However, it wasn’t Stanley’s first foray into logo design.
Stanley met the members of the Grateful Dead in 1965, when he both financed them and worked as their first soundman. With his close friend Bob Thomas, he designed the Lightning Bolt Skull logo, often referred to by fans as “Steal Your Face”, “Stealie”, or “SYF” (after the name of the 1976 Grateful Dead album Steal Your Face, which features the image on the cover). The 13-point lightning bolt was derived from a stencil Stanley created to spray-paint on the Grateful Dead’s equipment boxes (he wanted an easily identifiable mark to help the crew find the Dead’s gear in the jumble of identical black band equipment boxes at festivals).
The lightning bolt design came to him after seeing a similar design on a roadside ad. “One day in the rain, I looked out the side and saw a sign along the freeway which was a circle with a white bar across it. The top of the circle was orange, and the bottom blue. I couldn’t read the name of the firm, and so was just looking at the shape. A thought occurred to me: if the orange were red and the bar across were a lightning bolt cutting across at an angle, then we would have a very nice, unique and highly identifiable mark to put on the equipment.”
Stanley suggested to Thomas that the words “Grateful Dead” might be drawn beneath the red, white, and blue circled bolt in such a way that it looked like a skull. Thomas returned with the now familiar Grateful Dead icon, having discarded the hidden-word concept. The lightning-adorned skull logo made its first appearance on History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear’s Choice) (1973), an album put together by Stanley as a tribute to recently deceased Grateful Dead co-founder Ron “Pigpen” McKernan from recordings Stanley had made in 1970. The iconic “Marching Bears” (also created by Thomas) first appeared on the reverse cover of this album.
I guess we’re in good company.
Our friend David Gans interviewed Owsley on 1991-01-13, you can listen to it here.
THE FOLLOWING IS AN INTERVIEW FROM AMERICAN LUTHERIE, #64, WINTER 2000 WHERE RICK TALKS ABOUT THE EARLY DAYS.
FROM THE INTERVIEWER
One of the great pleasures of my job here at the Guild is that, from time to time, I get to meet and talk with luthiers I’ve admired from afar. As the 1999 Healdsburg Guitar Festival was winding down (quite literally as people were already breaking down their displays and hauling instruments out to their cars), I approached Rick Turner and asked if he would be willing to be interviewed for this journal. Rick’s name will be familiar to many of you from his work with the Alembic company and the Grateful Dead, from his writing in American Lutherie, Guitar Player, and other magazines, and from his attendance at various instrument shows and conventions, including our own. I first heard him speak at the 1980 GAL Convention in San Francisco, and have been a great admirer ever since. He graciously agreed to spend some time with me, and we sat on the veranda outside the display hall and talked for a couple of hours while the last tables were being folded and put away, the trash collected, and the doors locked. We were the very last ones to leave. Rick spoke about the winding path of his career, the rock-and-roll world of the ’60s and ’70s, his approach to pickup and instrument design, and his current work, which includes his Renaissance series of “amplicoustic” guitars, and a totally cool acoustic steel string. It was so much fun!
– Jonathon Peterson, Winter 2000
With thanks to Jon and Tim Olsen of the Guild of American Luthiers from RT
Start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Marblehead, Massachusetts from about age eight on.
Were either of your folks musicians?
My Dad loved to plunk around on guitar. He was a painter, an artist, and had music going all the time in the house. He loved guitar music: flamenco, classic guitar music, and jazz. I got exposed to Gabor Szabo, and the Chico Hamilton Quintet, Josh White, Burl Ives. I grew up listening to Leadbelly, and the Weavers, and all that, the good stuff, you know? And Segovia! He took me to a Segovia concert when I was about twelve, and it was great, really great! So I had the ideal exposure to forever corrupt me into this path.
I had a little workshop in the house, and I loved making rubber-band-powered model airplanes, and then, of course, putting firecrackers in them and blowing them up midair (laughs). I’ve always been working with my hands and making stuff, really as far back as I can remember. I got into taking banjos apart, cleaning them up, varnishing them, and putting them back together. And with hearing all this music, the guitar music in particular, around the house, I look back now and see that it’s a totally logical evolution to where I am today. How can I be anything other than what I am? I was programmed into this. It’s all my folks’ fault!
When I was eleven my grandmother gave me a little guitar. I caught the bug. And then, in my last few years of high school, along came the Kingston Trio, and the availability of relatively inexpensive vintage instruments in New England antique shops and pawn shops.
In ’62, I was in a prep boarding school in Rhode Island, and there were a couple of us there who were into the music scene. One was a guy named Joel Zoss. Bill Cumpiano built a guitar for him a couple of years ago, The Wedge, Bill’s ergonomic acoustic. Anyway, Joel was a classmate of mine. We graduated together, and then I went off to Boston University, and that was really the downfall. To hit Boston University in ’62-’63, for me, was basically to major in Coffeehouse 101. It took me about two years to drop out of B.U.
You were in the bean scene?
