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.

 

Strong Indications

If you ever wondered what a typical day in the shop is like, I can say with confidence that you rarely know what you’ll get. As much as I’d like to say that it’s all cutting and carving wood and making lovely instruments, it often is far from that.

Explorer Bench

This morning I wanted to drill a few holes in a fixture I was building, but the drill bit was vibrating a bit as I set about to drop the quill. A quick inspection with my favorite Brown & Sharpe indicator showed about .005″ run-out at the chuck. This would translate to a more severe wobble at the end of the bit, so it had to be fixed. Sometimes a chuck will have debris inside, or the bit may have a burr; either of which can create a bit of run-out. I examined the bit, and it seemed fine—a roll test on the surface plate showed it was true. I was confident that a quick blast of compressed air would clean the chuck interior and I would be on my way. Or perhaps it was the arbor coming loose. My conscience demanded that I set things truly straight by disassembling the whole thing to put my mind at ease. I’d been wanting to reduce the return spring tension as well, so no better time than the present. The best way to determine a problem is to systematically go through each step until you find the source of the problem.

Out came the wrenches, wedge set and the arbor drift. Before I knew it, two hours had passed. Measured, solvent cleaned, then lubricated properly—the whole thing went back together beautifully. The culprit? A little bit here, a little bit there all added up to too much play in the end.

dial indicator

When I put the indicator on the arbor it was only showing about .001″— which is pretty much dead nuts for this type of machine. With the chuck cleaned out and fitted snugly, it was ready to rock. By then it was lunchtime.  At least I knew that the rest of the day could move ahead without incident.

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

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.

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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Rough Around the Edges

That first cup of coffee in the morning is always the best. I like mine strong, black and very hot. The espresso machine in the Workshop is almost as essential as the shaper or router. Some folks like to cut the brew with milk or cream, and others smooth the edges with sugar—but not me. I like to taste the coffee.

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Right now I’m listening to Humble Pie’s live rendition of I Don’t Need No Doctor from their Rockin’ the Fillmore album, and I’m struck by the fact that it is a rough and tumble as it is beautiful. What stands out most to me is the fact that I can eassily distinguish each singer’s voice as they harmonize the chorus. I’m not talking about the notes—but rather the individual character of each singer. There’s bassist Greg Ridley down low and gruff with the unmistakable Peter Frampton in the middle. Above all of that is the legendary wail of Steve Marriott, bobbing and weaving like only he could.

As sloppy as Pie could be, there was a certain cohesion that made it work. Ray Charles’ 1966 version was smooth and soulful, for sure, and it served as the introduction of this song to many artists, but Humble Pie takes it to an altogether different and manic place. I’ve listened to this recording plenty of times since it I first heard it in 1971, and every single time it has me on the edge of my seat admiring how it rocks on the rails threatening to crash, but somehow still stays on the tracks. And that’s what great rock music is all about.

Speaking of  black coffee, have anothe slice of Pie with that.

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.

Crow: The Visitor

Since my childhood, the electric guitar has called me in ways I simply cannot explain. From the first strains of  “Greensleeves” that shook the camp gymnasium windows, to the feedback drenched nights at Chicago’s Electric Theater—I was hooked. Similarly, my builds are formulated in a part of my brain that defies concious explaniation.

I imagine dusty boots walking railroad tracks, birds of prey and the jumble of words racing down antique telephone wires. A sixth sense that connects the delta with those who live in the city. The Crow is a messenger, harbinger and scrappy traveler. Like the touring musician who lives by his wits and intuition, the crow is alive in all of us.

 

Being Thankful

Without resorting to my usual long-winded spiels bristling with cultural tie-ins, I’ll just say “happy Thanksgiving” to all of you. Hopefully, this holiday finds you with much to be thankful for. I’ll be spending the day with my wife Carla and our dog Heidi, the resident optimist. I’d tell you about how I wish that I was more like our canine friend, who greets each day with joy and a wagging tail—but I digress.

