April 18, 2010 in City

Musical craft emerged from pain

Chris Butler Idaho Statesman
Chris Butler Idaho Statesman photo

Carl Hamilton works on a guitar in his home shop in Boise last month. Hamilton builds a variety of electric, acoustic and bass guitars in his home. Idaho Statesman
(Full-size photo)

BOISE – Carl Hamilton’s life changed 13 years ago on a stretch of black ice on U.S. Highway 95.

The truck he was riding in slid off the road and landed in a tree. Hamilton, 23 at the time, knew immediately something was wrong.

“It was terrible pain,” he remembers. “I couldn’t feel my legs.”

Hamilton broke his back in nine places and suffered a collapsed lung. He was in the hospital for 42 days – giving him plenty of time to think about his future.

Hamilton was working in construction before the accident. After it, he needed to adjust to life in a wheelchair. He later moved to Portland to attend art school, “Just to prove to myself I could live on my own.”

After graduating, Hamilton wanted to buy an electric guitar as a graduation present to himself, but the price didn’t match his budget. So he built his own, from a block of wood.

He later took that same guitar to local guitar maker John Bolin and asked him a question about intonation. Instead of an answer, Hamilton got a question from the well-known guitar maker: “Do you want a job?”

“He saw some talent or something that he liked,” said Hamilton, who worked part time as an apprentice for John Bolin Guitars from 2005 until June 2008.

In the time he spent working with Bolin to create guitars for a number of musicians, Hamilton learned enough to open his own business in 2008.

His accident may have left him in a wheelchair, but it also opened up a new life for him.

“My love of guitar building comes from the ability to create something that is visually appealing,” Hamilton said.

“I don’t think I’d be building guitars if I hadn’t broken my back.”

Today, Hamilton builds a variety of instruments, from electric to acoustic and bass guitars, in his small home shop. His prices start around $1,500 and go “as high as your imagination goes.”

He uses woods with exotic names such as black limba, quilted maple and Madagascar ebony. Hamilton Guitars have been played by local musicians such as Marcus Eaton and Built to Spill’s Brett Netson.

“If you come up with something crazy, I’ll do it,” Hamilton said.

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