The Crow was the very first Signature Series guitar. The series will be a group of instruments, every one completely different and each guitar is one of a kind, never to be repeated. For those who haven’t seen the very first Crow video, here it is again. Thanks to “The Visitor” Tommy Williams.
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?
And 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.
My friend Mark Spencer droped in for a visit, so I put some guitars in his hands and rolled the camera. In this clip Mark found that the Crow can get twangy.
Putting my Signature Series guitars into the hands of great musicians builds the character of each instrument. In this episode, Jim Chapdelaine encounters The Crow for the first time.
I enjoy having visitors to the workshop play my instruments. I feel as though each musician leaves a little bit of themselves with the guitar. The process is to roll the camera and then put the guitar in their hands and see what develops. Here’s my friend Mike getting greasy on the Crow.
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.
In keeping with my intention to construct individually singular builds for my Signature Series guitars, I’ve made certain that the cases are unique to each guitar as well. The Crow, inspired in part by travelling musicians and the escapades depicted in Kerouac’s On the Road, will receive a lacquered, woven-cloth covered hard case. The covering, which is often erroneously refered to as tweed, is actually a twill material familiar to guitarists as the finish used by Fender on their 1950s amplifiers and guitar cases. My reference was a 1940s suitcase that I found in a junk shop in New Hampshire.
The modern material supplied by the manufacturer was not an acceptable reproduction, so I went about lacquering it myself. I wanted the patina of age and experience that would be a fitting companion to the guitar itself.
The final touch was to add a hygrometer to monitor the humidity within the case. The gauge was inserted into the case pocket from the outside, which required a pair of pass-throughs to allow the interior air to reach the sampling point on the back of the hygrometer. I used brass grommets to match the rest of the case hardware.
Here a setting tool is used to crimp the grommet onto the pocket lid. This connects the main chamber of the case to the pocket.
I combed through my leather selection to find a remnant to use for the case pocket’s pull tab. I’d entertained making the pull something crow or bird-themed, but rejected the idea as too cute and just went with a utilitarian pull tab of brown leather to match the case trim.
Once trimmed to size and burnished to match, I punched a hole and fastened the pull to the pocket door flap with a brass rivet.
After the gauge was sealed to the outside with silicone I could insert the pocket into the case. The orientation is such that it can be read easily when the case stands on its end or side.
Now it was just a matter of fitting everything and screwing the mounting blocks into the case. The inside is finished with red velvet plush and the back of the gauge is covered except for another brass grommet.
The entire idea is to allow the interior humidity and temperature to be read from the outside. This is particularly useful when the instrument is in a rack with other guitars.
For an all analog solution, I think it turned out quite well. After living with the results for a few days, it has become so normal to check the readings that I can’t imagine not having it there. The Crow’s nest is ready.
There’s been a lot going on since my last post. Hurricane Irene gave us a good scare but fortunately we escaped with very little damage. Some of our neighbors weren’t so lucky. Most of the work here involved strapping stuff down—moving and waterproofing things. The ramp up and wind down were more stressful than the storm itself. A few downed tree limbs and a general mess outdoors was the extent of it as we dodged the bullet.
After months of back and forth with the manufacturer, the case husk for the Crow arrived. Despite my sending samples for the vintage antique tweed, the color and finsih were not to my liking. I had paid for an entire hide of smooth, dark brown leather for the trim to match the antique suitcase—fortunately that was perfect.
Because I’d already tested a lacquering process for the samples, I knew that I could get the tweed right. It was just a matter of taking the case apart and antiquing it. The next step was to mix up the lacquer tint.
The color I wanted simulated decades of darkening and discoloration from use. The recipie included yellow, red, brown and a hint of violet all mixed into a thin base of lacquer. The application would be done with a two inch brush in order for me to work it into the weave.
Even though the tint was strong, I wanted to use multiple coats in order to replicate the uneven weathering of the original. This gives it a more authentic look and feel.
