Tulsa Pro Artist Proof Guitar

As the week begins, I’m back in the workshop with another Artist’s Proof guitar. This one is something I’ve wanted to do for a while—a double German carve Tulsa in white limba. The face of the instrument is a tightly figured curly maple, while the back is a nice chunk of figured limba—sometimes called korina here in the US.

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I’ve built the neck from a single piece of limba with a beautiful Braz rosewood fingerboard. My signature “Claw” inlay is at the 12th fret. As is often the case on my guitars, the headstock face is black ebony.

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I’ll be using a TonePros adjustable wrap bridge, which should be interesting on this guitar. Here’s how I check the neck fit and angle before I glue it in place. The fit is extremely tight so I have to make certain it’s right before bonding—you don’t get a second chance do do it!

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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

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.

 

Roping in the Acre

After a few week’s absence from the docket, the binding of Hell’s Half Acre is back on the burner. Both neck and body are trimmed with a checked purfling made of ebony and maple—then bound with Italian-made cellulose.

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Of particular beauty is the florentine cutaway, which is my siganature flourish. I love the way the purfling and ivoroid binding mitres at the peak. It’s a bitch to do, but the results are worth it. Getting the black stripe of side purfling to line up isn’t a walk in the park either. If it were easy, wht fun would it be?

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The idea here is to evoke the cowboy theme contained in the history of Fort Worth’s most lawless period and place known as Hell’s Half Acre. The checked, half-herringbone really does look like the trail driver’s lariat. Now the guitar is completely roped in and ready to bring home. Just as the trail bosses pushed their herds north from Texas to the railheads in Oklahoma, we’re ready to push on with our project.

Sakura Portraits

All that remains in the Sakura build is the case and to complete the binding of the journal. So while we’re waiting for those components I decided to get some portraits taken. Hope you enjoy them.

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Closeup of the amazing detail and precious gold inlay of the hand engraved plates.

 

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Here’s a front shot that shows the overall form. I really like the way the tone knob shows the cherry color. I enjoy the small details so I try to work them in so that they continue to delight as time goes on.

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So many things today are built to “wow” you on first blush, but then they’re done. That’s why they get “upgraded” or traded off by their owners. Sakura’s charms are subtly hidden from immediate view, which allows them to be revealed slowly over time. You’ll probably never find them all.

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24k yellow gold sun. Click on the photo for more detail.

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Yellow, rose and green gold inlets. Click for more detail.

Here’s the back profile showing how the entire form works together.

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Sakura Backplate Engraving: Pre-Fit Closeups

It’s now time to apply the final lacquer coat to the Sakura, which means a final fit test is in order. This procedure allows me to check all the clearances and alignments of the hardware without the danger of damaging the final finish. I also don’t want to compromise the engraved pieces. These parts took nine months to be engraved by hand, and I absolutely want everything to fit.

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Everything seems to fit fine with just the right amount of clearance for the last thin coat. I’ve decided to go with a lower gloss vintage style nitro to alow the brilliance of the metalwork to come forward visually. This will be achieved by adding a flattening additive to the nitrocellulose lacquer before spraying.

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Every time I unwrap the engraved parts they bowl me over with their fabulous detail. I only wish that these photos could reveal the depth of the work that is visible in person.

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The cherry blossom petals are adorned with real rose gold and the leaves are green gold. At the very top of the picture a 24k yellow gold sun rises through the clouds. The entire plate background is finished in brushed nickel.

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Now it’s time to get into the paint room and get on with the program.

 

No Corners Worth Cutting

I’ve spent a lot of my life cutting corners. Carrying two bags of groceries at a time to save steps, or taking a back street to clip a few precious seconds off a trip to the store. We all do it. My hobby is racing sports cars—the ultimate corner cutting exercise.

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At age thirteen I devised jigs and fixtures to hold brass tubing in place while soldering them into slot-car chassis to be sold at a local hobby store. A succession of factory jobs building things like film inspection machines, splicers, mechanical scales and grain moisture testers introduced me to the big-time of cost-cutting time management. Even my promotion to purchasing agent at nineteen taught me the ideas of maintaining a lean inventory and shaving pennies off an order. Later, my studies with Japanese Kaizen gurus Yoshihisa Doi and Hajime Oba took this to an even higher level. You might say it’s in my blood to look for a better, faster, cheaper way.

