Headstock from Hell

Pressing onward with the Hell’s Half Acre guitar, I’ve gotten the neck blank to the rough carve stage. To do this, I use a cabinet scraper as described in my previous post. After the truss rod has been installed and the spline glued in, the final headstock shape could be cut. Jim looks on as I finsih up.


In the photo below, you can see the tuner holes which are undersized until the moment the tuners are fitted. This will give a snug fit for improved vibration transfer.


The stepped channel for purfling and outside binding has also been cut. I’m using a half-herringbone purfling made of alternating maple and ebony pieces to create a look that evokes an image of the cowboy’s lariat. Here, you can also see the ring groove that has been cut at the headstock tip for the pearl monogram inlay. More after a while…


Blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll is as American as the wild west cowboy. In fact, I see it all as a single continuum. Roots music, which has its origins in a buffet of American influences is never more than a few steps away from the Cowboy song.

In a similar fashion, my concept for the Hell’s Half Acre guitar isn’t overtly kitch. Rather than a literal interpretation, using only blatant western cues, I wanted to hint at the idea in a cool way.

The trail driver’s whip and lasso were as crucial as his pistol and rifle—maybe even more important. The twisted form of the rope and the braid of the whip reminded me of a half-herringbone purfling that I had lying around. Made of small parallelograms  of alternating maple and ebony, I thought it would look good against a dark chestnut or black figured maple. I made up a test block of maple on mahogany and sandwiched the “rope” between the maple and a strip of ivoroid cellulose.


The next step was to apply a dark brown stain. To avoid deep penetration on the purfling, it has been lacquered lightly.


After the stain has set, I used a small sharp to scrape the binding and purfling clean. Using my index finger as a guide I can vary the width of the scraped area by rotating the blade, being careful not to cut too deep.


Here’s what it looks like cleaned up. I think it evokes the idea without being too over the top. There’ll be plenty of other chances to do that on this build.


History of Hell: Cowboy Guitar

One of my biggest beefs with the corporate structure is its tendency to discount the creative process. It’s impossible to say why or when inspiration will strike—and it can’t be switched on like a spreadsheet on a computer. I try to be open to the things around me, but I rarely can predict when I’ll be inspired to act.


An idea for a guitar came to me while reading books about the great cattle drives and the cowboys of the frontier.  I’d heard the term “Hell’s Half Acre” since I was a kid—there’s even a Robbie Robertson song by that name. Instinctively I knew it referred to a patch of town where society’s rules did not apply for those who chose to live life on their own terms. I envisioned a guitar that evoked the spirit of the era when cowboys were just working men, and the pistol was law.


After the Texas revolution in 1835, Fort Worth was a single dusty street lined by a few dozen wooden shacks and a couple saloons. Named for a small military outpost, Fort Worth stood along the Chisholm Trail at the edge of the Indian Territories. Like frontier towns from Deadwood to Denver, Fort Worth was barely a watering hole on the plains of Texas. There was no hotel, no church, no town hall. There was no real plan to build the town or any kind of community.


Then in 1866, the cattle drives came. Cattle had become the most lucrative business on the frontier. From 1866 to 1884 more than three million beeves were driven up the Chisholm Trail from King Ranch and San Antonio to railheads in Kansas; passing through Fort Worth along the way. Cowboys drove their herds up the main street and made camp to the north of town just past the Trinity River. Once settled in, the trail drivers rode back into Fort Worth for a bath, haircut and some entertainment. Industrious businessmen were only too happy to oblige, and Fort Worth began to expand and grow. By 1871 a section of the main street at the south end of town was lined with saloons offering all the vices that cowboys could ever want. The gambling, drinking and prostitution became so legendary that the district was referred to as “Hells Half Acre.”


The whiskey flowed and the blood spilled as the cowboys indulged themselves like sailors on shore leave. The number of shootings and deaths was a result of lack of law enforcement combined with a town government that was more interested in commerce than any kind of morality. Indeed, a sheriff would be hard pressed to attempt any kind of intervention, and those who were arrested usually were released with not much more than a stern warning.


Even after the decline of the trail drives in the late part of the century, the businesses of Rusk Street (as it had been named) continued on, albeit at a slower pace. Declining into a black ghetto by the middle of the 20th century, Hells’ Half Acre was finally razed wholesale for the construction of the Tarrant County Convention Center. Ironically, the street is now renamed Commerce Street.


It’s a great piece of American history and I’ve got some ideas prompted by a conversation with a collector of my work. My recent meeting with some extremely gifted gun engravers has inspired me as well, so today I’m into the shop for some experimentation. I’m glad we had this meeting.