Reuben Forsland, a master luthier, creates his magic in a one-room studio on a hilltop near the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. He is a storyteller. But the words he uses are not made of words. They’re made from wood and metal. Forsland builds custom acoustic instruments. The stories behind them and the collaborations he has with his customers are as important to him as the build quality and sound.
Forsland was born and raised in central Alberta. He is a master woodworker who has spent his entire life creating things. These include custom furniture, houses, skateboards, and surfboards. In 2014, he became a professional guitar maker. Forsland saved money for his first guitar when he was nine. Later, he decided to play again as an adult and built a guitar himself. The rest is history. Forsland’s Joi Guitars are a combination of quality and customization with unique materials and components. Professional musicians like Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash have taken notice. You don’t need to be famous in order to buy a Forsland guitar.
When Richard died, he left a stack of mahogany wood in the family barn, which was sourced from a tree known to the guitar industry as “The Tree.” Richard, who was a furniture maker and bluegrass enthusiast, had recently passed away. Richard left behind a stack of mahogany in the family’s barn. The wood was sourced from the “Tree” tree, which had been ripped down in Belize in 1965 and then dragged to the sawmill a few years later. The mahogany became famous for its dark tortoiseshell pattern and the remarkable acoustic properties of its wood. The wood used to make the guitars is legendary.
Forsland talked to the Smithsonian via email about his art and the making of Heisey’s “Legacy” guitar.
How is a JOI Guitar different from other guitars?
The ideas that come from each concept of a guitar, along with the desire to create a response in others and connect my work with them, are what drives me. The piece must connect with the hearts and minds of the listener as much as the guitar’s sound.
The story-piece guitar allows us to connect through the lens of a beautiful, challenging, and inspiring life. I hope this influences the guitarist to want to tell or expose their own life story by playing the guitar.
I have been able to create bracing systems that maximize the potential of the guitar by combining traditional methods with modern technology. My proprietary Ellipse back and top bracing system, which gives JOI Guitars their unique sonic palette, is the result of 14 years of work. The strength and durability of the guitar are just as important as its sonic value. This is achieved by using specially selected metals and composites.
You enjoy working with different types of wood. Which woods do you find most interesting and why?
The woods I have worked with most often are British bog oak, Ancient Sitka Spruce, Tree mahogany, Sitka spruce ‘Teredo’ wood, and the childhood home of The woods I enjoy working with the most are British bog Oak, Ancient Sitka Spruce (also known as “Teredo”), The Tree Mahogany, Sitka Spruce ‘Teredo” wood, and wood from Jimi Hendrix’s childhood home.
The British bog oak makes a great tonewood because it has been buried in peat for thousands of years. Its beauty and rarity combine to create a beautiful instrument. The Ancient Sitka Spruce was a single tree found in a mudslide 20 feet below ground level. It is well-preserved and has a carbon date of 2,850 years. It takes patience to work with The Tree mahogany due to the high figure [three-dimensional patterning]. The Tree mahogany and other woods with figures tend to crack at the points where grain direction changes. The Tree mahogany’s extreme figure is what makes it so beautiful and rare, and it has unique tonal qualities. The teredo log is unique because it allows the eredo clams to bore through the wood and create unusual sound holes. Wood from Jimi Hendrix’s Seattle childhood home has a special quality because it comes from one of the world’s greatest guitarists. Who wouldn’t like to work with the wood from Jimi Hendrix’s childhood home? How cool is that? When my Harmonic Hendrix home guitars were released, some people thought it was a gimmick. It was a labor of love that took a long time to work out the legalities of licensing the Hendrix brand. Authentic Hendrix One of the two companies connected to Hendrix that owns the rights to Hendrix’s music, likeness, and name has given me approval to build these guitars in memory of Jimi Hendrix.
Why does your company call itself JOI?