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Yesterday, a hawk flew past my window. I was able to grab the camera and got a pretty average photo. Behind the shop, the hawk settled down for a snack of fresh chipmunk. I was really surprised by its size—so much larger up close than they appear when winging high overhead.

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Later, the dog alerted me to a familyof deer bedded down for a rest about twenty yards from our back door. Just seeing all the creatures here makes me happy. A good way to start the proceedings. Later today, friends will join us for dinner and conversation. I have to return some books to Jim, and want him to borrow Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, if he hasn’t already read it twice. Maybe we’ll get to jam a little too.

Because this is the Workshop blog, I’ll leave you with some images of something else I’m extremely thankful for. The exquisite hand engraving for the Sakura guitar done by Heidi Roos.

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It is difficult to capture in a photograph, the way that hand engraving catches the light. The human touch leaves each fine stroke beveled differently from the next in subtle ways that give the images life.

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This is a good look at the spot plating technique. The cherry blossom is real rose gold, and the leaves are done in green gold. The background is a brushed finish of nickel plate. Here you can see the superiority of handwork over the more common photo-etching process on production examples. This is where the time (and money) goes.

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The staggering amount of detail of this piece just blows me away—more than I’d hoped for. Heidi just knocked this one right out of the park.

After the holiday I’ll get some shots of the back piece which is even more stunning. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone.

Snowstorms and Sakura

Wow. It didn’t seem possible, yet there it was. Two feet of heavy snow before the leaves were even close to being off the trees. The result was catastrophic. On our road the trees went down like tenpins, pulling down powerlines and bowling over utility poles. In an apocalyptic orange flash, transformers energized with tens of thousands of volts were tossed into the ravines around us. The roads were blocked, the power was out and even cell service was extremely spotty.

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What followed was a week of melting snow for water and living like campers. After rebuilding a reluctant chainsaw, I got to work with neighbors to clear a path out. Luckily, we’ve got solar heat here, so at least we didn’t freeze.

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I didn’t really miss the gym as there was plenty of physical labor to be done. Just when I’d thought the splitting and stacking of firewood was about finished, we had twenty times that amount to clear off the road just to get out.

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Generators, jugs of fuel, tractors and chainsaws. By the third day, we could get onto the main roads, although there were plenty of downed powerlines to avoid.

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After a full week, the power was finaly back, but twelve days into it there’s still no internet. I’m posting this from mylaptop in a cafe.

Downstate, things weren’t quite so bad. One of the first emails that I was able to access informed me that Heidi Roos had finished the engraving for the Sakura guitar, so I decided to take a ride down to Baron Engraving to pick it up. When Heidi, Pat Stuhlman and Custom Shop manager Tom Lent presented the work to me, I was lost for words. Heidi had reproduced my drawing, and improved it by adding a three-dimensional depth not evident in my original art.

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The engraving and gold work exceeded my expectations completely. The detail is amazing and the nuance of the inlaid golds really make this a superior piece. The photos here don’t do it justice. While in the Baron shop, I did take a few photos of some of their other work in progress.

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Check out this Colt revolver in a matte nickel finish. Hartford’s best made better.

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On Heidi’s workbench was a shotgun part positioned underneath the stereo microscope she uses to see her work as she engraves with a mryiad of fine tools.

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Here, Heidi holds the bridge pickup cover for the Sakura. It completes the cherry blossom engraving on the front plate pickguard seamlessly. You can see the brushed nickel background, rose gold blossom and yellow gold leaf highlights. I can’t wait to get some better shots back at the Workshop.

Active Lifestyle Weekend

Regular readers of this page are familiar with my obsession with vehicles. True enough, my current column in Premier Guitar maps out paralells between guitars and cars. So please forgive me if I dwell a bit more on the full-throttle side of my brain.