I was in the bean scene, the prehippie scene. I was part of the espresso drinking…
…beret wearing, poetry reading, bongo playing… …(laughs) Exactly! I graduated past the Kingston Trio, the Limelighters, and up to the New Lost City Ramblers fairly quickly. I remember going to a coffeehouse in Boston, the Golden Vanity, when I was still a high school senior, and seeing Joan Baez and the Reverend Gary Davis, and they were fantastic!
In Boston I met a jazz guitar player named Don Gabois, and another guy, Stan Stansky, who had been a cabinet maker. Between the two of them they knew half a thing about guitar repair. I started working for them and picked up a little of this and that, and eventually moved over to Cambridge where I worked retail in a store in Harvard Square. I picked up repair jobs on the side, too. That was the year that Gibson started putting plastic bridges on J-45s and J-50s, and so we were tearing them off and making ebony or rosewood bridges and improving the guitars. I had also started playing guitar in the coffeehouses at that point. I had a wonderful D 28.
Were you playing folk music?
No, we were into what I’d have to call punk bluegrass; old-timey music with a really bad attitude (laughs). I was living with Lowell Levinger, aka Banana, who went on to play keyboard and guitar for the Youngbloods, and Michael Kane, who much later became bass player in that band. I was playing coffeehouses with a guy name Jerry Corbitt, who cofounded the Youngbloods with Jesse Colin Young. So I probably would have been a Youngblood if I hadn’t zigged when they zagged. Jesse subsequently became my oldest kid’s godfather, so that’s a real tight scene.
What was the name of your band?
We were Banana and the Bunch, Old Time Music with a Peel. Our heroes were the Holy Modal Rounders with Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber. They did the raunchiest most raucous versions of old tunes. I mean, the New Lost City Ramblers were great, but they’re sort of like a very formal version of a moonshined-up old-timey band. Stampfel and Weber were totally over the top, and that really appealed to us. Their energy was incredible.
In the summer of ’64, Banana, Michael, and I decided to open a music store in Martha’s Vineyard. Banana worked out some kind of amazing deal. There was some confusion over whether Banana had told the owner that we were going to pay a percentage of gross or of net, and he made the deal for like ten percent of net. Since there was no net we didn’t pay any rent! (laughter) We were like kids in a Hollywood script. It was perfect, you know? We spent the summer of ’64 on Martha’s Vineyard just tearing it up. There was a coffeehouse on the island that was owned by a friend of ours, and we washed dishes there, taught some lessons, and fixed a couple of guitars. We just had a great time! The Kweskin Jug Band played the coffeehouse, which was called the Mooncusser.
Yeah, “Mooncussers” were the pirates of Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1600s and early 1700s. They were also called Wreckers. They would set false beacon fires on the beaches to lure ships onto the rocks, and then they would grab whatever was left. They were know as Mooncussers because people didn’t sail into rocks when there was a full moon, so the pirates cussed the moon.
Then along comes the Newport Folk Festival. Among the three of us I don’t think we could have scraped together five bucks to get one of us off the island, but up floats this 45#39; Chris Craft cabin cruiser, and a guy on the boat says, “Hey, anybody want to go to Newport?” Well, we’re there man! We jump on the boat, the Kweskin Jug Band jumps on the boat, and we go cruising up to Newport. Of course, we didn’t know what we were going to do once we got there because we didn’t have money or tickets, but when we arrived, bingo! The first guy we run into is a friend of ours from Boston who, it turns out, was in charge of giving out press passes to the Festival! (laughs) So we had the boat to sleep on, and the press passes put us literally front row with full access to everything, including all the food. It was just incredible! When we went back to the island we were still broke, but we’d had a great time!
How old were you?
I turned twenty-one that summer of ’64. That fall I got a call from a friend who was playing guitar with Ian and Sylvia. He said, “Hey, I want to stay in California ‘cuz I’m playing with Sonny and Cher. Do you want my gig?” Well jeez! For a folkie guitar player that was the gig. They were big! They were making great music, and traveling all over the States and Canada. A hundred and a quarter a week and all expenses on the road sounded good to me, so I did that for eight or nine months. For the last six months of that time they hired a bass player named Felix Pappalardi, who went on to be Cream’s producer and Mountain’s bass player. Working with Felix was incredible. We had a great time on the road.
But then Sylvia got pregnant and decided to not tour for eight or nine months, and that left me gigless, so I moved to New York and joined a rock and roll band with an old friend of mine from Cambridge. So I made the jump from acoustic to electric at that point, and it was a really weird experience because I was an acoustic musician who was used to playing nice Martins, and to suddenly start playing a Stratocaster or a Telecaster, these things seemed incredibly crude.
Yeah, and they make all kinds of noise!
Weird noise! So it’s about ’66-’67, and I’m living in Manhattan at 13 Bleeker Street. It’s a very trendy neighborhood now, but then it was the East Coast spot for young hip musicians and people in the scene. We were a psychedelic rock band on the wrong coast, but we got signed to RCA.
