Jam with Mel Bergman: Creator of Wheely Guitars
Editor’s Note: Mel Bergman of Camarillo, California, is the president of Wheely Guitars. Bergman has a passion for building guitars, but not just any guitar. He likes to build custom-fitted guitars with all the bells and whistles that the nation’s top musicians want designed into their guitars. Bergman has enjoyed building those top-of-the-line guitars for some of the nation’s best performers, but because his family has been very involved in serving other people, Bergman always wondered, “What more can I do to help others have better lives?”
From out of the blue, and Bergman doesn’t even know today where the idea came from, he began to think about how difficult playing a guitar in a wheelchair would be and especially learning how to play a guitar while in a wheelchair.
Electric guitars aren’t built to fit with the layout of a wheelchair.
Except for classical and flamenco guitars, guitars were built to be played standing up. Bergman recognized that if he was riding a wheelchair, he couldn’t sit in an upright position and play a guitar. He would have to lean out over the front of his guitar in an awkward position to play the guitar. All these thoughts were rolling around in his head when he decided to try and build guitars for people in wheelchairs.
He wanted to build guitars not just for adults and not just for musicians who played guitars before they were hurt and wanted to continue playing their guitars while in wheelchairs, but also for anyone young or old who had a disability and wanted to learn to play the guitar. Many consider Bergman a modern day Don Quixote with an impossible dream on an impossible mission to change the world. Today he still has an even bigger future dream.
“When you’re sitting in a wheelchair trying to play a guitar, the arms on the wheelchair make getting the guitar within the confines of the wheelchair very difficult,” Bergman explains.
“If you play the guitar while in a wheelchair, you’ll have to sit up and lean out in an uncomfortable position, which makes playing the guitar and learning to play the guitar more difficult than it should be.
Also, guitars are designed to be played standing up. The Wheely guitar allows people riding a wheelchair to play or learn to play the guitar much easier.
“For quite a few years as I mentioned, I owned a digital marketing agency. Then finally, I decided that I wanted to do what I really wanted to do – build custom guitars. As I built more and more custom guitars, I started thinking, ‘What else can I do with the rest of my life that will help other people?’ One day the thought popped into my head that there were no guitars made for people riding wheelchairs. The more I thought about the idea, the more I decided this was the way I could help people with disabilities play the guitar, learn to play the guitar and possibly help us build these guitars.”
However, Bergman had a problem. He didn’t know anyone in a wheelchair. So, he tested some prototypes on as many different wheelchairs as he could find. Then he started showing some people in his town what he was trying to do, and they became very supportive and very encouraging. Bergman began building guitars designed specifically for people in wheelchairs and received some very positive feedback.
“I’m convinced that anyone can learn to play the guitar,” Berman explains. “However, playing the guitar is not like plugging a device in, and it works. You have to practice, and you have to be committed to learn to play. The more difficult the instrument is, and the more uncomfortable the instrument is to play, the less likely the person will stick with playing that instrument. So, my idea was that if I could make a guitar that was easy for people riding wheelchairs to learn to play, and the instrument was easy for them to hold, then these two factors would open up new opportunities not only for the guitar business but for people in wheelchairs.”
The Rehabilitation Factor of Playing Music
Today, six percent of the population in the United States plays the guitar, but 10 percent of the population in the U.S. say they’d like to learn to play the guitar. Learning to play an instrument can be a really fun and enjoyable rehabilitation experience too.
“Right now, our company only is making electric guitars, but moving forward, we hope to make acoustical guitars for people riding wheelchairs,” Bergman explains. “Further down the line, we hope to have a core group of teachers who can teach people with disabilities how to play their guitars.”
Right now, Bergman’s vehicle for sales for Wheely Guitars is social media marketing.
“Our goal is to put guitars into the hands of as many people in wheelchairs as we possibly can.
Our plans are to form a nonprofit organization to do that. We want to get guitars into the hands of people who have been playing guitars before their injuries.We want to rekindle the fire of playing guitars with guitars that are designed for them and their wheelchairs.
“Wheely Guitars only has been around for about a year. We’re a brand new company with a new idea and a new concept, and we’re going to a market – people with disabilities – that hasn’t had guitars built especially for it and wheelchairs. We’re convinced that quite a few people with disabilities who ride wheelchairs want to learn to play the guitar. However, if they try to play conventional guitars, they’ll quickly learn how uncomfortable that is. But if they have guitars built to fit inside the parameters of their wheelchairs and to make playing guitars much more comfortable and fun, we believe this segment of the marketplace will grow.”
