Billy & Prison Guitar Part 2

To truly grasp the passion of the project known as Prison Guitar, fans must first learn about a longtime friend of Billy’s: lifelong learner, luthier and Scale Model Guitars founder Dave Johnson in Nashville, TN.  

“Luthiers are a special breed of people. They don’t build guitars for the money, and they definitely don’t build them for the accolades. Instead they design and construct unique and personal pieces of playable art for their clients because they love music, they love the process, and they are passionate about the way a guitar comes to life,” QC Exclusive, a magazine bringing North Carolina stories to life, wrote in 2016

A young, handsome grandpa Bill Lee in front of his number 33 racing car with his love.

Soon after Uncle Bill gifted the Prison Guitar to Billy June 2, 2018, ideas began swirling of how to restore the family heirloom. Little did Strings and Johnson know that Grandpa Bill Lee, who built the guitar while in Jackson Prison (Michigan State Prison) between 1960-1962, had a few surprises buried in these wooden rings.

“‘It’s really crazy and it’s really well done. I knew my grandpa worked with wood. I knew he did drywall and worked on houses, but I never took him as a luthier,’” Billy told Fretboard Journal in 2019.  

As restoration work began in 2018, the wood revealed new secrets, words from one luthier to another years apart.  Tones, songs and family secrets.

“After further inspection it seems like the guitar was made out of a table.  The body was made from the table-top and the neck from a leg.  The whole cavity was routed out using one tool. The fingerboard is Brazilian rosewood and it must have come off an old Gibson acoustic guitar. We’re having some pickups custom made to fit my grandpa’s handmade pick guard,” Billy updated in 2018.

About a week later significant progress had been made on the guitar and Billy provided fans and gear heads with another update.

“The fretboard was glued back on the #prisonguitar today [July 12, 2018] after having a maple spine and truss rod installed as well as two carbon fiber rods.  Dave is doing some impressive work here!” 

Echoing centuries of the trade, Dave Johnson, luthier at Scale Model Guitars, is carrying on a rich American tradition, in addition to the sentimental family one.

As a tribute to his grandfather, Billy decided to inlay his racing number in the tailpiece.

“Builders like Antonio Torres Jurado in the 19th century and Christian Frederick Martin (C.F. Martin) in the United States made significant contributions to the development of the modern acoustic guitar, shaping its sound, playability, and aesthetics,” Woodtone Strings blog wrote in 2024.

Similarly, Billy and Dave Johnson aimed to restore Prison Guitar, honoring the legacy of Billy’s grandfather, spotlighting the flashes of artisan and luthier brilliance in his original piece.

“[We’re] keeping it as close to how my grandfather envisioned while he was building this thing behind bars,” Billy posted in 2018.   

Just a few weeks later Billy and Dave returned with an update on the fretboard.

“The binding is glued back on the fretboard and everything is fit and sanded and glued perfectly. The missing inlay was also replaced with a piece of the same material used in the early ‘60s (somehow Dave found a hunk of that).”

As Billy kept urging fans to follow along on Scale Model Guitars’ socials, an exciting update came in August when Prison Guitar was handed off from luthier Dave Johnson to Steve Mather at Mather Guitars for custom pickups.

“One of the main goals in this restoration is to maintain the work that my grandfather did in prison. We don’t want to carve or cut into anything he did so Steve has been measuring holes grandpa cut to make sure each pickup bobbin will fit the pickguard.” 

While aspiring luthiers and gear heads alike may revel in the details of this historical restoration, Billy never lost site of the real power of this experience.

“This is a picture of my Grandma and Grandpa in front of the old car he used to race on a dirt track. That number ‘33’ has proven to be a very significant number in our lives. I was born on the same day as him 54 years later and that’s the reason I was named William.  We were both born October 3 (two 3s)…seems like every time I look at my watch it’s 33 minutes after the hour and every day I see these 33s everywhere and it reminds me of him so we decided to put a 33 on the tailpiece.”

Dave Johnson of Scale Model Guitars helped Billy document the restoration process of Prison Guitar in 2018.

In early September 2018 the restoration of Prison Guitar began winding down and finishing touches were being applied before Billy would take Prison Guitar for its first playing in decades.

“Since the neck is done, all the electronics mounting brackets are in place and the tailpiece is finished, it was time for a finish.  The main idea in this whole project was trying to maintain the guitar that my grandfather built without changing much, so we were definitely not going to paint it. 

“Instead Dave thought we should add a natural finish just to preserve the wood. He put a light coat of tung oil on it and matched the new wood on the tailpiece to the old scuffed-up color of the pickguard.  He also had to age the one replaced inlay to match the 1960s ones.”

What’s striking throughout the entire restoration process is Billy’s laserlike focus to elevate his grandfather’s luthier skills on full display in Prison Guitar which he built with his own hands in prison.  Grandfather to grandson.  Luthier to luthier.  

While it’s rare and extremely special to witness Billy rip his family Prison Guitar on stage in 2024, it still happens.  Because for Billy, carrying on traditions and echoing the voices of the past is a staple of every show and experience.  So whether it’s navigating the frets of Prison Guitar or hearing a 300-year-old Traditional, Billy continues to listen to the past and speak new truths to the future.

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