well as the desire to create an emotional response and have my work connect with others. I value having the piece connect to the heart and mind of others just as much as I do the guitar’s sonic experience, or sound.

Telling a story, exposing the beauty, challenge and inspiration of life through the lens of a story-piece guitar connects us to each other as people, and I hope that influences the player to be willing to expose or tell their life’s story through playing the guitar for others, thus continuing the cycle of connection.

My use of traditional methods blended with modern technology has allowed me to incorporate bracing designs that maximize the guitar’s potential. I’ve spent 14 years working towards the creation of my proprietary Ellipse top and back bracing system that gives JOI guitars their unique sonic palette. The guitar's strength and durability are as important as the sonic value, and these are achieved through the use of specifically selected composites and metals.

Reuben Walking
Forsland walks along a rocky outcrop on Iron Mine Bay, an 8-minute drive from where he lives and works.  Grant Harder
Reuben built his one-room studio on the hill behind his log home with his brother’s help. Working immersed in the outdoors has a calming effect on Forsland.  Grant Harder

You like to work with a variety of woods. Which do you find to be the most interesting to work with and why?

Each of the woods that I've had experience with brings its own challenges, adventure, beauty and inspiration. The woods that I find most interesting to work with are British bog oak, Ancient Sitka Spruce, The Tree mahogany, Sitka spruce ‘Teredo’ wood, as well as wood from the childhood home of Jimi Hendrix.

British bog oak is interesting to work with as a tonewood because it’s been buried in peat bog for thousands of years. The combination of its beauty and its rarity creates a stunning instrument. The Ancient Sitka Spruce is a single tree that was found 20 feet deep within a mudslide, well-preserved and carbon dated at 2,850 years. The Tree mahogany takes patience to build with due to its extremely high figuring [three-dimensional patterning]. Woods that contain figures like The Tree mahogany tend to break at spots where there are grain direction changes. The Tree mahogany is celebrated for its extreme figure, which gives it such visual beauty, rarity and unique tonal characteristics. Teredo wood is interesting because the water-soaked log allows the teredo clam to bore holes all through the wood, creating unusual sound holes. The wood from Jimi Hendrix's Seattle childhood home is interesting because it's wood from the home of one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Who wouldn't want to work with wood from Jimi's home? I mean how cool as that! Some folks thought it was a gimmick when my Harmonic Hendrix Home Guitars came out. It was a labor of love, which took a lot of time around the legalities and licensing of the Hendrix name. Authentic Hendrix [one of the two connected companies that hold the rights to Hendrix’s music, name and likeness] has given me full approval to produce these guitars built solely in the memory of Jimi Hendrix.

The Hendrix and The Tree

Why is your company called JOI?

JOI as a brand name was chosen and inspired by my desire to express my experience of the journey for me as a guitar builder. What the player or owner experiences playing the instrument, and the gift of JOI is given to the people who experience the guitar in its sonic value and story form. JOI with an ‘I’ rather than a ‘Y’ is my twist on the commonality of things.

How do you tell stories when making a guitar?

When building a client's story guitar, I consult with the client as to the direction and feel for the guitar, like if there’s any special items they wish to include, such as tonewoods, colors, materials to inlay and design features, among other things. With this approach I need to do the best I can to remove myself from my past builds, outside of the technical building process, so the piece isn’t influenced by them.

For story builds that are my own, I come up with an overall idea to create the guitar, then search for the components and woods. Sometimes the items and woods direct the build in their own way; however, it’s usually my desire to stay as true to the original story as possible, even if it takes me years to collect the right pieces to tell that story. Inlays are a large part of telling stories, as well.

cleaning up the sides
Forsland cleans up the sides of the “Legacy” guitar, prepping them to glue the back of the guitar on.  Grant Harder
Forsland’s silhouette in the foreground with the top soundboard of the “Legacy” guitar in the background. Forsland has spent years designing the proprietary JOI bracing system seen creating a pattern on the soundboard. Grant Harder

What is the most challenging part of the guitar to construct, and why?

Build time is usually about two months. The most challenging part of the guitar for me to construct is the rosette. It's the central art piece of expression for a luthier, where much of the story pieces can be inlaid into the guitar. It has to be done immaculately. The rosette can take as much as a week to complete, even more, depending on the complexity of design and materials.

Do you have a favorite guitar that you’ve made, or is that like choosing a favorite child?

Choosing the favorite build I've done would be difficult, yes. However, for me personally, the guitar that I'm most connected to of my own work would be ‘Equilibrium,’ a guitar inspired by watching my father go through struggles in his life, and his attempt to find balance with himself and his choices. [The old growth Alaskan Sitka spruce top of the guitar has multiple small natural sound holes in it resulting from its being eaten by the teredo mollusk.] It's a guitar that really speaks to the human experience as a whole, with the challenges presented to us through our daily choices and how finding balance is not always the road we choose. This can lead to what could be called ‘holes in our lives,’ or times when we are not quite whole within ourselves, and through self-inspiration and strength it is possible to again find ‘Equilibrium.’

