Sargent Guitars: Six Strings of Reinvention

John Sargent with one of his guitars

John Sargent

After finishing his day working as an air conditioning and refrigeration mechanic, John Sargent goes home and plays guitar. Though it sounds like a common story, there is one detail that makes Sargent's unique: He builds the guitars he plays.

In his spare time, John doubles as a luthier, crafting construction-grade pine into functional, playable instruments. "I took it as a challenge to see whether I could make a good guitar using construction-grade pine instead of instrument-grade spruce," he says. Sargent fascination with building guitars grew out of his day job-weighing and documenting recovered refrigerants then properly disposing of the material to minimize the environmental impact.

John began his career in the Plant Operations Air Conditioning Department in 1987. That same year the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was ratified by the U.S. and many other developed countries worldwide. The Protocol is an international treaty designed to protect the environment by discontinuing production of numerous substances believed to be responsible for ozone depletion. That agreement had a momentous impact on John's career.

After the Protocol, the EPA began a more scrupulous examination of refrigerants and their disposal, something John observes to this day. "That we keep the university in compliance with EPA regulations is very important to me," he says.

John's life, both at work and at home, is strung together by his drive to reuse and re-imagine. His woodworking studio was once his garage. One of the guitars he's built-of which there are now 34-used to be a shipping pallet. When asked about that guitar, he says, "That one was a challenge. I got an old pallet from Fingerie's Lumberthe knot kept falling out. But it worked out in the end. As a finishing touch I took an S-bent nail from the pallet and embedded it in the headstock."

S for Sargent.

Archtop guitars, the style John builds, are a unique form of the instrument. Built with a slightly domed or arched back, the hollow creates a more resonant, woodier tone than flattop guitars. The instrument may be constructed from a variety of woods, though John primarily uses pine, ebony and rosewood.

The first two guitars he built went to his daughters, one of whom is now taking lessons at Eastern Michigan University. Many of the others, he says, were given away as wedding presents. Few are ever sold. It's the construction of the instruments that Sargent enjoys, not the sales.

However, there are times when the woodworking goes too well. "When I'm in my garage, I have to remind myself, 'Go to dinner, go interact with the family.' I have to make sure first things are first."

Except for the occasion headstock nail, John prefers to keep his guitars simple. "My guitars don't have the bells and whistles," he says. "I look at this instrument like a tuxedo: just keep it black and white."

-Cameron Stewart