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.