Bergman also has identified another problem in that not all people who want to play guitars are adults.
Wheely Guitars believes a large number of young people want to learn to play their guitars while seated in their wheelchairs.
“We’re looking at the possibilities of building a guitar that fits youngsters in their wheelchairs,” Bergman explains. “We have a patent pending on our design that allows the guitar to sit inside the standard armrest on wheelchairs, while still letting the guitar rest on the leg of the player. So, the person can sit in an upright position and play the guitar like musicians who play classical and Flamenco guitars sit and play. We also want to incorporate the classic look of a guitar into the Wheely Guitar. We don’t want our guitars to look like some type of medical device, but rather more like traditional guitars.”
Bergman’s often been asked, “What do you see in the future for this company?” His answer is, “I have a really-big dream. I want to set up a small manufacturing facility and hire employees who ride wheelchairs to build guitars for people in wheelchairs. I’d like to have an 80-acre plant dedicated solely to building these types of guitars. I think guys and gals riding wheelchairs making guitars for guys and gals riding wheelchairs is a great idea. We hope to be able to distribute these guitars to organizations who can match up people who want to learn to play one of the guitars we’ve made. In the long range, we want to set up people riding wheelchairs to teach people riding wheelchairs how to play guitars built by people riding wheelchairs. To me, making custom guitars for individuals in the music business is a natural evolution to making guitars for people in wheelchairs, and this offers an opportunity for more performers in wheelchairs to sing and play their guitars.
“We’ve been making custom guitars since 1992 for people like Nokie Edwards, the lead guitarist for the Ventures band, and Dave Davies, who plays for the Kinks.
They are two of the biggest names that I think people in the music industry will know, or people who go to concerts and buy music will recognize.”
Bergman’s family belongs to several different service organizations, and he enjoys making custom guitars. So, when the idea of making guitars that fit inside wheelchairs hit him, he thought to himself, “I could help a lot of people if I developed this type of guitar and made them available to people riding wheelchairs. By building our guitars and teaching people to play guitars, we also could provide jobs for people. Some people riding in wheelchairs too even might play in major orchestras or sing and play their guitars. That’s what I’m really trying to accomplish.”
Wheely Guitars: Design Features
The Wheely is available in four colors and in three varieties of pickup combinations (3 single-coil, 2 humbuckers and 1 single-coil, and 2 humbuckers). A child’s size model is currently in development.
- BODY: Alder
- BODY FINISH: Urethane
- BODY SHAPE: Wheely (Patent Pending) based on traditional S Style, with custom shaping specifically designed for use in wheelchairs and in a sitting position.
- NECK: Three piece Eastern Hardrock Maple
- NECK FINISH: Urethane
- NECK SHAPE: Wheely Comfort Carve
- SCALE LENGTH: 25 ½
- FINGERBOARD: Rosewood
- FINGERBOARD RADIUS: Compound
- NUMBER OF FRETS: 21
- FRET SIZE: Medium
- NUT WIDTH: 42 mm
- POSITION INLAYS: Mother of Pearl Dots
- HEADSTOCK: 11° tilt-back Three on a side
- TRUSS ROD: Double Action
- BRIDGE: Hipshot Through-Body Fixed Bridge – Made in USA, Chromed
- HARDWARE FINISH: Chrome
- TUNING MACHINES: Hipshot Chromed Closed-Back Tuners
- PICKGUARD: 3 Ply or Single Ply
- NECK PLATE: 4 Bolt
- Zero Fret for Precise Intonation
- Double Action Truss Rod for Precision Relief Adjustment
- 3-Piece Neck for Stability and Strength
- String-Through Body for Maximum Resonance
- High Quality Cloth Wiring
- Highest Quality Seymour Duncan Pickups, Made in USA
- Closed-Back Hipshot Tuners, Made in USA
- D’Addario XL EXP110 NY High Carbon Steel Strings (10-46 Gauge), Made in USA
- Upper Arm Bevel for Playing Comfort
- Blade Switch Pickup Selector
- High Quality Electronic Components
- Hot Rod Red
- Racetrack Black
- Burnout Blue
- Wheely White
To learn more about Wheely Guitars, you can go to www.wheelyguitars.com.
About the Author:
John E. Phillips For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.