The United Service Organizations (USO) began its star treatment for U.S. troops during World War II, when Bob Hope took the stage at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California, on May 6, 1941. Since then, celebrities—from musicians like the Zac Brown Band and Toby Keith to comedians and actors such as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart—have entertained and participated in thousands of USO shows across the globe. The aim is to lift troop morale through laughter and song, regardless of the political affiliation of the star. But for Lillian Axe lead guitarist Steve Blaze, it went further than that.
“I’ve always had a great appreciation for our military at all levels—from the guys at the desks to the guys in the field—for what they’ve done for this country,” says Blaze. “When my friend Major Henry C. Cecil asked me if I thought it’d be a good idea to get luthier John Guilford to build a guitar to benefit the U.S. Air Force … [laughs] before he could even finish his sentence, I said, ‘Yes!’”
On April 27, 2011, nine members of the NATO Air Training Command – Afghanistan (NATC–A) were killed in action while serving as advisors and mentors to members of Afghanistan’s military. Their mission was to train Afghan Air Force (AAF) personnel to become an independent and operationally capable unit that would provide security for Afghanistan once U.S. forces left.
In 2010, Maj. Cecil served in Afghanistan with the men and women who were killed. He knew three of them very closely and roomed with Capt. Nathan Nylander during the last few weeks that he was in Kabul. Losing his comrades had a huge impact on Cecil, and it inspired him to raise money for their families through the Air Advisor Memorial (airadvisormemorial.org).
Luthier John Guilford, alum of the Guitar Institute of Technology, was eager for the chance to participate. “Henry contacted me with his concept for a guitar, and his story flat-out touched my heart,” he says. “I was honored that he and Steve thought enough of my abilities as a builder. I wanted to help in any way possible to help them honor the fallen service men and women.”
The USAF Redeemer guitar that Guilford built in their honor features a bound, poplar body covered with United States Air Force camouflage, and it’s finished in gloss nitrocellulose. The 25 1/2"- scale instrument has a 22-fret, quartersawn rock-maple neck and an ebony fretboard that has the words “U.S. Air Force” inlaid in mother-of-pearl. It also features the Buzz Feiten tuning system, an original Floyd Rose tremolo, Gotoh Mini 510 tuners, and Seymour Duncan Blackouts—a Metal model in the bridge and a Standard model in the neck position.
The guitar’s back is engraved with the nine soldiers’ names—Lt. Col. Frank D. Bryant Jr., Maj. Philip D. Ambard, Maj. Jeffrey O. Ausborn, Maj. David L. Brodeur, Maj. Raymond G. Estelle, Maj. Charles A. Ransom, Capt. Nathan J. Nylander, retired Lt. Col. James McLaughlin and Master Sgt. Tara R. Brown—on a 5-ply plaque made of pickguard material.
Since acquiring the guitar from Guilford after it was unveiled at the Dallas International Guitar Show, Blaze has played it during every performance of “Take the Bullet”—a song he wrote and dedicated to the military in 2010. The guitar will be raffled off on Veterans Day (November 11, 2012), with all funds going to the fallen service members’ families.
“I don’t have much, but what I do have is owed to the servicemen and women who have provided me that opportunity,” reflects Guilford. “I feel blessed to have a chance to give back a small token of my appreciation through my craft. Hopefully, it’ll help raise some money for the families and children who lost their mother or father, and the guitar should create music to celebrate the freedom we enjoy every day.”
A special thanks to Maj. Henry C. Cecil, John Guilford, and Steve Blaze for the opportunity to feature this fine piece of gear and its story.