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.

Basecoats and Bonamassa

Yesterday was a beautiful New England day—the kind that makes you want to play hooky even when you’ve got a great job like mine. As soon as the stained back on The Crow was thoroughly dry I taped up the fingerboard, masked the f-holes and got it into the paint room for its first coats of nitro.

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Just a few coats first to raise the grain on the spruce top, and to tie to the filled mahogany. This process goes pretty fast as the nitro flashes off quickly. After the tie coat, the top gets scuffed, and then it’s time for three solid coats.

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Each coat gets thirty minutes to dry, then I repeat the pattern. After three coats I hung it up to dry for three days. Now it was time to take advantage of the nice sunny day. I threw a few things into the car and headed off to Worcester, Massachusetts to see some old friends who were playing there.

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An hour and thirty minutes later I walked through the back door and onto the stage of the Hanover Theater. Just inside I found Gav, with one of Joe Bonamassa’s Les Pauls in hand. We quickly took a tour of Joe’s rig and guitar arsenal, which was housed in probably the largest guitar trunk in history. I didn’t really know too much about Joe Bonamassa before Gav started working for him, but I was getting the idea that he’s a serious guitar man.

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Sorry for the crappy cell phone photo, but I think you get the idea. Ninety-six inches wide and it needs to be licensed in sixteen states. I was wondering if it had its own HVAC unit and zipcode.

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We spent the afternoon hanging out with Joe and the band, looking at gear and swapping stories. I was happy to realize that Carmine Rojas was in the band—we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. We passed some time leaving messages on mutual friend’s voice mail and catching up a bit. I also had the chance to spend some time with Alan Phillips who makes the Carol-Ann amplifiers that Joe uses. Alan is a knowledgeable and unassuming guy who really has a passion for what he does—and the amps he builds certainly prove it.

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Joe had recently acquired a real 1959 LP Sunburst, and he uses it every night, just as it was made to be. This guitar is wired out of phase in the middle position, exactly like the Peter Green/Gary Moore guitar. As far as I know, this wasn’t available as an option back in the day, so it must have been a mistake. I didn’t bring my magnetic tool in order to determine if it was a magnet reversal or a wiring mistake inside the pickup—that’s for next time. Oh, and Joe sounded amazing all night.

 

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.

Snowy Sakura Guitar Morning

Sweaty and breathing a little hard, I stamped the snow off my boots and leaned the shovel against the barnboard of the workshop. It was a beautiful Winter morning, so I paused for a moment to drink it all in and fill my lungs with the crisp fresh air.

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The sun was breaking coldly through the trees just above the horizon—making the icicles glow with a pinkish light. Turning inside, I was greeted by the Bakersfield boys streaming from the sound system. Don Rich’s sweet twang had segued into AC/DC by the time I had my coat off.

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Yesterday, the interior carves were finished on The Crow guitar. I’d gotten the spruce top and maple back glued up  and it was still in the vacuum press. As tempted as I was to take it out—I resisted. The Sakura guitar had been the subject of my dreams and I wanted to put some ideas down on paper before they slipped away. I got some books on Japanese art out of my library for reference. The basic idea fell right into place.

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Here’s a quick look at what I’m thinking. In my dream, the guitar was heavy like a ’60s Les Paul, with that banging midrange that sounds so wonderful through a Marshall stack. I’d dropped the idea of an elaborate body inlay, and wanted to concentrate on the engraved front and back plates. The first step was to consolidate my overall design in a series of sketches in the journal that will accompany the guitar through its construction. I like to think of this as building the soul of the guitar.

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As requested, here are some closer views of the journal.

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This is my sketch of the cherry blossoms, which will be engraved on the metal plates. Check back in a few days to see more progress.