Once Guitar Maker to the Famous Now Teaching Kids in Tacoma

Dec 2, 2013

Tacoma public schools brings in professionals to teach their career and technical education classes: a former judge’s advocate, a former photojournalist—you get the point.

But the man who’s just started teaching wood shop at Stadium High? Well, he’s Roy McAlister and he's got some impressive, rock star-sized credentials.

McAlister has been handcrafting high-end guitars for 30 years. He's one of the most prestigious guitar makers in the world, and the only American to ever be featured in the renowned Educational Museum of Musical Instruments in Cremona, Italy. His work has also been featured in The Smithsonian. 

But it's his clients that have amped his reputation. They include Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Marc Cohn. A Roy McAlister guitar costs around $8,500.

But he's left that world behind in order to teach a shop class at Stadium High School.

His Own Beginnings in a Shop

To understand why he made the switch, you have to know his own story. He was a teenager living in Los Gatos, California when a couple of guys needed some physical labor.

"They just said, 'Hey, kid, do you want to help us unload a truck after school today?'" McAlister said.

It turned out to be a load of antiques from Europe that was headed to a high-end restoration shop.  

"And I’d never really been in a shop before, but as I was carting these pieces of dilapidated furniture in various stages in need of repair, the sights, the sounds of the shop fascinated me, and I just loved it," McAlister said.

Roy McAlister with one of his own McAlister guitars. The guitar is headed to a client in Japan.
Roy McAlister with one of his own McAlister guitars. The guitar is headed to a client in Japan.
Credit Florangela Davila

That shop was where he learned all kinds of techniques. He built furniture. And he also took apart his fair share of guitars just so he could figure out how to build them.

McAlister went on to work at the Santa Cruz Guitar Company for several years before striking out on his own. Now he makes a good living as a luthier working out of his home in Gig Harbor, where he loves being in his shop.

"I love the tranquility, the solitude," he said.

'He Just Fell in Love with the Kids'

There’s not a lot of quiet now at Stadium High, though, where he’s figuring out how to translate his expertise into classroom curriculum for 25 kids at a time.

"Some of them don’t even know how to sweep properly. I don’t mean that in an insulting way, but I really have to start at the basics," he said.

It was McAlister’s neighbor, who teaches a vocational ed class at the high school, who coaxed him into signing on as a part-time consultant last year.

But school principal Kevin Ikeda says McAlister wasn’t satisfied with just dropping by occasionally.

"To make a long story short, he just fell in love with the kids," Ikeda said.

So McAlister signed up to teach a nearly full-time load.

It’s not that he’s bored of making guitars.

"But I’ve done enough of them that that initial, you know, excitement of 'Here’s this thing I can’t believe I’ve made that!'" he said. "What I know is there are those kids that are just a little wiggly in a regular classroom academic setting. They are the tactical learners. They need to build things."

McAlister was one of those kids. And he wound up with a mentor early on who kept telling him he had a gift that nobody could take away.

So now it’s his turn to let young people know that they have gifts, too.