[ARTIST PROFILE] Found Object Instrument Making With Zeke Leonard


He's a madman, in the best sense of the word.

He deconstructs pianos and reanimates the remains into new musical instruments.

He erects monuments of music out of salvaged timbers, sinks, and fire extinguishers.

He opens your eyes to the potential for art in the discarded objects around you.

"As a former theater set designer I used to build beautiful things, and they'd be thrown in the trash when their use has passed. Now I take things out of the trash and make beautiful things." - Zeke Leonard

For seven years, Zeke Leonard has been sharing his stories of experimentation and instrument-building on his blog, Salt City Found Object Instrument Works.

Each of Zeke's stories builds upon the last towards a height yet unseen, but certain to dizzy the rest of us in its genius.

For Zeke, a university assistant-professor and traveling impresario for handmade found-object musical instruments, the story started with a simple stick and a box,




but turned into something much, much different.





This is a profile of Zeke Leonard and his found-object musical journey. I can assure you, his journey is like none you've seen before.



I stumble across Zeke's blog, Salt City Found Object Instrument Works, while doing research for work.

The first post I read has pictures of several people holding or building canjos, and nearly every one of them is smiling ear to ear - a natural and involuntary reaction to building and playing a canjo.


Turns out, Zeke runs workshops helping people find the joy in crafting their own handmade musical instruments.

To top it off, towards the end this post Zeke writes "Democratize making!" which speaks to my love for the accessibility of building cigar box guitars.

Now the guy's got me hooked, so I dig into his blog a bit.

All right... I dig in a lot.

Going back to the beginning of his blog - to the very first post - I see that Zeke starts by building a beautiful cigar box guitar (video of it above) with the simplest of means.

From there, I read everything he writes, from the beginning - starting in May 2011 - to present-day.

Shortly after he builds his first cigar box guitar, Zeke dives into canjos with this perspective...
"This canjo is ... an attempt to make the cheapest and most accessible instrument possible, with a parts cost of about five bucks. The most expensive thing is the string.  Also accessible to play, as it is one string only and it is pretty easy to pick out a melody on it."



In no time, Zeke is building ukuleles, cigar box guitars, canjos... you name it.

It's clear that he's got a touch of the madness: crafting handmade musical instruments out of everyday, found objects.

"I always try to use things that other people have deemed unwanted or unusable. A lot of my material comes from flea markets. Some of my material literally comes out of the trash."

About a year into his journey Zeke is given the opportunity to take up a residency at a local arts community center.

Zeke jumps into the ring with no holds barred, and pulls no punches.

He activates an entire stairwell to be a corridor of music.





Right around the time he's invited to his residency, Zeke tries his hand at fretting his instruments - a common progression for many builders.

You can't see it in the video below, but Zeke's also been making good use out of forks as tailpieces, something I've yet to try.

And I just love the kazoo!





He branches into areas of creativity that I can't even imagine, and then Zeke builds his own cigar box guitar, found-object instrument case.

How cool is this?


Case closed (and hand-painted)


Case open


And yes, the wood is all reclaimed or re-purposed.

After his residency, Zeke takes his found-object musical journey somewhere unexpected; he begins re-purposing discarded pianos to build boxes for his guitars.

He continues to build ukuleles, pie tin resonators, CBGs and the like.

Being utterly fearless, he also builds The ReHumanizer.





By build #50 Zeke really turns the corner in his crafting.

While all his instruments are fantastic, this fiftieth build - a baritone ukulele - has a tone that is sure to bring a smile to even the stodgiest face.





And his love for re-purposing materials to make music is contagious.

“You know, I never seem to be able to throw out a piece of wood.  Anything can become something, and I just squirrel them away.  Now that I am making instruments, even very small scraps become bridges and nuts."

About two years in Zeke's guitars get insane with more reclaimed piano guitars.

Seriously. Insane.

You've got to see this...





As if the reclaimed pianos and activated stairwells aren't enough, Zeke uses nothing but re-purposed materials to erect this monument to musical discovery.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the Rust-o-phone.


Zeke's hand-drawn Rust-o-Phone plans (click to enlarge)






As you can see, Zeke's touch of madness runs deep, and strong, and is a beautiful thing to behold.

Even when he's not making pieces of functioning art that stand taller than a woman or man, Zeke continues to craft his musical instruments.

Here, 5 years in and on build #84, Zeke starts steam-bending.

And yes, it's reclaimed wood from discarded pianos.





As you can imagine, I'm stunned.

What Zeke's doing is something most of us CBG builders secretly toy with in our private moments: What would it be like to build a conventional guitar?

But here's the clincher - he doesn't cast aside the values that started him on his found-object musical instrument journey.

Zeke continues to hold workshops empowering people to discover music in the world around them.





He even has a PDF here for you to build your own canjo.

And if that's not enough, here's a bit more of Zeke's perspective on making musical instruments that is sure to resonate with you...

"If you surround yourself with objects that you are able to mold, that you are able to influence positively, you’re taking responsibility for your quality of life. One of the ways I’m doing that is by helping people make their own instruments so they can make their own music, shaping the world around them and creating positive change."

We could all use a bit of his resourcefulness and fearlessness to make and share, whilst flying in the face of convention.

Thank you, Zeke Leonard, for being an inspiration to the maker community, and this cigar box guitar builder.

Take a moment to tell me in the comments below what about Zeke's journey sticks in your mind the most.

And until the next time, happy building and playing, my friend.

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