The David Gomes
by Veronica S.
Ki ho'alu, or Hawaiian slack key guitar, is an island
tradition. It's more than that. It's the rich expression
and reverence for all that life holds: Through its unique
finger-picked style and special tunings ki ho'alu tells
the story of the Hawaiian islands and its people, past
and present. It is music drawn from the heart and the
soul. The guitar, the instrument itself, can only be
created in that same spirit. The craftsman must live
ki ho'alu, deeply fulfilled in his timeless work.
Such a craftsman is David Gomes, musician and guitarmaker
for over 25 years. I talk with him in his new dream
shop, where he moved in February 1995. It strikes me
that this successful man, so busy that any new guitar
order will be on hold for two full years, so busy that
he spends five to seven hours per day in his shop and
then drives an hour to the nearby hotels to play music
in the evenings, can be so calm. I soon discover how
he does it: He is happy.
David Gomes gets a sparkle in his eyes when he talks
about his work. Lovingly he picks up a piece of freshly
cut curly koa. Precision marks all his gestures. He
takes one of the 6 guitars he is currently working on
off its hook, and shows it to me, tracing the delicate
mother-of-pearl design, and the mirrored grain pattern
on the guitar's back.
Music is what I do, he says. You would think I'd get
sick of it. I am like a gyroscope, never losing my balance
between the rich physical experience of creating and
the more abstract experience of playing.
He grins and carefully puts the guitar back. The large
window in his shop looks out on the vast blue Pacific.
In the winter while standing at his work bench he can
see whales breaching. After working for a quarter century
in two dusty rooms on the main highway, Gomes is thrilled
with this new shop. It took him five years to build.
Fiberglass walls and double paned glass control temperature,
humidity, and drafts; a necessity when putting guitars
together. His home, which he also built, is on the same
property. He lives here with wife Maurine and children
Nicole and Tom.
All I want now is to keep on doing what I am doing
and to never reach my goal, a perfect guitar. He pauses
and smiles at my questioning eyes.
Because, then what? he adds, the passion of a true
artist speaking. Most of us would agree that David Gomes
reaches perfection with every instrument he creates.
Gomes, who was born in Kohala, builds all sizes of
ukeleles and guitars, including steel string, acoustic
basses, concert and Classical. Each guitar, he says,
takes him 50 to 60 hours to make. Each solitary journey
starts with the artful selection of the wood and ends
That's an awesome moment. Here you made it; now you
gonna play it. There's so much discipline in both arts;
you appreciate it deeply when you know you can do both.
It's whole, he says.
Gomes' art is largely influenced by the Spanish master
guitar maker Paulino Bernab. Attracted to the
music of Latin countries, Gomes went to Spain in the
early seventies where he spent many hours at the master's
shop, talking story and hanging out.
I always thought that guitars were factory produced.
Watching Paulino, I realized what one man can do. Back
in Hawaii, fiercely independent, Gomes yielded to the
irresistible need born from that inspiration, to transform
rough wood into beautiful musical instruments.
Practice and intuition guide my work. No electronic
device can measure all the variables that create a great
guitar. Even the type of glue and finish affect the
sound. The wood has to have a vertical grain, it can't
be too wild, and it has to be beautiful.
Today's dilemma is that native Hawaiian woods, such
as the rich and hard koaie and milo are becoming rare,
and endangered. And yet, in the tradition of ki ho'alu,
Gomes likes to use wood from where he lives.
Koa is still fairly abundant, Gomes says. Formosan
koa (koa's cousin), sandalwood, kiawe and spruce, all
grow in Hawaii. Kiawe is one of the best. It's hard,
reliable and produces great sound. He adds that, most
important, it's also environmentally correct, since
kiawe has become a nuisance on the islands, not another
beautiful tree which has to be chopped up.
When the Hawaii Loa canoe was built, Gomes got hold
of the throw away pieces from the large spruce logs.
Plenty mana there, he grins with immense satisfaction.
Ideally I would like to find my wood washed up on Pololu
beach. What a natural way for both artisan and tree.
I like scavenging for wood. Recently Gomes found an
8 by 2 foot log of curly koa at Pololu! Unfortunately
it was unusable. At least this time around.
To supplement his inventory, Gomes searches as far
away as Europe and Africa. So far nothing can replace
the brilliance of black ebony, deep rosewood or rich
A beautiful piece of wood, dis-covered from underneath
its thick bark, has to be matched with the finest and
richest designs. Gomes adds a custom designed mother-of-pearl
or abalone inlay to every guitar. Call it his trademark.
With a fine diamond saw he cuts the precious shell into
the most intricate shapes. Lustrous maile leis and gracious
ginger flowers trail alongside the sound hole and handle.
The final and favorite moment comes with the stringing
of the guitar. Now the soulful sound will reflect all
the beauty, all the searching, and all the love Gomes
put into his labor. His fingers plucking at the string
breathe life into his work, and tell of the story of
A Gomes Guitar is exciting. In the annual Woods of
Hawaii Awards in Honolulu, Gomes was awarded a first
place two years in a row. In 1994, John Keawe, one of
the finest contemporary Hawaiian guitarists, won the
Na Hoku Hano Hano Awards playing on a Gomes Guitar.
And more than anything, David Gomes is a musician and
world class artist, blood and soul. He loves music.
It radiates through his life. It is his life style.
Ki ho'alu. While his guitars travel the world they sing
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