By Wayne Laepple
For The Daily Item
MILTON -- Tommy Patten remembers his first attempt at building a guitar. He was 14 when he traded guitars with his brother.
"I took it apart and built a new body," he recalled. "I had more faith in glue than brains. It didn't work out too well. But that's how you learn."
Since that hard lesson 30-some years ago, Patten has learned a lot more about guitar construction, and 17 years ago, he started TP Noble Guitars as a business, an adjunct to his primary endeavor, Great Susquehanna Piano Co.
He's been a musician of one sort or another most of his life, and he wasn't happy with commercially available electric guitars.
"There's more to creating music than what's available," he asserts. "I know what I like in an instrument, and I've learned what's good and what works."
A TP Noble guitar is an amalgam of various woods and electronics, and its creation is not a hurried process. Patten advises would-be customers that a custom guitar may take two years to complete. However, he has a substantial inventory of guitars on hand, and he encourages potential customers to come in and try out as many as they'd like.
"They can say they like this body, with that neck and fingerboard, with a particular type of pickup," he said. "They can describe what they want and I add all those elements together. There's a certain cool factor. None of us can explain it, but it's there."
Not all of his creations have been successful, he admits with a rueful grimace. He's made some beautiful looking guitars that sounded terrible. In fact, one of his mentors advised him, "Don't make noisy furniture."
In his cramped and cluttered workshop, Patton has a number of guitar body blanks stacked on shelves. The wood is aging and drying. In another corner, half a dozen necks and fingerboards hang, waiting to be attached to bodies once Patten finishes his artistry.
Among the woods he uses are walnut, maple, cherry and sycamore. In addition to wood he acquires locally from several sawmill operators who know of his penchant for beautiful pieces, he buys exotic woods such as koa, a species found only in Hawaii, and zircote, padouk and bubinga, all from Africa, through lumber brokers.
He sometimes recycles old furniture to get pieces of quilted cherry, birdseye maple or plum pudding maple.
"Old-fashioned pump organs are a great source of wonderful woods," he said. "And they already have the music inside."
To demonstrate, he selects one of the rough-cut guitar bodies, gripping it between his thumb and forefinger. He taps it with his knuckle, and the slab of wood rings like a bell.
Patten will laboriously hollow a slab of wood, carefully notching the top to accept an inlay of a contrasting color, or he'll carve an intricate design on the top. He carves out spaces for the pickups and for the controls for the guitar, lining them with copper or aluminum foil, before he inserts the electronics that amplify the sound of the guitar.
He fits the maple neck with ebony fingerboard to the body, emblazoning the head with the TP Noble signature.
In addition to the showroom at his workshop, he also has a display of a dozen or so guitars at the Eagles Mere Art Gallery. He's provided a small amplifier, and he said a number of people have come into the gallery, plugged in and played one or more of his guitars, and some of them have purchased one on the spot.
"The exposure up there has been really good," he notes.
In the Milton showroom, he hoists a lovely deep reddish guitar.
"This one is made of claro walnut, from the northwest," he said. The surface of the body has a burnished, smooth finish, and the wood grain has a perfect V shape, where branches separated. He points to a round gray spot on the body.
"It's a bullet. At least if you're playing in a bar someplace, this one's already been shot at," he concludes with his characteristic chuckle.
You can learn more about TP Noble guitars at www.tpnoble.com, and you can see and try out his guitars at the Eagles Mere Art Gallery, which is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.