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When I first set up shop as a guitar maker, those same skills helped to fashion jigs and fixtures that kept things consistent and maintained an orderly flow. My training had also taught me to seek help and insight from those more experienced than myself. So, in 1980, while setting up the Hamer guitar factory in Illinois I invited a visit from Stan Rendell, former President of Gibson Guitars. As he looked around, Rendell pointed out places where money and time could be saved without upsetting the customer. He mentioned that he could help whittle the time it took to make a complete guitar to under eight man-hours. I was horrified. The changes he suggested would certainly have reduced manufacturing time, but not without consequence. It became clear that the modern world had shifted its focus from improvement and consistency, to reducing cost without affecting customer perception.
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Today, I’m beginning my second day of testing pickups for the Sakura guitar. Every build goes through this process because every guitar is different and unique. From experience, it’s easy to whittle down the choices before I even begin. Still there are variables that only ear testing can address. I have a test rig that holds a pickup in place under strings to give me a baseline along with measuring the impedance and inductance. Because the Sakura guitar has steel plates on both front and back, the inductance will be important. Still, the final ear testing in the guitar will be the final exam.

When I talk to people about what I do, the thing that always surprises them the most is how much time it takes. In a one-click world where the emphasis is continually on saving time and cutting costs, this kind of patient work is almost viewed as quaint. I could just put a pickup that was deemed “good enough” in the guitar and assume that the customer will change it out anyway. But that would be a waste of my skills. I just remind folks that I’ve already cut enough corners for several lifetimes.

 

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.

Crow Debut in Guitar Aficiondo

Many thanks to the great people at Guitar Aficionado for featuring The Crow in the new (July/August issue). The Rick Whittey photo sessions were rewarded handsomely with super-fine printing and a full page size—right up front in the book.

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Writer Adam Perlmutter’s words capture the essence of the build, nailing philosophy and circumstance behind it all. Somehow it is both perfect and pretentious at the same time. I even managed to slip in the word “schmuck” when talking about marketing guys—although it actually might have been something stronger.

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Go ahead, buy the issue and brush up on your wine and cheese repertoire while perusing photos of Kirk Hammett’s crib in Hawaii. If you’re feeling oh-so-rebellious—steal it.

 

Rainy Day and the Crow Journal

The early morning is a great time to walk in the woods and clear your thoughts. Each day I carve out some time to just be outside and enjoy the quiet. Today it was raining lightly and a fog was hanging in the trees, making it look even more amazing. I’ve been stacking stones for some time now—it’s a calming practice that frees up my concentration like a reset button. The piles in this photo are just outside the shop door, but they’re all over the property.

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Inside, the humidity was better as the climate system struggled to maintain a solid thirty-five percent—the mandated level for optimum building. After a strong espresso, I set about making some entries into the journal that accompanies The Crow.

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My wife Carla is an artist who makes hand-bound books, so I asked her to construct the journals for my guitars. We share studio space, so it just seemed natural that our projects would overlap. Her beautiful photos and collage images are often seen on this blog as well. Here is her cover painting.

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Hand-bound spine of the journal.

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Archival paper is hand-stitched together to make a one-of-a-kind original that is the companion piece to each instrument I build.

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This is the entry about the wiring. The story of the Western Electric wire and NOS pots from 1996 along with actual samples of the parts are all in the journal. The book tells the story—starts and stops included. When ideas are born or rejected they are written in there. I let it all spill out and the new owner of the guitar gets the whole thing.

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More Vintage Americana: Salvaged Electronics

The Western Electric Company was America’s largest producer of electrical gear from 1870 until the 1980s. Known for their Bell Telephones and associated switchgear, they also manufactured amplifiers, speakers, microphones and wire. By 1917 their Hawthorne Works plant in Chicago was one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the world. Although the plant is now gone, what remains is a legacy of American manufacturing might, and a massive research project known as the Hawthorne Studies.


The Hawthorne Studies were something I’d read about in high school. It was fascinating, and I struggled to use it as a guide when I became a factory department-manager at age nineteen. This research named for studies done at the behemoth Western Electric Hawthorne Works factory in Chicago was the world’s most comprehensive employee behavioral observation when conducted between 1924 and 1932. The Hawthorne Works sprawled over one hundred acres, employed over forty thousand Americans and generated a staggering $300,000,000.00 per year. This is equivalent to about $3.7 billion in today’s money.

