Following Guitar Instincts

A four decade tenure in the guitar-making world has given me a pretty good overview of things. As a guitar tech and musician I’ve recorded dozens of times in real studios and played live hundreds of times. As a designer, facilities and plant manager for a number of brands, I’ve overseen the production of tens of thousands of guitars. My lean/Kaizen consulting business has seen me working in the biggest guitar factories in the US and Mexico, and I’ve toured the guitar plants of Japan, Korea and China.

factory floor

But what I really enjoy the most is making guitars one by one with my own hands. And that’s why I’m really digging this Tulsa Artist’s Proof thing I’m doing right now. Each of these instruments starts off as a completely freewheeling, let-my-instincts-rule sort of jam session. They are ideas I’ve toyed with, or suggested to clients before—and never followed through with.

Two Pines

They aren’t “stock” models, and they’re all different. Some utilize combinations of woods, hardware and electronics that I don’t really offer on the stock models. Normally, I have a small team helping me build the Dantzig models: Tulsa, Milano, Tupelo and Rialto, but this is a different thing altogether. I’m a lot more hands on, and honestly, it’s the closest you could get to one of my signature guitars without the signature.

Marigold Guitar Morning Inspirations

Musicians are a bit like vampires. No, I don’t mean they’ll suck the life out of you—although that can be the case. It’s the hours they keep. I used to enjoy the upside-down, unconventional world of the working musician.  While others were brushing their teeth, getting ready for their meaningless day of drudgery at the office, my musician friends and I were stumbling out of a party or loading out from the night’s gig. The pale glow of the morning’s approach was always a special, quiet time before the bustle of the straight world took over.

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I’d been in the company of artists—like-minded souls, with great conversations and interesting points of view. Then it was home, for a solid six hours of sleep before rising at noon.

Today, it’s the reverse. The quiet time is still precious to me, but it’s at the start of my day now. I sip my coffee and listen to the birds—first a robin, then the Cardinal’s chip chip chip chip. As the sun crests the ridge, I’m walking down the wooded road to my shop. In the distance a chainsaw fires up and a dog barks faintly. This is the best time—so full of promise.

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My wife, Carla, had planted Marigolds at the entrance to my shop, and every day they make me smile as I approach the door. They are bright and welcoming—exploding with red, gold and yellow in the morning light. So, it wasn’t a surprise when I mixed up a new batch of glowing lacquer shaders and dyes to use on a few new instruments.

I’d been staying mainly with browns, deep cherry, naturals and muted ambers, which are still some of my favorite guitar finishes, but the flowers had made me think of more bright reds and yellows. So I made a few sample blocks.

Samples

I still think about the old times, and staying up all night. Bill Murray holding an enormous bunch of colored balloons in a deserted warehouse district street at 4 AM, or David Copperfield sharing cocktails and a childhood story on a balcony overlooking the lights of Chicago. Too many good memories to dismiss as wasted youth. But I like the morning for different reasons now, and my head doesn’t hurt.

 

Back in the Saddle

It has been a busy few months—lots of research, writing and following up on things, and not as much building guitars as I would like. That’s not to say that my shop has been idle. Space is always at a premium, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned—no matter how much you have, you’ll fill it up. So, in order to make things a little easier on myself (and my clients) I’ve been streamlining the shop. If you follow my posts on Facebook you’ll know that I’ve gotten the Hell’s Half Acre build back on the bench, and it feels good.

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The tobacco sunburst is appropriately named for this cowpoke guitar, and it turned out really nice. I’m back in my paint room, which has been upgraded, and am now putting on clear coats of nitro.

Lately, I’ve been infatuated with three things: French polish, old violins, and the patina of age on vintage guitars. I’ve been working on a way to stylistically blend these influences into a thin nitrocellulose guitar finish.

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Here is a test panel compared to an original 1964 Precision Bass. I’m not trying to match the color here, just the sheen. It is a combination of additives in the lacquer, and a hand polishing technique using a wool pad and lots of elbow grease. It’s not as easy as buffing a high gloss, or spraying a satin paint, but I think the results are great. This process gives the guitar more of a real musical instrument vibe, and less of a “production/factory” look. After all, I don’t make toasters or automobiles—I don’t think of guitars as appliances.

Then and Now, Short Form

Here is a template that I made in the early 1980s. It has been used to start the process on thousands of instruments. It hangs in my shop to remind me of my journey and all of the wonderful people I have met along the way. At the lower right hand corner is a current color sample block for a client’s guitar order.

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I’ve never done this for the money, but I like to be paid for my time and expertise. I didn’t start building guitars because I wanted to be rich, or even to be a businessman. I just wanted to make cool shit. I figured that if I satisfied myself, maybe there would be a few people like me who might want one of my guitars. So far, it has worked out way better than I’d ever hoped.

Patterns of Behavior

Space, the final frontier. It’s always a battle to find enough space in the workshop. If I’ve learned anything over the years it is that if you have the space, you will fill it, and there will never be enough room. Consequently, I’ve become very good at squeezing more things into less space. The downside is that sometimes you forget where things are, or that they exist at all. This runs in direct opposition to my Kaizen training—where visual systems rule the roost. I find it neccessary to routinely jockey tables, benches and machinery around in order to accomodate projects as needed.

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Good things in small packages: the original 6L headstock pattern.

As I was rearranging things yesterday I came upon a small box marked “Jol’s work patterns.” Inside was a time-capsule of paper cutouts shaped like guitars folded up neatly. In an instant I knew what I’d found. Before the advent of CAD, I did all my design work in full scale on a drafting table. When specifying a custom order for construction in the shop I would draw it and then cut the pattern out to be used as a template in the woodshop. These paper patterns contained all the location and configuration information we needed—it was the blueprint that we used to create a customer’s guitar.

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A customer’s order with Floyd Rose and custom control location

I have many large boxes full of my original Hamer drawings, blueprints and templates, but this small cache was part of a stash that somehow got separated from the rest. It was a bit like time travel to look through it and I intend to share more of it as time goes on.

For the Want of a Tool

I love tools—I’ve got boxes of them in my shop and in my home. My wife chuckles and shakes her head, I’m sure, because there’s a tool kit in almost every room of our house. Every new job I take on is an opportunity to acquire a new wrench, cutter or crimper. Punches, files, clamps and drills fill my heart with joy. Pantographs, saws and shapers fill my workspace with lovely dust.

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As much as I adore specialized tools—the ones that do one thing and one thing only—measuring tools, that I use every day, or even every hour of every day are my bread and butter. Rulers, scales, micrometers, depth and diameter gauges. These are the implements needed to navigate the complexities of building something to close tolerances—like a guitar. But by far the most versatile of this class of tools is the dial caliper.

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I’ve had my Brown & Sharpe dial calipers since the late 1970s. The corners and edges of the mahogany case have been rounded off from three decades of constant use, and the mahogany itself is darkened from oxidation and the oils from handling. If you look closely, you can see the impression from the serial number stamp in the wooden case. Steve Ward and I used those calipers to build the original five-neck guitar and the twin necked “Uncle Dick” for Rick Nielsen. I used them to plot the original design for the sustain block bridge and world’s first 12-string bass. They were there to measure neck dimensions on KK Downing’s Flying V and Glenn Tipton’s SG when designing their signature models in 1984. Gary Moore and I used them to measure the neck width and depth of Peter Green’s Les Paul ’Burst.

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Almost every person of note who worked at Hamer handled this tool at one time or another. It’s is still insanely accurate and one of my most treasured possessions, and as much as I enjoy the new digital calipers that can add, subtract and convert to metric at the touch of a button, there is something satisfying about using the analog version. It’s a connection to something deeper than just the job at hand.

