Crafting hope and inspired guitar play in the SCV

Ken Pfalzgraf, slide and guitar in hand, strums one of his creations in the shed where he builds guitars that have a special meaning to him. PHOTO BY Shae Hammond / THE SIGNAL

In the dusty walk-in storage unit next to the otherwise quiet rural home with a swing set in the front yard off Red Rover Mine Road, Ken Pfalzgraf creates music.

But for Pfalzgraf, it’s not about the performance. The process is about creation and expression. 

Pfalzgraf, an arborist, elected education official and a luthier, builds his guitars out of items like old cigar boxes and license plates as inspiration for his daughter Tami. And his efforts help others create a sound that’s meant a lot to his family.

Tami Pfalzgraf was born with Cornelia de Lange syndrome. It’s a rare disease that affects about 1-in-10,000 to 1-in-30,000 newborns, characterized by slow growth before and after birth, leading to smaller physical build and developmental needs that can range from moderate to severe, according to the National Library of Medicine. 

At the age of 5, it was expected that Tami would be cognitively equivalent to a 7-month-old. 

“As a parent, you’re looking at the very long term, which is a very difficult thing to sort out,” he said. “The first thing you have to get out of the way is that it is nobody’s fault.”

A learning journey

Because placing Tami in school was difficult, Ken and his family looked for ways to communicate with her. American Sign Language was a struggle because her fine motor skills were poor.

“Her potential would be found, ultimately, in her ability to express herself conceptually,” he explained.

Cornelia de Lange syndrome occurs when changes in a fetus’ genes cause mutations. Aside from smaller facial features and delayed cognitive development, many people born with CdLS can experience hearing loss.  

“Any type of stimulation that’s auditory would be very helpful to their development,” said Dr. Daniela Schweitzer, who specializes in pediatric clinical genetics at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. “Most (children with CdLS) have delayed profound language … if not absent, so what this father is doing seems to be an extraordinary, very smart way of approaching a way of increasing other ways for this child to communicate.” 

Instant response

Ken also noticed Tami enjoyed music, particularly slide guitar. 

So he watched a video of a musician called Seasick Steve playing a guitar that looked like it was made out of junk. Having an affinity for collecting things, the video inspired Ken to try making his own guitar.

With a little digging around, Ken made a small cigar-box guitar and stomp box, which is a simple percussion instrument meant to create a drum-like rhythm with the foot, and handed the tools to Tami. 

She responded immediately.

“She sat down in the chair and started strumming the guitar and stomping her foot in a rhythm, and I knew right there — that wasn’t 7 months old,” he said. “It gave us a great deal of hope.”

Grassroots musical intervention 

The combination of Tami’s reaction to the slide guitar and her father’s love of music specific to the North Mississippi hill country blues scene inspired Ken to reach out to musicians in the genre. 

And it also plays a role in his design, as he makes guitars that reflect North Mississippi’s deep musical history. 

“The music there has gone on in families for five or six generations,” explained Pfalzgraf. “I have given a lot of instruments to different artists trying to get back to their roots. I could tell from the way their music sounded that their roots were there, but now what’s happening is that all my guitars are going to artists right there in North Mississippi.”

One of the first musicians Pfalzgraf reached out to was Low Volts guitarist Tim Lowman, who hails from the region, and appreciated not only the gesture, when Pfalzgraf reached out to him, but also what Pfalzgraf was sharing with his gift of guitar and the instrument’s deeper significance. 

“(Music is) another language — it’s another way to express yourself without words,” Lowman said. “It’s definitely like its own way of communication. There’s release through guitar playing and making someone feel a certain way and other people can relate to your songs a certain way, too.”

While setting up for a concert in Los Angeles, Lowman was approached by Ken, who wanted to make the musician an instrument. “He pulled me aside and said … ‘I want to make this for you. I don’t make this for anybody. I don’t get paid to make them — I think your story’s cool.’ … So, I was like, ‘Why not?’” Lowman said. 

Signed editions

Pfalzgraf has now made more than two dozen guitars, and each one is signed by the inspiration for their creation, Tami Pfalzgraf.

He’s now using the guitars to support other artists, recently crafting an instrument he donated to the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, a nonprofit event that supports struggling artists.

Pfalzgraf recently reached out to Kody Harrell, a blues guitarist from Northern Mississippi, regarding the gift for an auction at the event.

“A lot of people build cigar box guitars, but they don’t really have a vision; they just like building them because they like to build them,” said Harrell, who plays guitar for Woodstomp. “He wants to be able to put his instruments in the hands of musicians who can actually play them because there’s meaning behind why he makes them.” 

Pfalzgraf enjoys not only sharing the gift of music, but also hearing the results of his handiwork and the feedback from other guitarists.

“Once they know Tami’s story and it’s individualized to them, it will hold more meaning to them,” he said. “People are amused by them when they see (the guitars), they don’t really expect them to sound the way they do.”

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