On the Fringe

In the margins, on the fringe, away from the mainstream and lurking in the shadows of popular culture. Those phrases describe the people I respect and admire most. You could say that I’ve unconsciously—or consciously—modeled my career after those people. I’ve never wanted to be a household name, and I don’t care if everyone knows my work. The important thing to me is to do good work and build cool shit. Grandstanding is against my nature, and in the past when my job required me to be the face and voice for an organization, I did the job reluctantly. I saw it as part of the way we all put food on the table. It provided everyone in the shop a chance to continue doing what mattered.

Hamer guru tour at Lighting Joe’s
Hamer guru tour at Lighting Joe’s

Our traveling roadshow was a harbinger of what others do today. I liked meeting the dealers and the customers, but after each appearance was over I would go back to my hotel with a migraine—the reward for strong-arming my natural shyness. When I started my first guitar blog in October of 2005, I had to do it against the wishes of the parent company’s vice president, who didn’t even know what a blog was. He went home, asked his kids, and then told me it was a bad idea. I did it anyway and paid for it myself. My intent wasn’t to elevate myself, but rather to share the stories of how the crew and I made—cool shit. Those pages told of the daily life in our shop and turned the spotlight on the key people who worked there. It was the first time any of them got the credit they deserved, but were denied by policy. I’ll admit that I did get a sense of vindication when a few years later, Premier Guitar magazine called it “essential reading” for those in the industry. At that point the marketing pukes put a link on our main website and I almost immediately started to lose interest. I had 11,000 people coming to look, and yet I wanted to derail it. When I left, they struggled to emulate what I had started, and it didn’t end well.

So, is this some sort of failure complex? Possibly. The Woody Allen line from Annie Hall comes to mind: “I would never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” More likely, I just don’t like crowds. I prefer to meet people one on one and make a real connection. And that’s what the blog felt like. I could talk about what I wanted and share with a few weirdos who got it. As soon as it was a “big deal” it was serving the wrong purpose. I prefer to interact with the kind of souls that look to the details and make the connections offered up by references rather than have it all laid out for them in easy to understand WOW soundbites.

One guy who gets it—Steve Mesple of Wildwood Guitars
One guy who gets it—Steve Mesple of Wildwood Guitars

In my present shop I have only myself to praise or blame. I post when I wish and don’t worry about trying to please everyone. My monthly column/blog Esoterica Electrica is the result of just being myself, and the good people at PG have given me a lot of freedom to explore subjects from my own perspective. I get to ask the questions that most people aren’t asking, because that’s where the cool shit is. In the era of the long tail, I don’t need to kiss the ass of the same old, and I’m assured that there is sufficient traffic for me to continue. And now, as this incarnation of my Workshop Blog has served millions, I still consider it comfortably small potatoes.

My guitar building continues unhindered by the constraints of the corporate hand that often strangles itself. Occasionally I collaborate with my compatriots from the now-shuttered old shop, but mostly I work alone. I have a manageable work schedule that allows me to write, photograph, travel and meet interesting people who inhabit the fringes like me. I’m happy that people like you hang out with me in our virtual meeting spot, and I do appreciate the nice emails and enjoy answering you questions. Oh yeah, I also get to make cool shit.

Industrial Disease

“Warning lights are flashing down at Quality Control 
Somebody threw a spanner and they threw him in the hole 
There’s rumors in the loading bay and anger in the town 
Somebody blew the whistle and the walls came down.”

One of my favorite Dire Straits songs is “Industrial Disease,” from their 1982 album, “Love Over Gold.” It’s a bouncy little number with a cheesy ’60s combo organ part that belies its serious subject. Mark Knopfler’s lyrics are expertly crafted with an endless stream of references to the woes of the British Industrial decline. Actually, it is pretty universal and can be applied to our own American landscape. As much as Knopfler tries to keep his tongue in cheek, as a writer he is keenly aware that a good joke is funny because it contains an uncomfortable truth.

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Near the song’s conclusion the narrator encounters a pair of competing Jesuses at a public rally who both propose their solutions to the situation, with the second Jesus offering, “I’d cure it soon—abolish Monday mornings and Friday afternoons.” Which refers to the old adage about how anything made during those periods didn’t recieve the full concentration of the employees.

Having worked in industrial settings since my teens, I can attest to the fact that it is sometimes hard to find your stride at the beginning of the week and likewise at week’s end. As much as I enjoy what I do, a little perspective goes a long way. Which is why I’ve made it a practice of using these periods to inject some fun into the workshop, and ease in and out of the week.

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Last week it was the changeup of dismantling the door of a vintage Porsche, but it could be any number of things. I find that by breaking up the week with departures from the routine, I keep my interest up for the job of making guitars. Today, it was sorting through a box of cool old parts that was left on the shop’s doorstep by a friend who knows I like this sort of stuff.

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So, as we head into midday I return to the woodshop to some builds that are in progress—the grogginess that sometimes accompanies a Monday morning left far behind. I’m ready to concentrate fully on the task at hand, and avoid having to pitch good wood into the dumpster, which costs more in the long run.

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Rough Around the Edges

That first cup of coffee in the morning is always the best. I like mine strong, black and very hot. The espresso machine in the Workshop is almost as essential as the shaper or router. Some folks like to cut the brew with milk or cream, and others smooth the edges with sugar—but not me. I like to taste the coffee.

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Right now I’m listening to Humble Pie’s live rendition of I Don’t Need No Doctor from their Rockin’ the Fillmore album, and I’m struck by the fact that it is a rough and tumble as it is beautiful. What stands out most to me is the fact that I can eassily distinguish each singer’s voice as they harmonize the chorus. I’m not talking about the notes—but rather the individual character of each singer. There’s bassist Greg Ridley down low and gruff with the unmistakable Peter Frampton in the middle. Above all of that is the legendary wail of Steve Marriott, bobbing and weaving like only he could.

As sloppy as Pie could be, there was a certain cohesion that made it work. Ray Charles’ 1966 version was smooth and soulful, for sure, and it served as the introduction of this song to many artists, but Humble Pie takes it to an altogether different and manic place. I’ve listened to this recording plenty of times since it I first heard it in 1971, and every single time it has me on the edge of my seat admiring how it rocks on the rails threatening to crash, but somehow still stays on the tracks. And that’s what great rock music is all about.

Speaking of  black coffee, have anothe slice of Pie with that.

True and Lasting Value—Journaling the Build

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?

p bassAnd 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.

Crow: The Visitor

Since my childhood, the electric guitar has called me in ways I simply cannot explain. From the first strains of  “Greensleeves” that shook the camp gymnasium windows, to the feedback drenched nights at Chicago’s Electric Theater—I was hooked. Similarly, my builds are formulated in a part of my brain that defies concious explaniation.

I imagine dusty boots walking railroad tracks, birds of prey and the jumble of words racing down antique telephone wires. A sixth sense that connects the delta with those who live in the city. The Crow is a messenger, harbinger and scrappy traveler. Like the touring musician who lives by his wits and intuition, the crow is alive in all of us.