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'Liberty Tree' Guitars Trace Back America's Revolutionary Heritage - 2002-08-25

Some of the newest guitars in the United States have a history that dates back to the nation's colonial past. They're made from the wood of a so-called Liberty Tree that was alive at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Inside Taylor Guitar's manufacturing facility near San Diego, a worker is putting the finishing touches on an acoustic guitar.

Taylor makes tens of thousands of guitars each year. They're bought by weekend hobbyists and professional performers, including country star Clint Black, folk singer Jewel and 'the Edge,' the guitarist for the Irish rock band U2.

This year the company introduced a limited-edition instrument called the Liberty Tree Guitar.

Some 225 years ago, when American colonists were fighting to gain independence from the British, they plotted and planned in the shade of Liberty Trees. The last surviving Liberty Tree, on the campus of St. John's College in Maryland, was cut down three years ago after being weakened by disease and damaged by Hurricane Floyd.

Bob Taylor, a history buff, couldn't resist the chance to buy some of the wood from the 27-meter-tall tulip poplar; 13,000 kilos of it.

"Usually when something like this happens, it tends to get turned into pens or pencils or you go through the Redwoods and you see Paul Bunyon salt and pepper shakers. And this tree it seemed like it needed to be something more than that," Mr. Taylor said.

Mr. Taylor and his team of expert guitar makers spent the next eighteen months designing, crafting and slowly building 400 Liberty Tree guitars. Even for the skilled craftsmen, this was a special project. "It was like, this is the only wood that there is in the whole world like this and every single piece has to count," he said.

The finished product is an elegant looking concert-quality guitar the chocolate and vanilla-colored poplar wood creates a striking design on the back. On the front is a laser-etched, maple inlay of a scrolled Declaration of Independence, and an image of the first post-revolution American flag is inlaid around the soundhole.

"Guitar playing isn't my chosen... well, it might actually be my chosen profession. But it's not my realized one," he laughed.

Mr. Taylor admits he's better at building guitars than playing them. To really show off the Liberty guitar, he asked a professional musician, Doyle Dykes, to record some patriotic songs.

"There seems to be a slightly different sound than from guitars I've heard before," Mr. Taylor said.

"Yes, it's got a lot of sustain. It's not a thrashbox - something you bang on. It's a guitar. It makes you want to slow down and let the notes ring and play something a little more melancholy," Mr. Dykes said.

Eager musicians have snapped up nearly all of the guitars. Bob Taylor says he thinks putting the instruments in the hands of people is a better way to preserve the spirit of the Liberty Tree than stashing some of the wood in a museum.

"What I hope they do is they get them out and play them with friends and they play them with family and they experience music with this and that they talk about it. That the conversations then revolve around music. And also they tell the story of the founding of the country and they tell the story of the tree. And I hope that they keep them and pass them on," Mr. Taylor said.

Mr. Taylor is donating a portion of the guitars' proceeds to ensure the memory of the Liberty Tree lives on. The money will help fund a project to plant seedlings from the tree in the 13 original colonies.