After watching a performance by Kelly Jo Phelps, who played a resonator guitar during a 2010 gig in Traverse City, made Matt Eich wonder if he could build one.
“I didn’t know how to cut a piece of metal or weld a piece of metal,” said Eich, 32. “I also wanted it to sound differently too. It was completely trial and error.”
Eich, his brother Phil and friend Adam Smith build steel resonator guitars by hand in a Saginaw warehouse under the company name Mule Resophonic Guitars; the company is the only one in the U.S. that makes them by hand.
But the journey didn’t start in a warehouse; it started in his brother’s garage.
“It was trying to assemble a lot of different realms of information online and failing at it and trying something else,” he said. “It was really slow going because we’re the only ones who do it by hand so there wasn’t this base of knowledge out there. There’s nobody to ask.”
But eventually he got the hang of building the guitars, which are generally played by blues artists and were originally popular during the 1930s.
“They would play them in bars or on the street because they were very loud,” he said.
Eich, who realized he wasn’t cut out to be in a band, decided in high school at Michigan Lutheran Seminary in Saginaw that he wanted to learn to make guitars, starting by building two electric guitars and then moving on to acoustic guitars.
He attended a guitar-making school in Phoenix, Ariz. after graduating high school in 2004, spending a year at the guitar maker before graduating from there as well.
Once he obtained the guitar-making certification, he worked at a company called Huss and Dalton in Virginia from 2004 to 2007, building acoustic guitars.
Later, he moved to Chicago to work in a factory but lost this job in 2010 due to the Great Recession.
“I needed those factory jobs to learn that work ethic,” he said.
That work ethic has payed off; Mule Resonator Guitars now operates in a 1,600-square-foot warehouse in Saginaw, where about 130 guitars are made annually.
“The thing with guitar making is there’s 1,000 little steps,” he said.
He described some of the major steps toward guitar creation.
“Plates are cut on a laser machine and formed over jigs and solder different pieces together to make the body,” Eich said. “We put a patina on them so it looks like old steel. It looks like a weathered piece of steel.”
After the body is made, the guitar neck is made out of maple wood obtained from a saw mill in St. Johns.
“The neck is fit to every body. I carve it, sand it and stain it to match the body,” he said. “All of a sudden after four days of work, it starts looking like a guitar. That’s the result of 1,000 little steps leading up to that point.”
There were also a few steps Eich took in his life toward his guitar-building career.
His father, John Eich, said Matt and his brothers Phil and Stephen were required to play a musical instrument growing up; Matt chose violin then, later, picked up the guitar.
The musical interest in the family didn’t start with John but with his father, who was an accomplished organist for silent movies and in church, according to John Eich.
“Matt was in the youth orchestra at Alma College during mid-grade school,” John said. “Stephen was a choral singer. Philip is an accomplished organist at the Bethel Lutheran Church in Bay City.”
Matt later developed an interest in rock music and, later, bluegrass and folk styles.
“I found a tape of Jimmy Hendrix ‘South Saturn Delta’ and that kind of kicked me off,” he said.
John, who is a pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Alma, is proud of his son’s success.
“I’m thankful to God that his vision and his skill is being so well received,” he said. “He lives his faith through what he does. He wants to present the best.”
While one performance in Traverse City sparked Eich’s vision, another performance proved the work is worth it.
He watched at the Palace of Auburn Hills a few years ago as Adele’s guitarist Tim Van Der Kuil played on stage a steel resonator Eich built for him.
The guitars are very popular; there is a waiting list of more than 100 guitars to be built, and other high-profile artists have purchased the Mule Resonator-brand guitars.
“It’s really easy to look back and put all those puzzle pieces together and say ‘oh yeah, that was the plan 10 years in the making’.