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.