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With vast amounts of capital to spend and even more to make through creating efficiencies, the Western Electric Company embarked upon an odyssey to use their employees as lab rats to determine how to make them work faster and better. The research covered all aspects of worker life too. The effects of smoking, alcohol and diet were put under the microscope in an exhaustive attempt to fine-tune Western Electric’s massive operation.

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In the workplace, researchers noticed a curious thing while conducting observations. If they increased lighting levels, productivity increased. When they lowered the lighting, productivity increased as well. By the time I read the studies in 1968 it was common knowledge that when workers know they are being studied, they tend to buckle down and try to look good for the bosses. My take-away from all of this was that people just want to be recognized for their contributions. It’s not about manipulating or threatening people, it’s about appreciation.

When W.E. closed down, the assets were scattered to the winds. As part of the Federal Communications Commission’s break-up of AT&T, Western Electric was absorbed by a new entity, AT&T Technologies, in 1984. An American manufacturer was crushed.

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As luck would have it, I managed to collect a stash of Western Electric parts manufactured in the Hawthorne facility. I’ve always been a fan of tube amplification and mechanical switching mechanisms like the ones produced at Hawthorne, and a lot of this stuff was rescued from telephone switching stations when they went digital.

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Here is some vintage cloth-covered Western Electric wire that I plan to use in The Crow, Sakura and Hell’s Half-Acre. It looks great, and is made to an insanely high quality compared to the imported junk available today. Think about the incalculable amount of  energy and human conversation that has traveled through this wire. Routine or romantic calls, cries for help or joyous good news—this wire has heard it all. With its installation in a guitar, the work of the fine Western Electric employees can be appreciated again.

Crow Guitar Paint Prep: Does this sandpaper make my guitar look flat?

In preparation for the color coats, The Crow’s base coats of nitro clear must be sanded. This is what I call leveling, because the object of the exercise is to provide a flat foundation for all that comes after.

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This is extra important on this build because I’m using an unusual color coat which won’t support being top-coated with clear. To give The Crow a singular appearance, I’m replicating the 1930s frosted Duco finish. A lot of mystery surrounds this finish, and it isn’t available any longer so it must be mixed up from scratch. Also, I’m doing it in black to mimic the appearance of crow feathers. I’m confident that it can be done, but for now it’s time to prep.

The Crow: Charlie Christian Pickups

I’d been playing guitar for about six years when I first heard Charlie Christian. Of course, everything changed that day in 1970. It was no secret that many of my influences had been influenced by those who had come before them, but it was usually a reference to a 1950s player. My teacher, Mike Bloomfield, implored that I study Muddy. Jeff Beck went on about Cliff Gallup and Scotty Moore, and Keith Richards wasn’t bashful about citing Chuck Berry. Peter Green and Clapton went on and on about B.B. King, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. As a well-read (I thought) and curious musician, I assumed that Django and Les Paul had invented shred. Of course, hearing Charlie Christian banging out amazing single-note electric runs in 1939 set me straight. Above all, his mysteriously raw tone floored me.

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I hadn’t even realized that there were electric guitars before World War II. It made sense—big jazz bands were loud. If you’ve ever heard an orchestra the size of Benny Goodman’s you know what I mean. Guitarists were tired of playing “strictly rhythm” and wanted to break out sax-style solos. The crude but effective technology of the day allowed guitarists to plug in, finally giving them a fighting chance. Christian was not the earliest of the adopters, but his amazing chops and visibility with Goodman’s band made him the best known. Although not created for him, his guitar’s pickup became associated with the man, and became known as the “Charlie Christian” pickup.

The original object of a pickup was to reproduce the sound of a guitar as accurately as possible. Electric blues, jazz and rock and roll changed all that. Players pushed their equipment to the breaking point in search of an expressive voice. To keep pace, builders rolled out new improvements. Time marched on, all but forgetting the crude, rude and singularly raw single coil that Christian first employed.

