Beulah guitar maker strums to a different tune

Published 10:15 am Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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BEULAH — Riley Yielding is both an artistic performer and an artisan. By day he makes guitars by hand in his workshop, and at night, he plays them in local nightclubs. He’s played in such venues as Macdrewsky’s and the Drover’s Steak House in Valley in the 1990s, and in more recent times, he’s played at Grand National and Hamilton’s in the Opelika-Auburn area. He’s also played at the legendary FloraBama on the Gulf Coast. Yielding can be found each year at the annual Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival at Perdido Key.

“I guess I’m what you could call a fun festival guy,” he said. “I like old jazz, classic country, blues, folk and pop songs from the 1960s and 1970s. I like the music of singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg. I’ve never been a big-time performer, and I’m at peace with that. I do like to sing and play and I love to build guitars with my hands.”

He and his wife Rebecca have played in bands together. They have been married for 16 years and have a three-year-old son named Hollis. They live on a farm in the Beulah community where they raise cows and horses. It’s also a good place for Hollis to work off an incredible amount of youthful energy.

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“Rebecca’s a great performer,” Yielding said. “She has a really good singing voice, and we’ve played together for years.”

They once performed together in a band that was humorously named Fat Elvis.

Yielding is a master at making guitars. He’s turned out more than 200 of them from his workshop. Each one is finely crafted and has a pitch-perfect sound. Making one just right is a very exacting task, and Yielding has learned much about each step in the process. 

“You can mess it up at any step,” he said. “It has to be exactly right up to one-eighth of an inch. It takes time, and overcoming mistakes, to get it right, but when you do it’s so rewarding.”

Yielding grew up in Columbus and credits his lifelong love of music, performing and making guitars to a man named Mac McCormick. 

“He was a well-known guitarist in Columbus and my mentor,” he said. “He was an amazing guy. He was like a second father to me. He was so good at fixing anything. People brought him all kinds of items to get repaired. That man knew guitars forward and backward. He could date one to the kind of screws that were in it.”

Yielding learned everything about building a guitar from watching McCormick. 

“When you are building one, you have to have a wooden mold in the shape of a guitar,” he said. “I do it all by hand. You bend the sides, then make the top plate and then the back plate. You lay out the neck and glue all the parts together.”

“I would go by to visit with Mac two or three times a week,” Yielding said. “He was one of a kind. He would roll his own cigarettes from Walter Raleigh tobacco. I hung out with him for years. It was a big loss not just for me but for many people in Columbus when he died.”

One thing he learned by watching McCormick is that guitars that are handmade by true artisans are better than the manufactured kinds. The pre-war Martin guitars, for example, were carefully made by highly skilled craftsmen.

They are relatively rare today and some are valued in the $300,000 range. What a Stradivarius is to a violin, a pre-war Martin is to a guitar.

Yielding has made guitars out of many different kinds of wood. He made one from a sycamore tree that had grown on his farm. He especially likes to work with cherry and redwood. 

“Black walnut, mahogany and spruce are good types, too,”  he said. “I’ve also made them from koa wood from Hawaii.”

There have been some truly unique guitars coming out of Yielding’s workshop. He’s made some with two necks. There’s a conventional neck plus a smaller one, the kind that’s on a mandolin. It allows a guitarist to make the conventional acoustical sound and switch to a higher pitch without changing instruments. He made one of the guitars for the son of country music legend Merle Travis.

“People tell me I should get it patented,” he said, “but it’s an expensive process, and there’s so much paperwork involved. I just like to make them by hand, play them, and sell them to people who are looking for a custom-made instrument.”

He made one guitar he calls his flip flop. 

“I’ve named it that because it breaks all the rules,” he said.

Along with making guitars from scratch, Yielding also repairs brass instruments. His workshop is filled with all kinds of musical instruments. There are lots of guitar bodies hanging from the ceiling, along with some fiddles, banjos, trumpets, French horns and the like. He once played the French horn, later switching to a trumpet.

He’s always enjoyed playing in bands, especially with other gifted musicians. 

“When good players get together they feed off each other,” he said. “That’s when the best music is produced.”

“Beulah is an awesome place,” he said. “We love living here on a family farm. We feel very fortunate to have the life we have.”

One of his most challenging jobs to date was the full restoration of a guitar that dated to the 1800s. 

“I was all busted up,” Yielding said. “I was really proud of the way that one turned out.”

Anyone who wants to talk about a guitar can contact Yielding at (706) 888-8290 and leave a message. He’s on Facebook at Yielding Guitars.

People can come by to see some of the guitars he’s made at this weekend’s Valley Arts Council’s spring art show at Valley Community Center. 

“We are hoping for a big turnout,” said Arts Council President Suzie Britt. “We will have over 30 local artists displaying their works. There’s no admission charge, and refreshments will be served. It’s a chance to meet local artists and talk to them about their art. We will have watercolor artists and artists who are into oil painting, acrylic, fiber art, freehand drawing, 3D art, photography, sculpture and artists like Riley who make things with their hands.”

Valley Arts Council’s Our Spring Show will be taking place on Saturday, April 27 and Sunday, April 28. The Saturday showing will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT and from 1 to 4:30 on Sunday. It will be a judged show with ribbons being awarded in eight different categories.