Golden Age Update

 

My last post about the huge amount of electric guitar builders making instruments today elicited quite a volume of mail in my inbox. Some of you had additions to my list while others wanted to know why certain names were deemed “worthy” of inclusion. A couple people with severe OCD suggested the list be alphabetized. For those who sent me names, we all thank you. I couldn’t really grasp why the list should be in alphabetical order (as opposed to by cost, state or body style for instance) but I did it just the same.

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I think that my point was well made before the addition of another 100+ builders, but now we have a bigger list to view anyway. As I said before, this list is not complete—not by a longshot—and it does not represent any sort of endorsement or judgement by me.

What do you think this says about the state of the guitar industry?

Enjoy!

 

A E Guitars,

Abel Axe

Abita Guitars

Abyss Guitars

Abyss Guitars

Ace Guitars

Agile Guitars

Ali Kat Guitars

Andrews Guitars

Aria

Aristides Guitars

Artinger Guitars

ASG

Asher Guitars

Austin Guitars

AXL Guitars

b3 Guitars

Bacorn Guitars

Banning Guitars

Batson Guitars

BC Rich

Bear Creek Guitars

Becker Guitars

Bell Custom Guitars

Benavente Guitars

Benedict Guitar Company

Black Mesa Guitars

Black Pearl Guitars

Blade Guitars

Blu Guitars

Blue Eagle Guitars

Bolin Guitars

Bootleg Guitars

Boris Guitars

Bourgeois Guitars

Branch Guitars

Brubaker Guitars

Buzz Feiten Guitars

Byrd Guitars

Campbell American Guitars

Campellone Guitars

Caparelli Guitars

Carl Barney Guitars

Carvin

Chafin Guitars

Chappell Guitars

Charvel

Chris Larkin Guitars

Cilia Guitars

Cimarron Guitars

Citron Guitars

Collings Guitars

Conklin Guitars

Cort

Crafter Guitars

Creston Guitars

Crook Custom Guitars

Cycfi Research

D’Angelico Guitars

Daisy Rock Guitars

DBZ Guitars

Dean Guitars

Decava Guitars

DeLacugo Guitars

Delaney Guitars

DeTemple Guitars

DGN Guitars

Di Vill Guitars

Dingwall Guitars

DiPinto Guitars

Dolan Guitars

Doppler Guitars

Dragonfly Guitars

Dragonfly Guitars

Dreamer Guitarworks

Driskill Guitars

Dudley Customs

Dudley Guitars

Duesenberg Guitars

Eastwood Guitars

Eastman Guitars

Ed Clark Guitars

EER Customs

Electra Guitars

Electrical Guitar Company

Elliott Guitars

ESP

EVH

Falbo Guitars

Fano Guitars

Farida Guitars

Farnell Guitars

Fender Guitars

Fernandes

First Act

Flaxwood Guitars

Fleishman Guitars

Flinthill

Fliski Guitars

Fodera Guitars

Framus Guitars

Francis Guitars

Fretlight Guitars

Fujigen Guitars

G&L Guitars

Gadow Guitars

Gelvin Guitars

Gene Liberty Guitars

Gibson Guitars

Gigliotti Guitars

Gil Yaron

Giles Guitars

GJ3 Guitars

Glassical Creations

GMP Guitars

Godin Guitars

Gordon Smith

Greenfield Guitars

Gretsch Guitars

Grosh Guitars

Grove Guitars

Guild Guitars

Hallmark Guitars

Ham-tone Guitars

Hamburguitar

Hanson

Hanson Musical Instruments

Harden Engineering

Headless Guitars

Henman Guitars

Heritage Guitars

HiTone Guitars

Hofner Guitars

Hoyer Guitars

Huber Guitars

Ibanez Guitars

Italia Guitars

J. Backlund Guitars

Jackson Guitars

Jacob Chapman

James Tyler Guitars

Jay Turser Guitars

Jericho Guitars

JLS Guitars

John Carruthers Guitars

Johnson Guitars

Joseph Lukes Guitars

K-Line Guitars

Kammerer Guitars

Ken Parker Guitars

King Blossom Guitars

Knaggs Guitars

Knutson Luthierie

Koll Guitars

Kostal Guitars

Kramer Guitars

KXK Guitars

Lace Guitars

Lado Guitars

LAG Guitars

Landric Guitars

LaRose Guitars

Larry Alan Guitars

Leach Guitars

Learn guitars

Legator Guitars

Lieber Guitars

Lindert Guitars

Lodestone Guitars

Lollar Guitars

LSL Guitars

Luna Guitars

M-Tone Guitars

Malden Guitars

Malinosky Guitars

Marchione Guitars

Maret Guitars

Mario Martin Guitars

Martin Guitars

Maton Guitars

Mauel Guitars

McCurdy Guitars

McElroy Guitars

McInturf Guitars

McMahon Artistry

McNaught Guitars

McSwain Guitars

MDX Guitars

Melancon Guitars

Michael Kelly Guitars

Michael Tuttle Guitars

Mike Lull Guitars

Minarik Guitars

Mike Guitars

MJ Guitars

Moniker Guitars

Moonstone Guitars

Moser Guitars

MotorAve Guitars

Musicman Guitars

Musicvox

Myka Guitars

Nash Guitars

New Breed Creations

North American Instruments

Norton Guitars

Novax Guitars

Novax Guitars

ODD

Oktober Guitars

Ozztosh

Parker Guitars

Paul Rhoney Guitars

Peavey Guitars

Peerless Guitars

Pensa Guitars

Perri Ink Custom Guitars

Phantom Guitar Works

Potvin Guitars

Prestige Guitars

PRS

Pure Salem Guitars

Rebel Guitars

Recording King Guitars

Red Rocket Guitars

Reverend Guitars

Rickenbacker International

Ritter Instruments

Rizzolo Guitars

Ronin Guitars

Roscoe Guitars

RS Guitarworks

Ruokangas Guitars

Ruokangas Guitars

Russell Guitars

RWK Guitars

S3 Guitars

Sadowsky Guitars

Saul Koll Guitars

SB MacDonald

Schaefer Guitars

Schroeder Guitars

Scott French Guitars

Scott Walker Guitars

Sexauer Guitars

Shishkov Guitars

Silvertone

Slick Guitars

St. Blues Guitars

Starr Guitars

Stevens Guitars

Stewart Guitars

Stremel Guitars

Strobel Guitars

Suhr Guitars

Switch Guitars

Tagima Guitars

Taylor Guitars

Ted Crocker Guitars

TMG

Tobias Guitars

Tokai Guitars

Tom Anderson Guitars

Tonesmith Guitars

Tradition Guitars

Travis Stevens

Triggs Guitars

Trussart Gutars

Tsunami Guitars

TV Jones Guitars

US Masters Guitars

Veillette Guitars

Veritas Guitars

Versoul Guitars

Vesper Guitars

Vigier Guitars

Viktorian Guitars

Virgil Guitars

Volta Guitars

Vox

Warlatron Guitars

Warr Guitars

Warrior Guitars

Washburn Guitars

Wayne Guitars

Wood Hagan Guitars

Yamaha Guitars

Zager Guitars

Zarley Wideneck Guitars

Zemaitis

Zion Guitar Technology

Zolla Guitars

Zon

ZOZO Guitars

Golden Age or Glowing Sunset?

Every ten years or so over the last five decades a major publication has featured a big story about how rock is dead and the guitar is going the way of the accordion. Recently I read about how EDM is killing guitar-oriented music and that an entire generation is growing up without the power chord or jingle-jangle of guitar. My reaction was pretty much the same as it has always been—not so fast. How can the guitar be on the wane when so many different instruments are being offered—and sold at bargain prices? Or will that be the cause of its demise? Part of the guitar’s appeal has always been its status as a rebel’s badge, which is pretty hard to justify when there are more guitars than there are people.

