GATESVILLE — Moving from guns to guitars has been a smooth transition for The Guitarsmiths, a creative endeavor launched by and for military veterans.
Jay Strite, a former Air Force sergeant, and Baxter Keller, a Marine veteran, channeled their talent and skill as gunsmiths into their passion to be luthiers — makers of stringed musical instruments — and started The Guitarsmiths in a small workshop in Gatesville.
“Gunsmithing has been in my family for 500 years,” Strite said. “I got to be at the very top of the field. I have done engraving on guns, inlay on guns, built Kentucky rifles.”
The gun work was fulfilling, he said. “But with the guitars, I get to do real art. The guitar is 100 percent mine. I take the raw materials and build a guitar and there is just nothing like that.”
Keller likes the freedom of creating guitars.
“In the gun world, you are working on antiques or particular models,” Keller said. “You have an unlimited canvas with guitars. It just has to sound good.”
Joining Strite and Keller in their workshop is Duane McGhghy, an Army veteran from Temple who handcrafted knives before taking up guitar making.
“Making guitars is something I enjoy and is definitely different from anything I have done,” McGhghy said. “It is just cool.”
The Guitarsmiths will be showcasing their handcrafted art guitars Sunday at The Pharmacy American Gastropub in Gatesville. The event is to raise money for the Guitarsmiths to travel to Anaheim, Calif., to take part in a Justice for Vets benefit concert the end of May.
Grammy-winning musician Charlie Colin, formerly with Train, will be a special guest at the Gatesville event. Colin has been playing a Guitarsmiths’ Silver Eclipse guitar since last year.
McGhghy, who lost a leg while fighting in Iraq, was medically retired from the Army in 2008. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and with a traumatic brain injury.
“I started coming to the shop a couple of days a week, just helping out, and I got into it,” he said. “Now I try to come three or four days a week.”
Making guitars has given him a reason to get out of the house for the first time since he retired.
“You get locked up in your head when you are at home all the time,” he said. “It’s just good to get out and have something to do.”
The intricate and demanding work of a luthier helps ease a troubled mind, said Keller, who also was diagnosed with PTSD and TBI.
“With it being so complex and such a huge process, it allows you to focus solely on the little pieces and it really takes your mind off everything else,” Keller said.
“I think working on guitars and building the camaraderie has helped to make a new support group,” he said. “That is certainly something we can pass on to the next round” of veterans.
“Five years from now, I would like to be employing a dozen young veterans, giving them a chance at making a new life now that they’re out,” Strite said.
Strite said when he got out of the Air Force in the 1980s he had the support of older veterans to help him readjust to civilian life.
“I was lucky when I got out of the service several Vietnam-era vets took me under their wing and gave me guidance and got me where I am today,” Strite said. “I owe them more than I can ever repay, and I am going to repay them by doing it for the next guy.”
For information about The Guitarsmiths, call 254-248-0663.