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Making music in the Hobby Shop

The Shop boasts a long tradition of musical creation and innovation

This year, the MIT Hobby Shop is celebrating its 75th anniversary. To celebrate this history of innovation and creativity, the series “The MIT Hobby Shop: 75 years of minds and hands working together” will commemorate some of the most unique and inspiring projects that have come out of the Shop.

Since its founding in 1938, the MIT Hobby Shop has offered students, staff, faculty and alumni the chance to work on academic and personal projects that foster creativity and innovation. Student projects in the Hobby Shop run the gamut, but one very popular creation is musical instruments. Though a woodworking shop may conjure sounds of sanding and sawing furniture, amateur and accomplished musicians alike have used the Hobby Shop to chase their musical passions.

“Musical instruments have been popular throughout the time I’ve been at the Hobby Shop,” says Ken Stone ’72, director of the Hobby Shop. Stone recalls that students have made wooden flutes, violins, kalimbas (a thumb piano native to Africa), xylophones, drums and even the bell of a French horn.

Some instruments have fallen in and out of fashion over the years. When Stone first came to MIT in the 1960s, harpsichord-making was popular, and kits were built by many students including Ray Magliozzi ’72, co-host of National Public Radio’s “Car Talk.” However, the popularity of building harpsichords declined and was supplanted by acoustic guitars in the 1970s.

The Hobby Shop also fosters musical innovation, and has launched the careers of some eminent makers of musical instruments. Rodney Regier ’72, one of the most famous historic keyboard instrument makers in the United States, made his first harpsichord from scratch in the Hobby Shop in the early 1970s. Since then, he has made a career building fortepianos and harpsichords that can be found in prestigious music schools and concert halls around the world. John Allen ’75, a Hobby Shop member, patented a keyboard instrument he called “Note Bender,” which had keys that also slid in and out to bend, raise and lower a note’s pitch.

Brian Chan ‘02, now also a Hobby Shop staff member, built his own erhu (a Chinese two-string fiddle) so that he could play in the MIT Chinese Ensemble. After that, he built a shamisen (a Japanese banjo) and a violin. His work on those instruments led him to begin designing collapsible versions for ease of travel. He has since created a folding erhu, ukulele and is currently working on a folding shamisen.

“Instruments are very finely tuned, not just in the conventional sense,” Chan says. “If you shave off a thin layer from the front of a violin, it will sound completely different. This is unlike a chair, or even from an engineered structure like an engine, which can vary in geometry quite a bit before it starts to function differently. There's a lot of study that goes into what makes an instrument sound good … but still a lot of it is about intuition and experience from trial and error.”

One of the most popular projects for current Hobby Shop students is building electric guitars. For the past five years, the Hobby Shop has offered an electric guitar-building class during the Independent Activities Period, and 30 students have attended.

“The class began when I decided that I wanted to have a bass for myself,” says John Armstrong, who teaches the class. “The problem was that what I wanted wasn’t available for sale. Then I realized that with the tools available in the Hobby Shop, that I could easily make it. It was so straightforward and so much fun to do, so I suggested that this could be a class, taking to heart the IAP idea that everyone has something to teach.”

According to Armstrong, there are no prerequisites to joining the class, and students have come from all skill levels.

“I had never had any shop experience,” says Eurah Ko, a freshman who participated in the electric guitar-building class over IAP 2013. “I felt that making my own guitar in the Hobby Shop would let me take my first steps into wood working, and it was a success.”

Ko says he had to leave his electric guitar behind in Korea when he came to study at MIT, so he jumped at the chance to build a new one when he first learned about the class during orientation. “What makes musical instruments unique among the projects that you would otherwise see in the shop is how personal the result is — and this is something that I have seen from virtually every student; the realization that they are creating and giving voice to something that is entirely their own,” Armstrong says. “If you think about it, of all the things you could possibly make, there is none that you end up touching more than an instrument.”

The creation of musical instruments is an opportunity for students to marry creativity, engineering and musicality in a single project. They are one of many projects that the Hobby Shop facilitates, and they have given students the opportunity to work beyond the confines of instruments available on the market today and create their own unique pieces. Musical instruments are one of many areas where projects that began in the Hobby Shop have inspired lifelong passions, careers and innovations.

“There are many things about making a musical instrument that I think make it both an appealing and challenging project,” Stone says. “In the end if you’re successful you have something that you will enjoy playing for as long as you have it and feel rightfully proud that you made it yourself. To be successful the instrument must sound good, play well and also look good.”

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