Andy Bacon Playing the Equilibrium Guitar

The guitar featured in Smithsonian was commissioned by a son, Jared, to honor his father. Did that put added pressure on you to make it special?

Honoring the memory of his father, Richard, was a wonderful experience. It was a pleasure coming up with ideas on how to incorporate items that his father would likely find important as a woodworker himself. Things just naturally fell into place and became meaningful for Jared and me with the items I requested. Ideas, as well as how they were to be incorporated, flowed naturally between us, and that actually made it very special. Jared mentioned that he felt his father was joining us during the creation of this guitar, which contains much of the essence of Richard.

How much of The Tree was used to make the ‘Legacy’ guitar?

The Tree mahogany left for Jared from Richard became the back, sides, top, and neck of the guitar.

Chisel and radio antenna on soundboard
Jared Heisey’s father Richard’s chisel and radio antenna resting on the top soundboard of the “Legacy” guitar. Note the circular rosette in its beginning stages, with Richard's ashes in the antenna rounds and in the chisel cap.  Reuben Forsland

What additional conceptual materials were incorporated into the guitar?

Jared also supplied ebony from his father’s studio for the fingerboard, bridge and binding, and Richard’s chisels for the tuner buttons. The metal and leather cap from the chisel head were inlaid into the rosette, and pieces of the antenna from Richard’s woodshop studio radio became the fret markers used in the detailing. Richard's ashes were also inlaid [in coal] inside the rosette design and other detailing locations.

How would you describe the acoustic qualities of wood from The Tree?

The acoustical properties that can be obtained with this wood are beyond any other mahogany that I've built with, which I attribute to its density and figuring. It creates instruments with a sonic palette that has been compared to rosewoods, but stands alone as a unique wood in all ways.

The next step for the ‘Legacy’ guitar is to go to international fingerstyle guitar champion Matt Thomas for it to be played and presented to the Haisey family, allowing them to experience the guitar's sonic beauty in all its glory.

Forsland gluing soundboard
Forsland glues the front soundboard to the sides of the “Legacy” guitar. Both the soundboard and the sides are made out of wood from The Tree.  Grant Harder

What quality of yours do you think helps you the most as a luthier?

Growing up in a middle-class Canadian family, finances were not always there for some of the things we desired. I learned to be resourceful and was able to look around and use my imagination to see items that could be incorporated or modified into something I needed to make. I learned a lot of this from my parents, as they both were entrepreneurs and were quite resourceful with both their businesses and at home.

I enjoy imagining how to take unusual items and incorporate them into the design and build of a piece. One example of this is the rusty alternator I found on the beach during an oceanside walk. It became the inspiration for the rosette for Slash's guitar. Incorporating the alternator wiring into the rosette was challenging and rewarding, connecting to him, as an electric guitar player.

Who are some of your favorite guitarists?

The list of my favorite guitarists is so long and random. Guitarists who express their love of the guitar through their unique playing style, passion and joy of playing are as important to me as the technical skills of the guitarist. If I were to name some guitarists that tickle my ear I'd say, John Mayer, Slash, Keith Richards, Bon Iver, Iron and Wine, and heck, a whole bunch more.

What’s more satisfying, playing a guitar or building one?

The most satisfying experience for me is building the guitar. I wish I could play much better than I can. It doesn't come as naturally as building, but I really love to play the guitar as often as possible. I'm getting better every day.

Forsland begins to shape the neck of the “Legacy” guitar with a spokeshave, files and sandpaper. The neck is made of solid mahogany from The Tree.  Grant Harder
Forsland pulls the sides of the “Legacy” guitar out of his side bender after it’s been heat-steamed and bent. The sides are made of wood from The Tree.  Grant Harder
"Legacy" guitar, finished
The finished “Legacy” guitar, as commissioned by Jared Heisey. It’s the third “Tree” guitar that Forsland has made with a top made out of mahogany from The Tree.  Grant Harder
Forsland stringing
Forsland strings the “Legacy” guitar.  Grant Harder

What’s next for you?

My next project is a build named ‘6 was 9,’ a guitar which will be crafted completely out of woods from Jimi Hendrix's childhood family home. It will be a 9-string guitar that will incorporate a rosette design inspired by Jimi's song, ‘If 6 Was 9.’ It will be on a tour of both the United States and Europe this summer and fall with a curated bespoke guitar experience, called the Boutique Guitar Showcase, to share with the world of handcraft guitar collectors and players.

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