Story and photos by Carrie Beth Wallace
Frank Schley IV is a master luthier. In laymen's terms, that means he designs and builds guitars. A Columbus native, Schley is a craftsman who apprenticed with one of Georgia's finest luthiers in Augusta, Georgia before returning home to develop his own line of guitars.
A lover of history and story, Schley's work is greatly influenced by the rhythm of past and present and the way they manifest themselves in art and music. To better understand the genius behind Georgia Quarter and Silvan Guitars, we went for a studio interview with the master luthier himself.
Meet Frank Schley. You'll never look at an instrument the same way again.
Master Luthier Frank Schley IV with one of his Georgia Quarter Damcasters. The Damcaster line is built out of wood taken from the Chattahoochee Dam after it was removed for construction of Columbus' urban whitewater course.
Q: I'm just going to start with the obvious question, Frank. Did you know growing up that you wanted to be a luthier?
A: Good Lord, no.
Q: Okay, then how did you get into it?
A: Well, I was a Psychology major, and I was really ready to be done with school. You know, with Phsychology, graduate school is your option, and I didn't want to do that. So right before my last semester, I was trying to figure out what to do next after graduation. I needed some work done on my guitars. I'd been playing for maybe three years, and I wanted to do something weird to one of my guitars before I left Athens. I started looking around and found a place that did what I needed, and saw that they also had a guitar building apprentice program with a master luthier. I called him the next morning and said, "I'd like to come and meet you and learn more about what you do." And he said, "Why don't you come in at eleven?" It was 10:45. So off I went.
Q: What was that like?
A: Amazing. I really loved it, and he was great. I started as soon as I could. The apprenticeship was a year and then I worked there afterwards for about six months. Then, I decided to start doing my own thing so I started an electric guitar company with another guy. And that's when we developed the Damcaster, our special electric guitar made of wood from the Chattahoochee Dam.
Q: So you have an electric guitar company?
A: Yes. It's called Georgia Quarter, and the Damcaster is one of several electric guitars we make. Initially, the electric guitars were going to be my business partner's thing, but then he decided they should just be my thing. Then, I started Silvan Guitars, which is the brand for all of my acoustic guitars. So now I manage and build both Georgia Quarter and Silvan Guitars.
Schley holding a sample of rare wood in his workshop. Wood is sourced from all over the world to create Schley's custom electric and acoustic guitars.
Q: Was your apprenticeship in acoustic guitars then?
A: No. I really dealt with everything because of the nature of the shop. I focused on the acoustic work, because that's what I really love, but some electric experience was present as well. It's definitely carried over into my business now, and I enjoy building and working with both types.
Q: What's the hardest part managing both your acoustic and electric brands on top of actually crafting the guitars?
A: When the Damcasters came out, it was a really big deal. Everyone new who we were and they've stayed really popular. Because The Damcaster is made out of wood taken from the old dam, we only have enough for a limited number of guitars before theyr'e gone forever. You can't get any more of that wood, and that's what's made them so special. They continue to be popular - for both their sound and their unique origin.
That being said, it's been four years since we came out with the Damcaster, and not many people know I also have this exclusive acoustic brand. My goal is to continue promoting the Damcaster that defined our electric brand, but to also bring my acoustic brand into the light a bit.
Schley works on the inner structure of a current commission for twin guitars being made for a father and son.
Acoustic guitars are in a bit of a renaissance. I've been doing things really traditionally in the Fender style with just telecaster bodies. But I recently bought a router machine is about to change that. You simply program the design into the machine and it does the basic cuts for you, so it will change a lot of the workload and process for my apprentice and I.
Q: Amazing. What advantage does that give you in your process?
A: Well, it allows me to let the machine do the basic, rough, initial cuts for me. This means that I can be doing other more intricate work at the same time. It not only streamlines the process, but it allows me to expand my designs as well. It also gives my apprentice the experience of working with cutting edge technology in our field as well.
