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Forward Township guitar maker enjoys his craft

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
Forward Township guitar maker Chris Thomas plays a custom-made jazz guitar in his garage workshop, surrounded by some of his other handiworks. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Forward Township guitar maker Chris Thomas pulls a custom-made jazz guitar from its case in his garage workshop. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News

There are guitar crafters whose names have literally become their products.

Les Paul, (Leo) Fender and Paul Reed Smith and others come to mind.

It's unlikely you'll see any “Chris Thomas” guitars mass marketed anytime soon; the so-named part-time guitar maker from Forward Township says he has no plans to give up his day job teaching school to make axes.

But Thomas — who in addition to being a skilled guitar maker is an expert player— has been building high quality handcrafted guitars for years.

Recently, one of his electric six strings did go global.

Thomas built a guitar for a 16-year-old player in Panama and shipped it out last week through a missionary project undertaken by his church, the Bible Chapel in the South Hills, benefiting a youth home.

Will the gesture produce the next Eddie Van Halen? Time will tell.

It's safe to say, however, that Thomas has already created an EVH tribute guitar.

“Eddie Van Halen set the standard for what custom guitars would be,” said Thomas, who credits the rock legend with being the reason he started playing guitar at age 11.

The striped double cutaway looks like an axe Eddie would sling on stage. He also included hardware features like a D-Tuna drop D tuning system that lets him play in alternate tuning at a switch on stage much the way Van Halen would.

Thomas uses burl Maple as a go-to material on many of his guitars. Rosewood, cocobolo and mahogany are also used, giving the instruments a depth in sound and appearance.

Remnants of Thomas' first guitar remain in his garage workshop. He built that first one in ninth grade woodshop at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, just down the hall from where Thomas now teaches music.

“It was awful and ugly,” Thomas said of that first guitar which used hardware and a neck salvaged from another electric. “But it was fun.”

Thomas didn't make his first guitar neck until high school. Much more trial and error would follow.

His recent projects have notched it up quite a bit from those woodshop days. One of his notable creations is a semi-hollow body jazz guitar with a flat top and f-holes. There is also an unusual electric, nylon-string model with a classical headstock.

“You do a job and you know what you want it to sound like,” said Thomas, who performs solo jazz shows at the Duquesne Club and is a member of the group Honey Riders.

Each guitar is an involved project.

Thomas has posted a host of instructional videos on YouTube detailing the process, from cutting and shaping the wood, finishing the body and outfitting guitars with hardware.

The videos, which also examine how different sounds can be achieved through pick-up selection, have gotten positive feedback online.

Thomas takes musical instruction seriously.

In the past, he's brought a veteran violinist in to speak to strings students at the middle school. He also teaches music at the elementary level and is a graduate of the Duquesne University musical performance program.

Elizabeth Forward superintendent Bart Rocco said Thomas is a talented teacher who seems to have the ability to engage students with music. Rocco noted that type of engagement is linked to his musical aptitude to academic performance.

Most of Thomas' guitars exploit the rich characteristics of the materials from which they are made. The EVH tribute, with its white, black and red paint job and vibrant stripes is an outlier, but Thomas said that doesn't mean he'd necessarily leave it at home on his classier gigs.

“I've worn it with a tux,” he noted.

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or eslagle@tribweb.com.

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