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Typical Day at the Big Box Brand

If you read the guitar magazines or visit online guitar-centric sites, you’ll have noticed that there are more brand names than ever before. In fact, it seems that there are almost more guitar companies than there are bands. For a player, this is heaven—so many designs and configurations to choose from! The vast offering of styles makes it a good bet that if you crave something, there’s somebody out there who can supply it for you at a price you can afford. There are vintage styles, modern styles, hybrids and mutant mashups in every color imaginable and some not to imaginable. Certainly this is a buyer’s market.

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But what about the builders? Can you imagine being in competition not only with offshore giants who can build a finished guitar for under $30, but with hundreds (or thousands) of local garage-based businesses? For some, it’s just a hobby where real profit isn’t important. This is the case for a lot of builders who are happy to make a few instruments a month down in the basement. It keeps them busy and maybe even pays for itself—if they don’t look at their time as costing anything.

I quickly compiled a list of some of the guitar brands being sold today. This list is by no means complete or comprehensive. In fact, my list contains just a fraction of what’s out there. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of them. I ran out of patience before I ran out of names to type. Did I mention your favorite?

Peerless Guitars

Farida Guitars

Paul Rhoney Guitars

Banning Guitars

Blu Guitars

Wood Hagan Guitars

Veritas Guitars

Volta Guitars

Yamaha Guitars

Doppler Guitars

Lollar Guitars

Ham-tone Guitars

Gibson Guitars

Rickenbacker Guitars

Electra Guitars

Warlatron Guitars

Peavey Guitars

RS Guitarworks

Agile Guitars

Dudley Customs

Harden Engineering

Landric Guitars

Grosh Guitars

Dreamer Guitarworks

Fujigen Guitars

D’Angelico Guitars

Dean Guitars

Wayne Guitars

DBZ Guitars

Warr Guitars

Stewart Guitars

Carl Barney Guitars

Washburn Guitars

Scott French Guitars

Vesper Guitars

Koll Guitars

Fano Guitars

Moonstone Guitars

b3 Guitars

Zolla Guitars

Framus Guitars

Trussart Gutars

LAG Guitars

Ronin Guitars

Fender Guitars

HiTone Guitars

Ruokangas Guitars

St. Blues Guitars

McElroy Guitars

Hamburguitar

MDX Guitars

Collings Guitars

Ritter Instruments

Crafter Guitars

Viktorian Guitars

Giles Guitars

Mike Lull Guitars

Taylor Guitars

Francis Guitars

Maton Guitars

Kramer Guitars

Takamine Guitars

Martin Guitars

Godin Guitars

Gretsch Guitars

Duesenberg Guitars

Hofner Guitars

SB MacDonald

Creston Guitars

LaRose Guitars

Hoyer Guitars

M-Tone Guitars

Ibanez Guitars

Recording King Guitars

Suhr Guitars

G&L Guitars

Blade Guitars

Musicman Guitars

ESP Guitars

Fretlight Guitars

Zager Guitars

Schroeder Guitars

Potvin Guitars

Virgil Guitars

Lieber Guitars

Fliski Guitars

Black Pearl Guitars

Abyss Guitars

Abel Axe

Ed Clark Guitars

Abyss Guitars

Driskill Guitars

Andrews Guitars

Dragonfly Guitars

Farnell Guitars

Melancon Guitars

Michael Kelly Guitars

Ted Crocker Guitars

Tom Anderson Guitars

Batson Guitars

Greenfield Guitars

Mauel Guitars

Sexauer Guitars

Gadow Guitars

Fodera Guitars

Warrior Guitars

Abita Guitars

Ace Guitars

Bourgeois Guitars

Fleishman Guitars

Knaggs Guitars

K-Line Guitars

Campbell American Guitars

Conklin Guitars

Delaney Guitars

Learn guitars

McInturf Guitars

Sadowsky Guitars

Pensa Guitars

Novax Guitars

Stevens Guitars

Artinger Guitars

Dragonfly Guitars

Marchione Guitars

DiPinto Guitars

McNaught Guitars

Minarik Guitars

Nash Guitars

Moser Guitars

TV Jones Guitars

DeTemple Guitars

John Carruthers Guitars

GJ3 Guitars

Brubaker Guitars

GMP Guitars

Henman Guitars

Ken Parker Guitars

Malden Guitars

Tonesmith Guitars

Triggs Guitars

Zion Guitar Technology

US Masters Guitars

Bear Creek Guitars

Bell Custom Guitars

Dingwall Guitars

Dolan Guitars

Chafin Guitars

Bolin Guitars

AXL Guitars

Heritage Guitars

James Tyler Guitars

Leach Guitars

Michael Tuttle Guitars

Myka Guitars

Boris Guitars

MJ Guitars

Norton Guitars

S3 Guitars

Jackson Guitars

Tradition Guitars

Veillette Guitars

Chappell Guitars

Electrical Guitar Company

Byrd Guitars

Knutson Luthierie

King Blossom Guitars

Bootleg Guitars

Austin Guitars

A E Guitars

Grove Guitars

J. Backlund Guitars

Gigliotti Guitars

Hanson Musical Instruments

Benavente Guitars

KXK Guitars

North American Instruments

Red Rocket Guitars

Black Mesa Guitars

Chris Larkin Guitars

Larry Alan Guitars

Motorave Guitars

DGN Guitars

Malinosky Guitars

LSL Guitars

Crook Custom Guitars

Branch Guitars

Cycfi Research

EER Customs

Decava Guitars

Bacorn Guitars

Maret Guitars

RWK Guitars

Russell Guitars

McSwain Guitars

Schaefer Guitars

DeLacugo Guitars

Switch Guitars

Tsunami Guitars

Becker Guitars

Benedict Guitar Company

Gene Liberty Guitars

Citron Guitars

Hallmark Guitars

McCurdy Guitars

 

 

 

 

Axes to Grind

In my latest column for Premier Guitar I describe the arc of some American manufacturing businesses including guitar factories.

Yesterday I paid a visit to Grover Jackson’s website to see what he’d been up to. The last time we spoke, about a year ago, Jackson had recently started a small guitar-building shop with ex-Fender salesman John Gold and they were building new instruments under the GJ2 name. He’d gotten himself a Fadal CNC and was about to release a new design called the Concorde. I was happy to see Jackson back in the saddle, he’d been an inspiration to me and I loved his original designs. I wished him luck and waited to see what amazing stuff he’d come up with next.

However, when I recently looked at his site, I was a bit surprised to see some pretty straight ahead Strat and Tele clones for sale. Well, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. It’s a tough marketplace out there if your headstock doesn’t say Gibson, Fender or Martin. The realities of the marketplace are in force even if your name is Grover Jackson. I know from personal experience that copycatting can be a double edged sword. It can make you, but it can cubbyhole you into a second-tier existence.

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On a related note, here is my latest column for Premier Guitar.

It’s about how the guitar industry is following a familiar arc. How many Packards, Tuckers, Humpmobiles, or even Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles do you see on the road today? There have been Shelbys, Deloreans, Studebakers, Dusenbergs, Hudsons, and Bricklins out there, trying to do battle against a stacked deck. For those of you who don’t know those names I’ll fill you in—they once were big shots in the car industry.

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So to all the small builders out there hanging on by your fingernails, you have my respect and I wish you the best. It’s not easy to survive in the shrinking guitar market—even if you have a famous name.

The Plywood Panacea and Masonite Mantra

Paul Simon wrote, “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts” and how correct he was. But Simon could have been talking about the product life cycle of any consumer item that relies upon favor for its sales.

