Pickin’ on Ava: Self-taught guitar maker spent career in Forestry Service

Doug Berger/Herald Bill Miles with the first guitar he built, which he still plays.

by Doug Berger

An interest in performing music led Bill Miles to an interest in the construction and repair of guitars. 

“It started out as a hobby, back in the mid ‘60s, a friend of mine had purchased a Fender electric guitar and one of the pickups was bad in it, and the fret work was bad on it. So we took it up to Hollywood to Music City on Sunset Blvd. We went in there and he fixed the guitar for almost more than what the guitar was worth. So I asked what is the secret behind this, and he said, it is basic physics, use the string as a straight line and file down the high points. And I go, well, that’s simple, because you know we were teenagers, and guitars were magical instruments and we had no clue how to do anything, but tune them and strum on them, so that got me curious,” Miles stated.

Miles’ interest had been raised, but it took several years before he started building guitars. During this period his musical pursuits concentrated on performing.

“I started out playing in 1964 as a young teenager, and actually I had a little neighborhood band that was molded into something really good. In three years we had done our own record,” he said. 

When they had gone in to the studio to make the record, the individual they had wanted to record their record was out of town. He had another producer/recording engineer come in, but the individual they had wanted to record the record was mastering their record. Miles explained that this was in the era of the “Wrecking Crew,” session musicians playing behind well known recording artists of the period.

“These were the really great musicians in the area that were making tons of money working the studios, making all the hits in the 60s and 70s,” Miles said.

“So when we went to pick up the record, the guy we had wanted to do it was mastering the thing and pressing them out for us. He says, hey, I can see where you guys are ready for the big time, and we said, we’re not ready for the big time. He told us we didn’t need the Wrecking Crew, we did a really good job.”

After Miles’s group got out of the studio session, they went across the street for a Wallichs Music City Battle of the Bands. Miles stated that the word was out that they had made a recording. They wouldn’t put them in a classification for the competition.

“We didn’t have a chance to win or place, because we were termed professionals. We were a bunch of teenagers. I was 16,” Miles stated.

“We were making money doing social gatherings and high school dances and stuff like that which is more what we wanted to do.”

Even though his group used electric guitars he developed an interest in the acoustic guitar. He stated that at the time he would run across well-known musicians and they would be playing acoustic guitars, “just sitting around and banging on them.”

“So when I graduated from high school in ’67 my graduation present was an acoustic guitar, and I banged that thing around all over the world. It was a good sounding acoustic guitar and I still have it,” he said. 

It took several years after high school before Miles started building guitars. He relates that he had his college degree and he was looking for something that would give him a pension. He said that his mom’s side of the family were city and county firemen.

“I thought I would just do what they did. I ended up going into the Forest Service in 1973 and I made a career out of that,” he said

The Forest Service is what brought him to Ava in 1993.

“When I was in southern California with the Forest Service in my spare time I would work on people’s guitars, and I got an application to join the American Society of Stringed Instruments,” he said.

“I was categorized as a repairman for stringed instruments. I really didn’t do a whole lot with violins, cellos and upright bases, but I did mandolins, banjos and acoustic guitars,” he said.

“When we moved to Missouri, I started in Shannon County in Winona, and I had a pretty good reputation around there for fixing guitars. Mostly people would come in with a guitar that was buzzing and didn’t sound right, and if I used my original theory, I learned that your strings are your straightedge and you level the frets out from there. And I started setting up guitars and that’s basically what I was doing, minor repairs and set ups and changing strings and making the guitar play like it is supposed to.”

“When I moved to Ava, it was the first chance I had in ’94 to build an acoustic guitar. And I ordered a bunch of quality wood…so I got good quality wood and they sent instructions, and I followed blue prints, per se, and built a guitar and it’s probably the best guitar I ever made. That is a keeper, and one of the guitars you play and I play it a lot,” Miles said.

“I haven’t made that many, under 20,” he said.

He has had no formal instruction in guitar making. But he says he stills remembers the original comment from the repairman at Music City. 

“That has stuck in my mind and it has never failed me yet,” he said.

He basically taught himself how to build a guitar. Miles indicated he read a lot of material on building acoustic and electric guitars. They can steer you in the right direction, he said.

Miles feels it does help in building guitars to be a musician.

“It helps to know what you want. Just about everybody I know that repairs guitars, they are pretty good musicians. You need to know what it is supposed to sound like,” he said.

Many of the guitars Miles has made were the result of a college class one of his daughters was taking.

“I started out making acoustic dreadnought guitars. Just to see what was inside them and how they worked,” Miles stated.

“I’ve built a lot of classical guitars for college kids. My eldest daughter was at C of O taking a guitar class to get her degree in music. So I built her a classical guitar. A lot of the students that were in her class wanted one like she had, so I ended up building about eleven of those. The first couple were real good, because I could go out and I could buy exotic hardwoods and build the things right, but that was in the era where you couldn’t get any good hardwoods out of Brazil or South America, so the price of building guitars was extremely high. So the last couple I made I had to buy kits and customize the kits as I built them. I put good stuff in it. Good materials to make it sound as good as possible,” he said.

“I like the sound of mahogany. It seems to have a more robust tone and it is the cheaper of the woods to produce,” he added.

Miles was not without some woodworking experience before he started building guitars. His father had a woodshop in the garage, and Miles said his father taught him to respect tools.

“I saw amazing things that he could do with a chunk of wood and I thought, I can do that.”

“A long time. The first guitar I made took me five months just to build the jigs to keep the guitar straight. So in reality probably eight months. And then there was a problem with humidity and lacquer. If you have ever seen lacquer orange peel, it is tough to remove,” he stated, in explaining how long it takes him to make a guitar.

Miles indicated the most difficult thing for him in making a guitar is setting the neck. He explained the neck and body are two different pieces and their proper joining is critical to creating a good guitar.

“I try to build a guitar that projects and sounds good. The secret is getting the height of the strings down to where you can actually play the guitar. Most people when they get a beginning guitar, they play until their fingers bleed. And then they put it down and they let their hand heal up and they’ve lost interest in it. Everybody has their own height and that’s the trick. You have guys who finger style and you have guys who want to pick it,” he said.

When he sets up a guitar he asks questions to determine what they want to play, and how they play.

“I do a lot of set up stuff and you need to watch someone pick up their guitar and play on it and say, wow, this is totally different. That makes you want to continue doing that for people,” he added.

“It’s not so much the building, it’s more or less when someone has a problem with a guitar and they bring it to me and I fix it for them, it’s satisfying.”

“I had a gentleman from Gainesville who had a broken neck on a 12 string guitar, and I saw him four or five years later after I had fixed it and he said the guitar was still playing good. That was very satisfying,” he said.

“Music is a science. You can’t make an error, if you’re out of pitch, you are out of pitch. If your timing is off, it kind of messes everything up. Where if you are a baseball player and you’re batting .300, that’s 66 percent error. So music is a tough life.”