Tulsas on Deck

The reception of my Dantzig line Tulsa model has been very satisfying for me. It is a way to offer my designs in a more timely fashion for those who do not desire a one-off guitar. Today, I am laying out the inlays on some rosewood and ebony fingerboards. The Tulsa model comes adorned with basic pearl dot markers, but can be optioned with a number of my “signature” inlay patterns.

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I still lay the inlays out by hand and rout the pockets out manually. Not quite as quick as the CNC methods that we used at Hamer, but it’s something that I enjoy.

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These fingerboards have the “full claw” which entails 70 separate pieces of mother of pearl and abalone per board.

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The examples above feature the “Claw” inlay at the 12th fret only, but can be had with the full claw treatment as well.

Also available are Chevron and T-Bird inlays, for those who desire a slightly less intricate pattern.

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This is the three piece T-Bird inlay, shown at the 12th fret. The Chevron inlay is a single part without the center piece—the simplest of my large patterns. Many customers have opted for a 12th fret inlay only, but you can order any combination.

Back in the Saddle

It has been a busy few months—lots of research, writing and following up on things, and not as much building guitars as I would like. That’s not to say that my shop has been idle. Space is always at a premium, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned—no matter how much you have, you’ll fill it up. So, in order to make things a little easier on myself (and my clients) I’ve been streamlining the shop. If you follow my posts on Facebook you’ll know that I’ve gotten the Hell’s Half Acre build back on the bench, and it feels good.

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The tobacco sunburst is appropriately named for this cowpoke guitar, and it turned out really nice. I’m back in my paint room, which has been upgraded, and am now putting on clear coats of nitro.

Lately, I’ve been infatuated with three things: French polish, old violins, and the patina of age on vintage guitars. I’ve been working on a way to stylistically blend these influences into a thin nitrocellulose guitar finish.

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Here is a test panel compared to an original 1964 Precision Bass. I’m not trying to match the color here, just the sheen. It is a combination of additives in the lacquer, and a hand polishing technique using a wool pad and lots of elbow grease. It’s not as easy as buffing a high gloss, or spraying a satin paint, but I think the results are great. This process gives the guitar more of a real musical instrument vibe, and less of a “production/factory” look. After all, I don’t make toasters or automobiles—I don’t think of guitars as appliances.

Then and Now, Short Form

Here is a template that I made in the early 1980s. It has been used to start the process on thousands of instruments. It hangs in my shop to remind me of my journey and all of the wonderful people I have met along the way. At the lower right hand corner is a current color sample block for a client’s guitar order.

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I’ve never done this for the money, but I like to be paid for my time and expertise. I didn’t start building guitars because I wanted to be rich, or even to be a businessman. I just wanted to make cool shit. I figured that if I satisfied myself, maybe there would be a few people like me who might want one of my guitars. So far, it has worked out way better than I’d ever hoped.

Winning

I guess I missed the memo. Forgive me because I’m just a little “slow” if you catch my drift. Now I smell what’s cookin’ and it’s the last fragment of my stupid optimism about art and the expression of the human condition. Because now I realize that rather than being humbled by of our tiny place in this immeasurable universe, life and art are really about winning. I used to believe that life was not a zero sum game and that the world held so much bounty and beauty that there was enough for everyone if they’d just take the time to look skyward and breathe nature’s divine air. I guess I’m an idiot.

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Training to win. The author in school circa 1965

I recently read a post from Esquire about how a rapper went home from SXSW early, because he “won”(their words) and it got me thinking—make that seething—about how everything in life now has to be a competition. Especially in this country. It’s the biggest, baddest, boldest, richest, righteous; most-popular-takes-the-prize mentality that surrounds us all. And it has always been this way. I was just a fool to think otherwise. Top forty, Billboard charts, top grossing movie, highest price paid for a painting and auction results on the morning news. What is American Idol if not a competition? Duh.

Even education is now about winning. Screw the arts—too hard to quantify. Our English and literature classes are now dumbed down to serve as training for corporate report writing. Learning is no longer the point; it’s all about positioning oneself for future employment. Imagine the fraud generated by all or nothing winning attitudes about the end game above all else. Creativity is given much lip service, but in the end it’s conformity that gets rewarded.

Still, I have optimism. Creative souls have always slipped through the cracks. In fact, I think the more robot-like the world becomes, the more misfits will rise to the challenge. Writing, filming, playing music, building and carving—not because of the money, not because of the fame, but because it has always been this way. That’s the creative person’s way of winning.

Big Apple Birthday Bash

Buried near the bottom of  page six in the faded green ledger that Hamer Guitars used to record instrument serial numbers, is an innocuous entry for the third week of December, 1980. It reads: Andy Summers, black, new model, 3-coil, S/N 02391. Three-coil was code for an as yet unnamed model, and it is significant not because this guitar was the first of its kind—It wasn’t—but because Summers and his band, The Police, were about to play a momentous gig with it. The guitar almost didn’t make the show.

