Guitar building

Bob Melvin, 19, of Kankakee, screws in a strap button on the guitar he built in the KCC STEM Guitar Course, which included learning "the science of swirl painting" that produced the guitar's hue to match the color of his shirt.

Ain't nobody singin' the blues in the STEM Guitar Course introduced this semester at Kankakee Community College by nationally honored electrical technology program coordinator Tim Wilhelm.

Not even because STEM is an acronym for Science,Technology, Engineering and Math.

Fewer than half of the 13 students play guitar, but for 15 weeks they've all been playing the intro for the new course — which cost two credit hours, and a $25 lab fee, about $520 in total. There they have designed, built and fine-tuned solid body electric guitars while learning and applying STEM concepts.

Each guitar body started "as a basic block of wood" to be transformed by the design and artistic concepts, planning and physical construction efforts of each student.

The process involved learning the safe use of hand and power tools — band saws, drills, drawknives and rasps — to create their desired shapes and contours. Several attested that learning to solder the complex electronic connections of their guitars was their biggest challenge.

The instruments they are finalizing "look a lot different from one to another," Wilhelm said. "There is a fair amount of creativity involved."

And everyone has committed more than a fair amount of time. The class was scheduled for 2 1/2 hours for each of the 16 evenings, but usually lasted another two hours — the result of student enthusiasm and Wilhelm's dedication, putting in the extra time.

He emphasizes that the technical and hands-on class not only reinforces the STEM concepts but also stimulates creativity, critical thinking, planning skills and problem solving.

"They often make mistakes, then they figure out what their mistake was and how to fix it and end up with a functioning guitar," he said.

He's also right there, moving from student to student to consult and assist.

"It is very different from anything I've ever done before," he said. "It's exhausting, but it's a lot of fun and it leaves them very proud of what they have done."

It also builds confidence. He said he's heard more than one say the equivalent of: "Gosh, I never thought I could do this, and now that I've done it, I feel I could do anything."

Bob Melvin, 19, of Kankakee, plays guitar in two local bands: Catching On and Professional Development. He wants to become a music therapist because he's seen how it helps his 7-year-old brother, who has a heart condition. "You play guitar for sick kids. Who wouldn't want to do that?"

He's proud that he learned to use a band saw to cut his guitar's headpiece in the shape of a human head, of rounding the back of his new guitar's body to fit his own and of "learning the science of swirl painting." In that process, the swirls of paint float on top of a drum of water that the guitar is dipped into, transferring the swirls to the wooden surface. "You have to get the alkalinity to the water just right so the paint floats and the primer (on the wood) just right so the paint will stick to it and the temperature of the water is a key," he said.

His second dip produced the "just right" effect.

"I've played guitar eight years and haven't had any that please me like this one," he said.

Kris Salmons, of Grant Park, said the class fits in her electric technology studies. "And I'm Tim's biggest fan. This is my fifth course with him."

She's also motivated because her father, "Skip" Salmons, is a longtime blues guitarist and songwriter.

But she doesn't play. "Dad tried to teach me multiple times — at my request — but I don't have the patience for it," she said.

Her guitar will be a Father's Day gift.

Student Jonathan Coke is general manager of WKCC, the region's public radio station.

He shows off the rich paint on his flame-style guitar body, a blend of red and gold automotive tints to accent the rosewood fret board. On the back of the body, the electronics compartment cover is a stylized bean shape made from an old record.

"I just like to pick around," he said of his guitar playing.

"I do keep a Chicago street performer's license in case I want to go do some busking," he said, using an insider's term for street performance. Thirty years ago, he was busking as a juggler.

"Mason over there is a fantastic guitarist," he said, pointing to Mason Lillig, a graphic design student from Watseka who has played hard rock for 14 years. He's named his instrument the "E-4 Custom" for his former rank as a corporal in the Marines.

Guitar builder Jessica Gremanger is another KCC staffer — a chemistry doctorate who's taught here since 2009. She had several reasons for becoming a student again. "I never have been a community college student" and "because Tim was the teacher and I just wanted to have some fun."

She also doesn't play, but said: "That is my summer project."

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