Custom Guitar Craftsman Plays Music Under The Stars

COVER STORY

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Clay Sopeland is a music man on two levels.

He and his band, 20 Paces, cover the tunes of giants Johnny Cash, the Eagles, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Three Doors Down.

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Clay Sopeland is not only a musician, he helps others make music by crafting guitars. Sopeland and his band, 20 Paces, perform at 7 p.m., Saturday, July 28 at the Green Valley Park bandstand.

When they step onto the stage at Green Valley Park Saturday night, turn on their amps, the audience needs to be prepared to rock out.

"We may do an original song, but we mostly will play a variety of covers from classic country to modern rock," Sopeland said.

Clay and Greig Perrin, who sings harmony and plays lead guitar, have been making music together since 1996.

Three more recent members -- Clay's brother Jake Sopeland, who also sings harmony and plays guitar, drummer Wes Clark and bass player Jeremy Summers, complete the band.

Sopeland composes his own "alternative country -- like what Southern Rock used to be" songs and is working on his first CD.

"One of my guys (Perrin) has an internship at sound production studios in Burbank, if he gets back in time, we may run though a couple of new songs I just wrote," Sopeland said.

The band has played music at local venues and original tunes on TV channels 3 and 12 and KNIX radio.

When Sopeland steps off stage, it is to his workshop with its sandpaper, glue and other woodworking tools.

Sopeland is a "luthier," a maker of stringed instruments -- in this case, guitars.

He also repairs them.

Sopeland has been playing guitar since he was 17 years old.

"I was living in Prescott and a buddy and I started playing in Battle of the Bands events on Whiskey Row," he said.

They won and ended up meeting some other musicians from Payson.

After attending community college and working in construction, Sopeland was not sure what profession he wanted to claim as a career.

"A weird thing happened," he said. "I ran into a woman who knew the owners of the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery."

"It's the best school in the world for luthiery," he added.

Although the North Phoenix school had a three-year waiting list, the woman talked to her friends.

Sopeland attended the next semester's program with a class of 27 students from all over the world.

He graduated the grueling five-day-a-week, 10-hour-day program in 1999.

He loved his new profession right away.

"It is amazing because it is so hard to make all the pieces come together and sound like a guitar," Sopeland said.

Custom acoustic and electric guitar makers are master craftsmen.

In the construction field, a 16th of an inch is considered meticulous and proper.

The tolerance for the wood cut, sanded and molded into the shape of a guitar, is a 64th of an inch.

How the artist hand-mills the wood is crucial to the sound of the final product.

A softer wood, such as Brazilian rosewood, produces a mellower sound, while the hardwood maple produces a brighter, crisper sound, according to Sopeland.

The actual process takes between 40 and 50 actual hours over several weeks, as different parts must dry from glue and stained finish.

Sopeland is able to inlay lots of different wood designs, as well as mother-of-pearl, turquoise and abalone into his guitars on the body or the neck.

He has not made his nine-year-old daughter, Neve, a guitar yet, but he is teaching her to play.

And, Sopeland's 3-month-old son, Tallon, seems to love listening.

"I enjoy the people I play with," Sopeland said. "I don't care about the money. I love playing music."

"I probably couldn't do the music stuff I do without the support of my wife, Laci," he added. "She is my biggest fan and keeps me motivated."

Factoid

People who practice the skill "luthiery" build custom guitars.

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