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The Hamer Guitar serial number ledger book

I awoke early on January 9th, 1981 to a typical Chicago winter morning not unlike today. It was cold, still dark and my first impulse was to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep. I’d barely gotten any rest after having spent the night partying with friends. Dimly lit, bare trees swayed in the chilly wind outside my window and my head throbbed dully as I put together my thoughts.  Then I remembered—it was my 29th birthday and I was celebrating with a trip to see The Police. I had less than an hour to get out of the house.

At 8:40 AM I boarded a non-stop American Airlines flight to New York, and immediately fell asleep in my seat. Fastidiously packed in a custom-made brown cardboard shipping box and checked as baggage in the hold below was the black serial number 02391 guitar, which I planned to deliver to Summers in time for the band’s first ever show at Madison Square Garden the next day. After working with Andy Summers for almost two years, The Police had arrived in the Big Time, and there was no way I was going to miss it.

The flight was uneventful, relatively short and after a shuttle bus ride into Manhattan I checked into my hotel on 57th street. I was feeling better and there was no need to hurry, I’d done this dozens of times. After ordering some room service, I unboxed the guitar and opened the case. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Despite my packaging, which bordered on fanatical, the fucking airline gorillas had broken the guitar’s neck loose. My blood pressure started to rise and I felt nauseous—this definitely wasn’t in the plan. No amount of profanity was going to fix anything and I resisted the urge to toss the TV out the window. Just barely holding back panic I picked up the phone but instead of throwing it, I called a friend at a guitar shop on 48th street and asked him to open up a repair bench for me. I grabbed the guitar and practically ran all the way there—thoughts spinning in my head. How bad was it? Could it be fixed in time? A dozen blocks of dodging and weaving my way through crowds of people had me sweating and out of breath as I pushed the shop’s door open at last. I was desperate to get the guitar on the bench where I could force the crack in the neck heel open and see how bad things really were.

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The view from the workbench on 48th St. The Steak & Brew is now Rudy’s Music.

Luckily it was a pretty clean break, and getting glue in there and clamping would be fairly starightforward. I’m not always a big fan of epoxy for repairs, but in this case it was a good suggestion by the shop’s tech—so we proceeded. We got the clamps on and I removed any excess adhesive off without harming the finish. Could I be this lucky? I took a cab back to the hotel with the guitar still in clamps and was feeling somewhat confident it would hold.

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Summers backstage at MSG clowning for my camera after receiving s/n 02391

The next afternoon I delivered the guitar backstage at The Garden, and Summers marched right out on stage with it which was still a real leap of faith. I held my breath, but the neck stayed put. I worked my way from the side of the stage to the orchestra pit in front of the stage and fired off a few photos—one you see here.

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The guitar debuts on the big stage

A lot has been said about Summers, Sting and Copeland and how calculating they could be, but I like to remind people about how fearless they were. They were musicians first and last. I witnessed so many occasions where they would try something new without hesitation and that night in New York was no exception. Luckily the guitar didn’t let them down. The feeling of relief that the guitar worked was so overwhelming I barely remember the details of the show.

So, what did Summers think of the guitar? He liked it enough that he asked for another to be built, and we went out to dinner to celebrate—him for having played MSG, and me for having successfully saved the guitar. It was a better birthday present than I had expected.

The guitar model was introduced shortly after, known as “The Prototype”—a decidedly poor choice of product name despite its impressive public debut. I still have a soft spot in my heart for that guitar.

Tail-Draggin’ and Other Pursuits

“I’m a tail dragger
I wipe out my track
When I get what I want
I don’t come sneakin’ back”

—Tail Dragger by Howling Wolf


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The Workshop is a laboratory and a work in progress. One day it is a place of solitude and reflection as I slowly craft materials into shape, and the next day it is a clubhouse full of voices and camraderie. Often, it is a music venue—visitors working out on instruments and sending signals through the surrounding woods.

Other times I take the workshop with me as I travel to see old friends and make new ones. These journeys bring the vibe of the shop on-site at studios, shops, homes, galleries, stages and anywhere creative folks gather. I bring my curiosity and am rewarded by learning from others.

This week has been a whirlwind of experience. From sitting in Levon Helm’s place at his drumset in The Barn,  the legendary studio where The Band recorded, to watching Matt Beck play my Sakura guitar on the big stage at a Matchbox 20 gig.

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Jim Weider and I lunched in Woodstock, and he recounted the early days of the festival scene before the “Big One.” We visited the place where Paul Butterfield’s band hunkered down to rehearse and get high, and where Bob Dylan rode his Triumph motorcycle for fun.

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Multi-instrumentalist Matt Beck and I discussed the origins of guitar-fever and its effect on the American experience beginning with Segovia legitimizing the instrument in the early 20th century. Then Matt put Sakura through its paces on the big stage.