What was the name of that group?
Do you still have tapes?
Well yes, but not only that, I just found a copy of our single on the internet. I didn’t even know we had a single! (laughs) It turns out it was a radio-station promo, so I now own an unplayed 45 of my band from 1967. I paid twelve bucks for it. What the heck?
It was about this same time that I started piecing together electric guitars. Dan Armstrong was in New York then, in the Village, and he was a supporter of the scene. Dan would toss me a fret job every now and then when I needed ten bucks, so I did a little work for him, and I did a little bit of repair work, but mostly I can’t account for how I lived for those two years. My girlfriend was working, so I guess we lived off her waitress salary. You know, rock and roll bands always have camp followers, and financiers, and people who are willing to do this or that, but in those days things were pretty thin. One night, at the Cafe Au Go Go, we split $3.75 among the four of us, which is not easy. But we did get signed, and I started working on electrics.
Some junkie in New York smashed a Les Paul SG Custom to smithereens, and the building manager gave me the neck and a three-humbucker-pickup combination. I designed a little guitar body, went to a local cabinet shop, and they cut it out for me in mahogany. I veneered the back and sides in walnut, bound it, put this SG neck on it, and that became my main guitar. I wired it in stereo, and I had a pedal board that I put together with volume controls, fuzz tones, wah-wahs, and all that. Jerry Garcia bought that guitar from me later on, and who knows where it is today?
So you were playing with all that stuff as soon as you got a chance to?
Absolutely! I just jumped right on it and started soldering stuff. Take it apart and put it back together some other way. I took a Vox treble booster and a BossTone fuzz and mounted them on that guitar. I was just hacking my way through. As a kid, I’d read Popular Electronics, and I’d actually made a couple of transistor radios from scratch. I built them in pill bottles with little ear phones, so I wasn’t afraid of tackling that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until years afterwards that I started to understand it; but lack of understanding has never prevented me from plunging in, and I think that’s a good thing.
So Autosalvage got signed to RCA records. I’d already recorded an album with Ian and Sylvia, so my exposure to multitrack recording studios started in ’65.
When you got into the recording studio were you going, “What’s this knob do? What’s that knob do?”
The Ian and Sylvia sessions weren’t like that at all because there was still a rigid hierarchy in the studios. You had the producer, otherwise known as the A&R man, who told the engineer what to do on the board but didn’t touch the recording console, and the recording engineer told the second engineer when to start and stop the tape machine. It was rules and union stuff all the way, and they had this real reverence for the equipment, almost a fear of the sanctity of the equipment, which we did not particularly share. But by the time of the Autosalvage sessions the Beatles had already started screwing with the studio as a musical tool, and the Stones had, too. So we came in and just started messing with it. The funny thing is that the engineer and the second engineer really dug what we were doing, like, “What does this do? Whoa! Hey, that’s cool.” Our drummer’s father had been a jazz-trumpet-player-turned-Medieval-and-Renaissance instrumentalist. He played recorder, crumhorn, sackbut, and cornet, and he became the horn section on our album. So we had this psychedelic rock band with crumhorns.
Who else was in the band?
A guy named Tom Danaher who is now going for his psychology doctorate, Darius Davenport who was a drummer and now lives in Napa, and Skip Boone who was our bass player. His brother, Steve Boone, was the bass player in the Lovin’ Spoonful, so we were all tied into that scene, but we were the oddballs. We were weird, we were edgy. We were a San Francisco band that didn’t know it. In San Francisco we would have done great, probably survived. Eventually some dissension among the band members developed over that: “Should we move? What are we doing here?” The Youngbloods had already moved to the West Coast and they were all telling me to move to San Francisco.
Did you end up making the move at that time?
I did, but the rest of the band didn’t. Two of the guys kept playing together, and I moved out. It was almost like a Spinal Tap moment, we got a rave review in Rolling Stone six months after the band broke up.
When I moved to the West Coast I decided to be an electric luthier. I knew people who were starting to build autoharps, acoustic guitars, and banjos back east, and there were a few others around the country that I’d heard of, but I didn’t know of any young hippie craftsmen attempting to make electrics. Dan Armstrong had done his thing with Ampeg, with the plexi guitars and all that, and I thought, “Well, if Dan can do this, so can I.” He was really still influencing me, particularly in tackling pickup design. To support myself I worked as a jeweler’s assistant. I also wound up as the Youngbloods’ soundman on the road, and I did a bunch of studio work in Berkeley with Jerry Corbitt. I also played bass on Don McClean’s first demo.
I moved to Point Reyes, in Marin County, in the summer of ’68. The Youngbloods were living there, too. They had an office in town, and their secretary was the girlfriend of Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead’s bass player. She saw what I was doing and thought I ought to meet the Dead, and Owsley, and Ron Wickersham. So by ’69 I had met the Grateful Dead crowd through this woman, and I had started making pickups. I didn’t know where I could buy pickups, so I figured I’d just make them. Nobody was doing it in those days. There was no Seymour Duncan company. You had DeArmond, and Gibson, and Fender, but I don’t think they were selling their pickups separately. I just started doing it out of desperation, almost accidentally. I started hand winding pickups.
