Sway’s Way

G uitarmaker Tim Sway fashioned his first bass guitar out of a water ski. This was in 2014, when he was still a working musician with a side hustle crafting furniture out of reclaimed wood. The ski, he realized, was basically a long neck with a body just wide enough for 4 strings. His second realization was that an instrument that flaunts its unconventionality could also spark creativity in the musician playing it. “So I would bring it up to the ski resort,” Sway explains, “and the idea was I would play a song on it and be funny. And I started thinking, ‘Well, I’m onto something.’ These are really funny. Obviously recycled. Kind of a folk art approach to it. And it worked. I mean, I did a couple hundred shows on that water ski. I used to wear a life vest. It was classic orange.”

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His water ski bass began to feel less like a whim and more like a calling, which would crystallize into a company: New Perspectives Music. “Guitars just made the most sense to me because I was able to take trash and create art from them that then goes on to make art in other artists’ hands. So the cycle doesn’t close. Whereas if you were making a dining table, it sort of ends up dinner.” To make his second guitar, Sway challenged himself to reach even further back into the waste stream where the cheapest, humblest wood forms are discarded—shipping pallets, fiberboard doors, leftover decking and fencing—and then use them to create something entirely uncompromised in form and function. “I love when I go to guitar shows and even if they don’t buy them, people play them and… they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a nice guitar. It sounds pretty good.’ ‘Yeah, that was my neighbor’s firewood pile last year.’”

On the day of my visit to his workshop in Meriden, he had just acquired 7 hollow core closet doors that had been unceremoniously stacked in the driveway of another neighbor. In terms of waste diversion and energy expended to divert it, this was an eco-conscious coup. To transform the thin, brittle, dirty brown panels into a solid, refined, curvaceous guitar, Sway will first table-saw the panels into strips, then stack them like tiramisu, with epoxy between each layer. Once he’s removed the clamps, he’ll have a sturdy block of wood, which he’ll then use a CNC router to cut into shape. Shapes will then be determined using software on his laptop, which the CNC will produce with mesmerizing, almost sentient precision. Having shaped his first guitars with a hammer and chisel, Sway says with lingering wonder, “I can set this up and have it cut three or four guitar necks for me while I’m putting frets in the fingerboard over here. So this makes it like two of me.”

Even before Sway has sanded, buffed, and finished it, the result can look like hardwood, the curves of the neck transforming the layers of fiberboard and industrial veneer into a kind of wood grain. The effect is especially striking in a guitar he had once fashioned from similar layers of skateboard decks, each layer marked by a different candy-colored stain. Even individual, unstacked strips of fiberboard can undergo improbable transformations, curving sensuously to form the hips of an acoustic guitar. To accomplish this, Sway presses the strips against the chrome spur of a bending iron, which steam-heats them to 200 degrees, making them suddenly malleable.

Acoustic guitars are another order of difficulty for would-be luthiers—not just for the contours that have to be rendered with lightweight strips of wood but also for the precisely resonant core those contours should enclose. “The wood in it—where it’s thick and where it’s thin, where it’s strong and where it’s weak—becomes very important,” Sway says. He shows me an upright bass he recently made in order to convince himself he could do it. The body of it is formidable and intricately accented with a variety of woods; it has the convincing topography of a vintage stringed instrument. Sway raps its side and it produces a burly resonance. “Back and side are closet doors,” he says with both facility and satisfaction. “The top is made of cedar fence posts. The fingerboard is decking. And the neck is pallet wood. So this is all stuff that was pulled out of dumpsters in Connecticut. This was a deck in Norwalk. This was a pallet in Wallingford… Cedar fence came from this trash pile over there.” He points to a heap of castoffs outside a neighboring building that used to serve as a warehouse for a fencing company.

Still, it’s the electric guitars, requiring only a structure solid enough to keep their strings in tension, that really expand the possibilities. The guitar with the skateboard neck has a body shaped from the translucent acrylic desk of a defunct TV talk show. Another is fashioned from Corian countertop, its marble-like cast reinforced by bas-relief figures in togas. Sway has carved pick guards and inlays for his guitars out of salvaged vinyl LPs.

Sway has made, by his estimate, around 100 guitars, half of them custom jobs for working local musicians who felt free for the first time to brainstorm a signature axe. Sway’s consultations sometimes sound to him like improv comedy. “[This musician] is like, ‘I want a 6-string ukelele bass.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, and maybe we can make it like this scale.’ And he was like, ‘Yes, and I want to put a picture of my cat playing my other bass on the back.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, and I have this walnut pump organ that will make a great top.’”

A milieu of musicians hanging out, trying guitars and even performing with them is something Sway wanted to cultivate, albeit without weighing himself down with a shop or a showroom. So last year, he purchased a used box truck and fashioned it into an instrument of his trade, complete with a working marimba as the truck’s front grill. Sway converted the interior of the truck into a breezy social space with reclaimed wood panelling, recycled water bottle carpeting, and upholstered bench seating. The rear gate converts to a tiny but sturdy stage for three. He christened it The Jambulance.

“I love the idea of someone going, ‘Hey, I saw your guitars. I’d really love to check them out.’ [And] I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll be there in 20 minutes.’” Contrary to the custom among luthiers to get their guitars out there—pressing them into the hands of famous, globetrotting musicians—20 minutes by box truck is about as far as Sway feels a desire to go. His customer of choice is local, maybe locally famous, but not wealthy. “‘Here’s trash from your neighborhood that I’ve turned into this guitar. Go make art, young man.’” His guitars start well under $1,000. Sway continues, “I have people telling me all the time, ‘Well, you should mail a guitar to Keith Richards.’ I’m like, ‘Why? Every other person who does guitars has already done that.’ And he’s gonna look at it and go, ‘Oh cool.’ And he’s going to put it in his closet with a thousand other guitars.’ Instead what I do is, I gave one to Jeff Thunders.”

The gifting of that guitar—a classic single-horn made of Brazilian wood from “some rich lady’s deck”—is captured in a YouTube video, one of many Sway makes with amiable candor to publicize his craft and his industry sponsors. In it, Jeffrey Thunders, leader of two New Haven punk bands—The Lost Riots and The Ratz—tries one New Perspective guitar after another, strumming out fast, loud power chords with the skepticism of an athlete trying on sneakers. Sway reappears to explain each one’s provenance like the waiter at a farm-to-table restaurant, then disappears again. On the Brazilian, Thunders noticeably relaxes, the power chords get a little more rhythmic. After a couple unequivocal bars, he nods to Sway off-camera to signal that he’s now ready to go make art.

New Perspectives Music
Tim@NewPerspectivesMusic.com
Website | Youtube

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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David Zukowski got his start writing for the Arts & Culture section of The Telegraph in southern New Hampshire while attending graduate courses in Albany, New York. He doesn't do that kind of driving anymore, but returns to New Hampshire often to climb mountains.

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