On the Fringe

In the margins, on the fringe, away from the mainstream and lurking in the shadows of popular culture. Those phrases describe the people I respect and admire most. You could say that I’ve unconsciously—or consciously—modeled my career after those people. I’ve never wanted to be a household name, and I don’t care if everyone knows my work. The important thing to me is to do good work and build cool shit. Grandstanding is against my nature, and in the past when my job required me to be the face and voice for an organization, I did the job reluctantly. I saw it as part of the way we all put food on the table. It provided everyone in the shop a chance to continue doing what mattered.

Hamer guru tour at Lighting Joe’s
Hamer guru tour at Lighting Joe’s

Our traveling roadshow was a harbinger of what others do today. I liked meeting the dealers and the customers, but after each appearance was over I would go back to my hotel with a migraine—the reward for strong-arming my natural shyness. When I started my first guitar blog in October of 2005, I had to do it against the wishes of the parent company’s vice president, who didn’t even know what a blog was. He went home, asked his kids, and then told me it was a bad idea. I did it anyway and paid for it myself. My intent wasn’t to elevate myself, but rather to share the stories of how the crew and I made—cool shit. Those pages told of the daily life in our shop and turned the spotlight on the key people who worked there. It was the first time any of them got the credit they deserved, but were denied by policy. I’ll admit that I did get a sense of vindication when a few years later, Premier Guitar magazine called it “essential reading” for those in the industry. At that point the marketing pukes put a link on our main website and I almost immediately started to lose interest. I had 11,000 people coming to look, and yet I wanted to derail it. When I left, they struggled to emulate what I had started, and it didn’t end well.

So, is this some sort of failure complex? Possibly. The Woody Allen line from Annie Hall comes to mind: “I would never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” More likely, I just don’t like crowds. I prefer to meet people one on one and make a real connection. And that’s what the blog felt like. I could talk about what I wanted and share with a few weirdos who got it. As soon as it was a “big deal” it was serving the wrong purpose. I prefer to interact with the kind of souls that look to the details and make the connections offered up by references rather than have it all laid out for them in easy to understand WOW soundbites.

One guy who gets it—Steve Mesple of Wildwood Guitars
One guy who gets it—Steve Mesple of Wildwood Guitars

In my present shop I have only myself to praise or blame. I post when I wish and don’t worry about trying to please everyone. My monthly column/blog Esoterica Electrica is the result of just being myself, and the good people at PG have given me a lot of freedom to explore subjects from my own perspective. I get to ask the questions that most people aren’t asking, because that’s where the cool shit is. In the era of the long tail, I don’t need to kiss the ass of the same old, and I’m assured that there is sufficient traffic for me to continue. And now, as this incarnation of my Workshop Blog has served millions, I still consider it comfortably small potatoes.

My guitar building continues unhindered by the constraints of the corporate hand that often strangles itself. Occasionally I collaborate with my compatriots from the now-shuttered old shop, but mostly I work alone. I have a manageable work schedule that allows me to write, photograph, travel and meet interesting people who inhabit the fringes like me. I’m happy that people like you hang out with me in our virtual meeting spot, and I do appreciate the nice emails and enjoy answering you questions. Oh yeah, I also get to make cool shit.

Morning (Guitar) Visions

More snow.
Fuzzy white branches like tarantula legs of soft snow blanketing my view from the morning window. Otherworldly and calming.


Sipping my espresso, black and deep, while I let my subconscious wander in the reservoir of guitar experience and memory. It is my process.

The notebook, pen, coffee and guitar. What more do you need?

A black crow silhouette on the evergreen above the shop.

Why am I sharing this process? Why not just post photographs of finished guitars—shiny and proud?

In the words of Martina Navratilova, a consummate athlete who won fifty-four Grand Slam tennis titles, “the moment of victory is much too short to live for that and nothing else.” When someone who knows what it is to cross the finish line first says this, I imagine she knows a thing or two about how to get there.

So, this is the quiet time when I let my thoughts spill out onto the paper. I am living for the moment I am in.

I am reminded of Kerouac’s “Method.”