I visited amp restorer/builder Blackie Pagano in Manhattan to talk about the magic vacuum tubes bring to guitar music; then spent an afternoon with producer/guitarist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel drinking great coffee and talking about why the guitar is such a special and alluring instrument.

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These were all gritty, but holy guitar places. But sometimes inspiration and iconic moments belong to simple ordinary locations. Inside a lovely suburban home, I held and played Howling Wolf’s 1963 Stratocaster.

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I can only hope that some of the stories shared will rub off on me, and what I brought to these exceptional people and places was worthy. The Mighty Wolf may have wiped out his tracks, but I’m thankful for mine.

Gearhead Garages

Every day we are bombarded with corny sales pitches for all sorts of “man” stuff—the kind of kit that men would buy for themselves if they weren’t busy thinking about other people in their life first, or at least cowering in the fear that any splurging on themselves might be construed as selfish. So, in the spirit of free enterprise, male empowerment and self-promotion, I urge you to buy this wonderful book written by Ken Gross and Tom Cotter. It’s chocked-full of groovy photos of cars and guitars in the collections of some very cool rockers, by master lensman Michael Alan Ross, and the bonus is you get to see some of my shop too. (That’s the self promotion part).

The authors tell me that if they sell enough copies to actually make a profit, they might make another one about Heavy Metal. Now wouldn’t that be grand? See, it’s a double good cause. Go ahead, buy two and give one to a buddy for his birthday.

Because I’m such an agreable chap, I’ve made it easy for you by providing this link:

Rockin’ Garages: Collecting, Racing & Riding with Rock’s Great Gearheads

So go ahead… you’ve got my permission to splurge on yourself. If anyone doubts your frugality, tell ’em I made you do it. You’ll thank me later.

Tossing the Bass into the Chipper

It’s early, and Pete Townshend’s “Give Blood” is reverberating through the shop. No one is working, but not because of laziness. Every time I hear this song it just stops me in my tracks because Pino Paladino’s bass playing is beyond sublime. Most people probably think they are hearing a synthesizer workout—but they’re not. Palidino used a low octave effect on his bass. The whole song is one magnificent bass solo—listen to that hand vibrato on his fretless! Good God, it makes me want to throw my bass in the chipper and become a hermit. Oh wait, I already did that.

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Years ago I worked with Paladino, designing a fretless bass, and he was a complete gentleman to work with. He showed me the MXR harmonizer that he used to get his sound—he didn’t think it was a big deal. Of course, when it was me playing through his rig, it certainly wasn’t.

 

Cherry Blossom Guitar

Although we’re taking some time off from the shop, my mind is always open to my surroundings. My wife and I were enjoying a nice sushi dinner when my eyes fell upon the traditional cherry blossom motif—one that I’d seen thousands of times before. This time it was different—maybe it was the wine. Inspiration comes from any number of places if you are open to the world around you.

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Sakura. The cherry blossom is a symbol of Life and creates a balance in the Yin/Yang energies of Chi, bringing harmony and success. A great sentiment for the new year, and it appealed to me in a deep fundamental way.

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I took out my pencil and began to sketch an idea that I saw in my mind. Engraved cherry blossoms of gold and silver on a cherry-colored guitar. I’ve always been a fan of Tony Zemaitis, but never found it to be anything I’d want to do myself; but somehow it seemed appropriate for my vision. I love working with metal and wood together, so I couldn’t wait to get back to the workshop.

 

Cult of the ‘Tron, Cult of the P90

Down to the scale-model of a city known as Hartford, Connecticut I went. Trading a perfectly good afternoon in the woods for the grit of the ‘hood and the concrete bunker of the Webster Theater. It takes a lot to coax me out of the home-20—but seeing my old friend Gavin Menzies and the boys in The Cult is a lot of coaxing.

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After a thorough tour of the gear, including a few choice licks on Billy Duffy’s new Nash-built “Esquire” we repaired to the tour bus for some catching-up, cold beer and general mischief.

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I’d planned to wimp out after a few Cult Classics, but happily, my car was blocked into the staff parking lot. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to call in sick tomorrow.

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Everything happens for a reason, and I just relaxed and had fun with it. Gav’s old buddy Lenny from Huntington Beach was there with a homemade Calzone and the hang was just what the doctor ordered.

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I never tire of the sound and fury of a full-blown rock rig pumping out rock rhythms in a small theater. and the pinball rebound of the Cult’s chugga-chugga repertoire truly turned the Webster into a Sonic Temple. Instead of feeling trapped there, I felt delivered. This is why I do what I do, and it’s good to realize that.

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A double-dose of P90 and Filtertron-through-tube-amps-on-ten was still ringing in my ears as I dragged my ass into the shower at 10:00 AM, but hey, I’m the boss. Anyway, I was really working—dreaming of a new guitar I want to build.