John Sturgill was born and raised in Maryland, but his family was from Alleghany County, and they made frequent trips home. John himself moved to North Carolina in 1970 to make his home in Alleghany County. John’s father, “Uncle” Dave Sturgill, was a well-known banjo player and instrument builder in the area who taught himself to make a banjo at ten years old. “There was a lot of music around the house when I was growing up,” John said. John spent a lot of time in his dad’s basement workshop trying to make fiddles. “Just piddling,” he said.
Before he moved to Alleghany County, John lived in Nashville where he worked for Grammer Guitar as a finishing supervisor doing inlay work. The president of the company was a friend of the family, and John fine-tuned his skills. During his time there, he had a chance to work on a guitar for Johnny Cash. On the back of Ernest Tubb’s guitar he engraved “Thanks”. John also worked for Emmons Guitar Company in Burlington where he helped design electric bass guitars.
When he moved to Alleghany County, John joined the family business. His father had a shop at his home where he made guitars and other instruments, and John started doing the finishing work for his father’s instruments. After a while, he started making instruments himself, including banjos, fiddles, guitars, lap dulcimers, hammered dulcimers, and mandolins. He worked full-time making instruments except for a couple years in the 1980s.
John became interested in playing music as well as building instruments when he moved to Alleghany County, and he started attending fiddlers’ conventions. At one of the festivals, he saw someone playing a washtub bass. He thought it looked like fun, but he did not like the sound. Using his wood-working skills, he made a wooden washtub bass and started playing in old-time string bands. Playing his washtub bass, he won the bass competition at Union Grove in 1974. He played for many years with the Skyland Strings with his father and Ken Powers on fiddle. He also played with Wayne Henderson, and at numerous local jam sessions.