Bill Burke is a well-loved, highly respected and long-time resident of Flagstaff, Arizona. He has been crafting exquisite custom stringed instruments and world-class furniture for more than 40 years. He likes working with clients who are seeking something a little different and a step up from the usual instrument fare so prevalent in today’s marketplace.
The first instrument he built was a hammered dulcimer, when he was in graduate school studying social anthropology. He listened to Chet Parker play the instrument at the Smithsonian Folk Festival in 1967 and decided that he wanted to own one. At the time, they were very scarce and extremely expensive so he, in his own words, “cobbled” one together and was delighted that it didn’t explode – the sound wasn’t too bad either.
Bill plays a number of instruments extremely well. Among the instrument types he has mastered are guitar, banjo, mandolin, and mandola. He won’t play his fiddle on stage any more but he plays a great old-time style of fiddle. He feels that hearing folk music certainly leads to the listener wanting to participate in some way, either by clapping their hands, tapping their toes or singing along. Some want to join in and play the music. No matter which participating form they choose, Bill feels that joining in is the most important aspect of Old-Time music.
Bill crafts each instrument to meet the needs of the person who commissions that instrument. This may be tone driven, balance, playability or a variety of other factors but always the final product must meet the goals specified by the client. Each instrument presents its own challenges. The design goals must support the musician’s style and the type of music being played, whether it is a mandolin designed to capture the essence of Celtic music, a finger-picking guitar that evidences clarity, the big sound of a rhythm guitar or the clean crisp sound of a banjo. Of course, the challenges of building such instruments has its own rewards but, according to Bill, the real thrill is hearing his work take on its own life.
“It just doesn’t get any better than that.” Hearing someone take my work and add their own musicality is a real treat. I really like having someone bring back an instrument that I’ve made that has seen some rough playing and want it spiffed up – the fact that it has been used to communicate to others, that’s a great reward for me too.”
Whether as a fine-furniture maker or as a luthier of excellent musical instruments, his careful work exhibits the traditional values shared by master crafters throughout history. Today, his instruments are highly sought after by discriminating musicians across America and his furniture has been displayed in shows in both America and Europe. Information extracted from an article by Penelope Bass writing for Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine.