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.

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.

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.

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 Guitar Setup

With the frosted duco finish cured, I am able to continue with the assembly and setup of The Crow. Both the headstock face and the back of the guitar are hand buffed to a gloss finish with a series of compounds. The next step is to remove any residue.

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The nitro was flattened five percent to give it a slightly lower gloss. It’s hardly noticeable, but gives the guitar a more vintage and “lived in” appearance. The idea is to build a guitar that already looks and feels broken in and experienced.

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In this shot you can see the ivory string nut. I like this material for a lot of reasons, including its rich, grained appearance. Any tape residue on the fingerboard is removed at this point; I go over each fret with a small hand buffer to shine them up.

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Once cleaned up, the electronics are fitted in through small openings in the pickup routes. The Charlie Christian pickups are mounted on stainless steel shoulder bolts from the back of the guitar. You can see the mounting holes in the photo above.

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Held from behind and cushioned on on springs, the pickups do not touch the top of the guitar. This allows the top to vibrate freely while the pickups are isolated for feedback rejection. It also gives the guitar a sleek look because there is no mounting hardware in the front. Height adjustments are done with a 4mm allen wrench.

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After assembly, it’s time to put a set of Pyramid Nickel Classic strings on and do the setup. First I adjust the truss rod. From experience gained in thousands of set-ups, I can pretty much guess how much bow to put in even before the strings are on. I set the bridge to a middle height and then string up the guitar. With a close approximation of the final action, I then can cut the nut slots to their final depth. Then the guitar can be tuned to pitch and all the final heights and truss rod changes can be made.

To do the intonation I used my vintage Peterson strobe tuner on The Crow. I’ve had this tuner since the early 1970s and used it at Northern Prairie and the first Hamer shop in Palatine, Illinois. Here is a photo from the very first Hamer catalog—you can see the tuner in the shot. I’m wearing a tacky madras shirt that I bought in London’s Carnaby Street in April of 1973. I believe that is Martin Barre’s Standard on the bench.

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And now, here is the crow on the bench in the new Dantzig shop. Same tuner, same tech, same procedure. Thirty seven years later and I’m still at it! Just for fun we colored the photo to match the original.

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The last step is to intonate the guitar by adjusting the bridge saddles. First I set them to the 12th fret on the bench. Then I get the guitar in the playing position and tweak it from there. If you attempt to finish it on the bench while gravity pulls straight down, it’s going to be different when you put the guitar on your leg or on a strap.

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After installing the truss rod cover, which is made from black ebony with a cellulose ivoroid binding, I trim the strings neatly. I’m going to jam on The Crow for a while to break it in more, and then it’s off to the photographer’s studio for some more formal portraits. I can’t wait to show them to you.

Weighing In on the Subject

Now that the major components of the Crow guitar have been glued up, I continue to work on the Sakura project. The drawings for the metal plates and the guitar itself have progressed to the point where I can start to cut the material.

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The body will be a single florentine cutaway made from a single slab of Honduras mahogany. My mental vision of this instrument dictates a somewhat heavier weight than what is “popular” right now. I’m a big fan of lightweight guitars, but I’ve heard dozens of beefy guitars, and there’s just something about them that I like as well. In order to tailor the Sakura (or any of my guitars for that matter) I cut the body material into a standardized block to determine its relative weight.

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Here I’m weighing a group of likely candidates in order to pick one that will achieve the weight and sound I’m looking for. That’s my trusty Pelouze scale that’s been with me since high school! I worked at the Pelouze factory in Evanston, Illinois when I was in my teens and this was a “factory second” that was given to me by my supervisor. For you Hamer guitar history fans, this was also the scale that was used in Hamer’s shipping department right up through Arlington Heights. If you own a USA made Hamer guitar made before 1997, it’s probably been on this scale. Luckily, I saved it from the dumpster after it was deemed “outdated” and with a little internal tinkering I made it work again. I guess that job at Pelouze has paid off more than once.

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Now that I’ve got the sketches done, it’s time to lay things out in actual size. I like to use the real components to visualize the ergonomic and esthetic relationships of the final design. I’ve always done it this way—here’s a photo of me in the old Arlington shop designing Paul Stanley’s double neck the exact same way.

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About ten years ago I learned AutoCad, and find it useful in a production environment; but I would still draw everything by hand first to see things in real space. In this case, I won’t need to create tool paths for CNC routers so the drawing and a few paper templates will be as far as I take it.