 

In my latest column for Premier Guitar I examine the budget bin guitar fad. Click here to read.

Fifties guitars and boutique handmades are priced out of the reach for all but the wealthy or the truly dedicated players—something was bound to burst. Just as Andy Williams was left high and dry by the arrival of The Beatles, so too might be the fate of instruments from the golden age. Disdain of the old has often been the motivation for trends of the young.

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We don’t need your stinkin’ Les Pauls, PRS and Stratocasters, we’ve got cheapo student guitars that sound funky and make us look different than the old people in classic rock and country.

Maybe the suits at PRS will abandon their collectibles attitude and scramble to duke it out with more trendy upstarts like Fano. The executive teams at Fender and Gibson are already turning the microscope onto the pages of their cheesiest past offerings—you know, the ones that sort of inspired Fano in the first place.

Meanwhile, Rickenbacker just continues on making beautiful and glorious sounding, but practically unplayable art.

Read my latest for Premier Guitar

Big Apple Birthday Bash

Buried near the bottom of  page six in the faded green ledger that Hamer Guitars used to record instrument serial numbers, is an innocuous entry for the third week of December, 1980. It reads: Andy Summers, black, new model, 3-coil, S/N 02391. Three-coil was code for an as yet unnamed model, and it is significant not because this guitar was the first of its kind—It wasn’t—but because Summers and his band, The Police, were about to play a momentous gig with it. The guitar almost didn’t make the show.

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The Hamer Guitar serial number ledger book

I awoke early on January 9th, 1981 to a typical Chicago winter morning not unlike today. It was cold, still dark and my first impulse was to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep. I’d barely gotten any rest after having spent the night partying with friends. Dimly lit, bare trees swayed in the chilly wind outside my window and my head throbbed dully as I put together my thoughts.  Then I remembered—it was my 29th birthday and I was celebrating with a trip to see The Police. I had less than an hour to get out of the house.

At 8:40 AM I boarded a non-stop American Airlines flight to New York, and immediately fell asleep in my seat. Fastidiously packed in a custom-made brown cardboard shipping box and checked as baggage in the hold below was the black serial number 02391 guitar, which I planned to deliver to Summers in time for the band’s first ever show at Madison Square Garden the next day. After working with Andy Summers for almost two years, The Police had arrived in the Big Time, and there was no way I was going to miss it.

The flight was uneventful, relatively short and after a shuttle bus ride into Manhattan I checked into my hotel on 57th street. I was feeling better and there was no need to hurry, I’d done this dozens of times. After ordering some room service, I unboxed the guitar and opened the case. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Despite my packaging, which bordered on fanatical, the fucking airline gorillas had broken the guitar’s neck loose. My blood pressure started to rise and I felt nauseous—this definitely wasn’t in the plan. No amount of profanity was going to fix anything and I resisted the urge to toss the TV out the window. Just barely holding back panic I picked up the phone but instead of throwing it, I called a friend at a guitar shop on 48th street and asked him to open up a repair bench for me. I grabbed the guitar and practically ran all the way there—thoughts spinning in my head. How bad was it? Could it be fixed in time? A dozen blocks of dodging and weaving my way through crowds of people had me sweating and out of breath as I pushed the shop’s door open at last. I was desperate to get the guitar on the bench where I could force the crack in the neck heel open and see how bad things really were.

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The view from the workbench on 48th St. The Steak & Brew is now Rudy’s Music.

Luckily it was a pretty clean break, and getting glue in there and clamping would be fairly starightforward. I’m not always a big fan of epoxy for repairs, but in this case it was a good suggestion by the shop’s tech—so we proceeded. We got the clamps on and I removed any excess adhesive off without harming the finish. Could I be this lucky? I took a cab back to the hotel with the guitar still in clamps and was feeling somewhat confident it would hold.

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Summers backstage at MSG clowning for my camera after receiving s/n 02391

The next afternoon I delivered the guitar backstage at The Garden, and Summers marched right out on stage with it which was still a real leap of faith. I held my breath, but the neck stayed put. I worked my way from the side of the stage to the orchestra pit in front of the stage and fired off a few photos—one you see here.

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The guitar debuts on the big stage

A lot has been said about Summers, Sting and Copeland and how calculating they could be, but I like to remind people about how fearless they were. They were musicians first and last. I witnessed so many occasions where they would try something new without hesitation and that night in New York was no exception. Luckily the guitar didn’t let them down. The feeling of relief that the guitar worked was so overwhelming I barely remember the details of the show.

So, what did Summers think of the guitar? He liked it enough that he asked for another to be built, and we went out to dinner to celebrate—him for having played MSG, and me for having successfully saved the guitar. It was a better birthday present than I had expected.

The guitar model was introduced shortly after, known as “The Prototype”—a decidedly poor choice of product name despite its impressive public debut. I still have a soft spot in my heart for that guitar.

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.

Tail-Draggin’ and Other Pursuits

“I’m a tail dragger
I wipe out my track
When I get what I want
I don’t come sneakin’ back”

—Tail Dragger by Howling Wolf


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The Workshop is a laboratory and a work in progress. One day it is a place of solitude and reflection as I slowly craft materials into shape, and the next day it is a clubhouse full of voices and camraderie. Often, it is a music venue—visitors working out on instruments and sending signals through the surrounding woods.

Other times I take the workshop with me as I travel to see old friends and make new ones. These journeys bring the vibe of the shop on-site at studios, shops, homes, galleries, stages and anywhere creative folks gather. I bring my curiosity and am rewarded by learning from others.

This week has been a whirlwind of experience. From sitting in Levon Helm’s place at his drumset in The Barn,  the legendary studio where The Band recorded, to watching Matt Beck play my Sakura guitar on the big stage at a Matchbox 20 gig.

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Jim Weider and I lunched in Woodstock, and he recounted the early days of the festival scene before the “Big One.” We visited the place where Paul Butterfield’s band hunkered down to rehearse and get high, and where Bob Dylan rode his Triumph motorcycle for fun.

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Multi-instrumentalist Matt Beck and I discussed the origins of guitar-fever and its effect on the American experience beginning with Segovia legitimizing the instrument in the early 20th century. Then Matt put Sakura through its paces on the big stage.

I visited amp restorer/builder Blackie Pagano in Manhattan to talk about the magic vacuum tubes bring to guitar music; then spent an afternoon with producer/guitarist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel drinking great coffee and talking about why the guitar is such a special and alluring instrument.

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These were all gritty, but holy guitar places. But sometimes inspiration and iconic moments belong to simple ordinary locations. Inside a lovely suburban home, I held and played Howling Wolf’s 1963 Stratocaster.

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I can only hope that some of the stories shared will rub off on me, and what I brought to these exceptional people and places was worthy. The Mighty Wolf may have wiped out his tracks, but I’m thankful for mine.

Industrial Disease

“Warning lights are flashing down at Quality Control 
Somebody threw a spanner and they threw him in the hole 
There’s rumors in the loading bay and anger in the town 
Somebody blew the whistle and the walls came down.”

One of my favorite Dire Straits songs is “Industrial Disease,” from their 1982 album, “Love Over Gold.” It’s a bouncy little number with a cheesy ’60s combo organ part that belies its serious subject. Mark Knopfler’s lyrics are expertly crafted with an endless stream of references to the woes of the British Industrial decline. Actually, it is pretty universal and can be applied to our own American landscape. As much as Knopfler tries to keep his tongue in cheek, as a writer he is keenly aware that a good joke is funny because it contains an uncomfortable truth.

