Thursday November 29, 2012

PUTNEY -- Scott Ainslie met his maker about 10 years ago.

But it wasn’t an end, it was a beginning ... one of the best beginnings, in fact. The day Scott Ainslie met his maker, it was the start of a friendship that has touched his life and his artistry to the core.

Let’s be clear -- in this case, the "maker" in question is Michael Millard, the Vermont-based creator of world-renowned Froggy Bottom guitars. Ainslie, a noted blues musician and scholar, first got his hands on a Froggy Bottom guitar when he went to see fellow musician David Surette after a show.

"I thought his guitar sounded great. I asked David if I could play his guitar, I played it for two minutes, and I thought ‘hmmm ... I should call this guy.’"

So Ainslie did, and invited Millard to an upcoming show of his at the Hooker-Dunham Theater. Millard, who was making his guitars in Williamsville, came. Soon after, Ainslie returned the favor, visiting Millard in his studio, spending days with him while he worked.

"Watching Michael assemble a guitar body is like watching ballet. There is no wasted motion," said Ainslie.

Millard ultimately agreed to build Ainslie a guitar, but not before asking a bunch of damned nosey questions. That’s what Millard does.

Among the most important tools Millard uses are his ears, his mind and his heart, carefully teasing out from musicians what they really want in a guitar.

"I’m finding out what would be best for the person, exclusive of me. It’s a tool. The guitar is a tool," said Millard. "There has to be an absolute brutal honesty in terms of ‘This is what I need.’ What matters is you love your guitar and you’re inspired by it. When you’re inspired by a guitar, you make better music."

That experience is what audiences are in for Friday night, when the Next Stage Arts Project hosts three prominent, and different, acoustic guitarists for a program of music and conversation with Millard about their Froggy Bottom guitars.

Part of Next Stage’s Community Artist Performance Series, the evening titled "Music from Froggy Bottom: Three Guitarists Meet Their Maker," features guitarists Will Ackerman, Scott Ainslie and David Surette, who will each perform and converse with the instrument-maker and the audience about the guitars, Millard’s unique approach to design, and the art and craftsmanship of guitar building.

"Most instrument builders will tell you that what Michael does is not possible," said Ainslie.

The evening begins at 7:30 p.m., at Next Stage, 15 Kimball Hill and will be moderated by Lisa McCormick, a musician, songwriter, guitar teacher and, yes, owner of a Froggy Bottom guitar.

McCormick remembers her meeting at Froggy Bottom, and all the questions they asked. Not only did they want to know what she looked for in a guitar, they asked her deeper questions about her beliefs, her hopes, her dreams.

"I couldn’t believe I was being asked these questions when it came to a guitar," McCormick.

The results speak for themselves. In 40 years in which he has made more than 5,000 guitars, Millard has produced custom-made instruments whose chief signature element may be that they have no signature element, other than excellence. When you buy a Martin or a Gibson, you buy a guitar the makers are telling you is going to sound great. And maybe they’re right. When you work with Froggy Bottom, Millard is listening to what you want.

If all this sounds rather guitar-geekish, it appears that the results are palpable to the audience.

Ainslie recounted a gig he played a couple of years ago when he didn’t have his Froggy Bottom with him. He noticed the difference, but he thought maybe the audience hadn’t, until a couple of people who knew his music well went up to him after the show and said "Nice set ... but we really miss the Frog."

Millard grew up in Thetford but left Vermont when he was about 9, when his family moved to Connecticut. There, two important things happened. He began working at a boatyard, learning skills which proved important later in his guitar-building. He also got turned on to music, learning to play guitar and listening to great old rock and roll and blues records.

After college, he moved to New York City and found work at Gurian Guitars. "The Gurian thing was, no pun intended, instrumental," Millard said.

When Gurian moved to Hinsdale, N.H., Millard moved with him and later set up his own shop, opening in Williamsville in 1985. He now divides his time between this area and northern Vermont. "My heart is still here," he said.

Gratitude is a prevailing sentiment Millard expresses, as he regards a life strung together by the right people at the right time -- the boat building experience; the friend in Connecticut who turned him on to music; the musician friends he hung out with who seemed simply motivated by a sincere love of music; the time he spent with Gurian; the top-notch staff at Froggy Bottom -- Andy Mueller, Eric Goodenough, Mike (Moose) Raymond, Larry Sweeney and Petria Mitchell; the musicians who play his instruments.

Also influential were the guitar workshops he and a buddy attended at an early age led by the Rev. Gary Davis, who would pick up each participant’s guitar, hold it, regard it, tap it and then play it, choosing what seemed to be the right song, no matter how cheap and beat up the guitar was.

"It was only much later that I began to realize it and see it for what it was," said Millard. "It wasn’t about him. It was about the guitar."

That, ultimately is what Friday’s event is all about, too.

The evening came about at the urging of Next Stage co-founder Eric Bass as an interesting way of examining the interplay of musician, music and maker.

"One of the cool things about guitars, in spite of all the drama, the sturm und drang, is every guitar speaks for itself," said Millard.

Tickets are $20 general and $18 for students/seniors, available at Offerings Jewelry, Putney and online at www.nextstagearts.org. This event is made possible with media support by Vermont Public Radio and additional support from Maple Leaf Music in Brattleboro.