You were actually winding them by hand?
Yes, literally. I would be counting the windings, “822, 823, 824…”, and my wife would walk in and say something, and I would go, “What dear? Oh no! How many turns was that?” (laughter)
Ron Wickersham had started to mess with active electronics, first on a Fender Jazz bass for Jack Casady, and then with the Guild Starfire pickups. He was measuring pickup frequency response, and he found that the Starfire pickups (actually made by Hagstrom of Sweden) had the widest bandwidth response of anything out there, so he started working with that. Well, I came along, and my pickups were way beyond what Guild had been doing, so we started trying to figure out why.
Did you have any notion of designing frequency response into your pickups, or did they just happened to be the way they were?
They just happened to be low impedance, wide-band pickups, because I didn’t want to hand wind 8000 turns, I stopped at 1000, or 1500, or whatever it was. We started doing these weekly or biweekly experiments where I would wind different numbers of turns on coils or change the gauge of the wire, while maintaining the same magnet structure which was assembled from basic magnets from Radio Shack. Ron would measure the frequency response each time. Pretty quickly we discovered what everybody now knows: more turns equals less frequency response but higher output. Output wasn’t an issue for us because Ron was doing low noise preamplification, so all that we were really concerned with was this coil/frequency response thing.
By the beginning of 1970, Ron and Bob Mathews, who was a recording engineer, had moved a lot of the electronic activity to a place in San Francisco, breaking away from the Grateful Dead’s rehearsal studio. I’d been working at Saterlee and Chapin Music in San Francisco with Frank Fuller, and eventually started working on my own over at Bob and Ron’s facility. They made the Dead’s PA system, and also the world’s first live 16-track system. By summer Ron, Bob, and I had formalized the arrangement and started Alembic Incorporated. In the beginning of Alembic I was as likely to be working the recording crew or PA system as I was working on instruments, because I had experience in those areas.
So you got to hear a lot of concerts?
I traveled several tours with the Dead, mixing their sound, and did a lot of stuff with the live recording gear. Our PA system and live recording system were closely integrated. Electrically they were separate, but the mikes were the same, and we used a custom transformer splitter box to send independent mike signals to the 16 track and the PA console.
We also opened a retail store. We were selling JBL speakers, MacIntosh amplifiers, and Cetec Gauss speakers. We were selling a lot of it to the Dead, and to the Airplane, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and we were building systems for all these guys. We were building speaker cabinets, we were selling amplifiers, we were re-coning speakers, and doing custom electronics.
Were you just flying by the seat of your pants?
It was totally seat of the pants! It was just nuts. We probably came out with the first replacement brass hardware: brass nuts, brass bridges. We did a hot-rod kit for humbucker pickups that was just basically a big-ass-ceramic magnet. You take your Humbucker apart, put one of those babies in there, and you get twice the output, three times the string-pull, but hey! Ron came up with this great little preamp for Stratocasters he called the Strato-blaster that just dropped right in the output jack, with a single 9-volt battery tucked under the volume control. Ron had also designed this tube preamp, based on a Fender Dual Showman circuit for basses. It was the first component system for basses where you could buy a separate preamp, power-amp, and speaker system. We had probably the first low-capacitance guitar cables. We were not making much money, but we were busier than hell.
Were you making instruments?
I was starting to, and we were modifying a lot of instruments. In 1971 I built Alembic #1, which was the Jack Casady bass that made it into Guitar Player magazine. It really launched that end of the business for me. Actually, that bass was displayed in the fall of 1999 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibit called Far Out: Arts and crafts from the late ’60s and early ’70s. It had a zebrawood back that I carved with some Maori-like designs, a purpleheart and maple neck-through, and a pretty elaborate inlay job on the fingerboard with silver wire and abalone. It also had some pretty elaborate electronics, and sliding pickups. I’ve got a great picture of Jack playing it the night he got it, at the Filmore I think.
Then, about 1972, we moved the instrument production to Cotati, California, and simultaneously bought out a recording studio in San Francisco.
Did you finance the new facilities with your own money?
Well, we did it with money that didn’t exist. Actually, John Fogerty’s brother was supposed to come in as a major investor in the Alembic studio, but he backed out at the very last minute, after we had spent $80,000, and that’s in 1972 dollars. So we were in it pretty deep. But about that time Rolling Stone did an article called “Sound Wizards to the Grateful Dead” and these guys from the L.D. Heater Company (which was a distributor owned by Norlin who also owned Gibson) up near Portland, Oregon, saw the article. They’d been given a mandate by the guy who owned Gibson to go out and find new cutting-edge products. There we were. They came to us and said, “What would you do with a purchase order for fifty instruments?” We said we’d take the money and figure out how to make them.
Did you have instruments to show them?
