Wind in the woods brings consequence. On the way up to the shop today the road was littered with leaves and boughs—nature’s way of cleaning house. Trees are all around us in life, and in what we do. Trees are the source of great instruments and home for countless animals. We’re always aware of the crashing of trees and branches when the weather gets a little rough around here.
In the perfect reflection of my car’s hood I saw it fall towards me. I flinched instinctively, but it wasn’t a tree branch—it was a red-tailed hawk with a wingspan as wide as my windshield. For about a hundred feet we flew down the road together, the great bird just a few feet above the road a car length ahead of me. It was as though the world was in slow-motion and the space between seconds became like minutes, until the hawk banked off into the trees and disappeared.
Once inside the shop, I mixed up some of the waterborne lacquer I’d been using on Anthony’s guitar and got down to business. We’d both decided that a satin finish was the way to go, so it will be interesting to see how the flattening agent works with this paint. After decades of pushing the envelope to create thin, yet glossy finishes, I’ve decided that I don’t care for them any longer.
I’m the first one to admire a custom-car paint job, but the patina of age on guitars that have been played and loved speaks of the experience that they have absorbed over time. There’s just something about the satiny sheen of an aged guitar that makes it a musical instrument, and not an appliance. Stepping away from my past obsession with ultra-shiny guitars feels good—like taking flight.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jim in the shop doorway, with more books.
While Jim was keeping himself busy building up a neck blank fore a new commission that we’re calling tentatively The Black Dahlia, I decided to get some color on the Tele we’re making for Anthony. Here, Jim is slotting Dahlia’s neck blank for the truss rod. The three piece, opposed grain system used to strengthen the neck is clearly visible. All three parts are sawn from the same board to maintain the integrity of the neck—the grain on the outside pieces are opposed to use the natural forces of the wood to self-stabilize. The center part is a neutral, quarter-sawn piece.
Now, back to that guitar for Anthony. Most times, for color coats I use nitro with tints, or some PPG colors that are suspended in DBC clear. However, this time I decided to experiment with a waterborne acrylic. I’ve had the stuff for a while and thought it would be interesting to try. I got it for a window sill refinish project, and it worked so well that I thought it could be used on a guitar.
The first step was to mix some Golden Yellow Oxide and add a little brown until I got the shade I wanted. I did this into the clear waterborne directly, then cut the whole mix with good old H2O until the viscosity was correct for the gun. The color looked good on the test piece, so onward we go.
I’m using a SATA minijet with a 1.1 tip which is my weapon of choice for most small jobs like sunbursting. I decided to use it for this full-body color job because the Minijet has a thumb-wheel fan control on the left side which would let me control the spray with the unfamiliar water-based material.
I needn’t have worried. With the air pressure at 30lbs. the material sprayed like a champ. Very easy to control and the build was good. I can see if I had used a bigger tip it might have been prone to sag—after all, it is water. The clean-up was a breeze, and the stuff is almost odorless. I’ll let it set up for a day, then I’ll continue with the clear coats.
The color is classic Butterscotch, and on the body it looks great. The only question is whether to use the nitro as I usually do, or continue with the waterborne…
As the Autumn continues to wind down in chilly and damp fashion, it’s warm and busy in the shop. I’ve been working on several projects for clients, but have some “blue-sky” stuff going on as well. I’ve been messing around with some new pickup ideas, and thought that it would be useful to have a guitar made specifically for the purpose of testing pickups. Back in the ’80s I’d built myself a guitar with rear loading for the bridge pickup so that it could changed quickly without slacking the strings—so I decided to revisit the concept.
After drawing out the design in full-scale, I prepped a blank of mahogany with location holes, found the centerline and did a rough cut on the bandsaw. Here, my apprentice Jim and I are going over the details. I’m going to leave the body to Jim while I prep the neck and work on some pressing design items for clients. Not enough hours in the day!
“Musically, I am still hooked and just hypnotized by the sound of the guitar itself. I mean, a guitar sounds good if you drop it on the floor.”
— Leo Kottke
One of the things I like the most about guitar is its many facets. I’m inclined to agree with Kottke—there’s just something magical about every sound a guitar makes. Every guitar design has a purpose in mind, but musicians, being artists soon move beyond those boundaries. As much as its originally intended function is the point of the design exercise, a guitar’s range is not limited purely to its original intent—but rather, the imagination of the player. Jeff Beck has raised the random sounds of an amplified guitar to high art, while Hendrix and Pete Townshend made some glorious noise experimenting with the percussive capabilities of the guitar as well. In the 1980s, Steve Stevens asked me to incorporate a toy ray-gun into the circuitry of one of his guitars in order to expand its vocabulary and Paul Gilbert used a cordless drill to pluck his strings with Racer X. Today, players like Jim Campilongo continue to coax both the classic and the histrionic from their guitars despite what we, as builders, intended in the first place.
Then there is the visual aspect of the guitar, both as an homage to the past and its shock value in the present. Of course, almost every possible variation has been done by now; mirrors, lasers, flamethrowers, flashing lights and so on. I’ve been guilty of partaking in more than my share of sight-gag instruments over the years, but is guitar-building an arms race? I don’t see it that way—just as I don’t think guitar soloing should be an athletic competition where the most notes win the gold.
So where does this leave us as builders? Should we continue to mimic the designs of the past relying upon innovative players to reapply our creations to new frontiers? Or, should we attempt to break the mold and hope that musicians respond to the challenge?
The Ultimate Hamer Guitars: An Illustrated History