Johnny Bencomo was born in Silver City, N.M., and grew up in the village of Arrey, N.M., a fertile valley irrigated by the Rio Grande. As a boy, he explored the Caballo Mountains where there are legends of secret caves and caches of Apache gold. From the ridges, he could look down on the once dreaded Jornada del Muerto, the “badlands of New Mexico” that he sings about.
Teaching himself to play guitar at age 13, Bencomo has been entertaining people with his music ever since. He started singing professionally at age 19, first at the Old William Bonney (Billy the Kid) Saloon in Mesilla, N.M.; then moving to Tucson and engagements throughout Southern Arizona.
Bencomo is one of the few people in the world who plays an 18-string guitar, and he tells an interesting story of how he came to own one of these unusual instruments.
In 1989, he went into a music store in Nashville, Tenn., and saw an 18-string guitar. He picked it up and played a song called “Amanda.”
“There was just incredible sound coming out of it. I couldn’t stop. I played 15 minutes of the same song. That’s how much I was mesmerized. It was like I felt when I played my first 12-string in 1968,” he said.
The guitar was for sale for $1,000. He didn’t buy it, although he later wished he had.
Back in Arizona in 1992, he told his wife about that 18-string guitar he had played in Nashville a few years earlier. She contacted L.G. “Stew” Stewart, a self-taught luthier, or maker of stringed instruments, in Hereford, and they asked him to custom-make a guitar with 18 strings. He agreed to do so.
Stewart, now 83, said he built about 50 instruments, including guitar, fiddle, mandolin and hammered dulcimer, over the course of about 10 years, but he no longer makes them. He said it took him about four months to craft the 18-string guitar, and he never created another after that.
“It was challenging because it was different but not challenging because it was particularly difficult to make,” he said.
Bencomo said to his knowledge there are only three such instruments worldwide. Besides the one he almost bought in Tennessee and the one he currently owns, he knows of another in California that was John Denver’s and is now owned by Randy Sparks, who is a member of the New Christie Minstrels.
Bencomo’s guitar has 16 steel strings and two nylon strings, which are located on the bottom end.
His guitar has taken a beating. It broke where the neck and headstock meet twice — by a drunken man and by nature — but thanks to some strong glue, it functions just fine.
In addition to that instrument, he has four other guitars, including a baby 6-string, a standard 6-string, a baby 12-string, a standard 12-string.
He describes his music as “unique, unorthodox and simple.”
Three of Bencomo’s more popular CDs are “Histories N’ Memories,” “Backshooter Bob” and “A Cowboy’s Memories.” He also has an instrumental CD called “Eighteen-strings in Concert.”
“Backshooter Bob” contains songs of things that happened in his personal life. “A Cowboy’s Memories” features songs about people he knew and worked with in Cochise County. “Histories N’ Memories” includes songs by other people.
He plays 787 songs, some dating back the 15th century. About 700 are vintage country and western songs. He has written 18 songs.
“My style is of a Southwestern nature,” he said. “I am a man of the West, and I play songs of the West. I brought Nashville out here and I do it Cochise County style. Everybody loves it.”
He said other people have called it “awesome,” “wonderful,” “amazing” and “underrated.”
With a voice rich enough to match even the expansive sounds of his 18-string guitar, Johnny can truly evoke images — even memories — of a simpler time.