Ben Simon’s Gaga Guitars
Kinky keys, or what Bob Dylan has to do with model railroaders and Van Gogh.
By Maria Popova
Ben Simon is an artist in every sense of the word — part musician, part wood carver, part mixed media sculptor, part something else entirely. He makes incredible, crazy guitars and performs with them on the New York subway, blending the charismatic quirk of a street musician with the art world street cred of gallery-worthy custom work.
Today, we sit down with Ben to ask him a few questions about the inspiration behind his extravagant instruments, his creative process, and how ordinary people react to his extraordinary art.
Hey Ben, tell us a bit about your background, what inspires you, and your brand of creative curiosity.
The giant extincted lizard thing. Looking at the world from different locations in outer space. Racism in the USA, learning to relax… My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, and when I finally made it through high school I continued to move. I guess I can identify with the mover. I don’t really know. I’m inspired by God’s light.
I’m working toward opening an instrument building program for kids who have some extra types of needs (kids with nothing). I’m inspired by something if I think it can be useful to an emotionally tormented teenage kid. For more information about this, please send me a note.
We’re all about the cross-pollination of disciplines and arts here. How did you arrive at this beautiful intersection of sculpture, woodwork and music?
I guess it happened naturally. I got a job at a custom woodworking shop in 2005 where I was allowed to come back to the shop after hours and work on my own stuff. I went to an arts high school and made some amazing friends that have always been a part of what I do. It’s not any different than anything else. I’ve been free and blessed to make stuff any way I’d like.
Lots of people never have a chance, but my life has been filled with chances. Wide open spaces to explore. If I died and my soul is lost, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.
How long does one of your guitars take to make, on average?
About two months. Each one has a learning curve. I’ve been woodworking for five years, so there is still tons that I don’t know. There are some tools that I don’t have that would make the process smoother. Not rushing is nice. Moving slow around the power tools is important. Depending on what the design is, I could probably finish in three weeks.
You play your marvelous instruments on the New York subway. What kind of music do you play? How do people react?
For a while I was playing one called “Guitar2d2” that features a built-in circuit bent Yamaha keyboard and Boss drum machine, 3 amps and a few effects pedals. It has 5 speakers and is battery-powered. I improvise a lot and play songs. People often have funny reactions. Probably because “Guitar2d2” is so big and different-looking.
We are making a documentary right now: In the film, I’ll be building a guitar dressed a bit like a Star Trek character, complete with voice changer. Then, the plan is to play that guitar on the street in the costume and sell the DVD. This will probably get some funny reactions.
This is hard, but let’s try it: Your all-time favorite visual artist and favorite musician…
Van Gogh and Beethoven I guess.
There’s so many people that make awesome stuff. I like this fellow: casperelectronics.com. I cried at an Ornette Coleman concert in 2008 because it was so beautiful. I go to see Bob Dylan every chance I get. I’ve been listening to a lot of Sun Ra. There are great artists everywhere — most we will never hear of. Ever heard of slide guitarist David Tronzo? Didn’t think so. We’re talking about the most amount of vibrance a human is capable of vibrating. Every color. All the rhythms.
My Dad would probably never call himself an artist, but he has built in his house some of the most detailed H.O. scale model trains around. He did this whole scene of Boston circa 1958. I’ve witnessed him put thousand of hours into this and other layouts over the years. His work has been in Model Railroader a few times, but mostly it just sits by itself.
I feel like this is common, especially in people. Often when you meet a new person, you enter into a world containing various amounts of anonymous art work. I wonder: What is art work? How much can one look at? What will be found?
Published May 4, 2010