LINCOLN – Benjamin Pelletier couldn't believe his good fortune when he happened by a flier posted inside the William M. Davies Jr. Career & Technical High School one day last November.
It asked any student interested in building his or her own electric guitar – and learning how to play it – to register for the extracurricular program sponsored by the school.
“I couldn't believe it,” grinned Pelletier, a Davies Tech sophomore who hails from Pawtucket, as he held a headstock created by his own hands. “I at first thought there might be a catch, but there wasn't. I always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, and I had been looking for a hobby.
“I've always liked music, and I thought it'd be pretty cool,” he added. “I know very little about playing, but now I've got the chance to learn.”
Pelletier and 14 other students took to the Davies' Construction & Building Trades room – or woodshop – on Wednesday afternoon, putting the finishing touches on their own electric guitar's neck and/or body, doing so with steely determination.
There were no jokes being bandied about, or kids fooling around; instead, they seemed steadfast in their quest to construct a fine piece of musical equipment.
When asked how many students responded to the aforementioned fliers, DiFazio laughed, “They had applications in the main office, and it filled up in one day. We had about 40 kids sign up, and we could've had more, but we felt we could handle only 15 per session. That's why we're having two sessions,” the second to begin Thursday, March 24.
The “We” in which DiFazio referred came in the form of Bill Esser, a long-time “Construction & Building Trades” instructor at Davies. While DiFazio knew all about the electronics and musical elements, he needed Esser's expertise and talents in wood choices, cutting, sanding and finishing aspects.
“You know, I was just talking to somebody today about things we do in this building,” he stated. “If someone wants something done and needs someone's help, the answer is always 'Yes,' because we're on the same team. When Al gave me the idea about integrating disciplines across the shops' spectrum, I told him, 'Of course, I'll help.'
“I thought it was unique. I knew I could help, so was going to; anything that crosses curricula and integrates different aspects of education is interesting. Obviously, the kids thought so.”
Actually, the idea of such an extracurricular activity came to Al DiFazio, the school's Electronics teacher, one day last summer.
“I was reading a magazine, and I saw a kit regarding building your own electric guitar in it,” explained DiFazio, who still jams with old high school buddies at his Johnston home, and who had always adored playing the piano, organ and guitar. “It got me to thinking, 'Why not offer this to our kids? I should take this a step further.
“I've got a passion for music, so I figured, 'What a great way to get a student interested in music and develop a love for it!'” he continued. “I know a couple of universities offer this for college credit – Purdue (University in West Lafayette, Ind.) for one – but I had to mold the curriculum to a high school level.”
DiFazio brought his notion to Davies Tech Director Victoria Gailliard-Garrick, and she immediately raved about it, as the program would provide the kids with hands-on exposure to technically-related experiences.
The curriculum also satisfies various skills labeled under the “STEM” standards – that's an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Those are the same standards (former Rhode Island) Gov. Don Carcieri and (current Gov.) Lincoln Chafee supported, as well as the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE),” DiFazio noted. “We're reflecting core-content subject matter in an after-school activity.
“Still, the students had to qualify to participate, just like they would for a sport or any other extracurricular program,” he added. “They needed to pass all of their academic courses … It's a pilot program right now, but the school (the administration) is working on criteria to qualify this for graduation credit.”
Prior to the first session's start, DiFazio built his own guitar so he could estimate the time it may take a student. Naturally, he added an hour or two, just in case someone ran into a problem. His experiment indicated the total building time at 12 hours, with the music theory period lasting eight.
The initial 20-hour installment began on Jan. 5, and was scheduled to close on March 16, as the students were supposed to have met every Wednesday afternoon from 2:30-4:30.
The seemingly constant snowstorms and resulting school cancellations, however, set it back. That's why DiFazio and Esser had to squeeze in a pair of Thursday classes.
In that first class, DiFazio delivered a syllabus to each teen and explained the guitar's history and basic music principles; the next dealt with guitar body and neck styles and the importance of “tolerances;” and, the third, the science and physics of fret boards and body styles.
“The students learned about basswood, what the body is made of, and we told them native Americans used it to make rope,” DiFazio offered. “The frets are made of rosewood. They shaped their own headstock, which adds individuality; it's the signature piece to one's guitar. We'll be getting ready soon to install the pickups, which are like little microphones.
“I'll teach them about the principles behind electromagnetism, so they can relate it to those pickups,” he continued. “We're also going to teach them how to tune their guitars, and the notes, how pressing each fret results in a particular note. They then can build on it.”
DiFazio mentioned each student made their guitars to their liking – they get to choose how to cut the headstock, the color, amount of decals, etc. – so all will be rather different.
“It's a fun idea, but it's also about learning how its construction relates to science, technology, engineering and math,” he said. “Math enters into it when we're teaching 4/4 timing per measure, and it also sets the foundation for learning about science – the materials it's made of, the science of electronics where the pickups act like microphones.
“It's built on principles of electromagnetism, as it has an electric wiring network, with volume and tone controls. As for the technology, that's the whole construction of the product.”
As for the actual teaching, DiFazio won't be alone. He chose to enlist senior Aaron Bolano of Pawtucket and sophomore Eddie Prest of Providence.
“I told Mr. DiFazio I could teach some kids how to play; I used to be in a band called 'Road House,' which played a lot of rock covers,” Prest noted. “When I found out about this, I thought it was awesome, like, I've never built my own guitar.”
Stated DiFazio: “Remember, a lot of these kids aren't involved in wood-working classes. They may be in other disciplines, like automotive or electronics. What makes this different is that they're learning new things about woods, cutting them, paints, stains and the correct methods used in the electrical phases.
“Eddie's willing to share his talents and expertise, and I'll take it; I need all the help I can get,” he added with a chuckle. “Eddie and I jammed together, and we went back and forth, with him playing bass and me lead (guitar), and vice-versa. We'll also explain to them how a bassist works with the lead guitarist and drummer, how they keep proper timing.”
By late February, DiFazio and his two helpers will educate the others as to the strings, scales and chords, then the chromatic scale with sharps and flats. By the final week, they'll have their own little jam session.
“A lot of the students always wanted to do this, but they felt they never had the opportunity, or they didn't have the money to buy one,” DiFazio said. “They needed the spark, and Bill and I provided it.
“When you love something, as I do music, you want to share what you know,” he added. “Years ago, people took their time to teach me, so I figure now it's time to pass it on. I want to give something back.
“This is to inspire them. They're here because they're interested in music. A program like this could plant the seed for an interest that could last a lifetime.”
Devon Tobin, a senior from Smithfield, is thrilled by participating.
“I thought it was an interesting idea from the beginning: Building your own electric guitar and then learning how play it,” he said. “This is something cool to do with your time. I did have to pay $30 for my own amplifier, but everything else was free. This is one more thing I don't know, and I can't wait to learn more about it.”