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But I never forgot. The hauntingly rough-edged tone of Christian’s big single coil pickups were never far from my mind. I’d had a few over the years—usually mounted on a big-box jazz machine unfit for cranked up rock or roots music. A few pickup makers offered P-90s with a Christian-style plate on top, but I wanted the real thing. Not available. That is, until I asked my friend Seymour Duncan if he could replicate them. To my delight, he’d just finished doing exactly that. That first set went into a semi-solid guitar a few years ago, and the results were astounding. When I started thinking about The Crow guitar, I knew that I wanted those pickups in it.  6a00e54ee874da883301538e463116970b-800wi

Built to the original specifications, the CC has a fiberboard bobbin wound with unusually heavy (38 gauge) copper wire with an enamel insulation coat. The Alnico magnets are sand-cast and oriented with their north pole firing upward through a period-correct steel blade polepiece. Seymour hand-bound the top plate to match the originals as well. To add an interesting texture, I internally reversed the polarity of one pickup to create an out-of-phase middle position. Here are my notes and instructions in The Crow’s journal.

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The problem with the CC is that it was designed to be mounted from behind. The original setup involved a huge and heavy cantilever mounting bracket that hung the pickup from inside a hollow jazz guitar.

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To solve this problem without altering the pickup, I devised a trestle that would allow the unit to be mounted and adjusted from the rear of the guitar. I had a friend make me some in his machine shop. Elliptical slots allow the pickup to be adjusted transversely for string alignment.

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Once mounted inside the guitar, the pickups can be raised and lowered via a pair of hex screws counterbored into the back. This also eliminates having to use mounting hardware or bezels on the face of The Crow, which keeps the look pure. Also, because the pickup is mounted to the back, none of the pickup’s weight is on the top, leaving it free to vibrate. The Crow is going to be a visually impressive guitar, and the CC pickups will give it an equally stunning voice.

 

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.

 

 

Headstock Monogram Inlay

The Dantzig headstock design came fairly quickly. I’d been reading about the history of New England at the time, and was struck by some headstone carvings described in the book.

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This is the entry in The Crow’s journal—you can see the idea taking shape.

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With The Crow guitar, I wanted the monogram “D” at the tip of the head to be inlaid mother of pearl. I have some nice chunks that are about .070″ in thickness, and large enough to do the circle in one piece. The thickness will help avoid breakage when cutting the piece which is very delicate.

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The first step was to clean up my sketch and commit it to a paper template. Then I could glue the template to the pearl and begin my cut with saw. Most times, I use a powered jigsaw, but this piece is so complicated I decided to use the hand saw. I’m using an extra-fine blade (.009″) so patience is imperative. The work is backed up on a .125″ thick piece of maple with a slot cut in it for clearance. The inner cuts are made by using a micro-drill to put a starter hole in the pearl; then inserting the saw blade through and into the handle.

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Once the cuts are made, I can use a set of miniature files to smooth out the edges. The finished monogram looks good. It needs to be clean because the headplate is unpainted ebony; so there is no way to hide the edges.

The monogram has also been repeated on the headplate. Here it is on the overhead router. There is a matching template to follow, and by using a .020″ micro-mill bit, I can get very close to final fit—the last adjustments being done by hand with an air powered mini tool that is similar to a dentist’s drill.

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Here’s the headstock with the pearl inserted and some of the binding in place. I like how the white ivoroid purfling stripes terminate in a blend to the top of the monogram’s circle. The rest of the treatment will be my signature in the center of the headstock. After all, it is a “signature” guitar.

 

 

Crow Guitar Rim Shot

Good progress is being made on The Crow guitar. The top and interior templates have been made from baltic birch based on full scale drawings refined from my sketches—now they’re ready to go. Here are the steps below: the drawings, the  templates and the interior of the rim, which in this case was routed from Honduras mahogany.

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The center block still has to be routed with the three different size tone chambers that I want to put directly under the bridge and tailpiece. Each chamber is a specific volume which relates to a different frequency range. This breaks up the spectrum and evens out the response when played at high volume. It reduces the tendency of the guitar to howl on a single note.

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This is the rough rim placed on the spruce top which was being routed in the last post. The next task is to carve the interior of the top, then bond it to the rim. When the top and back are glued up, then the outside can be finalized and the top and back carved. Traditional archtop builders carve the entire top before attaching it to the rim—tapping as they carve to determine the thickness needed from each individual piece. In my case, I like to carve the interior, then carve the outside—tapping the entire assembly as one.

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.

Jack

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.