I’ll get the last coat on this morning before I head down to Infinity Hall to meet up with my old friend Keb’ Mo’. He’s taping a PBS concert tonight, and I had a small part in hooking him up with the gig. We’re gonna be talking guitars and catching up. There are some new ideas on the boil—can’t wait to see what we come up with.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the frosted duco finish cured, I am able to continue with the assembly and setup of The Crow. Both the headstock face and the back of the guitar are hand buffed to a gloss finish with a series of compounds. The next step is to remove any residue.
The nitro was flattened five percent to give it a slightly lower gloss. It’s hardly noticeable, but gives the guitar a more vintage and “lived in” appearance. The idea is to build a guitar that already looks and feels broken in and experienced.
In this shot you can see the ivory string nut. I like this material for a lot of reasons, including its rich, grained appearance. Any tape residue on the fingerboard is removed at this point; I go over each fret with a small hand buffer to shine them up.
Once cleaned up, the electronics are fitted in through small openings in the pickup routes. The Charlie Christian pickups are mounted on stainless steel shoulder bolts from the back of the guitar. You can see the mounting holes in the photo above.
Held from behind and cushioned on on springs, the pickups do not touch the top of the guitar. This allows the top to vibrate freely while the pickups are isolated for feedback rejection. It also gives the guitar a sleek look because there is no mounting hardware in the front. Height adjustments are done with a 4mm allen wrench.
After assembly, it’s time to put a set of Pyramid Nickel Classic strings on and do the setup. First I adjust the truss rod. From experience gained in thousands of set-ups, I can pretty much guess how much bow to put in even before the strings are on. I set the bridge to a middle height and then string up the guitar. With a close approximation of the final action, I then can cut the nut slots to their final depth. Then the guitar can be tuned to pitch and all the final heights and truss rod changes can be made.
To do the intonation I used my vintage Peterson strobe tuner on The Crow. I’ve had this tuner since the early 1970s and used it at Northern Prairie and the first Hamer shop in Palatine, Illinois. Here is a photo from the very first Hamer catalog—you can see the tuner in the shot. I’m wearing a tacky madras shirt that I bought in London’s Carnaby Street in April of 1973. I believe that is Martin Barre’s Standard on the bench.
And now, here is the crow on the bench in the new Dantzig shop. Same tuner, same tech, same procedure. Thirty seven years later and I’m still at it! Just for fun we colored the photo to match the original.
The last step is to intonate the guitar by adjusting the bridge saddles. First I set them to the 12th fret on the bench. Then I get the guitar in the playing position and tweak it from there. If you attempt to finish it on the bench while gravity pulls straight down, it’s going to be different when you put the guitar on your leg or on a strap.
After installing the truss rod cover, which is made from black ebony with a cellulose ivoroid binding, I trim the strings neatly. I’m going to jam on The Crow for a while to break it in more, and then it’s off to the photographer’s studio for some more formal portraits. I can’t wait to show them to you.
Jimi Hendrix’s Machine Gun is roaring in the shop today—fitting. With the fine weather and perfect humidity, I did give ’em the gun. Four more coats of nitro on Sakura, but more importantly, The Crow got the frosted Duco black lacquer. I had to wait overnight to see the complete result, and it’s breathtaking.
Exactly as I’d hoped, the Duco finish looks like crow’s feathers, and it is different on every part of the guitar. From bold, wide crystals to small intricate patterns—it’s all there.
The next step was to carefully un-tape the masked portions and then scrape the binding clean at the right time. There’s a fine line between too soft and too brittle to scrape. Happily, I got it just right.
I use a sharp blade to scrape the black Duco lacquer off the binding. I can vary the depth of the cut with pressure and the width is controlled by the angle of the blade relative to the side of the guitar.
Special care was needed to avoid scratching the clear nitro over the binding on the sides. After I was done I went back and did some final polishing and cleanup.