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Near the song’s conclusion the narrator encounters a pair of competing Jesuses at a public rally who both propose their solutions to the situation, with the second Jesus offering, “I’d cure it soon—abolish Monday mornings and Friday afternoons.” Which refers to the old adage about how anything made during those periods didn’t recieve the full concentration of the employees.

Having worked in industrial settings since my teens, I can attest to the fact that it is sometimes hard to find your stride at the beginning of the week and likewise at week’s end. As much as I enjoy what I do, a little perspective goes a long way. Which is why I’ve made it a practice of using these periods to inject some fun into the workshop, and ease in and out of the week.

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Last week it was the changeup of dismantling the door of a vintage Porsche, but it could be any number of things. I find that by breaking up the week with departures from the routine, I keep my interest up for the job of making guitars. Today, it was sorting through a box of cool old parts that was left on the shop’s doorstep by a friend who knows I like this sort of stuff.

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So, as we head into midday I return to the woodshop to some builds that are in progress—the grogginess that sometimes accompanies a Monday morning left far behind. I’m ready to concentrate fully on the task at hand, and avoid having to pitch good wood into the dumpster, which costs more in the long run.

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Take Your Time, Son

There are a lot of things about guitar building that I have yet to learn. One thing I do know is that taking your time building a neck is a worthwhile investment. Wood is not as unpredictable as some folks might like to suggest, but you have to know where to look. Years ago I did some research on how necks in their raw and finished states behaved over time. My tests were conducted on two separate occasions and each involved a test group of ten necks along with a control group of an additional ten in a climate-controlled chamber. Every neck was measured daily for three months with electronic equipment capable of a resolution of 1/10th of one degree. Both times I achieved similar results. I’ll spare you the details, but my conclusion confirmed that proceeding slowly over time was the best way to build a stable instrument.

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Today I’m taking a neck that has been in progress for several months to the next level—the rough carve. As you can see, the fingerboard has been bonded on, but is still flat. The first step is to make some radial marks on the shaft with a pencil, which allows me so see wherre I’ve been. This process is repeaded several times as the neck is broght closer to final shape and size. I probably could do without this step after all this time, but I still do it out of habit. I’ll use a cabinet scraper to bring the back of the neck to within .050″ of its final dimension, then back on the shelf it goes. By this point, most of the movment has taken place, but any last twisting will be taken out when the fingerboard is radiused in eight more weeks.

Standard (Parts) of the Industry

My column in last month’s Premier Guitar about profiling amps seemed to touch a nerve among guitarists even though it was really aimed at manufacturers of amplifiers. The debate raged on for a while, racking up some record website hits and massive pageviews of this blog as readers searched for information and backstory.

This month’s article is off to a similar start. It targets the idea that Fender created a de facto standardization of parts and simple manufacturing steps to make an electric guitar. It’s no secret that the Strat and Tele are the simplest instruments to build. Don’t get me wrong—I love bolt on Fenders. I worked in a factory where we made 900 a day. It’s the instrument equivalent of Lego.

My piece touches upon the shops that build parts (necks and bodies) for a swelling contingent of home-builders. Rather than name names or point fingers, I’ve merely laid out some of the story behind the ever-growing community of parts-guitar assemblers masquerading as “builders.” Also mentioned are the huge offshore factories that churn out instruments for lots of famous and not-so-famous brand names—side by side on the same production line. It seems that I’ve ruffled a few feathers, even among the folks wha actually build guitars from scratch. Go figure. They may be mad, or say it’s sour grapes—but they know I’m not lying.

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The Great Clone Debate

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Nothing pisses off guitarists like an article about plagarism. My latest column for Premier Guitar touches upon the legal (or not) debate about cloning, profiling, sampling and just pure ripping off. Not melodies, phrases, riffs or lyrics; but sounds. The issue is related to, but not about copyright infringements of songs, or sampling of riffs for songs. It’s about the gray area of sampling a manufacturer’s amp parameters into another device such as the Kemper amp. Personally, I like the idea of cataloging all of my vintage and modern amps into one library, but clearly this is something that makes the manufacturers queasy if not hopping mad. For those of you out there making boutique amps and effects—hurry up so I can borrow one of your creations in order to sample it into mine. That way I won’t have to buy yours.

For those of you who just wanted to hear the nice old Silvertone combo in the photo, scroll down to the sound clip videos below.

True and Lasting Value—Journaling the Build

The requests come in daily. Can I make a Telecaster? Would I build a bass using a Fender style as a starting point? Will I ever make a guitar that the average musician can afford? My answer is yes, and no. I can make a Telecaster, anyone can make a Telecaster. I can make a great one, but that doesn’t interest me. I politely suggest that they invest their money in a collectible vintage 1950s Fender. If they are bound and determined to spend money on a replica I send those folks to a fellow builder who is known for knocking the T-style out of the park. Tom Anderson or Creston Lea come to mind. If I didn’t mention you, please don’t take it personally.

It’s not that it is beneath me, it’s just not what I do. I love Telecasters, I just don’t make them to sell. The P-bass thing falls into the same category. I have a lovely 1964 3-tone sunburst Precision which is my go-to bass. Why would I want a copy, when I already have a rubber stamp version from ‘64?

p bassAnd that’s what most guitars are—rubber stamp instruments. I don’t condescend, it’s just fact. My bass and my beloved ’56 Stratocaster were just churned out of a factory that CBS saw fit to buy for $100 million in today’s money. Not exactly a boutique shop. Even brands like PRS build hundreds of instruments every day. The chances of your guitar being one of a kind are extremely limited. This is not to say that these guitars aren’t great tools—they are. They may be genuine, but they’re not an original. In the art world this is known as a serigraph (or its poorer cousin lithograph). Merely a reproduction of an original. Unless you have the very first pre-production protoype, you own a copy.

So when someone asks where they might try one of my guitars, the answer is simple—in my shop. OK, here’s the short story to save you the effort required to read my blog or website. There is and will only be one Sakura. Only one Crow. Only one Hell’s Half Acre, one Copperhead, one Wardenclyffe, so on and so forth. I build true one-of-a-kind instruments for people who understand the value of something original.

Here’s a video episode that explains a bit of my building process.

No Corners Worth Cutting

I’ve spent a lot of my life cutting corners. Carrying two bags of groceries at a time to save steps, or taking a back street to clip a few precious seconds off a trip to the store. We all do it. My hobby is racing sports cars—the ultimate corner cutting exercise.

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At age thirteen I devised jigs and fixtures to hold brass tubing in place while soldering them into slot-car chassis to be sold at a local hobby store. A succession of factory jobs building things like film inspection machines, splicers, mechanical scales and grain moisture testers introduced me to the big-time of cost-cutting time management. Even my promotion to purchasing agent at nineteen taught me the ideas of maintaining a lean inventory and shaving pennies off an order. Later, my studies with Japanese Kaizen gurus Yoshihisa Doi and Hajime Oba took this to an even higher level. You might say it’s in my blood to look for a better, faster, cheaper way.

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When I first set up shop as a guitar maker, those same skills helped to fashion jigs and fixtures that kept things consistent and maintained an orderly flow. My training had also taught me to seek help and insight from those more experienced than myself. So, in 1980, while setting up the Hamer guitar factory in Illinois I invited a visit from Stan Rendell, former President of Gibson Guitars. As he looked around, Rendell pointed out places where money and time could be saved without upsetting the customer. He mentioned that he could help whittle the time it took to make a complete guitar to under eight man-hours. I was horrified. The changes he suggested would certainly have reduced manufacturing time, but not without consequence. It became clear that the modern world had shifted its focus from improvement and consistency, to reducing cost without affecting customer perception.
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Today, I’m beginning my second day of testing pickups for the Sakura guitar. Every build goes through this process because every guitar is different and unique. From experience, it’s easy to whittle down the choices before I even begin. Still there are variables that only ear testing can address. I have a test rig that holds a pickup in place under strings to give me a baseline along with measuring the impedance and inductance. Because the Sakura guitar has steel plates on both front and back, the inductance will be important. Still, the final ear testing in the guitar will be the final exam.

