Every custom guitar Reuben Forsland crafts begins with conversations and connections.
“The focus is how to create an artisan guitar that inspires the player to make an emotional and spiritual connection,” said Forsland in an interview from his East Sooke studio.
“The guitar to a guitarist is their voice. It has a large effect on what and how they express through their music. I think the guitar is the best connection of storytelling outside of written words, and music’s a beautiful way to show that connection.”
Forsland went to great lengths to find a source of inspiration when he was hired by renowned rock guitarist Slash to make an acoustic guitar.
Once he found out Jimi Hendrix was one of Slash’s heroes, Forsland spent six months tracking down Pete Sikov, the owner of the Seattle house Hendrix grew up in.
“I asked Pete if he was open to the concept of using some of the wood from the house for Slash’s guitar, and he was good with that,” said Forsland, who has since completed four other guitars using some of that wood.
Another one of his guitars, Equilibrium, embodies the sense of spiritual connection and conversation that permeates his work.
“It was inspired by my father’s struggles with addiction, and that guitar is a broader conversation about the human experience,” he said.
Forsland, who grew up in central Alberta and Ottawa before moving to B.C. in 2008, worked as a Red Seal carpenter for many years before gravitating towards building guitars.
“I’ve done every field of carpentry, including bridge building, large commercial, custom houses and log homes,” he said.
He also made furniture in the evenings and weekends, searching for something he couldn’t put his fingers on that would feed the creative fire burning within.
After working on skateboards and longboards for five or six years, Forsland crafted his first guitar in 2008.
“I was looking for something different that incorporated my carpentry skills that totally fueled the passion I was looking for,” he recalled. “I felt like, ‘OK, now I know what I want to do’ and wanted to put everything I have into it. I base my work on 50 per cent art and 50 per cent guitar. Every guitar has a part of me and what I believe in.”
By 2013, Forsland was devoting his time to his business, JOI Guitars, with 99 per cent of his orders coming from outside of Canada. His work has been featured with Jimi Hendrix memorabilia at Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, the Robert Bateman Gallery in Victoria, the National Music Centre of Canada in Calgary, and the Sarah McLachlan School Music in Vancouver.
Although Forsland has worked exclusively on acoustic guitars until now, he was recently commissioned by a musician in New Hampshire to make a reproduction of Eddie Van Halen’s electric Frankenstrat guitar.
When asked if he plays guitar, Forsland shared a story about how he collected pop bottles when he was young until he had enough money to buy a guitar and cover a year’s worth of lessons. He picked it up again in his late 20s, acquiring a level of skill that resonated sweetly through the workshop as he strummed a few chords on one of his creations.
Forsland’s focus these days, however, is on his most recent acoustic creation, the first guitar made from hemp wood, a wood substitute made from hemp fibres.
“It’s 20 per cent stronger and grows 100 times faster than oak,” he said. “Environmentally, it absorbs four times more CO2 in its lifetime than the same area as a forest.”
If just 2.6 per cent of the farmland in the U.S. was dedicated to cultivating industrial hemp, it could displace a massive amount of the annual consumption of wood, letting the trees stand, Forsland said.
Hemp wood is also an agricultural diversity plant that allows farmers to make a good living, he added.
Forsland embraces environmental sustainability with the same passion he brings to making guitars because they strike a similar chord. That’s why he chose Earth Day (April 22) as the perfect time to unveil his hemp wood guitar officially.
“Although this guitar can’t save the environment, it’s a piece of the conversation about what can be created with a sustainable product in today’s marketplace. Hemp wood can have a dramatic positive influence on the future market of wood production.”
“It’s more than just an instrument. It’s an opportunity to have conversations for different reasons, social and environmental.”