10 Questions with J.A. Duncan of Duncan Africa
A more interesting, guitar-centric tale you're not likely to hear anytime soon. Jay Duncan has taken his luthiery skills from Canada all the way to Africa and done something that many of us can only dream about. It's an inspirational story of more than just building guitars.
You can read more about this amazing life journey by visiting the Duncan Africa Society website. Guitar.com spends a few minutes with JD and learns more about the man and the mission behind the Duncan Africa Society.
Guitar.com: JD, your journey is quite a fascinating one and one we’ll jump into shortly. But where does all this start? Where does your guitar-building passion begin?
JD: I've been making guitars since 1992. I started in my Dad's garage in Spruce Grove, near Edmonton, AB (Canada) in the middle of winter. A guitar parts catalog from Stewart MacDonald's landed on our front porch and I was instantly hooked. In 1996 I moved to Vancouver, BC to work for the Larrivee Guitar Co. where I had the privilege of hanging out with a small group of real luthiers. I went out on my own in 2002 and have made 50+ guitars over the years, mostly steel string acoustic, but also some electric, classical, archtop and even bass and electric upright bass.
Guitar.com: Stew Mac's catalog was always a fascinating read for me. Same with the Luthiers Mercantile. Interesting to see that a guitar book can truly change the direction of someone's life but what about your guitar playing. Were you a player as well? Did you play in bands?
JD: I started playing when I was eight years old. I still play, but I'm more of a writer and a tone freak than anything else. In my early 20's I was part of a band and had a lot of fun hoping to be a rock star someday. If I play anywhere now, it’s either in coffee shops or church. I also studied classical for a time.
Guitar.com: So now we're largely find you playing in your church or around the house? Truthfully, it doesn’t sound like you have a great deal of time for gigging?
JD: I definitely don't get to play much publicly these days, BUT I've just finished an album I'm really excited about. I love songwriting, and I hope I can write for other performers as I get older. One of my favorite tracks on this recording is 'Jesus Drives A Cadillac'. Maybe GM will give me a call? ;-)
Guitar.com: That would certainly make for a nice endorsement. Stranger things have happened. So let’s get a little more caught up – what brings you to the concept of building guitars in Africa?
JD: I initially had the idea about building in Africa back in 1996 while working for Larrivee. I had always been disturbed by the poverty I saw in Africa. Why do we have so much, while they so little? Older and wiser, now I believe that all of humanity is impoverished in one way or another. We all need each other – I saw a great t-shirt last week that sums it up - “I Need Africa More Than Africa Needs Me”.
I began to feel that it would be a terrible waste of my gift if I was the only one who really benefited from it. I wondered if there was a way that making guitars could make a difference in someone’s life on the other side of the world. I’m still surprised that it’s actually happening. It’s a bit of a miracle that these beautiful instruments are being made in a small village in the heart of Africa. I wish I could say it was easy, but honestly it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever been a part of.
The more I learn, the more I realize that poverty is a complex problem. Issues range from corruption and hopelessness, to a lack of access to education, healthcare. Even international political systems hinder the potential of these great people.
Guitar.com: So more or less, you’ve set up a business development school to help a struggling part of the world.
JD: Yes, though to this point, we've only taught luthiery. When funding becomes available, the students will also study English, math, computers and business in order to prepare them for international trade. When the students graduate, we will help them to form a manufacturing co-op, so they will own their business, and export these guitars to Canada, the USA and the UK.
Guitar.com: How many students then, do you have building instruments?
JD: Currently we have 10 people at the school.
Guitar.com: And how many different models of instruments are you currently building?
JD: We have two basic models, the Selah (OM) and the Jubilee (Dreadnought). We use three different woods for the top – Sitka Spruce, Engelmann Spruce and Western Red Cedar. For the back and sides we have four woods, Mahogany, Mugavu, East Indian Rosewood and Western Flamed Maple. The Mahogany and Mugavu are both found in Uganda. Typically the wood on these guitars is AA grade. All our fingerboards and bridges are African Ebony.
In 2011 we will be adding a new model which will incorporate AAA grade woods, a mother-of-pearl headstock logo and fingerboard dots, gold Gotoh 510 tuners, glossy nitrocellulose finish and a lifetime warranty. We also hope to introduce a jumbo model soon called the '1962', which is the year Uganda gained its independence from Great Britain.
Guitar.com: Now pricing has to be an important part of this process. Granted that the world has become a smaller place because of the internet but where to you price these instruments?
JD: The instruments start at $1399 for Mahogany back and sides, $1549for Mugavu, $1649 for E.I.Rosewood and $1799 for Western Flamed Maple. Options include the LR Baggs iMix pick up, a Tobacco or Honeytone sunburst, MOP fingerboard dots, and a couple of artsy inlay options called 'The Broken Road' and 'Shadow Proves The Sunlight'.
Guitar.com: How would one go about purchasing one of your guitars?
JD: I love helping folks find just the right guitar. So I usually spend a bit of time via email or on the phone sorting through the customer’s needs and trying to match that to just the right tone woods. After that, we take a deposit if it’s a custom order. If we have the guitar in stock, we'll send the guitar out as soon as payment clears. We accept checks and use PayPal to accept credit cards online.
Guitar.com: If any of our guitar.com members would like to learn more about DuncanAfrica, how could they learn more?
JD: Our website www.duncanafrica.com has a good amount of info on the society and lots of pics from our trips to Uganda and the school. I'm always happy to answer questions via email as well. [email protected]
Guitar.com: JD, that's a very interesting tale to tell. I'm sure our readers will be fascinated to hear about Duncan. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.