Culture: Art, Books & Music

Jackie Willis: island musician, guitar maker

 

Jackie Willis

Island musician Jackie Willis with the electric bass he crafted from a fallen cedar tree.

 

By Connie Leinbach

Island musician Jackie Willis, frequently seen at island locales, once hewed a guitar out of a fallen cedar tree.

“John Manning had a cedar tree that came down in a hurricane,” he said, displaying the electric guitar he fashioned. “I cut it up and made a guitar out of it.”

Woodworking is an Ocracoke tradition, and Willis has his own niche in this art beyond carving of decoys and birds.

While he occasionally gets a commission to build custom guitars from scratch, he does a brisk business in repairs pointing to the stack of guitars in cases needing repair.

It doesn’t matter how badly a guitar is in need of repair.

“I restore them completely,” he said in his Ocracoke brogue. “I can bring it back to where it was.”

A bass player, he can usually be seen playing an acoustic or electric bass he’s made.

Bandmates of his also have guitars he’s made.

“Martin (Garrish) has one,” he said. “So does Jim Wynn and Aaron (Caswell).”

It takes him six months to a year to fashion a custom guitar out of either rosewood or mahogany.

“I like rosewood the best,” he said.

That wood comes from Nicaragua, he said, but the most popular and sought-after type of rosewood is Brazilian.

That’s because this dark wood has its own beauty and does not need stain.
“They’re all-natural,” he said about his work.

With his band saw, he cuts the wood “like bacon,” he said. “I buy the tops and the necks and alter them as needed.  They come pretty rough cut.”

An acoustic guitar Willis crafted from rosewood.

An acoustic guitar Willis crafted from rosewood.

A lot of retail guitars are made out of plywood and laminate and cost $300, he said.

Since his custom guitars are expensive (about $2,000 for him to make), he’s only made 15.

But even restoring instruments that are in pieces and deemed unfixable is a joy to him.

“So many I’ve done belonged to a grandfather or father and were just laying in a corner,” Willis said. “The best part is putting them together and putting strings on them to see what they sound like.”

A 1970 graduate of Ocracoke School, Willis discovered a love for woodworking when he worked at Allen Organ in Rocky Mount in the 1970s for several years.

“That’s where I learned finishing the wood,” he said.

Along with developing his skill in his spare time, Willis returned to the island and worked for the NC Ferry Division from which he retired last November after working 27 years as a ferry captain.

Willis and his friends began noodling with guitars back in 1964.

“Ronny O’Neal, Mack Tolson, Martin and I all kind of learned together,” he said. They all got instruments and began practicing in a spot behind where the Williams House now stands.

“Martin’s daddy knew how to play,” he said, and showed the boys what he knew.

It was the beginning of the rock and roll revolution, and they guys were smitten.

Maybe that’s why he, Martin, Aaron and others play a lot of classic rock when the Ocracoke Rockers perform.

Willis plays with them when the original bass player Clinton Garrish, Martin’s brother, isn’t available.

Willis started his musical avocation with a ukulele, but when his friends needed a bass, he took the two high strings off of a guitar and had a bass.

Then they started the Graveyard Band, Willis said, because “Martin’s daddy and others would drink wine in the graveyard.”

He laughed.

“I can’t read music,” Willis said about his natural talent. “It’s all by ear.”

When he’s not playing rock and roll with Aaron or Martin, Willis plays in a bluegrass and gospel group, Nancy Joyner and the Early Station in Aulander, Bertie County.

Jackie Willis in his 'art' golf cart.

Jackie Willis in his ‘art’ golf cart.