Orcas students transform into guitar gurus

A group of Orcas Island High School students has a new appreciation for the design of musical instruments.

Teacher Corey Wiscomb’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) class just finished making electric guitars from scratch.

“It was satisfying when it was done,” said student David Juarez. “Connecting everything to make the sound was the most difficult part. It feels pretty good knowing I made an electric guitar that actually works.”

The STEM program is funded by a grant from the Orcas Island Education Foundation. Every student is also allowed to keep their creations, and while there is a fee for the course, OIEF’s support makes it possible to lower the cost and offer scholarships to those in need. The class is offered every other year, and this is the fourth one that Wiscomb has led.

“When I first learned to teach the building process, I couldn’t believe it was work,” Wiscomb said. “It was too fun. I just knew students would feel the same, and thankfully OIEF did too!”

Wiscomb says the program gives high-schoolers a hands-on learning method in which they can use manufacturing skills that give an instant answer to the question: “When will I ever use that?”

“For example, the abstract concept of algebra seems like something rarely used, but an inspection of the guitar fretboard quickly gives meaning to the mathematics,” explained Wiscomb. “Students must calculate spacing of frets very specifically (to the thousandth of an inch) by first solving algebraic equations on paper with pencil.”

Several years ago, Orcas School purchased a computer network-controlled router so STEM students could receive a basic introduction to computer-aided design. While the computer-controlled router cuts out some of the guitars, there is still a lot to do by hand.

“I purposefully want there to be a balance between handwork and machine work,” said Wiscomb. “The machine cuts the things that must be as accurate as possible in order to make a quality instrument, but the fun is really in the spaces the students can explore creatively by hand in their own unique design.”

The wood used varies from piece to piece. Some are solid Orcas Island alder (milled by the students) while others are striped with walnut and African redwoods. All the necks were shaped out of solid maple, and for the fretboards, they used a variety of materials from zebrawood to rosewood.

The finish work for each instrument is also unique: one is painted cherry red, another is collaged and some boast a classic wood stain.

“The students get really creative in how they finish their instrument,” Wiscomb said. “That’s one of the really fun portions of an electric solid body guitar – the body can really be anything. … No two guitars are ever the same.”

Near the conclusion of the course, students are challenged to learn electrical circuit wiring in order to solder and wire their instrument so it is fully functional when plugged into an amp.

“Over the years I’ve had a few moments where students who don’t normally like even being at school are coming to me and asking if I can meet them before or after school to work on their guitars,” Wiscomb said. “This kid normally rolls in two hours late, and they’re now wanting to be here at 7:30 a.m.”

It’s also an opportunity for the students to stretch themselves.

“There was definitely a lot of new things to learn, and for most, you only had one chance. You need to pay attention, focus and be efficient,” said senior Kayleigh Horton. “I would definitely recommend this class to others. It was a fun and challenging hands-on experience and allows for a lot of creativity. The only thing I would change would be to have the option of an acoustic.”

This summer, Wiscomb is attending an intensive training program to gain certification in teaching acoustic guitar and ukulele building. He hopes to rotate between teaching yearly classes of making electric and acoustic guitars, ukulele and marimba.

“I am a guitar player, but I don’t really play electric. Acoustic is where my heart has always been, so gaining the skills and experience to teach acoustic guitar building absolutely feels like I’m coming home in so many ways,” he said.

A few of the students currently play the guitar, and Wiscomb hopes his class has sparked an interest for the other kids to “learn on an instrument that they have built with their own two hands.”

He says the most difficult part of the course for the students is waiting until graduation to take their guitars home.

“Student work can be seen hanging in the high school commons area until then,” he said.