In addition to hanging out in my shop and building guitars, I write for automotive publications and websites, including Carspondent.com, home of the Active Lifestyle Vehicle awards. ALV is the only car-of-the-year program to combine the input of nationally-recognized automotive journalists with elite and area athletes to determine which cars and trucks best meet the needs of buyers with active lifestyles. To my delight, I was asked to participate as a member of the judging panel. As a bicycle enthusiast and outdoorsman-by-default, I felt that I could at least add loading guitars and amps into the vehicles as a real-world test. Our mission: drive and evaluate thirty two vehicles in seven categories.

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This year, the ALV evaluations were held in Phoenix, Arizona at the home of Local Motors, builders of incredible off-road vehicles—drool-worthy machines from hell. The event was also sponsored by OnStar and world-famous collector car auction powerhouse Russo and Steele.

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Below is a view inside the Local Motors factory. LM treated us to a nice breakfast buffet and a tour of the facilities. Through the windows behind the Astroturf seating area you can see into the engineering studio.

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Seeing the Rally Fighters being built up close was a thrill. I’d followed the evolution of the company over the years so it was a priveledge to be invited inside.

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Lusting over the stripped down and purposeful machines along with me were with esteemed journalists (and heroes of mine) Larry Edsall and Denise McCluggage. If you’re a car person, Larry and Denise probably need no introduction. For those who aren’t familiar I’ll say that if there’s a subject in the automotive world that Larry hasn’t published something on I have yet to find it. Apart from being a fine author, journalist and motorsports photographer, Denise drove a Ferarri for Luigi Chinetti’s organization (NART) and was class winner at the Sebring International 12 hour in 1961. Unphased by A-list rock stars, I was thrilled and nervous to meet her.

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Also on hand was former Indy 500 racer Lyn St. James. Before Danica Patrick, Lyn was Indy’s first female Rookie of the Year in the first of her seven 500s. In 1995 she set the world record on a closed-course for women—averaging 225.722 mph. Yow!

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I was hoping to ride shotgun with Lyn testing the 550 horsepower Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon. This thing has got some serious grunt—sort of a Corvette station wagon. By the way, the Caddy would make a slick ride to get you to a gig—as many musicians tend to run late. It actually will swallow up a half-stack, three guitars and a pedalboard with the rear seats folded down. If you are playing club gigs and can afford this ride, you’re probably doing it for fun anyway. Here during the initial walk around Lyn is casting a glance at the Range Rover Evoque.

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Despite my initial impression that it was a watered-down suburbanite car, the Evoque intrigued me in person. Small enough to get into my garage at home (hint) it was nimble and fun to toss around. The interior was pure joy, with double stitched leather everywhere. Powered by a turbocharged four cylinder, the Evoque is at once a throwback to the original Land Rovers and a look at the future of the marque. I had to ask the brand specialist if it was indeed a four—it was fairly spunky. I barely know who Victoria Beckham is, but I think this car is sexy. Will it go offroad? I think most buyers never will.

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Another favorite of mine was the new Fiat. Like a blast from the past, Fiat comes back to American roads with this funky little car. Although totally worthless as a musician’s gigmobile due to a miniscule cargo area, I had to vote it up as one of the most enjoyable rides. The smile on my face as I zipped through the Phoenix traffic was almost as big as when I floored the Caddy. The exterior color cues inside the car were a nice touch.

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Surprisingly quiet, the Fiat registered an average of 62 db at 60 mph—about the same as my Audi S4. For comparison, the Audi Q7 on hand was about 59db and the Cadillac was 56db.

My driving partner, Ironman triathlete Jeremy Hendricks and I both found the Mazda 5 to be well thought out and comfortable. In most categories the Mazda was unceremoniously capable. From ease of loading to seat comfort and control placement, it checked all the right boxes. The 5’s proficient yet unremarkable personality won its class with a rational-minded score, yet neither of us could envision owning one. Personally, the “Zoom Zoom” whisper on the TV comercials has lost my vote for any of their products. How’s that for pretzel logic?

Audi had their Q7 and A7 make the final cut. I was surprised how the Q7 felt much lighter and managable than its size and weight might indicate. Probably the most refined of the bunch, the A7 seemed slightly out of place among the scrappy Kias, Nissans and VWs. It wasn’t for me to drive as its popularity with the testers kept it too busy all day. Shame, it probably would have spoiled me for the rest.

Out on Local Motors’ off-road test track, the Land Rovers and Jeeps were trundling over basketball-sized rocks at a moderately slow pace—both showing strong trail manners. Until I lived in New England I had no clue about how this sort of thing could ever be important.

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Then, to put things into perspective, Local Motors rolled out their Rally Fighter (road legal in 50 states) and hammered through the course at 40+ mph. The LM test driver got a little air and tested the 20 inch suspension travel with photo-spy Brenda Priddy aboard. Go Brenda!

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Next year, I’m driving that.

Without sounding like a kiss-ass, I’d have to say that there wasn’t a bad vehicle in the bunch. Just to make it into the finals, a car has to be of a significantly high quality—which made our evaluations difficult. There were some surprises, and the Jeep over Land Rover turnabout demands a rematch. Believe me, the manufacturers are already hard at work stepping it up.

After a day of driving dozens of vehicles and hanging out with great, enthusiastic people it was time to go back to the hotel and chill before dinner. That evening’s fare was the fourth mexican meal I’d had in two days, but the stories and comraderie were the best part. I wasn’t surprised how many car people were also guitarists. I’m already looking ahead to next year. Now, if I can just score an Evoque for a long-term test.

 

RESULTS
The evaluations took into consideration overall design, engine power, fuel efficiency, and cargo capability. In the final tally, the athletes’ votes and those of the jury panel members each accounted for fifty percent.

Following are the winners of the 2012 competition by category:

UrbanMazda5
Best Value On-RoadSubaru Impreza
Best Value Off-RoadJeep Wrangler
Luxury On-RoadAudi A7
Luxury Off-RoadJeep Grand Cherokee 
Green ALVVolkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI
FamilyAudi Q7 TDI

 Many thanks to Automotive Spy Photographer extraordinaire Brenda Priddy for her generous help with the photos for this story.

Photos ©2011 Brenda Priddy and Company (except Cadillac stock photo and my crappy cell phone pics).

Correction: I previously wrote that Denise McCluggage had been the first woman to race for the Ferarri factory team, which is not true. Her association was with Chinetti’s North American Racing Team-the US Ferarri Distributor.

Saturday Morning Shop

I like Saturdays. It’s quiet and nobody calls, so the workflow is uninterupted. I also like it because it’s usually when Jim comes in to help out. He’s always curious about details, so I’m usually showing him a lot of stuff I’ve taken for granted for decades. Like how to carve a neck by hand with a scraper. I refer to him as my apprentice but he’s really more like my memory exercise trainer.

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Little things that come instinctually to me, like how to slightly bend the scraper, are revelations to someone on the learning curve. Jim is a quick study though. He’s good with tools, and his keen intellect allows him to see things both close-up and within the bigger picture. Most of all, he’s got the right attitude. In exchange, I get stimulating conversation and continuing education on all sorts of subjects.

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With a degree in Literature and Folklore from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and University of Edinburgh, Scotland Jim has always tread the line between his head and his hands. He was first introduced to instrument making while doing research on dulcimer builders in the Black Mountain region of North Carolina and can’t get it out of his blood. Even when we’re talking about other things, like books, eastern religion or motorcycles, somehow it all relates to the job at hand. That’s why I like Saturdays.

 

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.

 

Ye Ancientest Bone Orchard Angels

A while ago I wrote about how my headstock design came about. I was reading a book called In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaology of Early American Life, by James Deetz. The book is a study of the archeological history of  early America (or New England) which is where I currently reside.

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Chapter four entitled Remember Me as You Pass By outlines the evolution of headstones carved in Connecticut and Massachusetts  in the period between 1715 and 1829. I was struck by the author’s description of  how the symbolism used on headstones changed in step with society’s evolving ideology and notions about life, death and the hereafter.

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The gravestones begin as simple markers with warnings about death, transitioning to the memorials that we are more familiar with today. The inscriptions begin to refer to the “earthly remains” alluding to the idea of a soul or afterlife being separate from the buried husk. It is interesting to note that society’s concept of the human being’s place in the universe is not static. Even today, despite our “modern” scientific arrogance, we are still evolving our understanding of what it is to be alive.

Yesterday, my casual glance came across the book. I was reminded of my earlier post and the way that chapter influenced my design. It was a gorgeous day so I decided to take a field trip to one of the early graveyards mentioned in the book.

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Sandwiched behind a freeway entrance ramp and a dead end street, I found New London’s “Ancientest Bone Orchard” quiet and almost forgotten. I made my way around looking at the stonework and reading inscriptions. Just as I’d hoped, I found examples of exactly what I’d read about.

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This is an early example—a winged death’s head. Note the row of scary teeth and blank eyes. Certainly a grisly warning about the end of the line.

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Next is a transitional winged skull. The bottom of the nose resembles a frown as the teeth become less evident as well.

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Another skull sports crossed bones and a very prominent frown. The teeth have migrated to the bottom and appear almost as a collar.

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Finally, surrounded by urns and flowers, the cherubs and angels appear around 1860. These headstones clearly are memorials as opposed to just body markers. The upturned wings, eyes and mouths signify a happier ending than the death’s heads of just half a century before.

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Although tramping around in a three hundred year old cemetery isn’t my usual idea of a picnic, I was thrilled to witness the actual articles in the Deetz book. It was a sobering reminder of the transience of life. As I read the inscriptions I couldn’t help but to think of the families who have grieved at their loss. I said a few words—a kind of haiku—and moved along home.

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Even though the shape of my headstock isn’t exactly the same as the headstones that helped to inspire it—I’m still hoping that it too will be remembered as people pass by.

Sculptor’s Studio

Let’s get one thing straight—I don’t consider myself a sculptor. That said, I did find some things in common with Daniel Chester French when I visited his studio yesterday. It was a perfect New England summer day and after an hour of  pleasant driving we arrived at Chesterwood—French’s summer residence.

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French is best known for his public works, most notably the nineteen-foot tall seated Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

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Chesterwood is located just outside of Stockbridge, Massachusetts—that’s right, the same town in the Arlo Guthrie song. With the Berkshire hills as a backdrop it’s a gorgeous piece of real estate. I can’t imagine a more wonderful place to create.

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I’m always interested in how artists and designers work, so touring the studio at Chesterwood was inspiring. One of the things I found most interesting was to see the workup sketches and plans that preceded the final output. Art does not happen in a vacuum. As much as any musician can improvise a song or melody on the fly, most of their work is crafted over time. As a mixture of sculpture and assemblage, guitars are also three-dimensional objects that must catch the light and shadow. A real sense of balance and composition from multiple viewpoints needs to be established in both disciplines in order to be effective.

Chesterwood - the studio of Daniel Chester French located in Stockbridge, Connecticut. Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) was the sculptor of the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Memorial in Washington, D.C. The studio has a standard-gauge railroad track used to roll large sculpture outdoors for viewing in natural light. The museum holds what is probably the largest single collection of work by any American sculptor.
Chesterwood – the studio of Daniel Chester French located in Stockbridge, Connecticut. Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) was the sculptor of the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Memorial in Washington, D.C. The studio has a standard-gauge railroad track used to roll large sculpture outdoors for viewing in natural light. The museum holds what is probably the largest single collection of work by any American sculptor.

Seeing and feeling the artist’s environment is what makes something like my trip to Chesterwood studio so satisfying. French’s use of preliminary sketches and models reminded me of the techniques I use to prepare for my builds. The Chesterwood studio displays outlined and reinforced the research that an artist or designer must conduct to bring every aspect of their creation to life.

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On a purely technical level, one thing I really thought was cool can be seen in the two photos above. Most of the work done in this studio was to be displayed outdoors, where the light is very different than in the studio.  When I need to view my work in a differnt light, I pick it up and carry it somewhere. Because his work was so massive French couldn’t just take it outside to look at it. The soulution was to build a portion of the studio’s floor on a platform that rode on railroad tracks. French would open the tall doors and roll his work out into the back yard so that he could see the effect of natural light!

