Josh Stotler: A New “Eagle” Has Landed

Josh Stotler: A New “Eagle” Has Landed

I love guitars. Anyone who knows me will attest to that. I’ve also loved music since I was a kid. Seeing instruments in the hands of the artists I admired, I knew I wanted a guitar. So at age 14, knowing nothing about guitar-building and possessing zero woodworking skills, the logical thing (to me, at least), was to make one. As soon as the idea popped into my head, there was no turning back.

Displaying Apollo program themed guitar
San Diego-based Josh Stotler, who has been building custom guitars since age 14, poses with “Eagle” aboard the USS Midway.

The Internet was in its infancy then, so guitar specs and YouTube instructional videos were not an option. What I did have was a tape measure and a local music store where I spent hours measuring, sketching and planning my build. I came out of that project with a guitar that worked, a little more knowledge and an immediate desire to start the next one. Fast forward 27 years, and my excitement for guitars continues to be as fervent as ever. It’s now my business.

Design sketch of a shop-made guitar
Here is one of the original concept sketches of the guitar.

I was fortunate enough to attend the 50th anniversary gala for the Apollo 9 mission, held at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. I talked with Mission Control legend Gene Kranz and mentioned that it would be a dream to build an Apollo-themed guitar. He encouraged it, as did veteran astronaut Jim Lovell. While talking about the idea of an Apollo-themed guitar, Lovell asked, “Who is it for? It should be for somebody.” Brilliant! After a quick concept sketch and a meeting with San Diego Air & Space Museum’s CEO Jim Kidrick the next day, the guitar project was a go!

A Tribute to Inspire

Side inlays on NASA themed guitar
More than 1,300 individual inlay pieces adorn each guitar, including some authentic space-flown artifacts.

I wanted this to be a serious tribute to the men and women who made the Apollo program a success; it needed to be striking but not gaudy, to catch the eye and inspire the next generation to look to the stars. I also wanted it to be fun. I’ve built a lot of guitars, yet there were many aspects of this build I was uncertain how to execute.

Astronaut Charlie Duke posing with guitar
Josh Stotler and Charlie Duke (Apollo 16) pose with the Apollo guitars at Spacefest in Tucson, Arizona.

To allow experimentation with technique, I built two identical guitars. My design was intricate, calling for the mission patch of every manned Apollo flight to be created in wood veneer and inlaid into the sides of the body, large mural inlays for the back and plenty of Easter eggs hidden in plain sight. My work was cut out for me.

Astronaut Dave Scott posing with guitar
Apollo 9 and 15 astronaut Dave Scott poses with Stotler and both “Eagle” and “Aquarius” guitars at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

Building both guitars took more than 1,000 hours to complete over two years. Each has 1,328 individual inlay pieces. The fretboard side markers are authentic space-flown artifacts from every manned Apollo mission. The internal bracing bears the names of fallen astronauts; the famous “Earthrise” adorns the headstock, and a quote from John F. Kennedy is engraved on the back of the neck. A Saturn V rocket stands proudly on the fretboard, and the front of the body looks as if it just splashed down after streaking to earth from the heavens. The back includes the Apollo program logo and a depiction of the Command and Service Module docked with the Lunar Module as it would have looked on the way to the moon. Hours of research went into making this as technically accurate as possible.

Spacefest Unveiling

Astronaut Walt Cunningham signing guitar
Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham adds his signature to “Eagle.”

“Eagle” and her sister guitar, “Aquarius,” were unveiled last year at Spacefest in Tucson, Arizona. I experienced firsthand the reaction of astronauts and support staff as they looked over my creations, and it made me beam with pride. I asked the astronauts to sign the Apollo guitar, since it is for display. Watching Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke add the first signature was a thrill. I have been fortunate to have several of the Apollo astronauts and Mission Control staff sign it. These men rode rockets, coolly handled danger and left footprints on the moon. Seeing the wonder on their faces as they looked over my tribute is something I can’t describe, but I will treasure it for the rest of my life.

Eugene Kranz posing with Apollo guitar
Eugene Kranz, former flight director at Johnson Space Center, shares a photo moment with Stotler.

Today, “Aquarius” resides in my personal collection, and “Eagle” is on permanent display in the San Diego Air & Space Museum’s “SPACE: Our Greatest Adventure” gallery; positioned side-by-side with storied relics, like the Apollo 9 Capsule “Gumdrop” and Apollo and Mercury space suits. I am honored that my tribute will be enjoyed for generations to come.

Josh Stotler showing off base of Apollo guitar

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