We had some stuff. The Alembic style was crystallizing at that point: the neck-through with the sandwiched-body-wing construction, µ\Ì§ top, µ\Ì§ back, 1µ\Ì§ core, all bandsawed out. Their people came down and we went to the bank and got enough money to get enough equipment to go into production. I spent a bit of time at a company in Sonoma where they were leaders in the revival of oak toilet seats. They had a guy who was a genius at jig and fixture making, so I went and just stared at stuff on their production line, and kind of figured out how it worked.
You designed your Alembic guitar production process by watching these guys make toilet seats?
That’s why those contours are so smooth and comfortable!
Exactly! The big roundover. Hey, it’s hippies with routers! Hippies with routers! Anyway, it started to work.
So you were going along and doing all this other stuff, which takes up all of your time, and all of a sudden you branch out into this instrument-production gig almost by accident?
Opportunity, yeah! By about ’74-’75 the instrument production was really becoming the main thing. We were building instruments for everybody: the Dead, the Airplane, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Santana, Stanley Clarke, the Who, Led Zepplin, Emerson, Lake and Palmer…. The list just went on, and on.
Sometime in ’76, Geoff Gould dropped off some samples of graphite. He was working for Ford Aerospace as a tech making composite parts for satellite antennas at that time. I had read an article on graphite bicycle frames, and sort of filed it away in my head as something I wanted to try in a bass neck, and Geoff shows up with the stuff. So I made a master for a bass neck, knowing what I needed to know about draft angles and all that, and I went down to where Geoff was working, and they made a mold and popped out the first graphite bass neck. I put the instrument together with Devcon 5-minute epoxy in two and a half days, and it worked. Eventually John McVie, from Fleetwood Mac, bought that bass.
What was your initial impression when you put it together and strung it up?
It was gangbusters! It was exactly what we thought it was going to be: it sustained forever, was incredibly stable, had no dead notes, and all this at a reasonable weight. So we jumped into the whole graphite thing with Geoff. We got a patent on the graphite neck, and all that stuff. Geoff wound up starting Modulus.
We were building probably nineteen basses to every guitar, because the hi-fi approach really worked for bass players. Guitar players didn’t necessarily want that ultra hi-fi thing, but we really hit the bass market strong. The big breakthrough was when Stanley Clarke started playing an Alembic. That really put us on the map.
I remember how popular the jazz-fusion thing was. He was one of the first big crossover artists.
He was the first jazz guy to come out playing electric bass as a blazing soloist. He really twisted everybody’s head around. Stanley was with Chick Corea and Return to Forever when they were the biggest thing in crossover jazz. He was on the cover of Bass Player playing our bass, and the NAMM show hit, and it was success from there on out. We had fought our way back from bankruptcy. It took about three or four years of production to scratch our way back up to almost being solvent. By about ’77-’78 things were going pretty well. We’d put out about 1,200 instruments, and they were considered to be fairly state-of-the-art.
During this period of time did you realize what an unusual position you were in? You were very near the center of the music scene at a pivotal time in America when changes in politics, music, and society were closely mirroring each other, and it was BIG! The influence of those musicians was worldwide. Did you realize that, or were you just working?
Yeah, we knew it, but one of the things that has always worked for me in coming to the table with these musicians is that I believe I am an equal partner in what they’re doing. I’ve never been interested in working with musicians that don’t accept that. We cut through all the fan and brown-nosing crap. I have something to offer the artist to help them make their music, and either they’re with it or I don’t want to work with them. It just happened that there was this incredible pile of musicians that may have had strange attitudes with other people, but they didn’t with us. I mean, John Paul Jones from Led Zepplin came out to the chicken-ranch factory in Cotati, the Alembic shop, and I took him out to lunch at this hot dog place where he had to clean his own table. Now, this is at the peak of Led Zepplin’s popularity, and John’s got to bus his own table, and he thanked me! He said, “You know, I can’t go out in London, New York, or LA without being mobbed. Out here nobody knows who the hell I am, and it’s really refreshing.” That kind of relationship with musicians was what really helped us get where we were.
How were you making your initial contacts with these people?
I used to scan the paper to see who was coming into Winterland, and if I thought there was a reasonable chance of success I’d go down there for the soundcheck. I would very tactfully introduce myself to the roadies and just say, “I have an instrument or two that I think your guys might like to see.” I was never pushy. No, “You gotta see this fabulous thing!” Having done all those years of backstage work I knew how to disappear on a stage while the lighting guys and the sound guys and everybody were trying to set up. I know exactly where not to be on a stage, and so I was invisible. Bill Graham would have had my ass thrown out in the street if he had known that I was hustling instruments on his stage. Eventually he sort of got to know my face, and I could always see this puzzlement. He knew my face, therefore he presumed I belonged there, but he really didn’t know what I was doing (laughs). But that was because I knew what I was doing. You have to know how these things work.