Schley utilizes a traditional Japanese go-bar structure to ensure the correct amount of pressure is asserted on each piece being glued together during construction.
Q: How will this development change your workload?
Right now, we only build three different types of electric guitars. I hope by the end of the summer, we can expand that number to seven because of the amount of hours the machine can save us.
In addition, each of our designs will be getting various design improvements along the way. After years of making them, I've determined a few intricate changes that need to be made that become achievable with this machine. It's all small changes, but it will make a difference in the overall sound and design of our instruments.
A look into various steps of Schley's process of building his Silvan acoustic guitars.
Q: The science behind your field is amazing.
A: It really is. I love it. I am also working with some classical guitarists to better understand the structure and elements of classical guitars. We have so many wonderful classical guitarists in Columbus, and I absolutely love the instrument. I'm in the process of building my first one, and it just might end up being my favorite acoustic instrument I've ever built.
Q: Can I ask you about these whiskey barrels?
A: Ah, yes. I am really excited about these. I recently connected with the folks at John Emerald Distillery in Opelika, Alabama. They are the nicest people. They asked about my guitars and gave me these barrels to make a special guitar or two out of. They are really going to be special because the charring on the inside of the barrel is what I will use to make the outside of the guitar.
Whiskey barrels from John Emerald Distillery drying as they wait to be transformed into custom guitars.
Q: I think I've seen some instruments you built for Wolf & Clover. Is that correct?
A: Yes. I have done work for each of the band members, and recently named them one of our Silvan Artists. They play instruments we've built or worked on, they're a local band, and I'm proud to have them named as one of our exclusive artists.
The listening room at Silvan Guitars will be rearranged to meet the needs of various artists and bands who play live in the venue.
Q: So what's upstairs? I've heard something about a listening room?
A: Yes. I just finished our upstairs space and have decided to start hosting events up there. We've had a few informal nights of music, Wolf & Clover have recorded some stuff up here, and I have hosted some members of a local guitar organization. But so far, I haven't had anything open to the public up here yet.
I'm excited to share that our first concert will be on Monday, April 15 and will feature a local singer/songwriter who plays one of my guitars.
Q: Awesome. Who is it?
A: His name is Garrett Lee, and he is absolutely incredible. He's releasing a new album, so we're hosting a concert of that music before the album drops this month. The concert will showcase Garrett's new music, and you'll be able to see and hear some of the instruments I've worked on or built from the ground up.
Local artist Garrett Lee will perform live in concert at Silvan Guitars Monday, April 15. Lee performs on a Silvan Guitar custom built by Frank Schley.
The concert will be taking place in the middle of my shop upstairs. We have the ability to rearrange the space however needed to meet each artist's needs. I really believe that this venue is one of the most unique in Columbus. We will also be recording this concert to film, so we need lots of friends to come fill the room.
It's free and open to the public, and I'd love for local musicians to come and check out Garrett's music and see our space. There will be Damcasters and some of our Silvan guitars out as well, so people can familiarize themselves with any of our instruments they've been wanting to try.
A custom electric pedal system built for Silvan Guitars at their listening room in the studio.
Q: What else would you like people to know, Frank?
A: Just that I love what I do. All of our wood is ethically sourced, and I'm constantly working to make beautiful instruments with a legacy. I think it's also helpful to know that we do repairs, too. So many people bring me in a guitar that's been in their family for a long time, and they just want to see it restored. Nothing makes me happier than to see a family heirloom reimagined for a new age. I am drawn to the rich dichotomy between old and new.
So whether it's a new Damcaster made with historic local wood out of the Chattahoochee, or someone's grandfather's guitar from college, I love the legacy that we are able to build into the instruments we touch. It's such a beautiful part of what I do, and it's why I fell in love with being a luthier in the first place. I'd love to share that with as many people as possible. ◼︎
If You Go:
When: Garrett Lee Concert
When: April 15, 7 p.m.
Where: Silvan Guitars, 1245 6th Avenue.
Contact: For more information, visit the event page here.