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Old Guitars and the Local Musicians Who Love Them - James Van Nuys

James Van Nuys with guitar
James Van Nuys, Rapid City, Plays a Taylor 12-String

James Van Nuys of Rapid City is well known in South Dakota as an artist and as a musician. He’s a sculptor and painter but he also plays the guitar, performing solo or in small groups playing jazz, blues, and other styles of music. Van Nuys brought several of his guitars to SDPB's studio in downtown Rapid City including two "resonator" guitars.

Resonator guitars came into fashion in the early 1900s when guitar players were looking for ways to be louder and stand out in a band. Guitar makers helped them do that by building a guitar around one or more metal cones. Some resonator bodies are entirely steel, others are a mix of steel and wood. Van Nuy’s Dean guitar happens to be made of bronze.

James Van Nuys Plays a Bronze Dean Brand Resonator Guitar

Van Nuys also plays a Taylor 12-string acoustic guitar.

SDPB: Do you remember the first time you tried to play a guitar?

Yes, I do. I think I was maybe 10 or 11, possibly 12. A neighbor... I lived in Wilmington, Ohio at the time... And a neighbor brought an old guitar over and gave it to me. And it was hopeless. The action was so high you couldn't press the strings down, but a friend of mine and I attempted to work out the rift to "Day Tripper" on that guitar. Got the record, tried to work it out one note at a time. And I don't remember whether we succeeded or how far we got, but that was the first attempt to play guitar.

About a couple of years later, when I was 13, I wanted to buy a guitar and had to earn the money to do that. So I was going to mow people's lawns, but my family didn't have a power mower. All we had was a reel mower. So the first thing I had to do was get enough money to pay for a power mower. And I went around the neighborhood, mowed lawns, managed to save up 40 bucks and get a Sears. Yeah, I think it was a Sears Silvertone guitar. That was the first real playable guitar I had. So right around the time I was 14, I started playing on that.

SDPB: And when did you realize that you were getting good enough to do this professional play in front of people?

I think I first played in front of people, maybe my... Or a lot of people, maybe when I was at junior in high school.

SDPB: What about musical influences? The Beatles, obviously.

The Beatles, of course. When I was 14, I went to boarding school in Ohio, Quaker Boarding School. And that was the year that I think the first Led Zeppelin album came out. Jeff Beck. Abbey Road might've come out that year. So I was listening to that stuff. But interestingly, at the school I was at, there were so many people trying to learn to play guitar and people that would show you something. And so, you'd learn a little bit of this from one guy and little bit of this from somebody else. But there was one person who had a book on country blues guitar in tablature, and he couldn't make heads nor tails of it. So I borrowed that at the end of my freshman year and took it home with me and started learning stuff like Mississippi John Hurt and the blues type of stuff that I became interested in high school. These were recordings that were made in the 1920s and 30s. I got interested in all kinds of music. I've been in Celtic bands and rock bands and country bands. And I played medieval and Renaissance music in college. And I do have a degree in composition from Wilmington College, no slides. And I studied Baroque music. I'm not saying that I could perform that music, but I do have a grasp of what it's about. The music that I've always come back to is pretty much the folky, acoustic blues and folk music, blue grass, appellation type stuff. And I write my own songs as well.

SDPB: How often do you perform solo as compared to with other folks?

Mostly I play duo, but I might do a solo gig once a month or so. And a lot of times, I'm hired to provide quiet background acoustic guitar picking first for an event where they don't really want the music to be overpowering.

SDPB: You own quite a few guitars but none that are especially old?

I never wanted to own an expensive guitar. I'm out at gigs, somebody going to knock it over. Somebody's going to steal it. I just never have wanted to have a guitar that was worth more than... This is the most expensive one. It's worth about $2,000.

Listen to an interview from SDPB's "In The Moment" radio program. Producer Brian Gevik speaks with host Lori Walsh about James Van Nuys and presents short clips of Van Nuys playing different guitars.

Radio Interview Featuring James Van Nuys

Listen to an interview from SDPB's "In The Moment" radio program. Producer Brian Gevik speaks with host Lori Walsh about James Van Nuys and presents short clips of Van Nuys playing different guitars.