The Guitar Man

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins March 15, 2009 16:11

Mired in a long recovery from cancer surgery, Doyle Covey picked up a guitar. He knew a couple of chords, bought a book, learned some more, and plucked away at the $150 instrument while his body mended.

He had plenty of time to think, in part about the fact that the neck was too small for his big hands. “I thought to myself, Why can’t I build one? It’s nothin’ but glue and wood. Then I started to read everything I could get my hands on.”

That was in 1994. Since then, he has built 35 “Coveys,” acoustic guitars with the rich resonance of a perfectionist’s passion. Except for a few made as gifts for family and friends, most have sold, all by word of mouth, for $700 to $800 each, says Covey, who has also built five mandolins.

Not bad for a guy with an eighth-grade education who lost most of his hearing as an Army demolitions expert, then built subdivisions and commercial buildings before falling in love with music and guitars.

“Most people say, Man alive, how do you get that sound,’’ relates Covey, 76, who has lived in the Columbia area with his wife, Jean, for the past six years. “And everyone that plays one says I’m getting as good a sound as Gibson and Martin.”

For Covey, the reward lies not in the money but in the process – capped by a single melodic moment two months after he first begins to envision a new instrument.

Work begins in his garage, where he selects the wood for the new guitar’s back, cut on a plywood template. He leaves a one-eighth-inch edge that will disappear in final sanding, and then prepares the sides of the instrument.

In a “bending box” of his own design, he soaks and heats thin wood strips into beautifully curved side panels.

He joins guitar fronts and backs with hand-chiseled wood struts and a hand-hewn scalloped bracing that coaxes sound to linger inside the guitar – which, Covey notes, “is basically just an echo chamber.”

Then comes that moment: Covey strings the new instrument, tunes it, flips the switch on his special hearing aids to the “music” setting, and finds that reward – a new sound, never before heard, always different, the product of his lifelong love of wood and a passion to create.

“I always try to create something different, better, change it to see if I can create a more beautiful sound,” the craftsman says.

Major Kelly, 79, who plays volunteer gigs with friends for local senior groups, has been playing music since the age of 9. “He’s one fantastic guitar player,” says Covey, who built Kelly a guitar a few years back – spruce soundboard, maple back and sides, black trim – in exchange for lessons in advanced rhythm techniques.

“It has more depth, a deep resonance,” Kelly says, demonstrating by strumming a few notes on his well-used Covey before a weekly gig at the downtown Sonora senior lounge. “When you chord it, you can hear those bass notes really emphasized.”

The sound is a product of the instrument’s design and the properties of the woods used, Covey says. In his workshop rest long planks destined for future guitars: red and white maple, spruce, poplar, South American ironwood, mahogany, California walnut and more. If experience alone counted, this veteran builder would have a Ph.D. in wood, knowledge gained in a long career as a building contractor.

Like a deep mellow sound? Sitka spruce is the secret. A sharp ringing tone? Mahogany.

This self-trained musician can hear those special qualities, just like he can play the guitar and mandolin – not to mention sing and yodel on pitch – without reading music.

“Oh no, don’t know nothin’ about sheet music,” he laughs. “I can just hear something and pick it up.”

The Texas-born Covey started work young, dropping out of school after the eighth-grade to work full-time on his father’s Oklahoma cattle ranch. He served in the U.S. Army from 1952-’54, using explosives to clear bridge abutments in southwest Germany, and lost much of his hearing in the process.

After leaving the Army, he worked in California as a carpenter while taking junior college classes in all things construction: reading blueprints, plumbing, electrical work and more. Earning a contractor’s license in the early 1960s, he started a long career in commercial and residential construction in the Central Valley, where he and Jean raised their daughter, Gayla, and son, Ron.

Covey designed and built their Columbia area house, the 10th he has built for his family over the years. The neatly kept hillside home includes a workshop for the self-taught luthier’s wood and tools.

It was in that workshop in early 2007 that Covey reached for a chisel with a right hand that refused to work, but started shaking instead. His wife called 911, his daughter ran in with an aspirin, and medics administered a blood-thinner within minutes. As a result, the stroke that might have claimed his life was limited in scope, to a slight limp.

And so, health crises tuned out, Covey adjusts his special hearing aids – they have a music setting to eliminate feedback, which helps him accurately gauge sound – and looks to the future. Spruce and cedar boards, lined up next to ribbon-striped mahogany panels, await his selection. It may be another acoustic guitar, or it might be a second electric. He recently finished his first, a hollow-bodied double cutaway with outside pickups patterned after a Georgia-built Gretsch-brand guitar.

Whether someone buys a Covey guitar isn’t exactly the point. It’s the joy of that journey toward the first note.

“I have enough confidence now that I know I can turn out a good sound,” Covey says, “but you never know exactly until it’s done.”

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins March 15, 2009 16:11
Write a comment

No Comments

No Comments Yet

Let me tell you a sad story. There are no comments yet, but yours can be the first!

Write a comment
View comments

Write a comment

Your e-mail address will not be published.
Required fields are marked*