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside your own house
  4. Be in love with your life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is


A Crow Reminder

Monday morning, and we’re back in the shop ready to take on a slew of new stuff. Over the weekend I was reminded of The Crow guitar when I saw Jim Carroll’s last novel, The Petting Zoo. I like to read on the airplane, and a friend offered me the book for the trip home. Right there on the cover was a big black crow.


Carroll is best known for his autobiographical book, The Basketball Diaries, which of course was later made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. More than just a celebrated junkie; Carroll’s work in poetry, prose and music spanned over forty years of ups and downs, from New York’s lower East Side to San Francisco.


As a singer and songwriter, Carroll burst onto the world stage with his 1980 release Catholic Boy, and its single People Who Died. That song has been covered by quite a few artists, including the Drive-By Truckers. Carroll himself died at age sixty from a heart attack—reportedly while working at his writing desk  in New York, in 2009. Such a loss.

Seeing the book made me think of when I’d played with Carroll on Back to the Streets, a tribute a tribute to Don Covay, many years ago. It was a cover of  “Long Tall Shorty” and it’s not what you’d expect from Jim Carroll. He was a fan of Covay’s work, and I think it’s a good track from a very interesting guy. The rhythm guitar is a Strat into a Vox AC 30 and for lead I used a Chaparral straight into a 50 watt Marshall.

I’m going to put on some Jim Carroll music, and get back to work.

As The Crow Flies

The theme for the Crow guitar has been an organic, growing and living process. Crows are messengers, and they are scavengers. As Jim, Ferdinand and I discuss the background behind the writing of Kerouac’s On the Road, we begin to make the connections between the travels of  Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty with being on the road as a musician in a band. The wanderlust of a new generation searching for meaning, flowing from the Beats to Dylan and the Beatles, Hendrix and beyond. Gypsies on the road, their freak flag feathers in the wind of the rock and roll road-show.

OK, too much coffee. Time for Jim to trace and cut out the spruce top from a lexan template I’ve made and get on with the build.


Meanwhile, the guitar’s back needs to be planed to thickness before it can be carved. In this case, the back is a flamed maple, book-matched and planed to .625″ before I start the carving.



All of the guitar’s parts will be made on conventional woodworking equipment, so the next steps will be to make temporary templates for routing the chambering and center section. I’ve got an idea for the center-block that involves some tuned cavities, so that’s up next.

The Road From Lowell

Jack Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, on the banks of the Merrimack—not too far from where we are right now. Apparently, he was a pretty good high school football player and went on to Columbia on an athletic scholarship. As much as the young Kerouac wanted to be a football star, what he wanted most was to just get the hell out of Lowell. It was a typical New England mill town that had seen its best days a half-century before Kerouac was born, and to him, New York city seemed like a better place for an aspiring writer to be. Of course, the rest is history, and the genesis of the “Beat Generation” (a term that Kerouac neither coined nor endorsed) began.


I’d been through two “Beat” phases myself. The first was in my late teens, naturally. It was right around the time I’d discovered Ornette, Parker, Miles and Monk. I was devouring Ginsberg, Burroughs and the like; while staying up way too late with my friends; drinking and discussing life, love and the nature of existence. On the Road and The Dharma Bums were required reading. I think every kid with a dream goes through this phase. Well, unless your dream is to be an accountant.


Lately, I’d noticed that my apprentice Jim had been setting the Pandora in the shop to a channel called “On the Road Again” which at first I thought was a Willie Nelson thing. Jim has done his share of changing addresses. He and I have talked about the strange urge to ramble on, that comes from an addiction created by moving households often. But then I noticed that a little library was growing in one of the shop’s cubbies.


I’d failed to make the connection between the Kerouac biography on my desk and the subtle musical program in the shop space. Once apparent that the hint wasn’t sinking in, the library began to grow. I smiled as I realized that the slow, solitude of a workshop in the woods is a million miles away from the hustle of  NYC. Our space is antithesis of what Kerouac initially wanted for himself. Yet, at the same time it is the lost Americana that he spent his life seeking.


Jim in the shop doorway, with more books.