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.

Chasing Your Grail

Musically, I am still hooked and just hypnotized by the sound of the guitar itself. I mean, a guitar sounds good if you drop it on the floor.”
— Leo Kottke

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One of the things I like the most about guitar is its many facets.  I’m inclined to agree with Kottke—there’s just something magical about every sound a guitar makes. Every guitar design has a purpose in mind, but musicians, being artists soon move beyond those boundaries. As much as its originally intended function is the point of the design exercise, a guitar’s range is not limited purely to its original intent—but rather, the imagination of the player. Jeff Beck has raised the random sounds of an amplified guitar to high art, while Hendrix and Pete Townshend made some glorious noise experimenting with the percussive capabilities of the guitar as well. In the 1980s, Steve Stevens asked me to incorporate a toy ray-gun into the circuitry of one of his guitars in order to expand its vocabulary and Paul Gilbert used a cordless drill to pluck his strings with Racer X. Today, players like Jim Campilongo continue to coax both the classic and the histrionic from their guitars despite what we, as builders, intended in the first place.

Then there is the visual aspect of the guitar, both as an homage to the past and its shock value in the present. Of course, almost every possible variation has been done by now; mirrors, lasers, flamethrowers, flashing lights and so on. I’ve been guilty of partaking in more than my share of sight-gag instruments over the years, but is guitar-building an arms race? I don’t see it that way—just as I don’t think guitar soloing should be an athletic competition where the most notes win the gold.

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So where does this leave us as builders? Should we continue to mimic the designs of the past relying upon innovative players to reapply our creations to new frontiers? Or, should we attempt to break the mold and hope that musicians respond to the challenge?

The Ultimate Hamer Guitars: An Illustrated History