The Fascinating World of Ed Stilley’s Guitars

In the pantheon of great guitar makers, Ed Stilley’s work stands alone like a castaway on its own musical island. Imperfect, bizarre and some even un-tunable to the modern equal temperament scale, his crudely made stringed instruments would make the most adventurous guitar collector shudder.

And yet, his instruments (and even more his story) are just as fascinating as Leo Fender or C. F. Martin.

A gorgeous new hardcover book by The University of Arkansas Press has just been published, documenting the life and work of this outsider luthier. The book,True Faith, True Light: The Devotional Art of Ed Stilley captures his story and features stunning full color pictures of his work. It is authored by musician and folklorist, Kelly Mulhollan of the duo, Still on the Hill.

From the book’s intro: In 1979, Ed Stilley was leading a simple life as a farmer and singer of religious hymns in Hogscald Hollow … Arkansas. Life was filled with hard work and making do for Ed, his wife Eliza, and their five children, who lived in many ways as if the second half of the twentieth century had never happened.

[In 1979] while plowing his field, he became convinced he was having a heart attack… [A]s he lay there in the freshly plowed dirt, Ed received a vision from God, telling him that he would be restored to health if he would agree to do one thing: make musical instruments and give them to children.

… Beginning with a few simple hand tools, Ed worked tirelessly for twenty-five years to create over two hundred instruments, each a crazy quilt of heavy, rough-sawn wood scraps joined with found objects. A rusty door hinge, a steak bone, a stack of dimes, springs, saw blades, pot lids, metal pipes, glass bottles, aerosol cans—Ed used anything he could to build a working guitar, fiddle, or dulcimer. On each instrument Ed inscribed “True Faith, True Light, Have Faith in God.”

Author and musician, Kelly Mulhollan paints a picture of a man driven by faith to make guitars for every child in his area, even though he has no training in instrument design and construction. His instruments are built from lumberyard scraps and other unthinkable wood choices. The shapes are equally unusual because Stilley would boil the thin oak sides overnight and then bend them into whatever shape they dictated in the morning.

The most fascinating part of Stilley’s instruments is what’s hidden inside the soundholes: Saw blades, springs, aluminum tubes and other metal objects. Stilley added these parts to create natural reverb inside the instruments, or as he was quoted, “to better speak the voice of the Lord.” The book uses X-Rays and diagrams to chronical Stilley’s wild sound designs. Kelly Mulhollan discovered in his research that Stilley created ‘sonic loops’ through the internal metal pieces.

In his wild setups setups, Stilley had the string vibrations captured by a string tree bar at the headstock and delivered down the neck in a truss rod to the saw blades and other parts inside the body. They were further amplified by an invention called The Jingler hidden inside the neck.

Yes, his designs are that intense.

But how do they sound? Here’s author, Kelly Mullholland and his wife, Donna (as the duo, Still on the Hill) performing on an Ed Stilley guitar and fiddle.

As a sound searcher myself (and collector of instruments & instrument books), True Faith, True Light should be in book collections of any instrument fan or builder. Kelly Mulhollan’s portrait of a man driven by faith and the gorgeous photos by Kirk Lanier make this a winner. The book is as much an art piece as Stilley’s guitars.

In an era of perfection dictated by Autotune and CNC machines, the world needs Ed Stilley. This book is essential.

Bonus Feature: Take a tour of Ed Stilley’s workshop and hear him perform a hymn on one of his guitars.

True Faith, True Light: The Devotional Art of Ed Stilley has just been released. It is for sale for $35 at