 

History of Hell: Cowboy Guitar

One of my biggest beefs with the corporate structure is its tendency to discount the creative process. It’s impossible to say why or when inspiration will strike—and it can’t be switched on like a spreadsheet on a computer. I try to be open to the things around me, but I rarely can predict when I’ll be inspired to act.

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An idea for a guitar came to me while reading books about the great cattle drives and the cowboys of the frontier.  I’d heard the term “Hell’s Half Acre” since I was a kid—there’s even a Robbie Robertson song by that name. Instinctively I knew it referred to a patch of town where society’s rules did not apply for those who chose to live life on their own terms. I envisioned a guitar that evoked the spirit of the era when cowboys were just working men, and the pistol was law.

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After the Texas revolution in 1835, Fort Worth was a single dusty street lined by a few dozen wooden shacks and a couple saloons. Named for a small military outpost, Fort Worth stood along the Chisholm Trail at the edge of the Indian Territories. Like frontier towns from Deadwood to Denver, Fort Worth was barely a watering hole on the plains of Texas. There was no hotel, no church, no town hall. There was no real plan to build the town or any kind of community.

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Then in 1866, the cattle drives came. Cattle had become the most lucrative business on the frontier. From 1866 to 1884 more than three million beeves were driven up the Chisholm Trail from King Ranch and San Antonio to railheads in Kansas; passing through Fort Worth along the way. Cowboys drove their herds up the main street and made camp to the north of town just past the Trinity River. Once settled in, the trail drivers rode back into Fort Worth for a bath, haircut and some entertainment. Industrious businessmen were only too happy to oblige, and Fort Worth began to expand and grow. By 1871 a section of the main street at the south end of town was lined with saloons offering all the vices that cowboys could ever want. The gambling, drinking and prostitution became so legendary that the district was referred to as “Hells Half Acre.”

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The whiskey flowed and the blood spilled as the cowboys indulged themselves like sailors on shore leave. The number of shootings and deaths was a result of lack of law enforcement combined with a town government that was more interested in commerce than any kind of morality. Indeed, a sheriff would be hard pressed to attempt any kind of intervention, and those who were arrested usually were released with not much more than a stern warning.

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Even after the decline of the trail drives in the late part of the century, the businesses of Rusk Street (as it had been named) continued on, albeit at a slower pace. Declining into a black ghetto by the middle of the 20th century, Hells’ Half Acre was finally razed wholesale for the construction of the Tarrant County Convention Center. Ironically, the street is now renamed Commerce Street.

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It’s a great piece of American history and I’ve got some ideas prompted by a conversation with a collector of my work. My recent meeting with some extremely gifted gun engravers has inspired me as well, so today I’m into the shop for some experimentation. I’m glad we had this meeting.

 

 

Tweedy Guitar Case for The Crow

For readers of this blog, the idea that The Crow would travel in a tweed suitcase inspired case will come as no surprise. Although tweed-covered cases are a vintage stalwart, the connection here is double deep. I first made the association while reading Kerouac’s On The Road. Carla and I were on a road trip of our own when she photographed me holding my 1940s vintage suitcase. I’d found this beautiful relic in a shop in New Hampshire and just had to have it. It wasn’t until I saw the photo below that I fully connected the dots.

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Crows are scavengers, messengers and harbingers. Like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, crows traverse the landscape living on their instincts. The hoboes take to the rails as the crows take to the sky—searching for tomorrow’s answer and a meal. When I saw the photo of the suitcase, I knew that my guitar had to have a case that incorporated this spirit.

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My search for the correct vintage tweed covering came up short. After being assured by phone that the material was an exact duplicate of the lacquered tweed that was used on both vintage luggage and guitar cases (not to mention amplifiers) my material arrived looking pale, sallow and somewhat less than authentic. The only thing to do was to lacquer and age it myself. I cut a few pieces into sample swatches and started mixing up some amber and brown tinted nitro lacquer.

