Active Lifestyle Weekend

Regular readers of this page are familiar with my obsession with vehicles. True enough, my current column in Premier Guitar maps out paralells between guitars and cars. So please forgive me if I dwell a bit more on the full-throttle side of my brain.

In addition to hanging out in my shop and building guitars, I write for automotive publications and websites, including, home of the Active Lifestyle Vehicle awards. ALV is the only car-of-the-year program to combine the input of nationally-recognized automotive journalists with elite and area athletes to determine which cars and trucks best meet the needs of buyers with active lifestyles. To my delight, I was asked to participate as a member of the judging panel. As a bicycle enthusiast and outdoorsman-by-default, I felt that I could at least add loading guitars and amps into the vehicles as a real-world test. Our mission: drive and evaluate thirty two vehicles in seven categories.


This year, the ALV evaluations were held in Phoenix, Arizona at the home of Local Motors, builders of incredible off-road vehicles—drool-worthy machines from hell. The event was also sponsored by OnStar and world-famous collector car auction powerhouse Russo and Steele.


Below is a view inside the Local Motors factory. LM treated us to a nice breakfast buffet and a tour of the facilities. Through the windows behind the Astroturf seating area you can see into the engineering studio.


Seeing the Rally Fighters being built up close was a thrill. I’d followed the evolution of the company over the years so it was a priveledge to be invited inside.


Lusting over the stripped down and purposeful machines along with me were with esteemed journalists (and heroes of mine) Larry Edsall and Denise McCluggage. If you’re a car person, Larry and Denise probably need no introduction. For those who aren’t familiar I’ll say that if there’s a subject in the automotive world that Larry hasn’t published something on I have yet to find it. Apart from being a fine author, journalist and motorsports photographer, Denise drove a Ferarri for Luigi Chinetti’s organization (NART) and was class winner at the Sebring International 12 hour in 1961. Unphased by A-list rock stars, I was thrilled and nervous to meet her.


Also on hand was former Indy 500 racer Lyn St. James. Before Danica Patrick, Lyn was Indy’s first female Rookie of the Year in the first of her seven 500s. In 1995 she set the world record on a closed-course for women—averaging 225.722 mph. Yow!


I was hoping to ride shotgun with Lyn testing the 550 horsepower Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon. This thing has got some serious grunt—sort of a Corvette station wagon. By the way, the Caddy would make a slick ride to get you to a gig—as many musicians tend to run late. It actually will swallow up a half-stack, three guitars and a pedalboard with the rear seats folded down. If you are playing club gigs and can afford this ride, you’re probably doing it for fun anyway. Here during the initial walk around Lyn is casting a glance at the Range Rover Evoque.


Despite my initial impression that it was a watered-down suburbanite car, the Evoque intrigued me in person. Small enough to get into my garage at home (hint) it was nimble and fun to toss around. The interior was pure joy, with double stitched leather everywhere. Powered by a turbocharged four cylinder, the Evoque is at once a throwback to the original Land Rovers and a look at the future of the marque. I had to ask the brand specialist if it was indeed a four—it was fairly spunky. I barely know who Victoria Beckham is, but I think this car is sexy. Will it go offroad? I think most buyers never will.


Another favorite of mine was the new Fiat. Like a blast from the past, Fiat comes back to American roads with this funky little car. Although totally worthless as a musician’s gigmobile due to a miniscule cargo area, I had to vote it up as one of the most enjoyable rides. The smile on my face as I zipped through the Phoenix traffic was almost as big as when I floored the Caddy. The exterior color cues inside the car were a nice touch.


Surprisingly quiet, the Fiat registered an average of 62 db at 60 mph—about the same as my Audi S4. For comparison, the Audi Q7 on hand was about 59db and the Cadillac was 56db.

My driving partner, Ironman triathlete Jeremy Hendricks and I both found the Mazda 5 to be well thought out and comfortable. In most categories the Mazda was unceremoniously capable. From ease of loading to seat comfort and control placement, it checked all the right boxes. The 5’s proficient yet unremarkable personality won its class with a rational-minded score, yet neither of us could envision owning one. Personally, the “Zoom Zoom” whisper on the TV comercials has lost my vote for any of their products. How’s that for pretzel logic?

Audi had their Q7 and A7 make the final cut. I was surprised how the Q7 felt much lighter and managable than its size and weight might indicate. Probably the most refined of the bunch, the A7 seemed slightly out of place among the scrappy Kias, Nissans and VWs. It wasn’t for me to drive as its popularity with the testers kept it too busy all day. Shame, it probably would have spoiled me for the rest.

Out on Local Motors’ off-road test track, the Land Rovers and Jeeps were trundling over basketball-sized rocks at a moderately slow pace—both showing strong trail manners. Until I lived in New England I had no clue about how this sort of thing could ever be important.


Then, to put things into perspective, Local Motors rolled out their Rally Fighter (road legal in 50 states) and hammered through the course at 40+ mph. The LM test driver got a little air and tested the 20 inch suspension travel with photo-spy Brenda Priddy aboard. Go Brenda!


Next year, I’m driving that.

Without sounding like a kiss-ass, I’d have to say that there wasn’t a bad vehicle in the bunch. Just to make it into the finals, a car has to be of a significantly high quality—which made our evaluations difficult. There were some surprises, and the Jeep over Land Rover turnabout demands a rematch. Believe me, the manufacturers are already hard at work stepping it up.

