Rock, Rattle and Drum: 5 Native Musical Instrument Makers Carving Their Way to the Top
Music is vital to the history, traditions and storytelling of Native Americans and First Nations people, and plays an important role in many tribal ceremonies, pow wows, celebrations, courtships and healings.
While Indian Country is full of talented Native singers and musicians who have earned well-deserved recognition for their gifts, they couldn’t create their magic without musical instruments.
Indian Country Today Media Network spotlights five natives who have perfected the craft of making drums, flutes, rattles and even guitars. Some do it for a living, and for others, it’s far more than a hobby. As one music-maker said, “Native Americans don’t refer to making instruments as a hobby. It’s a cultural connection.”
1. Rock-Star Guitar Maker
Name: John Longbow, 45
Instrument he makes: Guitars
Tribal affiliation: Choctaw and Chicaksaw
Home: Rio Rancho, New Mexico
John Longbow started making guitars when he was a young boy working on a construction site with his father. “What else is a 10-year-old going to do if he’s trying to get out of doing work with his dad?” he explained.
The first guitar he ever constructed was held together with a lot of glue. “It worked for about an hour, and then it broke,” said the self-taught musician, who also played woodwind and brass instruments all through high school. “I didn’t know nothing!”
But he sure learned a lot about making guitars in the last 35 years. After graduating from the University of Santa Cruz with a major in music and a minor in manufacturing, Longbow attended the Roberto Venn School of Luthiery for guitar building and instrument making.
“I still have the telecaster copy I learned to build there,” he said. “It’s still usable and people play the hell out of it.”
Now the owner of Longbow Guitars, a business he started in 1984 after the metal band he was in split up, the Choctaw/Chickasaw native has become well-known for his beautifully crafted bass, acoustic and electric guitars. To date, Longbow has created more than 900 of these instruments, each one taking about three months to build, from start to finish.
“My specialty is the Cheyenne hollow body, he said, “with a zebrawood top, cherry sides and back. It’s one of the better ones out there.”
While he sells guitars from $1,500 to $3,000 to musicians from all cultures and walks of life, all his endorsers have been Native American.
“My first endorser was Tony Bellamy of Redbone. He got my name out there and became a good friend.” An endorser, said Longbow, is someone who promotes the product and plays it on stage. “He got me recognized by David Allen Coe, who has also endorsed me.”
These days, Longbow is tuned in to his special “Artists Series” of guitars. “I am getting the top native painters to put their paintwork on my guitars,” he said. Painters like Maria Allison, Ryan Singer, Ryan Williams and Bruce King. “I want to push my guitars into a higher-end boutique market,” he explained.
He’s also giving back to the native community in his own special way. At the Planet Indigenous Music Festival in Toronto, Longbow held a seminar to teach people who live on the reservation how to make guitars. It was such a hit with attendees that he continues to offer this program on a number of reservations in the U.S. and reserves in Canada.
Like the individuality expressed in his Artists Series, he teaches novice guitar makers how to customize guitars and make them their own. “There are lots of problems on the rez … if people don’t want to go to school and are still locked up in their problems, the least I can do is distract them for a while and show them how to build a guitar.”
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