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I started the process slowly, wanting to use as little tint as I could. It took about a half day to get it exactly the way I wanted it—the balance between the number of coats and the yellow to brown ratio. I was almost there, using the actual suitcase as my guide. Finally, a little bit of indigo tint got it just right. That’s the final swatch on the bottom left. Now it’s a matter of spraying out all the material after it is cut to fit the case. The lacquer color and sheen will make it look like it’s already lived a lifetime of adventure on the road. When it’s done maybe I’ll drag it up to the old farm for a portrait.

 

Guitar Obsession Syndrome

Obsession. It permeates everything in my life. Once an idea begins to make itself known, I get my mental teeth on it like a moray and won’t let go. In order to make some sense of my thoughts, I rely on the board. Not the board of directors—that’s where great ideas get watered down in order to appeal to the largest audience. I call mine the obsession board. It’s an entire wall in my office where anything and everything is fair game. I answer only to my imagination.

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As you can see, my recent jag on Karouac and The Crow guitar as a representation of the American dream’s underbelly has really sprouted wings.

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The board is a compilation of key words and images that help me connect the dots both while planning and building an instrument. Free association as well as studied theory mingle with hard data and a laundry list of materials and processes. If it occurs to me, it gets written down, and I try not to erase anything. You can never tell when an old idea will become a solution.

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Of course, sometimes this madness even creeps into my dreams. Being surrounded by imagery creates subconcious thoughts, which I then turn back into new imagery. Here’s my interpretation of Crow Dream #2.

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It’s time to go cut some pearl for the headstock monogram inlay. See you next time.

 

Morning (Guitar) Visions

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

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

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

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A black crow silhouette on the evergreen above the shop.

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

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

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

I am reminded of Kerouac’s “Method.”

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

 

A Crow Reminder

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

Nashville Cats: Steve Cropper Tribute to the “5” Royales

Late last week, I left Jim to his own devices in the shop as I took a sojourn to Nashville to do some studio time. Generations of musicians have grown up with Steve Cropper's trademark licks as the soundtrack to their lives, so when producer Jon Tiven invited me to participate in the making of Cropper's new recording, a tribute to the "5" Royales, I couldn't say no.

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The Royales were a seminal R&B group who bridged the gap between Doo-Wop, Soul and Funk. Their guitarist, Lowman Pauling, wrote most of the hits, and was a madman on guitar—so I understood where Cropper was coming from. I anticipated a good time, but it was only when I arrived in Nashville that I realized the true magnitude of the undertaking. 
As an unforeseen bonus, the recording was being done in Dan Penn's studio. If you're not familiar with Penn's career, do yourself a favor and follow the link—very cool stuff.

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When we arrived at the studio, Cropper had already unloaded his silverface Quad Reverb and Billy Block was dropping off a drum kit for Steve Ferrone, who would play on the first day. Bassist David Hood was on hand and he and I immediately started talking bass-player trash.

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What a thrill to sit and watch this guy track—a master class in restraint and note choice. Although he'd brought four instruments including a '57 P-Bass, David was tracking with a pink Jazz Bass made in Chicago by Lakland. When I asked him why he chose to use it he said "it was just the first one I took out."

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As one of the Muscle Shoals "Swampers" Hood was one of my teachers through the grooves in vinyl, and here I was in the studio with him. As the session began to roll Billy Block and I busied ourselves with the video and audio equipment. I was soaking it up, learning a few new tricks along the way.

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Keyboard chores were handled by Spooner Oldham, who is a legend in his own right. Knowing when not to play is the test of any musician, and Spooner has mastered this art. Standing two feet from him as he laid down piano and organ parts was simply a sublime experience.

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Day one brought vocal performances from Buddy Miller and Bettye LaVette. Laying down vocals live with the band is the best way to capture the raw energy of a song, and the sessions proceeded at a breakneck pace. Near the end of the day Dylan LeBlanc dropped by to do some singing and was clearly loving the atmosphere in Penn's studio.

