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MASD mechanic hits right note as guitar maker; Betts has made instruments for people across U.S.

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 11/7/18

When not keeping Middletown Area School District rolling in his day job as a mechanic, Darryl Betts is building custom bass guitars at home in Carlisle.

Betts just finished making a four-string …

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MASD mechanic hits right note as guitar maker; Betts has made instruments for people across U.S.

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When not keeping Middletown Area School District rolling in his day job as a mechanic, Darryl Betts is building custom bass guitars at home in Carlisle.

Betts just finished making a four-string bass for the Middletown Area High School jazz band.

Adorned in Blue Raider blue and gold with the Middletown logo, the bass guitar will be played in public for the first time by high school bassist Daniel Brenner during the high school Holiday Concert on Dec. 20.

There’s actually a lot more of Middletown in the guitar than just its appearance.

Most of the wood for the guitar came from Middletown Lumber, except for some swamp ash that Betts said the company doesn’t carry. Betts said he gets 75 percent of the wood he uses to make his custom basses from Middletown Lumber.

The decals and gold and white wave on the guitar were provided by With Kidz in Mind on North Union Street.

The 52-year-old Betts has been into music and performing since he started singing in public as a 5-year-old.

Along the way he’s been in school musicals and plays, sang in a 1950s doo-wop group for seven years, was in a barbershop quartet and sang in the Carlindian Chorus.

He started playing bass guitar in the late 1990s and early 2000s, initially performing a couple times a month in the worship team band at his church.

Betts has also always been into fixing things and making things — passions he got from one grandfather who was a mechanic and who owned his own welding shop, and from another grandfather who was “a do it all type of guy,” Betts said.

After watching a video online of a guy building a bass guitar, Betts discovered a way to marry both passions — music and making things.

“I told my wife (Kris), ‘I think I’m gonna build myself a bass guitar,’” Betts said. “She thought that was really funny. A month later I had my guitar made.”

That was three years and 14 bass guitars ago. Besides the one for the jazz band, Betts has made custom bass guitars for people in Ireland and in California, Washington, D.C., and a few other states.

He recently flew to Colorado to hand-deliver a custom bass guitar that Betts made for Andrew Irvine, a professional bassist who has toured with more than 25 artists nationally and who has played bass on more than 50 albums recorded by various musicians.

Betts had connected with Irvine online. At one point Irvine learned that Betts made custom bass guitars, and he asked Betts to make him one.

Betts made the guitar for Irvine in lieu of Irvine agreeing to promote Betts’ brand for publicity purposes.

“I’ve been getting calls from people” as a result, Betts said. “I’m now making a bass for a guy in New York who called me. I’ve got like two or three basses in the works right now.”

Betts came up with the idea of building a bass guitar for the high school jazz band. Betts had played bass in the school musical in 2017 and had gotten to know Sam Fisher, the high school band director.

He sent an email to Fisher asking if the jazz band could use a bass guitar. Fisher asked Betts what he had in mind, and the project took off from there.

“Darryl is a fine craftsman of custom bass guitars,” Fisher said. “His meticulous, well-thought out process created a wonderful gift for the Blue Wave Band, and future generations of band members.”

At full price the guitar Betts made for the student band would have cost the school district about $2,000. The only cost to the district was to cover what Betts paid for the materials, which is being paid for by the Band Boosters. Betts donated his time and labor.

The guitars Betts makes can run to $2,600 and up, depending on what the customer wants.

For example, if you go to a music store and buy a bass guitar off the shelf, they all have necks pretty much the same size.

In building a custom guitar, some customers will want a neck that is thicker or thinner than the standard.

“Some guys have smaller hands. I don’t have real big hands,” Betts said. “For me I like a thinner style neck, it’s easier to get your hands around to play.”

The type of wood that someone wants also drives the price. The more exotic the wood, the more expensive. If a customer wants his or her name or something else special in-laid into the wood, that adds to the cost as well.

No matter who the customer or what they want, it starts with an 8-inch by 2 inch by 4-foot long rough cut piece of wood. Betts doesn’t use a computer or any kind of program. He does it all by hand.

It takes Betts about 60 hours from start to finish. That’s mostly because he has a full-time job, but the process also involves a lot of time spent waiting for stains or products that are applied to dry. Then you sand them, reapply the stain and wait another three days for that to dry.

Betts said he’s not sure where all this is going.

“Initially I thought I could get six basses a year. If I could build a bass a month, I’d be happy. I’m not looking to go into this big-time and quit my job here. I love working here for the district. I love this job and the people I work with.”

Betts has been with Middletown Area School District since July 2017. Before that he had his own landscaping contracting business for 28 years, which he sold in April 2017. He worked briefly as head groundskeeper for the Upper Adams School District before getting the job with Middletown.

As for his own musical tastes, Betts grew up in the 1980s and leans toward classic rock from that period, and from the 1970s.

He doesn’t have a favorite bass player, but he has learned a lot from his wife’s brother, Craig Gephart.

He loves the Beatles, but he hasn’t gotten a call yet from Paul McCartney asking to build him a custom bass.

“That’d be nice,” Betts said.

As far as he knows, Betts is no kin to the legendary guitarist Dickey Betts, but he is a fan of the Allman Brothers.

He’s only been with the school district a short time, but Betts has definitely caught the Blue Raider bug. You can find him at every home football game.

“I get as close as I can to listen to the band play. I’m not a big sports guy, I’m not into football a whole lot. I like to say the football team is the opening act for the band.”