Making Music

Carlton Zeigler crafts guitars,

tunes with energy

By Nick Cartier


 Last week, fresh from a car show in Indiana where he was showing off his personally restored 1937 model 812 Cord automobile, Carlton Zeigler ushered a visitor into his guitar studio, set up in the basement of his home.

There were indications all around that Zeiglcr is not your ordinary guitar teacher. The Berklce-trained musician is not only a fine guitarist, but an expert craftsman.

In his studio, he is surrounded by guitars he has built himself, including 19-string lutes and his prized acoustic seven-string, possessing one more string than a normal guitar. Nearby, on his workbench, sits the body of a guitar he is making for himself from bird's-eye maple wood, which he said will be a hollow-body, archtop Zeigler original with an added string.

Zcigler picked up his current seven-string model and began playing a Bach etude, the serene music inviting his black-and-white eat, Genk, to come into the room. Shifting effortlessly into a jazz chord solo, he explained his fascination with this mutant breed of guitar.

"People looked at me like I had two heads when I first started playing the seven-string guitar," said Zeigler. The added bass string expands the lower register of the guitar, allowing him to play bass as well as harmony and melody. "Now I don't have to put up with bass players who don't show up on time or play the wrong notes," he said, laughing.

Zeiglcr, a sturdy man with white hair, has an imposing bearing, and it is easy to imagine that he has struck fear into the fingers of many an unprepared guitar student.

'They have to want to play and he willing to work," Zeigler said, referring to the dedicated students he prefers to teach. He gives lessons twice a week, new students are taken on only by referral, and there is a waiting list.

Asked about his musical beginnings, Zeigler recalls his youth in Illinois coming of age in the late '50s and early '60s during the birth of rock 'n roll.

"I wanted a guitar, so I designed it in study hall and built it in wood shop." said Zeigler. He took the guitar and formed a band with some kids from his school. Playing "Saint Louis Blues." the group look home top honors at the local high school talent show. Zcigler soon added a couple of horn players, and the band started gigging around locally throughout his teenage years.

"It was really a good little band. We were cookin', driving around in my hot rod, playing gigs," he said.

For the group, Zeiglcr bought a 1957 Fender Slratocaster, but when he started playing it is his band mates wondered what happened to his old sound.

"I couldn't believe it," he said, about his guitar beating out the Fender. The Strat ended up in the hands of Ike Turner, Then a local musician playing in a band with his wile, Tina, in East St. Louis just over the border from where Zeiglcr was living in Illinois.

After graduating from high school, Zeigler spent time in the Air Force, where he chose to study electronics to improve his skills as a guitar craftsman. After he was discharged, he found returning to Illinois, to the old bars and the same musical scene, uninspiring. He had heard about the Berklee School of Music, the mecca of jazz training located in Boston, and sent in an audition tape. He was accepted, and with money saved up from a stint as a welder in Paradise, ' Ky., Zeiglcr headed cast. \

Once at Berklee, he had a rude awakening. ; Now an aspiring jazz musician, he had to abandon his rock 'n' roll technique and build from the ground up. The challenges included a maze of : new scales to master, charts to sight read and even relearning how to place his fingers on the guitar neck according to proper guitar technique.

"I started over and that's a tough thing to do," said Zeigler. who emphasizes learning lo play the right way from the beginning to his guitar students.

Zeigler learned what he could in the classroom and was always trying to pick up new stuff on the bandstand from his musical peers. He also. "I started teaching regularly, which came in handy . when musical tastes changed at the end of the '60s.

"I continued teaching and then we had the Big Band depression in '68 or so. We couldn't get a job," said Zeiglcr, who was a member of a popular 10-piece show band during his years at Berklee, untill it disbanded, forcing him lo look for other gigs.

Zeiglcr supported himself in the '70s and '80s by playing shows constantly and doing some teaching. His bread and butter were weddings, where he was required to play whatever ihe popular songs of the day were, what he refers to as the bottom 40. But as the years went on, he became fed up having to play music he had no connection to and began concentrating more on teaching.

"I got tired of playing out so much, and I really enjoyed teaching, so I took on more students," said Zeigler.

For about five years, he took on a teaching complement of 50 to 75 students a week, but life as a full-time teacher did not allow Zeigler time to explore other interests. "I found I couldn't teach that much," he said. "You can't do that and live." Zeigler has taken a hiatus from teaching for the past few years to pursue his studies of the seven-string guitar and has only recently reopened his guitar studio to students. He has also formed a new group called Vivace, a duo with Zeigler and another guitarist, that wiil play classical music. Currently in his workshop in the beginnings of a lute, and when it is completed, he plans to incorporate the ancient instrument into Vivace.

"I'm still trying to make music. It still fascinates me because you can always keep learning."

Guitarist Carlton Zeigler plays a tune on his guitar while relaxing between teaching music lessons.