The music man

D.J. Betsill moonlights as a luthier—making experimental instruments

The music man

D.J. Betsill creates his stringed instruments in a workshop inside his Stone Mountain home.

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

The musical Renaissance inside D.J. Betsill’s (BFA '95) Stone Mountain home isn’t obvious from the street. His house appears typically suburban.

Once inside, it brims with musical instruments. Betsill, an architect by day with midtown Atlanta firm Jones Pierce, is a luthier by night—he makes stringed instruments, and makes them by the dozens. Tools fill spare bedroom space and the walls are lined with wooden viol necks, carved casings and other relics of a musical life.

The collection ranges from dulcimers and mandolins to Baroque guitars and citterns.

“If it’s got strings on it, I’m interested,” Betsill says. An ethnomusicologist, he studies instruments and musical styles from all around the world, but specializes in the instruments of Appalachia, especially the open-back five-string banjo.

An Ohio native, Betsill grew up in Texas but had family that lived in Georgia. He came to UGA for the Lamar Dodd School of Art interior design program, which prepares students for careers as interior designers for large architectural firms.

He’s been making instruments since he was 12, his first a Japanese samisen (a long-necked lute) for a school project. When he was 15, he made his first “playable” instruments, a dulcimer and a cittern, a guitar-like instrument.

After he started his first architectural job, he began making large-scale interiors with wood veneers. He collected the scraps of veneer the business would throw out and kept them to finish instruments.

“I probably have enough veneer here for 100 banjos,” he says, pointing to the shelves in his basement work area.

The luthier business is slowly picking up steam for Betsill. Last year, he was commissioned by composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to recreate a massive arch-shaped percussion instrument called the Heaven’s Door for use in American performances. Betsill got the commission because he was in the Emory Gamelon Ensemble with Stockhausen’s percussionist.

“It’s kind of a career-altering commission,” says Betsill. “I think there’s a market for experimental [instrument] makers. I’m willing to experiment.”

About the Author

—Julia Reidy (ABJ ’07) is a freelance writer in Atlanta.