Stadium shop teacher doubles as esteemed guitar maker

Staff WriterNovember 4, 2013 

Roy McAlister became a wood shop teacher at Stadium High School this year after spending more than 20 years building customized guitars for artists such as Jackson Browne, David Crosby and Graham Nash.

LARRY LARUE/STAFF WRITER

Not many wood shop teachers have a pair of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers on speed dial, but Roy McAlister of Stadium High School does.

McAlister, 53, is known internationally for hand-crafted guitars — base price, $6,500 — and his work is back-ordered five years.

Italians put one of his instruments in a museum. Jackson Browne, David Crosby and Graham Nash all use his guitars.

And this guy is teaching shop? Yes, and happily.

“I know not every kid is going to respond to lectures or all classwork. That’s not for everyone,” McAlister said. “Some kids need to create with their hands – and we need people who can do that, too. The world needs people who build.”

McAlister has been building and creating with fine woods and good hands for decades, after first creating musical monstrosities.

“I wanted to make guitars, so I’d tear apart guitars I found and remake them when I was 16,” McAlister said.

“The first one I finished was a wreck. It didn’t play right and it looked like it had been cobbled together. I knew early on it wasn’t going to end well.”

But he learned.

McAlister moved to Gig Harbor from Northern California with his wife and two children in 2005. Years earlier as a young man, he chose to apprentice himself in wood working until he mastered the craft. It took years.

“I worked in New England with people who hand-crafted furniture with chisels, without any electrical tools at all,” McAlister said. “I worked in California with antique restorers, learning about wood and the integrity of the work.”

At one point, his business was booming – he made furniture, one-of-a-kind mantles, spiral staircases – but his heart wasn’t in it.

“The minute I’d finish the work, that was the pinnacle for me. I might never see the piece again, and the moment I left, it would start getting dinged,” he said. “It wasn’t fulfilling.”

But making guitars? He loves it.

That’s part of what he hopes to bring to his Stadium High students – the passion for working with your hands while following your heart.

A year ago, he was making his guitars in the shop behind his house when a neighbor who worked at Stadium told him the shop teacher had left. McAlister was asked to “consult” with students one day a week.

“My wife Lucy teaches at Larchmont Elementary, and I’ve taught seminars in Italy and the United States, taught adults, but never kids,” he said.

This year, the school offered him a job just short of full time. He took it, but not for the money.

“I’m naive. I want to teach what I’ve learned over the last 35 years,” McAlister said. “I want to help them build furniture, build guitars, find their own skills. It’s a challenge. And I love a good challenge.”

His career has been full of them. Just as he’d become well-known for his creative furniture, McAlister lost everything in the 1989 California earthquake.

“In 15 seconds, I lost my house, my shop, my tools and all the wood and projects I’d been working on,” McAlister said.

He started over.

In 1991, he walked into the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, saw what they were doing and asked for a job. He got one, staining guitar necks. Four years later, his guitars caught the attention of Crosby.

“I got quite a few guitars from (Santa Cruz) and they were all great, but every once in awhile I’d get one that was exceptional,” Crosby told an interviewer in 2008. “And Roy was always the guy who’d built them.”

McAlister struck out on his own. A quick Google search turns up dozens of music shops around the country that have one or two McAlisters for sale — most in the $8,500 range, each made completely by hand.

He has made guitars for, and become friends with, musicians such as Browne and Crosby. One of his favorite photos is of Browne, on McAlister’s couch, playing guitar while McAlister’s 2-year-old daughter Natalie covers her ears.

Today, McAlister guitars have a new designation in his life: homework.

“I work on them in my shop in the evenings,” he said. “I still love that work, and I can build a guitar in about six weeks.”

Natalie is now 16 and playing guitar. Is she, like so many performers around the world, playing a McAlister?

“No,” he admitted. “But she will be this Christmas.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638
larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

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