When I talk to people about what I do, the thing that always surprises them the most is how much time it takes. In a one-click world where the emphasis is continually on saving time and cutting costs, this kind of patient work is almost viewed as quaint. I could just put a pickup that was deemed “good enough” in the guitar and assume that the customer will change it out anyway. But that would be a waste of my skills. I just remind folks that I’ve already cut enough corners for several lifetimes.

 

Axe in Hand

Not too far from here an old factory sits quietly alongside the Farmington river. Once upon a time it was the pride of the townspeople. The products made there were superior quality and sold around the world. The company employed most of the town. Those were the good times, but now they’re gone. Groups of business people have tried to revive and repurpose the old mill—none to any good effect. Sure, there are still some tenants inside. A few businesses continue to turn out some product, but for the most part, bitter and defeated ghosts walk the hallways.

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I thought about the old axe factory today as I cut up some kindling for the wood stove that heats my shop. The small Fayette R. Plumb Co. hatchet I use almost every day felt good in my hand—its hickory handle burnished smooth from decades of use. Most of the original finish on the handle has worn off, and the gold foil Boy Scout seal is tattered and illegible. I’ve had this tool since 1963 when I joined the Scouts at age eleven. Somehow, it has followed me through countless moves back and forth across the country. I’ve always taken it for granted.

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The Plumb tool company can be traced back to Jonathan Yerkes, who had been an established Moreland, Pennsylvania toolmaker since 1856. Yerkes moved his concern to Philadelphia and partnered with a young man named Fayette Plumb in 1887. Eventually, Plumb bought out his partner and the name was changed to the Fayette R. Plumb Company. These were tools made to work and made to last. Over the next hundred years, Plumb manufactured fine tools in Philadelphia, until the company was consolidated with the Cooper Group and manufacturing was shifted primarily to China to cut costs.

Like so many products once made in this country, axes are much cheaper to buy from places like Mexico and China. Will those tools stand the test of time? Now, I don’t doubt that the people who toil in those foreign factories are fine folks. They deserve a shot at a better life, just like our ancestors did here. It only makes me sad that most of what remains of all that effort is a tool that will probably outlive me.

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Interestingly, my particular Plumb hatchet utilizes an epoxy resin to attach the head to handle. The process, which Plumb patented on September 2, 1958 is said to reduce the vibration of the tool overall. Reducing vibration is obviously a benefit in a striking tool but not in a guitar. That gummy epoxy is still doing its job today fifty years later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an axe to grind.

 

 

Crow Wing Spread in Guitar Player

With about fifteen minutes to kill before our pizza was ready for pick up, my wife and I ducked into Barnes & Noble. Carla headed directly for the photography magazines while I hovered over a copy of Vintage Motorcycles. Eventually, I made my way to the music section and opened up a copy of the latest Guitar Player.

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The main subject was dedicated to fuzz boxes so I was curious and hoping to see some coverage of my good friend Analogman. Before I got to the effects-pedal article I found something that stopped me dead and brought a smile to my face.

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Wow! Just wow. There she was, spread out over two full pages—Rick Whittey’s epic shot of the Crow perched on a tree branch. Now, of course I knew that the editors had the shot, but I wasn’t prepared for this. Even when you pour yourself into a project like I do, you’re still happy when people “get it” and this told me that they did.

I rounded the corner of the aisle where Carla was standing and flashed the spread just to see her beautiful smile.

Thanks guys.

 

Testing Frosted Duco Lacquer

It is amazing how followers this blog, and The Crow Guitar build have been very supportive and encouraging. And now the time for color coats has arrived. The back will remain clear to show the flame, but now the rest of the guitar can be painted.

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Months ago when I embarked upon The Crow’s journey, I had a vision of it as a living, breathing creation. As the Workshop filled with crow and Kerouac prompts, The Crow guitar became more and more alive in my mind.

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Even when working on other projects, The Crow was never far from my thoughts, and its presence hovered over the shop. Friends mentioned that they were noticing crows. People sent me crow photographs and stories. A stuffed crow arrived by FedEx.

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I was concerned about the finish. The guitar’s construction was enough to make The Crow a singular instrument, but how was I going to finish the guitar in a way that reflected the theme completely? I knew it had to be black, but it needed something epic to convey the message visually.

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One morning I spied a pair of crows in a tree above the shop—I shot a few photos and went inside. When I put the photos up on my computer screen I noticed how the light reflects off the feathers. The birds are black, and they are shiny, but it’s not an even reflection. This played right into my new obsession with lower-gloss nitro finishes. I had an idea, but it wouldn’t be easy.

The Vintage Solution

From 1928 to 1941 the National company made resonator guitars from German silver (actually an alloy of nickel, zink and steel) as well as  brass and steel. Some of them were nickel plated—others were painted to imitate wood like this rare Tricone.

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Others were coated with what is now referred to as the “frosted” Duco finish. This paint got its name because it dried to a texture that resembled frost on a windowpane. It was available for a short time in a few colors including a greenish gold and a clear.

The original Duco paint was made with tar camphor—the stuff mothballs are made of. It fell out of favor and was discontinued and is considered a lost process by many. I thought that if The Crow could be done in a black version of this finish it would be the perfect thing. I don’t think there ever was a vintage National in Duco black, but I was convinced that it could be done. The nitro-based finish would have to made from scratch using the original recipe in order to get results.

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Starting with a 99% pure naphthalene compound, I added the black nitro and satin flattener until I got a solution that gave me the results I was looking for. It took about three weeks of testing to get a solution that would go through the gun yet still “frost” when it dried. I found that the paint is very sensitive to temperature and the thickness of the coat. It stinks to high heaven too.

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There was no way of telling exactly how it would turn out, so I shot a ton of test pieces to get a handle on how to control it as much as possible. Once I had what I wanted, I sprayed a small sample on one page of the journal I’m keeping for the guitar.

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The trick with this paint is that it can’t be topcoated with clear. Any application of finish over the Duco melts the pattern and it disappears. Once you’ve shot it—that’s it. This presents an interesting problem on how to deal with the binding. After some contemplation, I devised a plan. You’ll have to check back here to see it.

More Vintage Americana: Salvaged Electronics

The Western Electric Company was America’s largest producer of electrical gear from 1870 until the 1980s. Known for their Bell Telephones and associated switchgear, they also manufactured amplifiers, speakers, microphones and wire. By 1917 their Hawthorne Works plant in Chicago was one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the world. Although the plant is now gone, what remains is a legacy of American manufacturing might, and a massive research project known as the Hawthorne Studies.


The Hawthorne Studies were something I’d read about in high school. It was fascinating, and I struggled to use it as a guide when I became a factory department-manager at age nineteen. This research named for studies done at the behemoth Western Electric Hawthorne Works factory in Chicago was the world’s most comprehensive employee behavioral observation when conducted between 1924 and 1932. The Hawthorne Works sprawled over one hundred acres, employed over forty thousand Americans and generated a staggering $300,000,000.00 per year. This is equivalent to about $3.7 billion in today’s money.

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With vast amounts of capital to spend and even more to make through creating efficiencies, the Western Electric Company embarked upon an odyssey to use their employees as lab rats to determine how to make them work faster and better. The research covered all aspects of worker life too. The effects of smoking, alcohol and diet were put under the microscope in an exhaustive attempt to fine-tune Western Electric’s massive operation.