The roadies were always the key. They got you past agents, managers, road managers, and all that. If the roadie liked what you had, you were in, simple as that, backstage passes, beer, whatever. One of their unofficial responsibilities is to find interesting stuff for the guys in the band, who are bored stiff between shows. If you can show them something they like that their mates don’t have, you’re there. And if you do your part to make it a good situation, they remember you when they need something. One time in about ’76 I got a call from Sam Cutler who had been the road manager for the Stones and then the Dead. He says, “Hey Rick, we got a plane ticket and a hotel room for you. Fly up here to Portland and sell these guys a bass.” The guys were Willie Nelson’s band around the time of Red Haired Stranger. So you grab a bass and you go to the airport, it’s as simple as that. And that was the way it worked. It was a totally nuts time where the money was flowing like water, and the suits hadn’t gotten involved with music to the degree that they subsequently have. It was really pretty fun. It doesn’t work that way anymore.
We had all kinds of people visit the factory: John Paul Jones, John Entwistle, Phil Lesh, David Crosby, Stanley Clarke. It was a very heady period. We did understand that we were incredibly fortunate to be on that particular mountain peak, but we also felt that we were constructively adding to the music, and that the musicians respected us for that, so it was really a very collaborative thing that we were doing. We were clearly trying to make their expression of music easier and better, and it worked.
Meanwhile I’d been getting tired of guitar players saying that Alembic guitars sounded cold and sterile. I thought that it was time to sort of climb back down the design tree I’d been on and find another tree to climb. Most people thought that the Alembic low-impedance electronics were why the instruments sounded cold to them. I felt that may have had something to do with it, but the basic construction of our instruments was not conducive to a warm Les-Paul sound. I decided to go back to the body design that I’d worked with in my New York days and adapt it to a cutaway. By the way, that guitar had been essentially copied from an 1820s Staufer that I owned.
Was it one of those Staufers with the Fenderish head?
No, it was a three-on-a-side head with an ice-cream-cone heel with a keyed neck-tilt adjustment, which is a feature I just recently came back to. I didn’t know it was a Staufer until many years later. Anyway, the result of all of this was what is now known as the Turner Model 1.
What were the basic design elements you were working with in those instruments to achieve a warmer sound?
I liked the warm mahogany body thing of the Les Paul custom, but I wanted to avoid the problems that I’d had with my SG, which had a beautiful sound but only within about a one-octave range. I thought I could take the Les Paul concept into a guitar with a carved topped and back, but instead of doing a complex 3D carve, we’d just set up some jigs so we could run it through a planer and create a cylindrical arch. By doing that we avoided parallel surfaces in the guitar. From my loudspeaker and PA work I knew that parallel surfaces meant standing waves, and that’s true in solid wood as well as boxes.
You mean waves can get stuck bouncing back and forth between the parallel surfaces?
Right. You get sonic reflections trapped inside the structure. By deparallelizing things you spread those resonances around, so by introducing those arched surfaces the very flexibility of the wood is going to be more complex. You’re not going to have as many predictable nodal points, and all that. I got real theoretical about it.
I liked the rigid neck thing that we’d done with Alembic for clarity and definition of tone. Well, every Alembic neck had this beautiful laminated back section of the neck blank that was cut out on the bandsaw, and at least 80% of that scrap was usable. It made perfect guitar necks if you scarfed on a peghead and then stacked the heel like a Spanish classical guitar.
Right about that time things got really strange on the business end with Alembic. A major dispute happened with the two people who were my partners at that point, Ron Wickersham, and a minority owner, Sam Field, over how the money was being handled. I really didn’t like what I saw, so I left, and when I left I took that design with me.
I showed a drawing of the Model 1 to Lindsey Buckingham. I’d been doing a lot of work for Fleetwood Mac. John MacVie had three or four Alembic basses, and I’d been working on all of Lindsey’s Strats. So I showed the drawing to Lindsey, and he said, “When you get one done, I’d like it.”
When I got the third one done I took it down to him. This was ’79, and at this point I was on my own. They were in rehearsal for their Tusk tour. Ray, the guitar tech, is a good friend of mine, and he just put the guitar up on the stage, which was this huge sound stage at one of the big movie studios. Lindsey picked up the guitar, and he didn’t put it down for three hours. Then Lindsey said to Ray, “Ray, you can leave the Les Pauls, Strats, and Ovations at home. This is all I need.” I was just sitting in the back, and I didn’t know fully what was going on until Mick Fleetwood came up to me and said, “Rick, how soon can we have a backup for that guitar?” They were just about to hit the road, and you can’t go out on tour without a backup.
I noticed on their last PBS television special that he’s still playing it.
He’s not playing the original one now. He’s retired that, but he’s got three others. Anyway, the Model 1 is the instrument that got the Turner Guitar thing going. If I’d been thinking from a business point of view I probably would have come out with an Alembic clone, which is what people were expecting. They were not expecting me to go off in left field. It was so different that nobody could tell that the same guy designed that guitar and the Alembic bass. The laminations on the back of the neck were about the only similar feature. The designer in me felt that the new instrument was a triumph, but from the business point of view it was a disaster. This was also a very tough time for the music industry in general, and I did not pay enough attention to what I’m hopefully paying attention to now, which is sales and marketing. Unfortunately, no matter how good your product is, if you can’t get it to market and get people to try it, it doesn’t matter. It simply doesn’t matter.