There is a pleasing tactile sensation when you touch this finish—something I hadn’t thought about but am happy with. I can’t wait to get all of the parts on this sucker and fire it up. That will have to wait for a bit while the finish cures completely.
I just received my first pieces of variegated nickel hardware from Dwight at TonePros. We’ve been batting ideas around for over a year, and it’s finally coming together. Based upon the traditional TOM vintage bridge, the alloys have been massaged and the finish is unique as well.
Of special interest are the tailpiece anchors. Machined from 1018 steel as per original vintage correct specs, they couple and ring out with a clarity that you don’t get from the cast pieces—or even brass for that matter. They are also the correct “long” length.
The matching tuner hardware is awesome as well. They are vintage Kluson type machines, but with a few important differences. First, the tolerances are to a more modern specification that wasn’t in the originals. Second, they are locked down from the top with a nut to secure them to the headstock. I individually fit each tuner, starting with an undersize hole. This increases stability and couples the string vibration to the head of the guitar. Here’s the test fit on a dummy neck.
I hand sand and buff each of the keys to eliminate any molding seams—this gives them a friendly feel like an old guitar. Then they are hand painted for a vintage patina. Then they are polished and fine-scuffed for a satin touch. I can’t wait to get these into the latest build. Thanks to Dwight and his crew for making this a reality.
After the lengthy process to polish the cellulose tortoise binding it was just a matter of carefully taping off the parts of The Crow that would not receive the Duco.
The shop is humidity controlled, but there had been a lot of rain so I had to wait a few days to be sure. The Duco is very environment-sensitive so the temperature and humidity needed to be exactly like it was during my tests.
As the skies cleared and an even thirty-five percent RH was sustained. That’s the golden number—it was time to spray.
First step—tack cloth the entire guitar. This removes any large debris that may have settled on the surface. Then a very thorough blow-down with compressed nitrogen. I also use compressed nitrogen to spray. It doesn’t absorb water, so the spray is completely dry. It’s a little trick I learned from racing cars.
Now the moment of truth is upon us. After months of research, preparation and testing it’s time to pull the trigger. I have to admit that even after making so many guitars over the last thirty-five years, my heart was racing a bit. Now it will have to hang and allow the paint to do its thing. As the solution dries it contracts and creates the “frosted” effect. It takes a few hours to form and dry. Hopefully all my planning will pay off.
As much fun as it is to scavenge for vintage parts, there comes a time when everything must be pressed into service. With the impending completion of The Crow, it’s time to gather things together and get ready for assembly.
This is one of the Jensen-made, oil-filled tone capacitors that I’ll be using. I sourced it from my friend Steve at Angela Instruments, and it’s matched perfectly to the single coil Charlie Christian pickups. The idea is to cut some of the highs but not completely kill the wonderful midrange that the pickups produce. I had the reclusive pickup guru John Grail examine the pickups and pots to help me with my decision. John has been restoring vintage pickups for the big boys since the 1960s and he really knows his stuff. True to form, he refused to be photographed.
Here’s the quartet of NOS potentiometers, the caps and the Western Electric wire I’ll be sewing into The Crow. I’ve got a few hundred of the last USA made CTS pots and John and I went through them all to find the matched set for this build.
I made a down and dirty wiring fixture from a scrap of maple that puts all the components in place while I solder everything together. Wiring this guitar really is like building a ship in a bottle—The Crow has no opening on the back. Everything has to go through the small door in the bridge pickup route.
Everything is noted in the journal. I’ve attached some pieces of the wire and pickup insulation tape to the journal page. One of the pots was so far from tolerance that I decided to take it apart to study. When I was done with it, I glued it into the journal.
Of course, during any build like this things will change. In the journal, I’ll just cross out the old entry and make a new note with my thoughts on why the change was made.
Next up, the hardware.
Now that The Crow is ready to receive its frosted Duco finish it’s time to prep the tortoise shell binding that surrounds the entire guitar. There will be no clear coats over the black finish, so I have to polish the binding and then mask it off. It’s a risky and time-consuming move, but it is the only way this will work.
