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But students of David, including Adyaka, have stepped up and assumed more responsibility in order for the guitar making to continue. David’s widow, Olive, is still very involved with the charity, overseeing the business side, accounting, and other administrative duties.
Asked how one teaches luthiery nuances such as strutting and fret positioning to someone who’s never seen a standard firstworld guitar before, Duncan admits it’s difficult to show the craftspeople of Mpigi the sorts of bar-setting reference points that we take for granted. “The learning curve is really steep. There are no Taylors for sale in Uganda,” says Duncan of the U.S. flattop brand famous for its immaculate fretting and finish work. And, naturally, there are no CNC machines to provide the kind of automated accuracy and repeatability found at so many other shops, both large and small. Instead, students use hand tools to carve out the necks, braces, fretboards, and other delicate pieces that make up each instrument. Until the spring of this year, when Duncan sent over a table saw, the two fanciest pieces of equipment in the shop were an edge sander and a bandsaw.
“Rumor has it, the guys threw a little party and invited the landlord over to celebrate last year when we sent the edge sander,” says Duncan. “It’s funny what gets woodworkers excited, eh?”
Locally sourced near the DuncanAfrica school, this beautifully grained mugavu wood sounds like a cross between mahogany and koa. It has a golden, luminous appearance and yields complex midrange tones.
Duncan was in love with guitars long before he fell in love with Africa. The 43-year-old started playing at age 8 and taught himself lutherie when he was in his 20s. He got his official start working for Canadian guitar maker Larrivée in the late ’90s and into the early 2000s, during which time he started his own Jay Duncan guitars, specializing in OMs and dreadnaughts. For DuncanAfrica, though, he’s expanded his product line to also include a jumbo, and he has plans to add a parlor model later this year. “I think for most guitar players, there’s just something sexy about a big ol’ jumbo,” says Duncan, adding that he anticipates the parlor will be “super popular” as well.
Apart from the four different guitars available—the Selah (OM), the Jubilee (dreadnaught), the 1962 (jumbo), and the Pearl (parlor)—players have a choice of three different series at varying price points. The newest and most wallet-friendly line is the Jericho, which features dreadnaught and OM models in local woods like mahogany or mugavu. (Sourced near the school, African mugavu has been described as a cross between mahogany and koa.) Starting at $779, guitars in the Jericho line come with a passive pickup and gigbag, as opposed to the deluxe hard case, which comes standard with the two other lines.
The middle-of-the-road Suubi series starts around $1,400 and offers chrome Gotoh 16:1 tuners, a one-piece mahogany neck, and a bridge, bridge pins, and fretboard of ebony. “That’s your standard, great guitar,” Duncan says.
The third and priciest series, the Artisan, is special in more ways than one. Beginning at $2,400, these instruments aren’t built on the assembly line but entirely crafted by master student Adyaka. Artisan guitars incorporate gold Gotoh 510 Series tuners and feature attractive mother-of-pearl inlays. Wood choices for the Suubi and Artisan lines vary from model to model and are slightly customizable, but expect the highest quality Indian rosewood and local woods like ebony, spruce, mahogany, mugavu, and maple.
DuncanAfrica headstocks, like the one on this Suubi series model, are more evocative of an archtop than a traditional acoustic.