Guitar Scene: The Spira “Unk” Guitar

John Joseph Rogers from Millicent (South Australia) and Grace Mabel Beatrice Fitzgibbon from Williamstown (Victoria) were married in 1917. They lived in a modest weatherboard house on a vineyard in Merbein, North-West Victoria. John Rogers had purchased the virgin land and planted it with grapevines – primarily sultanas – soon after the Merbein irrigation settlement was established in 1909. John and Grace raised 13 children on the property. My father John (Jack) was the first-born, whilst the last was Kevin, born in 1931, and later to be known throughout the clan as “Unk”.

While most of his siblings moved out after leaving school, Unk chose to remain at home working the property, and remained there throughout his working life. Unk never married, and following his death several years ago at the age of 84, his estate was distributed to his next of kin. As a result  I found myself in possession of a small sum of money – just enough to buy a new guitar.

I was in need of a new acoustic guitar (Isn’t everybody?), so I decided that it would be a fitting tribute to Unk to use the inheritance to fund a bespoke guitar. I consulted luthier Jack Spira, who had previously  built me a wonderful acoustic (a cutaway version of his Model S1) that was designed to maximise volume and projection without amplification. This time I was looking for a more conventional sounding flat-top acoustic with pin bridge rather than tailpiece, and Jack agreed to build me one of his ‘000’ models with a cutaway. We agreed on basic parameters such as the type of wood, the headstock  design and other details. At that stage my ideas for fingerboard inlays were rather vague, but since the inlays were to be added late in the construction process, I had plenty of time to come up with a design.

Unk didn’t play a musical instrument himself, but he did take an interest in my efforts as a young student of the guitar. As a young boy I recall him playing records on his mother’s gramophone – mainly country and western artists such as Slim Whitman. However, I was intrigued to learn that among his personal effects was a 45 single of the surf-rock classic Surfin’ Bird, by The Trashmen. Who’d have thought?

With my decision to commission a guitar in his memory, I wanted it to feature a design that reflected some significant aspect of Unk’s life on the land. Eventually I decided that a sultana vine would be the most appropriate element. I thought that the design should be a reasonably accurate representation of the canes and leaves of the sultana grapevine, so as a starting point I asked my brother John (who lives in Mildura) to go out into a vineyard and take some photos of sultana vines.

From John’s photos I made pen and pencil drawings, which I then scanned and overlaid on a template made from the fingerboard of my other Spira guitar. Using Photoshop, I was able to move the images around to produce a fingerboard layout for Jack to use as a template for the inlays. Needless to say, it took Jack a lot of meticulous work to transform the design into reality by cutting pieces of shell and inlaying them into the ebony fingerboard.

Jack delivered the completed “Unk” guitar in July 2018. The soundboard of the guitar is Sitka Spruce, the neck is Mahogany, and the back and sides are Australian Blackheart Sassafras. The neck join is tapered dovetail, glued with hide glue. The scale length is 645mm. The guitar is fitted with an LR Baggs Anthem SL mic/preamp system. In addition to the sultana vine inlays, the guitar has a block inlay on the 17th fret, inscribed with the word “Unk”. I hope that Unk would have approved.

During construction of the guitar Jack was in the process of relocating his Spira guitar workshop to Gippsland, and this disruption, together with the complexities associated with the inlay work, resulted in a long gestation period for this guitar. However it has been well worth the wait, and the result has exceeded my expectations. The guitar looks great and performs well, both at home and on stage, and is a joy to play.

Jack has told me that in future he will not be taking on such detailed custom inlay projects. He is intending to focus on what he loves doing most – building guitars rather than decorating them. I hope that the sultana vines on the Unk guitar didn’t contribute to Jack’s decision!

Check out some of the work in progress photos:

About Ben Rogers 19 Articles
Ben Rogers has played guitar for a long time, and has accumulated an odd assortment of guitars over the years. He plays around Melbourne with Instrumental Asylum – a surf/spy/guitar-noir group, and also with his gypsy-jazz combo The Ben Rogers Trio.