The binding I’m using is made of a cellulose material made in Italy in three hundred pound blocks. It is then shaved into sheets of varying thicknesses, and I cut it into strips to suit my needs.
On the Crow, the binding is a multi-laminate built up from the faux tortoise, ivoroid and black strips. Each layer is individually heated and bent to the shape of the instrument and then glued in place. In the places where a sharp corner is reached, the binding is mitered and fit to the next piece. If you look closely you can see the corner joints that are meticulously matched. I like the way this looks as opposed to the high-production practice of using a molded piece with no personality.
The entire guitar has been shot with clear nitro, and sanded flat by hand with 600p sandpaper. It is ready to get the color coat of Duco-relica paint that I’ve mixed up, but first I have to hand polish the lacquer over the binding on the front, back, neck and headstock of the guitar. There will be no chance to buff the binding to a gloss after the Duco is appled, so it has to be done now. The polishing has to be confined to just the binding area because the color coat needs the grip for adhesion.
The first step is to selectively sand the lacquer over the binding using progressively finer grits of sandpaper. Then using a soft felt pad, I cautiously hand-rub the nitro clear coats using three different polishing compounds until the binding is as glossy as I want.
Here you can see the compound applied to the binding areas. After all the binding is polished I went back and cleaned any residue and then prepped the entire guitar for color. The whole process took about sixteen hours.
Now the newly buffed binding will have to be masked off before spraying—back to work I go.
It is amazing how followers this blog, and The Crow Guitar build have been very supportive and encouraging. And now the time for color coats has arrived. The back will remain clear to show the flame, but now the rest of the guitar can be painted.
Months ago when I embarked upon The Crow’s journey, I had a vision of it as a living, breathing creation. As the Workshop filled with crow and Kerouac prompts, The Crow guitar became more and more alive in my mind.
Even when working on other projects, The Crow was never far from my thoughts, and its presence hovered over the shop. Friends mentioned that they were noticing crows. People sent me crow photographs and stories. A stuffed crow arrived by FedEx.
I was concerned about the finish. The guitar’s construction was enough to make The Crow a singular instrument, but how was I going to finish the guitar in a way that reflected the theme completely? I knew it had to be black, but it needed something epic to convey the message visually.
One morning I spied a pair of crows in a tree above the shop—I shot a few photos and went inside. When I put the photos up on my computer screen I noticed how the light reflects off the feathers. The birds are black, and they are shiny, but it’s not an even reflection. This played right into my new obsession with lower-gloss nitro finishes. I had an idea, but it wouldn’t be easy.
The Vintage Solution
From 1928 to 1941 the National company made resonator guitars from German silver (actually an alloy of nickel, zink and steel) as well as brass and steel. Some of them were nickel plated—others were painted to imitate wood like this rare Tricone.
Others were coated with what is now referred to as the “frosted” Duco finish. This paint got its name because it dried to a texture that resembled frost on a windowpane. It was available for a short time in a few colors including a greenish gold and a clear.
The original Duco paint was made with tar camphor—the stuff mothballs are made of. It fell out of favor and was discontinued and is considered a lost process by many. I thought that if The Crow could be done in a black version of this finish it would be the perfect thing. I don’t think there ever was a vintage National in Duco black, but I was convinced that it could be done. The nitro-based finish would have to made from scratch using the original recipe in order to get results.
Starting with a 99% pure naphthalene compound, I added the black nitro and satin flattener until I got a solution that gave me the results I was looking for. It took about three weeks of testing to get a solution that would go through the gun yet still “frost” when it dried. I found that the paint is very sensitive to temperature and the thickness of the coat. It stinks to high heaven too.
There was no way of telling exactly how it would turn out, so I shot a ton of test pieces to get a handle on how to control it as much as possible. Once I had what I wanted, I sprayed a small sample on one page of the journal I’m keeping for the guitar.