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In the workplace, researchers noticed a curious thing while conducting observations. If they increased lighting levels, productivity increased. When they lowered the lighting, productivity increased as well. By the time I read the studies in 1968 it was common knowledge that when workers know they are being studied, they tend to buckle down and try to look good for the bosses. My take-away from all of this was that people just want to be recognized for their contributions. It’s not about manipulating or threatening people, it’s about appreciation.

When W.E. closed down, the assets were scattered to the winds. As part of the Federal Communications Commission’s break-up of AT&T, Western Electric was absorbed by a new entity, AT&T Technologies, in 1984. An American manufacturer was crushed.

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As luck would have it, I managed to collect a stash of Western Electric parts manufactured in the Hawthorne facility. I’ve always been a fan of tube amplification and mechanical switching mechanisms like the ones produced at Hawthorne, and a lot of this stuff was rescued from telephone switching stations when they went digital.

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Here is some vintage cloth-covered Western Electric wire that I plan to use in The Crow, Sakura and Hell’s Half-Acre. It looks great, and is made to an insanely high quality compared to the imported junk available today. Think about the incalculable amount of  energy and human conversation that has traveled through this wire. Routine or romantic calls, cries for help or joyous good news—this wire has heard it all. With its installation in a guitar, the work of the fine Western Electric employees can be appreciated again.

Old Wood for the New Hell’s Half Acre

Yesterday was a good day in The Workshop. The Sakura’s finish got sanded and sprayed with new coats of nitro. I selected a nice medium weight mahogany blank for Hell’s Half Acre and began mapping out the body. Because I make guitars one at a time, I can afford the luxury of finding and using really exquisite boards—many of which have been sitting for decades.

This guitar will be a single cutaway solid body with a pair of humbucking pickups. The main section of the body will be a single slab of Honduras mahogany, with a figured maple top and back. The 8/4 billet above weighed in at fourteen pounds, but it’s going to lose well over half of that in machining.

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This is what the blank looks like after a few passes through the planer. A nice clean piece, ready to get a top and back. It’s almost a shame to cover up that beautiful grain, but we’ll know it’s in there, won’t we?

 

The Crow: Charlie Christian Pickups

I’d been playing guitar for about six years when I first heard Charlie Christian. Of course, everything changed that day in 1970. It was no secret that many of my influences had been influenced by those who had come before them, but it was usually a reference to a 1950s player. My teacher, Mike Bloomfield, implored that I study Muddy. Jeff Beck went on about Cliff Gallup and Scotty Moore, and Keith Richards wasn’t bashful about citing Chuck Berry. Peter Green and Clapton went on and on about B.B. King, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. As a well-read (I thought) and curious musician, I assumed that Django and Les Paul had invented shred. Of course, hearing Charlie Christian banging out amazing single-note electric runs in 1939 set me straight. Above all, his mysteriously raw tone floored me.

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I hadn’t even realized that there were electric guitars before World War II. It made sense—big jazz bands were loud. If you’ve ever heard an orchestra the size of Benny Goodman’s you know what I mean. Guitarists were tired of playing “strictly rhythm” and wanted to break out sax-style solos. The crude but effective technology of the day allowed guitarists to plug in, finally giving them a fighting chance. Christian was not the earliest of the adopters, but his amazing chops and visibility with Goodman’s band made him the best known. Although not created for him, his guitar’s pickup became associated with the man, and became known as the “Charlie Christian” pickup.

The original object of a pickup was to reproduce the sound of a guitar as accurately as possible. Electric blues, jazz and rock and roll changed all that. Players pushed their equipment to the breaking point in search of an expressive voice. To keep pace, builders rolled out new improvements. Time marched on, all but forgetting the crude, rude and singularly raw single coil that Christian first employed.

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But I never forgot. The hauntingly rough-edged tone of Christian’s big single coil pickups were never far from my mind. I’d had a few over the years—usually mounted on a big-box jazz machine unfit for cranked up rock or roots music. A few pickup makers offered P-90s with a Christian-style plate on top, but I wanted the real thing. Not available. That is, until I asked my friend Seymour Duncan if he could replicate them. To my delight, he’d just finished doing exactly that. That first set went into a semi-solid guitar a few years ago, and the results were astounding. When I started thinking about The Crow guitar, I knew that I wanted those pickups in it.  6a00e54ee874da883301538e463116970b-800wi

Built to the original specifications, the CC has a fiberboard bobbin wound with unusually heavy (38 gauge) copper wire with an enamel insulation coat. The Alnico magnets are sand-cast and oriented with their north pole firing upward through a period-correct steel blade polepiece. Seymour hand-bound the top plate to match the originals as well. To add an interesting texture, I internally reversed the polarity of one pickup to create an out-of-phase middle position. Here are my notes and instructions in The Crow’s journal.

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The problem with the CC is that it was designed to be mounted from behind. The original setup involved a huge and heavy cantilever mounting bracket that hung the pickup from inside a hollow jazz guitar.

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To solve this problem without altering the pickup, I devised a trestle that would allow the unit to be mounted and adjusted from the rear of the guitar. I had a friend make me some in his machine shop. Elliptical slots allow the pickup to be adjusted transversely for string alignment.

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Once mounted inside the guitar, the pickups can be raised and lowered via a pair of hex screws counterbored into the back. This also eliminates having to use mounting hardware or bezels on the face of The Crow, which keeps the look pure. Also, because the pickup is mounted to the back, none of the pickup’s weight is on the top, leaving it free to vibrate. The Crow is going to be a visually impressive guitar, and the CC pickups will give it an equally stunning voice.

 

Basecoats and Bonamassa

Yesterday was a beautiful New England day—the kind that makes you want to play hooky even when you’ve got a great job like mine. As soon as the stained back on The Crow was thoroughly dry I taped up the fingerboard, masked the f-holes and got it into the paint room for its first coats of nitro.

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Just a few coats first to raise the grain on the spruce top, and to tie to the filled mahogany. This process goes pretty fast as the nitro flashes off quickly. After the tie coat, the top gets scuffed, and then it’s time for three solid coats.

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Each coat gets thirty minutes to dry, then I repeat the pattern. After three coats I hung it up to dry for three days. Now it was time to take advantage of the nice sunny day. I threw a few things into the car and headed off to Worcester, Massachusetts to see some old friends who were playing there.

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An hour and thirty minutes later I walked through the back door and onto the stage of the Hanover Theater. Just inside I found Gav, with one of Joe Bonamassa’s Les Pauls in hand. We quickly took a tour of Joe’s rig and guitar arsenal, which was housed in probably the largest guitar trunk in history. I didn’t really know too much about Joe Bonamassa before Gav started working for him, but I was getting the idea that he’s a serious guitar man.

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Sorry for the crappy cell phone photo, but I think you get the idea. Ninety-six inches wide and it needs to be licensed in sixteen states. I was wondering if it had its own HVAC unit and zipcode.

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We spent the afternoon hanging out with Joe and the band, looking at gear and swapping stories. I was happy to realize that Carmine Rojas was in the band—we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. We passed some time leaving messages on mutual friend’s voice mail and catching up a bit. I also had the chance to spend some time with Alan Phillips who makes the Carol-Ann amplifiers that Joe uses. Alan is a knowledgeable and unassuming guy who really has a passion for what he does—and the amps he builds certainly prove it.

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Joe had recently acquired a real 1959 LP Sunburst, and he uses it every night, just as it was made to be. This guitar is wired out of phase in the middle position, exactly like the Peter Green/Gary Moore guitar. As far as I know, this wasn’t available as an option back in the day, so it must have been a mistake. I didn’t bring my magnetic tool in order to determine if it was a magnet reversal or a wiring mistake inside the pickup—that’s for next time. Oh, and Joe sounded amazing all night.