After a day of driving dozens of vehicles and hanging out with great, enthusiastic people it was time to go back to the hotel and chill before dinner. That evening’s fare was the fourth mexican meal I’d had in two days, but the stories and comraderie were the best part. I wasn’t surprised how many car people were also guitarists. I’m already looking ahead to next year. Now, if I can just score an Evoque for a long-term test.


The evaluations took into consideration overall design, engine power, fuel efficiency, and cargo capability. In the final tally, the athletes’ votes and those of the jury panel members each accounted for fifty percent.

Following are the winners of the 2012 competition by category:

Best Value On-RoadSubaru Impreza
Best Value Off-RoadJeep Wrangler
Luxury On-RoadAudi A7
Luxury Off-RoadJeep Grand Cherokee 
Green ALVVolkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI
FamilyAudi Q7 TDI

 Many thanks to Automotive Spy Photographer extraordinaire Brenda Priddy for her generous help with the photos for this story.

Photos ©2011 Brenda Priddy and Company (except Cadillac stock photo and my crappy cell phone pics).

Correction: I previously wrote that Denise McCluggage had been the first woman to race for the Ferarri factory team, which is not true. Her association was with Chinetti’s North American Racing Team-the US Ferarri Distributor.


What a great way to begin the week in the Workshop. The air was cool and filled with the smells of early fall. The morning light streaming over the hills and through the trees made it a perfect time to go for a walk. I noticed that the first colored leaves were already on the ground.


As Heidi and I walked the road to the Workshop I thought of my time spent living in Northern California, where many mornings felt like this. Somehow my mind wandered to one of my favorite books, Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Maybe it’s the feeling of being alone in the middle of an expanse of nature, far from the city. Or perhaps it’s the grounding comfort of the dependable cycle of the seasons—immune to the petty travails of humankind.


Adam Trask walked alongside us silently, wiping his brow with a handkerchief and squinting as he looked into the distance. Off in the trees, among the dappling light I caught a glimpse of a guitar—and then it was gone. How can I capture all this in a build?

Mo’ Keb’ Mo’

Just a quick post about the Ke’ Mo’ PBS show last night. The seeds for this show were planted almost four years ago during one of  Keb’s visits to the Workshop. The two of us had lunch together with Jack Forchette who is Infinity Hall’s Director of Entertainment and Business Development. Infinity’s PBS TV show was just being planned, and it seemed like a three-time Grammy Award winner like Keb’ Mo’ would be an excellent fit for this intimate venue.


I arrived at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, Connecticut moments before the tour bus pulled up and Jack and I were able to welcome Keb’ and his band at the front door. To my delight, Keb’s manager John Boncimino was there as well. John and I go back to the old blues club days in Chicago, so it was great to catch up.  Keb’ was in good spirits and ready to get down to a long day and night of work, so inside we all went.


My first task was to take a look over “Big Red” which is one of Keb”s main guitars. Everything seemed fine so I hustled up to the mezzanine with Jack and John to watch some of the run through.


The shot below shows how cozy the hall is, and the Meyer Sound system makes every seat a perfect audio experience. I was happy to see Keb’ Mo’ Band regular Jeff Paris again, today he was playing guitar and mandolin. That’s him on the far left. Seated in the center was legendary producer Russ Titelman, who was working with Keb’.


After a long sound check we all got to hang out a bit and then have some dinner. The show went well with only one break for some difficulty when the jib/crane camera went down. It was replaced quickly and it was on with the show. The band went through old favorites like “Rita” and “Shave Yo’ Legs” as well as some material from the latest CD The Reflection to get it down on video.


Directly after the taping the TV crew shot some Q&A footage with show patrons and Keb’ for a while then we all disappeared downstairs to the dressing rooms. It was great to be among friends and to celebrate the occasion. Everyone seemed really happy with the show, and Titleman was delighted. With all the tension of the long day gone, Keb’ and I were able to have a little time to sit talk about some future projects. Around midnight it was time to go, with warm goodbyes all around before we headed our separate ways in the night.


Cherry Nitro on Sakura Guitar

Yesterday was a beautiful New England spring day—blustery and crisp. I took the time to walk around the property and allow myself to be open to all that was around me.


Earlier in the day I’d spoken to my friend Tony who was in New York wrapping up a week of filming. Tony is an amazing, creative cinematographer, and it was great just to catch up and just jam on some ideas. One of Tony’s favorites is photographer William Eggleston, whose work reminds us that there are no ordinary moments.


We continually and systematically narrow focus until we run the risk of becoming insensitive to the wonder of everyday life. So, in that spirit, I went out into the woods to undo my focus. It wasn’t long before nature was speaking to me and I envisioned a new project. More on that in a while.

Back in the shop I went about the job of masking off the Sakura’s fingerboard edges and headstock faceplate. Those would be the only areas not painted red. The lacquer was already mixed and in the cup so it was just a matter of wiping the guitar down with cleaning solvent and tack rag before having a go.


I had the choice of laying on multiple coats to darken the color, but I chose to stop when I had a nice even coverage. The guitar had the pale hue of those time-faded SGs and Juniors that I love so much—fini.


The color is going to look great contrasting against the nickel colored plates—I love how the grain of the mahogany shows through. My feeling is that a low-gloss topcoat treatment will really highlight the metalwork rather than compete with it.

Next week I’ll start building up the nitro clear coats after the color has a chance to cure. Have a great weekend everybody, and take some time to enjoy the moment.

Basecoats and Bonamassa

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


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.

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


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.