The trick with this paint is that it can’t be topcoated with clear. Any application of finish over the Duco melts the pattern and it disappears. Once you’ve shot it—that’s it. This presents an interesting problem on how to deal with the binding. After some contemplation, I devised a plan. You’ll have to check back here to see it.
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.
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.
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.
Hand-bound spine of the journal.
Archival paper is hand-stitched together to make a one-of-a-kind original that is the companion piece to each instrument I build.
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.
Following in the footsteps of my last post, I’ve unearthed more vintage electronic parts from my stash. Both the Sakura and Hell’s Half Acre call for the use of three-way blade switches for pickup selection.
This is one of several early 1950s vintage “blade” switches on my bench right now. Technically this type of device is referred to as a model 1454 rotary switch. In this case the rotation, or throw, is 30º. It was used for military and communications equipment because of its reliability—being rated for a minimum of twenty-five thousand cycles.
In this photo you can see the two patent numbers stamped into the frame. Switches made after 1953 had three patent numbers. You can also appreciate the coarse grain of the brown phenolic which was a trademark look of the older materials. Its simple mechanical construction allows me to refurbish it to a perfect working order without losing its beautiful and rich patina of age.
Salvaged from more telephone switching equipment, my piece was manufactured between 1950 and 1953 by Centralab in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Much like the Western Electric plant, rows of operators toiled at punches, riveting the pieces of metal and phenolic together. In the 1980s around the same time that Western Electric was shutting down, the switch division of Centralab was sold off and shuttered. The buyer, Electroswitch was then acquired by ITT. The modern version of the trusty old 1454, known as E2G0203N is still made in Juarez, Mexico.
Does using vintage wire and switchgear make a guitar sound or play better? If this is what you’re asking, you’re missing the point. You can cover your wall with a twenty-dollar poster from Target if all you want is something to look at. If you are hoping for a deeper experience from the material things in your life, it has to come from a deeper place.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Much was made of the so-called super moon a few weeks back. Out here in the woods, most every appearance of the moon is pretty super looking. I did go outside the shop and shoot a few photos of the event as the moon peeked through the trees.
I’d forgotten about the photos until last night when I was sorting through the desktop looking for something else. When the image popped up on my screen I was immediately struck by the emotional feel and how it related to The Crow guitar. Can’t you just see a huge black crow flying under that moon? Maybe when the guitar is complete I’ll stick it up there and take a photo.
Today I’m leveling the first lacquer coats on The Crow, and spraying the first coats on Sakura. Using a hard rubber block, I’m sanding with 400 grit paper. The first level is the most important because it is the foundation for everything else. I like to take my time and I always follow the exact same pattern.
Here’s a look at the carved maple back with the black stain. When the guitar is finished, this and the ebony headstock face will be the only transparent areas. I like the idea of a little surprise on the back of the guitar.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After a couple of gloomy days that saw a few inches of snow fall, the sun is breaking through again. Of course the sunshine makes us feel better and the workshop is humming with electric activity. The Crow guitar is sanded and ready for its first coats of nitro clear. I’ve stained the figured maple back with a black transparent stain that I think will go nicely with the main finish that I have planned.
While the stain is drying, I’m collecting all the electronic parts that I want to use. This build will feature authentic recreations of the Charlie Christian pickups, which my good friend Seymour has created in his lab. The Christian pickups are completely different from any other type, and the resulting tone is incredible. Here are my notations in the Crow’s journal—I’m including a scrap of the #42 wire as well.
I use a unique mounting trestle machined from 6061 aluminum. Here’s my drawing of the part that will go into the journal. I had a friend down the road help me machine the parts on his Bridgeport. The oval mounting holes will allow the pickups to be adjusted transversely relative to the guitar’s center line. Stainless steel hex socket screws will allow height adjustment from the rear of the instrument, keeping the front of the guitar clean and uncluttered.
This is the resulting part which will be attached to the bottom of the pickup.
Gotta get back to the paint room and start spraying.