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Day two saw the arrival of drummer Steve Jordan who took over from Ferrone, who happily attended to various percussion duties. Jordan's recordings with Keith Richards and the Winos are some of the best grooves ever committed to tape so I was stoked. I wasn't disappointed—two of the world's most solid drummers laid it down together without a hint of ego. Tiven had assembled an unbelievable team of individuals. 

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One high point was having lunch at the Penn dining table. Eating 'taters and greens surrounded by music legends listening to stories about Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Jerry Wexler, Wilson Pickett and more from the people who were there—just priceless. 

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As the days wore on, we got confirmations from some soon-to-be-announced guest-stars, but I had to high-tail it out of there before any of that went down. As it was I got more than my share of mojo risin'. I can't wait to hear the finished product.

 

Skulls and Angels: Headstones to Headstocks

Here cease thy tears, suppress thy fruitless mourn
his soul—the immortal part—has upward flown
On wings he soars his rapid way
to you bright regions of eternal day
—Headstone inscription, Massachusetts c. 1800

It’s always surprising from where and when inspiration comes. Creativity has its own ebb and flow, without regard to schedules put in place by man. Over the years I’ve become more attuned to that moment when something I’m working with beckons to be turned or twisted slightly in order to realize a direction to be taken. I’ve learned that when I’m trying too hard, I’ll usually miss it. Such was the case with my headstock design. I’d already created a monogram in a Gothic font motif, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to use it, so I just put it in the drawer for another day.

Separate from that exercise, I’d been thinking about winged skulls and day of the dead imagery. As an old-school motorcycle guy, I’ve been surrounded by that stuff since I started out working at Frank’s Maintenance & Engineering (Forking by Frank) making chopper parts in the late 1960s.

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Most of the machinists that I worked with were members of the Devil’s Disciples, a Chicago motorcycle club. Their toolboxes were stocked with weapons and their garb was adorned with wings and skull symbols. Not that this is a new idea; it’s a visual statement that rock and roll has appropriated over the years, but it seemed like a good jumping off point. I recalled seeing headstones in some New England cemeteries that seemed to morph skulls with angels, and I liked that idea and made some sketches, but nothing really came of it.

Some time later as I was reading In Small Things Forgotten, The Archelogy of Early American Life by James Deetz, a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, I came across an illustration of how New England gravestones had evolved from winged death’s-heads to cherubs.

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The imagery had gradually changed from the dark decay of death as a fearsome adversary in the 1700s to the more rewarding view of afterlife offered by the cherub by the 1800s.

I put pencil to paper, and as I sketched, the wings became less literal and more implied as they stretched out from the face. The wings became the headstock top and the face became the monogram “D” from my surname.

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Even though I hadn’t set out to design my headstock, once the juices began to flow, it only took a short time for everything to fall into place.

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After I’d settled upon the idea, it was a matter of laying out the dimensions of the string alignments and the tuner locations. There’s only so much latitude because the limiting factor of the tuner key clearances, so it is a balancing act between string angle and key inset. I made a mock up to check all the clearances and positions using a large selection of possible tuner choices.

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I couldn’t wait to see it on a guitar—it couldn’t have been better if I had planned it.

Tweed Suitcase

As I’m gathering impressions for new guitar builds, I’m reading Kerouac and driving around the NE for inspiration. It’s fun to just get in the old car and just drive. No predetermined destination, no schedule. From a store in New Hampshire, I picked up a beat up old tweed suitcase from the forties that struck my fancy. We stopped by a derelict farm and Carla took this image of me, my vintage suitcase and the farm. It’s a wonderful shot…

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Here’s a quote from Kerouac’s “On the Road”

“Just ahead, over the rolling wheatfields all golden beneath the distant snows of Estes, I’d be seeing old Denver at last. I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was “Wow!”

The Road From Lowell

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

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

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

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

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Jim in the shop doorway, with more books.