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Every piece tells a story

Guelph professor Doug Larson has crafted a unique guitar from hundreds of found or donated objects.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | DEC 06 2010

Guelph professor Doug Larson has crafted a unique guitar from hundreds of found or donated objects

Doug Larson is an inveterate storyteller and he has created the perfect accompaniment to his tales: a six-string guitar he handmade, aptly named the Storyteller.

It’s not any old guitar. Dr. Larson, a professor emeritus of integrative biology at the University of Guelph, painstakingly handcrafted and decorated the instrument from hundreds of disparate pieces, including rare wood from windfalls, bits of shell and bones, ancient fossils, a piece of mastodon ivory and even a diamond in the headstock. Every item, naturally, has a story or lesson to it.

Take the diamond, which comes from the Ekati mine in the Northwest Territories and was given to him by a local jeweller. The story never fails to impress students, says Dr. Larson. “It opens up a whole discussion of diamond formation and geology.”

There’s also the pick guard, made of the stomach plate of a wood turtle. Dr. Larson got the piece from renowned Guelph herpetologist Ron Brooks, who had followed the turtle with a radio collar for nine years before the animal died.

Or how about the top piece of the guitar, built from part of a massive European spruce planted on campus in 1880 by the university’s first professor of agriculture and felled in a windstorm just months
after Dr. Larson embarked on his project?

“What’s lovely about this project is that at every turn there is a story that fascinates some audience,” he says. “All I have to do is play the instrument and then have them ask me questions. It becomes a hook.

“The real problem,” he adds, “is stopping.”

The Storyteller had its debut in late 2008. Dr. Larson’s inspiration was the Six String Nation guitar, conceived in 1995 by broadcaster Jowi Taylor and built by Nova Scotia luthier George Rizsany. That guitar was made from 63 different pieces representing Canadian history and heritage.

Dr. Larson credits his interest in crafting musical instruments – he’s built 65 guitars in total – to his interest in ecology and the challenges of scavenging and reusing materials. Retired in 2009 after 34 years at Guelph, he can be found back on campus for a weekly lunchtime show. He also gets frequent invitations to appear at local schools, conferences and other gatherings.

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