After completing the strap buttons and switch tip made from buffalo horn, attention now turns to the rest of the hardware. The Crow will be fitted with variegated nickel finish metal parts, so I was thinking now about the control knobs. Amber speed knobs seemed like a good bet, but the match to the rest of the guitar seemed less than perfect. One consideration was Daka Ware 1930s bakelite knobs. The brown color and retro look was classic Charlie Christian, so they seemed like a good possibility.
I found some in my parts vault and laid them out on a black background and wasn’t impressed. They’d probably be good on a tobacco sunburst guitar.
I’ve always loved the clear plastic lap steel knobs from the 1940s, so I thought that I could make my own based on an original one. The precursor to the “speed” knob, they were slightly taller and not tapered like modern knobs. They were painted gold or sometimes silver underneath, but I just wanted one for a model. A fairly exhaustive search only turned up a few knobs for sale, and those were in really rough shape. I called a few friends in the vintage trade, but no luck. Finally, I found one in almost new condition—amazing for sixty-plus year-old plastic. Needless to say, it didn’t come cheap.
My idea was to make some replicas in clear acrylic and maybe paint them underneath with slver. The lack of color would help mimic The Crow’s reflective finish without detracting from it. The first step was to make some molds from a pourable silicone material. This entails pouring the silicone over the original knob allowing it to cure for twenty-four hours. The result was very good so I made a few more, including a two-piece mold just for backup.
This is what the mold looks like when fully cured. The next step was to mix up some casting acrylic in a cup. The amount of catalyst is determined by the total thickness of the part, and I’d have about ten minutes to get it into the mold.
By pouring the first of the material into the center recess I was avoiding any trapped air which would cause bubbles in the finished part.
After another twenty-four hours, it was time to pull the part from the mold and see how it looked.
Not bad for a first try, but it was obvious that I was going to have to sand and polish the part to get it to look like the original. I went ahead and made about another seven parts in order to experiment. I mixed some color into the liquid on a few just to try it, but it wasn’t a good result.
Once I figured out how to sand and polish the molded knobs (using the trusty drill press again) I also tried painting some of the knobs with chrome, silver and copper paint. In the end, it was the fully clear versions that I liked the best.
Here’s the finished knob, polished up and sitting on my desk. I really like the way it catches the light—like a crow’s feathers. I think they are going to look great on the guitar, and the fact that they are not off-the-shelf parts makes me happy too.
I think I’ve found my “signature” look.
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.
This is the entry in The Crow’s journal—you can see the idea taking shape.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s time to go cut some pearl for the headstock monogram inlay. See you next time.
With the main components of The Crow guitar completed, I spent some time getting the ancillary parts assembled. My Signature Guitars each have a singular theme and I want the parts of the guitar not only to be appropriate for the build, but to be unique as well. The binding on the guitar is an Italian cellulose “faux” tortoise shell, backed by an off-white ivoroid purfling, so I wanted something that would match. Off the shelf parts proved to be a disappointment so I decided to make my own. I’d located some Asian Buffalo horn pieces that were stained a deep amber brown, so I thought that making some of the parts from it was worth a try.
A lathe is on the shop wish list, so I had to use a drill press for the meantime. Here I’m using a file to rough out what will be a strap button. I started with a piece cut to approximate size and rounded enough to get into the chuck.
Once I get the shape, I cut off the button just under the flange and then sand everything smooth down to 2500 grit. The next step is to drill a hole for the mounting screw that will hold it onto the guitar.
The switch tip for the pickup selector should follow the theme, so I turned a shape I liked on my makeshift lathe, using finer files as I go.
Center drilling required the fabrication of another set of wooden “clamps”, and after finishing that I used a bottoming tap to put the proper threads inside the hole.
The tip really looks great on the switch and it adds to the exclusivity of the build.
The result is a matching set of buttons that are unique not only to this guitar, but cannot be bought from any supplier. That’s all in keeping with the idea behind each signature guitar I build.