Every once in awhile, a guitar comes out of left field. In the case of this solidbody electric labeled “Lee Stiles,” the throw came from West Virginia by way of Miami!
It was in many ways primitive, but at the same time it was also clearly “manufactured.” As it turns out, this was one of the earliest guitars produced by the late luthier who was one of the driving forces behind the arts renaissance called the Augusta Heritage Program, which still thrives in Elkins, West Virginia, Gilbert Lee Stiles. After considerable detective work and with a lot of good luck, Stiles’ story was salvaged from possible obscurity.
Lee Stiles, as he was known in the early days, was born in Independence, West Virginia, in 1914. By the age of nine he’d begun working with wood while growing up in a neighborhood of back-porch pickers, so it was natural that he developed an interest in guitars. In a 1994 interview, Stiles confessed it was his boyhood dream to make guitars, though it wouldn’t be realized until relatively late in his life.
Stiles spent a good chunk of his working life in trades associated with timber, ranging from logging to turning millwork. By the late 1950s he’d relocated to Miami. Then one day in 1960, he decided to make good on his childhood fantasy. He went out to his garage workshop, locked the door, and built his first solidbody guitar. And there was no Stewart MacDonald in those days, so he had to make all the parts himself. How he made the pickups without specialized gear suggests a bit of exaggeration in the single-day theory, plus paint takes time to dry, etc. Anyway, Stiles showed his new creation – which essentially looked just like this one – to a friend, who then started bugging him to sell it. Stiles subsequently opened his own workshop in Miami and his guitarmaking career was launched.
In the beginning, Stiles concentrated on Strat-style solidbodies. He continued to fabricate most of his own parts, including a lot of the hardware. He wound his own pickups, modeling them after DeArmonds. The scrolled headstock and horns were an early Stiles trademark, and his early necks were reinforced with non-adjustable rolled steel – pretty hefty, with their V “boat-hull” profile because, as Stiles recalled, the only strings he could get at the time were heavy-gauge Black Diamonds.
Partially because he was familiar with woods, and partially because he made a lot of his own parts, early Stiles guitars often feature unusual components. This guitar, which Stiles reckoned was one of his early ones dating back to the beginnings in 1960 or so, has a pickguard made out of what looks like Masonite. Although this might seem like improvising (and it may have been), it’s worth noting that in 1960, Masonite was a fairly high-tech material and was being used on guitars made by companies such as Kay.
Clearly, the pickups and adjustable bridge/tailpiece unit were handmade, while things like the tuners were not made by Stiles (here ’60s Klusons replace the lost originals). The body and neck are made of mahogany. The unusual fingerboard design is walnut with maple highlight strips. The block inlays are maple, not pearl! And the guitar has a decal logo, a metal sticker that says “Lee Stiles, Inc. Miami/Florida,” and it’s stamped with a serial number #A0-1002? (last number illegible).
Depending on how you feel about thick V necks, this Stiles is lightweight and its pickups kick butt, with a lot of warmth from the mahogany. This is a great little surf guitar, except for having no vibrato.
There is a bit of an “American primitive” feel to the workmanship of early Stiles guitars, but his skills improved quickly and the workmanship rapidly improved. Circa 1963, Stiles relocated to Hialeah, Florida, and began making flat-top acoustic six- and 12-strings, as well as some very fine carved archtops, harp guitars, doubleneck pedal steels, electric basses, banjos and mandolins. When demand required, he’d employ helpers.
Stiles’ designs continued to proliferate, sometimes with scrolls, often with unique scalloped headstocks or other design features. Later solidbodies featured advanced appointments such as German carves and fancy pearl inlays. While this has a mahogany neck, most Stiles guitars sport maple handles. Early on, Stiles created a number of “student” guitars similar to this design, but with a 21″ scale. He even built an 18-string guitar for one customer.
Stiles’ flat-tops were particularly interesting, as he got his sound by increasing the tension on the top by arching the backs to the breaking point. He favored Brazilian rosewood bodies and spruce tops. Often, the extra-tense backs required additional bracing.
Basically, Stiles operated a custom shop, so almost anything was possible in terms of design or construction; he made copies of Gibson Flying Vs and wide-cutaway archtops like no others. Guitars from his later years took advantage of the availability of components manufactured by specialists, so he no longer had to make everything from scratch!
Nobody seems to know for sure how long Lee Stiles produced stringed instruments, but in later years he slowed down, and by the early 1990s was mainly doing repair work. About that same time, Stiles was invited by his home state to participate in the nascent Augusta Heritage Program that was being run through Davis and Elkins College, in West Virginia. There, he taught lutherie to young people.
No accurate count of Stiles guitars is available, but by his own estimates he made nearly 1,000 solidbodies and at least 500 acoustics.
Gilbert Lee Stiles was hardly a major influence on American guitarmaking, but he deserves to be recorded, as he did create some really good guitars, and later passed the legacy on through his teaching in West Virginia. And his guitars are a good lesson in paying attention when the next odd axe ricochets your direction from left – or any other – field.
Ca. 1960 Gilbert Lee Stiles. Photo: Michael Wright.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sept. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.