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He does things differently

Hannah Rivera photo<br><b>Wes Urbaniak brings his unique approach to folk music to Cornerstone Coffee tonight.</b>
Hannah Rivera photo
Wes Urbaniak brings his unique approach to folk music to Cornerstone Coffee tonight.

Oct 11, 2013


By Ossie Bladine
Of the News-Register


Want a free guitar? All you have to do is handwrite singer-songwriter Wes Urbaniak a one-page letter every month for a year. At the the end of the year, he’ll send you one of his unique handmade “knotty wood” guitars for your effort.

“If you’re going to put a year in of your time and going to appreciate the thing you’re getting in the end —and the path that took you there — I think you deserve it,” the Billings resident said. “It’s like it’s free but not free.”

While no one has taken him up on it, he’ll soon be offering another route to a free guitar: taking part in a treasure hunt in Billings. Urbaniak plans to set it up at the conclusion of his current tour, which brings him to Cornerstone Coffee Roasters tonight. It’s the “Elephant Tour,” named after the guitar he is touring with. He plans to give that instrument away to the winner of the hunt.

He added, “It’s fun to build ’em,” he said of his guitars. “All of them are one-off; none are built alike. It’s such a cool feeling to give them away to people.”

It will be the sixth guitar he’s given away this year. He doesn’t sell them. He just makes them, highlighting imperfections in the wood and occasionally varying the number of strings. “Half the shows, I end up talking mostly about guitars,” he said.

It’s all part of Urbaniak’s unique musical journey, reflected in his free-flowing folk tunes.

“The story is important to me,” he said. “Books are my primary influence. I don’t listen to too much music or know much about it ... all my songs are influenced by what I’ve been reading.”

A marketing book inspired his description of his sound: The musical love child of Jason Mraz and Tracy Chapman.

“I don’t really listen to them; I know who they are and listen to them a little,” he said. “It just became the thing. Like, you get on an elevator and you have 30 seconds to describe what you sound like before you never see that person again.

“And I was like, ‘Man, I can explain it in 10.’”

When Urbaniak was 11, he found a broken 12-string guitar in the closet that had four strings on it and would never be in tune. He played it for two years before receiving his first six-string from an uncle he moved in with in Billings.

“I just started playing away,” he said. “By the time I’d played for 10 years, I found a guy who’d played a week and I wasn’t much better.”

That changed after an hour-long lesson from his father-in-law. “He talked to me about how the guitar was set up, and, man, that was all I needed. My knowledge, like, exploded.”

Of course, the experimenting never stopped. Watch the video “One-Way Ticket” and you’ll see Urbaniak playing the guitar on his lap.

“I was always looking at guys playing dulcimers or lap steel guitar, and before I knew it I was trying it out on an acoustic ... I didn’t realize they were playing in open tunings,” he said. “I went home and just by chance found a couple of chords I could play in standard tunings.”

As far as he knows, he’s the only musician playing standard-tuning guitar like that, he said.

On “I Don’t Want to Come Down,” Urbaniak plays with the fingers on his fret hand coming over the top of the fingerboard instead from below. “It reminds me of playing a piano,” he said.

Watch the video and you’ll also notice the guitar has seven strings, another result of Urbaniak’s experimental nature. He said he calls the extra baritone string “neck bling.”

He is currently touring for his new album of the same name. He wrote, played, recorded, produced, edited and mastered it entirely on his own.

For the whole story, see Urbaniak tonight at Cornerstone starting at 7 p.m. Admission is free. To see videos from the new album, visit www.wesurbaniak.com.

Contact Ossie Bladine at obladine@newsregister.com.

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