JOI was inspired by the desire to share my journey as a guitarist. The JOI brand is a gift to those who enjoy the guitar’s sonic quality and story. I interpret the commonality as JOI, with an “I” rather than a “Y.”
What are some ways to tell stories while making a guitar
I consult the client when building their story guitar. We discuss the feel and direction of the guitar. This approach requires me to try to separate myself from past builds and the technical process of building them in order to avoid influencing the final piece.
When I build my own story, I start with an idea for the guitar and then look for components and woods. The woods and items can sometimes direct the build. However, I always try to stay true to the story, even if that means it takes years to find the right pieces. Inlays also play a big role in telling stories.
Which part of a guitar is the most difficult to build?
The build time is typically two months. The rosette is the most difficult part for me to build. The rosette is the central piece of art for a guitar maker, and it’s where many of the story pieces are inlaid. The work must be perfect. It can take a whole week or more to finish the rosette, depending on its complexity and materials.
Do You Have a Favorite Guitar That You’ve Made?
It would be hard to choose my favorite build. For me, however, I would say that the guitar from my work, which is most meaningful to me, is disequilibrium.’ This guitar was inspired by my father’s struggles and his attempts to find balance in his life. The top of this guitar is made from old-growth Alaskan Sitka Spruce, which a teredo mollusk has eaten. It contains multiple natural sound holes. This guitar speaks of the human experience, the challenges we face in our daily lives, and the fact that finding balance isn’t always what we want. It can cause a void in our lives or times when we don’t feel whole. Through self-inspiration, it’s possible to find equilibrium again.
Honoring the memory of Richard, his father, was an amazing experience. It was fun to come up with ideas for items that his woodworker father would find valuable. The items I asked for just fell into place. They became meaningful to Jared and me. The ideas, as well as how they would be incorporated into the guitar, came to us naturally, which made it a very special experience. Jared said that he thought his father was with us when we created this guitar. It contains much of Richard’s essence.
Jared used ebony from his father’s studio for the fretboard, bridge, binding, and Richard’s chisels to make the tuner buttons. The metal cap and leather cap of the chisel were used to inlay the rosettes, and the antenna pieces from Richard’s studio woodshop radio were used as fret markers. Richard’s ashes [in coal] were also inlaid into the rosette and other detailed locations.
What are the qualities of The Tree’s wood?
This wood has a unique sonic palette that is unlike any mahogany I have used before. I attribute this to the density and figure of the wood. This wood creates instruments that have a sound palette compared to rosewoods. It is a truly unique wood.
The ‘Legacy” guitar will be presented and played by international fingerstyle guitarist Matt Thomas before it is given to the Haiseys.
As a child in a middle-class Canadian family, we didn’t always have the money to buy all of the things that we wanted. I became resourceful, and I was able to use my imagination and look around to find items that I could modify or incorporate into something I wanted to make. My parents were both entrepreneurs who were very resourceful in their business and at home.
I love imagining the possibilities of using unusual objects to create a design or build a piece. This is what I did with the alternator that I found on a beach while walking along the ocean. This became the inspiration behind the Slash guitar rosette. It was a challenge and rewarding to incorporate the alternator wiring in the rosette, which connected with him as an electric guitarist.
Which guitarists are your favorites?
My list of favorite guitarists is long and random. I am as interested in guitarists who are passionate about the guitar and express this through their playing style. I would say that John Mayer is one of my favorite guitarists. Slash, Keith Richards, and Bon Iver are among the many others.
Which is more satisfying: playing a guitar or building one yourself?
I find building guitars the most rewarding experience. I wish I were a better player. Although it doesn’t come naturally to me, I love playing the guitar. I am improving every day.
What is next for you?
The next build I will do is called ‘6 Was 9,’ and it will be made entirely from woods taken from Jimi Hendrix’s family home. The 9-string instrument will feature a rosette inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s song “If 6 Was 9.”. It will tour the United States and Europe in the summer and fall with a curated, bespoke guitar experience called the Boutique Guitar Showcase.