Building a musical legacy
GD Armstrong is a humble man who has been crafting and repairing musical instruments since he was 10 years old. That was 61 years ago and since then he has come to be known for the high quality of his work.
Although Armstrong is owner of Newberg Music Center, he crafts and repairs instruments from a humble shop in the coastal foothills west of Yamhill. Over the years he has honed his skills and gathered a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the woods used in making fine instruments.
His instruments have been used in various recordings and are sold worldwide. He crafts guitars, mandolins, mandolas, fiddles, cellos and dulcimers, among other creations.
"Anything with strings," Armstrong said.
Armstrong grew up in a small Midwestern town called Plymouth, Ohio, and got an early indoctrination into music.
"The county consolidated a high school that was across the field about four miles from the house," he said. "I would go over and hang out there in the summertime because there were not many kids in the area. The janitor played banjo in the square dance band …"
Armstrong said the janitor encouraged him to raise a couple of dollars for strings and find a wooden cigar box and "I'll show you how to make a banjo. So he did and I traded it to a cousin of mine for a BB gun. Then I built another one and it gave me the illusion that one could make a living at this. … There were not a lot of toys around, so that is how I got started."
As time moved forward Armstrong started repairing instruments, primarily because he is the curious type and likes to know how things work.
"When I was kid, I used to lay underneath the piano … I was always curious about how it worked. What would happen if I put thumb-tacks on the hammers? Or what would happen when I would put chains across the strings? Of course, I would have to clean it up before my mother taught her students," Armstrong said.
Different wood, different sound
Armstrong explained that every piece of wood is different and the craftsman must determine what woods to use where: the necks of a guitar, for example, demand a hard wood, but the body can have soft woods, enough to bend and make pliable while creating the instrument.
His favorite choices are Oregon myrtlewood and Tasmanian Blackwood. He also likes working with spruce and cedar.
"I've been thinking about doing an all Oregon guitar with Oregon myrtlewood on the back and the sides (and) cedar for the top, but I'm stuck with the finger board because it should be really hard and dark," Armstrong explained.
Tracking down an Armstrong
Throughout his career Armstrong has changed his instrument label a few times before settling on using his own name. He has instruments floating around with the labels "Blue Notes" or "Green Hen Humming" and unless a person knows the history of that instrument, it would be difficult to know that GD Armstrong is the person that built it.
"I stopped doing that. A bunch of them are out there with no names on them," Armstrong said.
Normally instrument builders include some sort of identifier, such as a paper label glued inside the box of the instrument stating who built it and what year. However, Armstrong has yet to include that paper. Instead he has a designed logo that he inlays mother of pearl at the top of the neck as his identifier.
"My feeling is that it should stand alone on its own merits. That who made it is not what is important," he said. "The fun part is the magic of it all; it is one of those things that helps make life interesting."