It becomes an artifact.
Yeah, it’s an “also-ran.” You see a lot of interesting vintage instruments that, from a design standpoint, might have been extremely successful, but from a marketing standpoint they were total disasters. That’s kind of what happened with Turner Guitars from 1979 to ’81. Fortunately, a friend of mine named Paul Schmidt, from whom I was borrowing and renting some woodworking equipment for the guitar shop, moved back to the United States and wanted to get back into the cabinet biz. I had this shop all set up with some of his stuff in it, so it was like, “Let’s see. Am I going to throw in with him and make cabinets for a living, or lose money making guitars?” So I threw in with him in late ’81. The shop didn’t change, I just switched careers to carpenter / cabinetmaker / furniture maker and worked with Paul. We did some production woodworking, a lot of kitchens and interiors. I learned fairly quickly how to build kitchens, and ultimately it was very good for my woodworking chops. I got really good at running a lot of wood through machines very accurately, and I really had to pay attention to the business end of things, so I learned a lot about that as well. I wound up doing a lot of bidding, doing time estimates, getting real careful about cut lists, and all that kind of stuff. I subsequently ran other cabinet shops and worked with other people, and I really learned how to crank stuff out. It was basically all commercial and residential woodworking for almost eight years, and it was ultimately very valuable for my career as a production guitar maker.
In the middle of this phase Tom Wheeler, from Guitar Player, called me up and asked me to start writing guitar reviews. Tom liked the idea that I could review guitars from a designer’s point of view. It wasn’t just a list of features. I would zero in on some particularly inventive part of the design and try to put myself into the head of the designer and talk about it. It was really fun. One of the biggest thrills in my life was to write a review of the Martin J-40M and then have a quote and my name in the Martin catalog. That was like, “Jeez, this is great!” I got to write a few other things, too, like I reviewed the Gibson Chet Atkins when it first came out, and I think I did the first major interview for Paul Reed Smith. He still thanks me. He makes beautiful guitars.
By ’87 or so I was starting to do some consulting. I designed a hexophonic pickup for Gary Kahler, I designed a bass pickup for Bernie Rico (BC Rich) that never quite made it out, and Donny Wade, who was working for IMC (International Music) asked me to submit a design portfolio with the idea of doing design work for them. They wound up buying Grover Jackson’s company, Jackson Charvel, instead of going with me, but all this made me realize that there was a place in the industry for a designer.
In January of ’88 I went to a NAMM show, and I met up with Tim Shaw, who was vice president of Gibson at that time. He suggested that I fly to Nashville and do the dog-and-pony show. So they paid my way, and I ended up being offered a design contract for up to five years. Simultaneously, they were planning to open up a West Coast Gibson office for artists relations in Los Angeles. I had breakfast with Tim and Henry Juszciewicz, Gibson’s owner, before I left Nashville, and we got to talking about artist relations. I told them how I’d handled stuff for Alembic and Turner Guitars. They were already committed to opening the office, and I thought, “Well, what the hell? It’s either design guitars and parts for Gibson and still be a carpenter, or design guitars and parts for Gibson and do artist relations for them at the same time.” So I jumped back in with both feet in ’88 and moved to L.A., opened up their West Coast office, signed Guns N’ Roses to an endorsement contract, and worked with a whole bunch of artists.
Eventually I ended up not liking the corporate aspect of working for them. There were also problems from an outside-designer standpoint. For instance, I went through six bosses in four years, so every few months I’m on an airplane. “Hi, I’m Rick. You’re my boss. This is what I do.” And in return I would get, like, “Oh man, this is really great, but we’re trying to redo the jigs for the Les Paul so the arch is correct again, and we’re trying to figure out…” you know? They were so heavily into re-engineering the reissue series that their was no space for new design. It was easier for them to buy Steinberger and to buy Mike Tobias than to turn me loose to design new products for them that they could develop in house. So I quit the office and jumped over to Westwood Music to run their repair department so that I could get hands-on again. I was still doing design work for Gibson, nothing that ever really made it to market, but they were paying me every month, and that was nice.
Was that mostly electronic design work?
No, not at all; there was some complete instrument design. The earliest work that I did on piezo pickups, individual-string piezo pickups for bass and guitar, was for Gibson, to make improvements to their Chet Atkins line, and also for a quad bass. Financially I came out just great after five years. After two and a half years I renegotiated the contract so that anything that I submitted and they didn’t put into production, I got to keep. I got the rights back. So it was like, “Here it is guys: either build it or it’s mine.” And meanwhile I’m getting paid every month.
That’s a sweet deal. We’re you getting a set salary?
No, I was getting an advance against a percentage of the royalties. I wasn’t making a living at it. It was $500 per month plus my medical insurance, but when you have another job anyway that five hundred bucks is real nice.