 

Guitar Hardware from Scratch

After completing the strap buttons and switch tip made from buffalo horn, attention now turns to the rest of the hardware. The Crow will be fitted with variegated nickel finish metal parts, so I was thinking now about the control knobs. Amber speed knobs seemed like a good bet, but the match to the rest of the guitar seemed less than perfect. One consideration was Daka Ware 1930s bakelite knobs. The brown color and retro look was classic Charlie Christian, so they seemed like a good possibility.

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I found some in my parts vault and laid them out on a black background and wasn’t impressed. They’d probably be good on a tobacco sunburst guitar.

I’ve always loved the clear plastic lap steel knobs from the 1940s, so I thought that I could make my own based on an original one. The precursor to the “speed” knob, they were slightly taller and not tapered like modern knobs. They were painted gold or sometimes silver underneath, but I just wanted one for a model. A fairly exhaustive search only turned up a few knobs for sale, and those were in really rough shape. I called a few friends in the vintage trade, but no luck. Finally, I found one in almost new condition—amazing for sixty-plus year-old plastic. Needless to say, it didn’t come cheap.

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My idea was to make some replicas in clear acrylic and maybe paint them underneath with slver. The lack of color would help mimic The Crow’s reflective finish without detracting from it. The first step was to make some molds from a pourable silicone material. This entails pouring the silicone over the original knob allowing it to cure for twenty-four hours. The result was very good so I made a few more, including a two-piece mold just for backup.

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This is what the mold looks like when fully cured. The next step was to mix up some casting acrylic in a cup. The amount of  catalyst is determined by the total thickness of the part, and I’d have about ten minutes to get it into the mold.

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By pouring the first of the material into the center recess I was avoiding any trapped air which would cause bubbles in the finished part.

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After another twenty-four hours, it was time to pull the part from the mold and see how it looked.

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Not bad for a first try, but it was obvious that I was going to have to sand and polish the part to get it to look like the original. I went ahead and made about another seven parts in order to experiment. I mixed some color into the liquid on a few just to try it, but it wasn’t a good result.

Once I figured out how to sand and polish the molded knobs (using the trusty drill press again) I also tried painting some of the knobs with chrome, silver and copper paint. In the end, it was the fully clear versions that I liked the best.

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Here’s the finished knob, polished up and sitting on my desk. I really like the way it catches the light—like a crow’s feathers. I think they are going to look great on the guitar, and the fact that they are not off-the-shelf parts makes me happy too.

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I think I’ve found my “signature” look.

Vintage Marshall Resurrection

I love the look of a proper vintage Marshall stack. After playing various combo amps in the 1960s, graduating to a blackface Fender Bassman and then to a Vox AC 50, I was staggered by the sheer presence of the 100 watt full stack when it arrived upon the scene in 1965. Equal parts audio device, stage backdrop and weapon of youthful enthusiasm, it was a statement which stood alone from all that had come before. I bought my first one in 1968 and added a second in 1969. You haven’t really lived until you’ve stood on stage in front of two wide-open full stacks. Since then I’ve collected quite a few more—a number of which are in need of some repair.

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So, while I was down in Nashville Jim took it upon himself to finish a project I’d started in 1985—I guess he figured it was about time. Many moons ago I’d rescued an original “plexi” 100 watt stack from the rehearsal room of a ’80 era metal band where it sat forlorn and neglected. Its owner had “graduated” to a nice little fifteen space rack full of solid-state gizmos and no longer wanted the towering relic. “It’s too clean, and doesn’t sustain” he’d told me. “My new rig sounds more like a record anyway.” To prove his point he danced on the rack’s pedal board and then fired off eight bars of 64th notes at about 120 bpm—holding the last one for ten seconds of whammy-bar gymnastics. For $300 the Marshall was mine, I didn’t even bother to turn it on.

When I got it home, I inspected it, cleaned some corrosion, checked some voltages and then plugged in my guitar. Score! The amp was fine but the cabinets had seen better days. They started life as a matched pair of metal-handle, salt-and-pepper grille 100 watt cabinets; and as good as they sounded they now needed cosmetic help. Somewhere along the line someone decided that they’d sound better without the original grillecloth and they had added period incorrect white logos. The straight cabinet had indeed been re-grilled with a low-budget fabric better suited for sheer curtains. From ten feet away it looked OK. An added bonus was the screaming highs that were now free to stab your ears without impediment—awesome, dude!

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If you’ve never taken an old Marshall cabinet completely apart and re-assembled it before, you’ll soon find your first attempt can be a struggle on par with splitting an atom. The second cabinet showed that the previous owner had learned quickly from his experience with the first. Apparently, after Einstein finished the first grille cloth conversion he had a better idea for the slant cab. Out came the carpet knife, and in about three minutes that ugly old vintage grille was gone without even having to look at a screwdriver. They say genius comes in threes (or is that bad luck?) so Mr. Brainiac’s next step was to staple some hardware cloth (chicken wire) over the speakers. A little flat black spray paint and the whole heavy metal universe was in balance again. (Cue devil horns here).

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So, while I was away, Jim methodically disassembled each cabinet and removed every stitch of cloth and every staple—the man has patience. The whole affair took the better part of three days, which is why I’d put it off so long.

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Here’s the front baffle with the remnants of the original grille. Note the vertical orientation of the white stripes.

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Along the way, Jim found a piece of broken beer bottle embedded in the tolex—a testimony to its long tenure playing in bars I guess.

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Inside, greenback 25 watt Celestions with original wiring. Some people like the even lower wattage Celestions, but when they get this old I’m happy for the small bit of extra headroom when only using one cabinet. Age will provide plenty of sag and the dense woven grille is an effective high frequency filter.

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Next, a roll of NOS Marshall grille cloth that I’d squirreled away twenty five years ago came out of hiding, looking great. I had just enough for two cabinets.

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The first order of business is to lay out the grille in the proper direction—the North-South orientation determined by the white threads. If you get it wrong the finished job will look weird when placed next to a correctly placed one.

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Using one of the bold white threads as a guide, Jim starts the folding over and stapling in one upper corner, continuing down and across being careful to keep the thread aligned on the edge. He’s got to stretch the material as he goes to get the proper tension. I’ve heard some people say that if the cloth isn’t tight enough when you’re done it can be wetted to make it shrink, but we’d previously tested this with a scrap of the new cloth and found it didn’t do a thing.

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After finishing the top and side edges, Jim stretched the cloth and tacked it down using the vertical threads to align it as he went. The next step was to replace the damaged white piping and then slide the baffle into the cabinet. Jim made sure to tap it home with a dead blow hammer before replacing the screws.

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With the baffle locked down it was just a matter of refitting the speakers with the wire harness and putting the back on the cabinet. It was also a chance to replace any stripped screws as needed.

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The last touch was scrounging up some NOS gold logos from my box of parts. The originals were brittle plastic that broke easily—you’ll often see period photos of bands with mangled logos. After a while, Marshall got wise and started making them out of a more durable nylon type material that flexed rather than broke. My NOS are the brittle kind with gold on the front. While he was at it, Jim replaced some sketchy knobs on the head.

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Original wheels are almost impossible to find in decent shape, but I have a stash of suitable impostors that are tall and thin like the real ones, so they’ll have to do until we unearth some originals.

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Restored to their former glory, it was time to roll ’em into the “Tone Pit” next to the other amps in my office arsenal. This is the place where I evaluate every nuance of the instruments I build so I’ve got a wide variety of amps in there.

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Now, the Dantzig Tone Pit finally has its proper pair of half-stacks—what a nice surprise. Thanks Jim.