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Helmut Schmidt, Published December 09 2012

Guitar legend Burton donates instruments to West Fargo High

WEST FARGO – Thanks to a guitar legend, students at West Fargo High School won’t have to fret about working with instruments that are too large for them.

The school received 15 guitars from the James Burton Foundation, an organization created by the renowned guitar picker to encourage students to take up music.

The three-quarter size guitars are a hit with beginners.

“I think it’s nice to have a choice between guitars,” said junior Tony Schweitzer. Particularly for those with smaller hands, he said.

“It’s easier to play the chords,” junior Jordan Ekerberg agreed. Plus, when a technique is mastered, “the switch from the smaller guitar to the bigger guitar is easier.”

Guitar instructor Mark Berntson said he heard about the Burton Foundation from a friend.

He emailed them and got a quick reply: “What do you need? What would your wish list be?”

The smaller guitars topped that list. It’s a gift that could have easily cost $1,700 or $1,800 that wasn’t in his budget, Berntson said.

Ten of Berntson’s 60 students regularly use the smaller instruments, while others use them as they feel the need, he said.

“They feel like getting used to getting their fingers in the right place on the smaller guitar helps them get their fingers in the right place on the bigger guitar. It’s sort of like a training tool for them,” Berntson said.

The 73-year-old Burton started playing professionally when he was about 14, he said in a phone interview from Shreveport, La.

“Music is my thing, and God blessed me with my talent. I’m self-taught,” he said. “It’s my whole life – ever since I was a little kid, I always loved music.”

He joined rocker Ricky Nelson’s band at age 16, and played for many years with Elvis Presley and John Denver. He also played studio gigs with many of the country and rock stars of the past few decades.

Burton said he started the foundation with his wife in 1995 after he had an accident.

He broke both ankles and his left ankle needed surgery. While in the hospital, he had a reaction to some medication and slipped into a coma for 10 days. As Burton recovered, he decided he wanted to do something for others.

He said budget cuts and shifting priorities have taken music out of the schools. The foundation is a way to revive music education.

“We present (the guitars) to the school and they can control the instruments. I thought it was just a great, great thing to do. And we’re still going strong,” Burton said.

“If one out of three decided to do something in music, I’d say we accomplished what we intended to do,” he said.

Berntson said his students plan to hold their Semester I Guitar Concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the school theater.

He said Burton’s help has improved students’ musicianship.

“Having these smaller guitars gives more success to more kids. We just have fewer barriers to sounding good,” Berntson said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583