So I still had that going, and I was still doing independent artist relations for Gibson, doing bluegrass festivals for them and that kind of stuff, but I was back hands-on in the repair biz at Westwood Music in LA, and that was nice because I got to work with many of my old clients from years past, guys like David Crosby, Graham Nash, Steve Stills, David Lindley, and also some people who I’d always liked but never met such as Jackson Brown and Ry Cooder. It was really exciting doing work for those guys.
About that time some Japanese guys found me and asked if I had any of my old Model 1 guitars. I had a storage locker full of parts in Petaluma that I had been paying rent on for eight years, so I went there, pulled out some parts, and put together a guitar. These guys said, “Oh, very nice. Now we want two.” So I put another two together, then they say, “Now we want three more.” And, oh man! I’m starting to run out of parts! I did three more, and then it was six, and I’ve got to start building parts. I’ve got to make them from scratch again. Well, I had all the jigs and fixtures, and so I got a little pin router and started building parts and guitars, and eventually it was time to have my own shop again.
So in 1990 or ’91 I got my own shop in Topanga, California. I was living up in Topanga Canyon, and I’d work down at Westwood two or three days a week, and work in my shop two or three days a week, and from there it just kind of grew. It was time to put the whole thing back together again.
Some other things had happened design-wise, of course. I’d been doing these conversions on Chet Atkins nylon-string guitars, installing a hex pickup with panning stereo output. Bob Wolstein and I worked on some really trick electronics when we were both working for Gibson that they didn’t take. You could pan strings anywhere, it could simultaneously drive the Roland guitar synthesizer, and it sounded just gangbusters. I did probably thirteen or fourteen of those conversion jobs, including two for Lindsey Buckingham. I went to one of Lindsey’s gigs one night, and there he is just playing the hell out of a Chet Atkins, with a little bit of synth in there, and it just sounded great. I was just dumbfounded because I realized that here he is playing this thing, and it sounds great, and everybody thinks it’s a Gibson, but that’s not what they’re hearing! They’re seeing a Gibson and they’re hearing me! And I said, “Screw this! No more modifying Gibsons. I’m going to design a guitar.”
Well, I’d also started doing guitar-care workshops at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with Michael Hornick. Steve Szymanski, director of the Telluride Bluegrass Academy, said to me, “We’d really like to do a more extended lutherie course. What can you come up with?” I just stupidly said, “Well, how about a mandolin that anybody can make in three days?” Then I was on the spot and had to do it.
Did you have solid ideas, or were you just shooting from the hip?
Oh yeah, I was shooting from the hip (laughs), but I did have some ideas. For me any design project is a matter of storing away ideas about different elements. They go around in my head like its a big mental slot machine, and every now and then, when I’ve got enough cherries stored up in there, I pull the handle and get ten cherries in a row, and I’ve got the concept for a new design. There will be a neck design, a fingerboard design, an interior design, a pickup design, an aesthetic, and they all have to come together at once to make it worth doing.
You get your ideas everywhere, but a lot of this one came from reading American Lutherie. I’d been looking at some of the articles, and I’m thinking, “Man, that Spanish-style construction is really cool.” I mean, talk about freedom to do anything! Building an instrument face down on a workboard with no molds, you just bend the wood and you glue it in place! I thought, “We could do a little flat-backed mandolin like that, and it would be great.” So I designed this mandolin kit, which Michael has subsequently improved upon, and we went and taught it. First time, the class got eight done and strung in three days. Well, bingo! Here’s the idea for a semihollow guitar, same thickness as the mandolin (1µ\Ê§-1•\Ì§), you don’t need an outside mold, and suddenly I’ve got my own thin-bodied, semihollow, nylon-string guitar.
And that was the beginning of the Renaissance series?
That was the beginning. The first ones were neck-throughs, and they were and are beautiful, but they were incredibly labor intensive, and that was a problem. I went down to Texas to visit my old friend Donny Wade, Donny was doing some sales and marketing with me, and we are in the car, and it’s like, “Man, what can we do to knock a thousand bucks off the price of these things? I got it! A bolt-on neck! That’s the way to do it!” Suddenly you’re not sanding around a fingerboard, and fitting those joints, and you’re building the parts separately. We basically designed what is now the Renaissance series in about fifteen minutes driving from Austin to Bastrop. I was already making them, so it was just a matter of taking the neck off.
Are you using draft angles on the neck pocket and the butt of the neck, or is it just straight in?
No, it’s like a Telecaster. The Renaissance guitar is a Telecaster, crossed with a 335, crossed with a Ramirez. The shape is directly derived from a Ramirez A-1 that I had, but I Picassoized the shape, I did the cubism thing, you know? But the upper side from the neck to about the midpoint in the lower bout is straight Ramirez. The bolt-on neck was the breakthrough. Suddenly we could make a guitar that was going to list for under $2000, and could be sold to a music store for under a $1000.
Did you notice much difference in the sound with the new neck?
Well, we changed the pickup at the same time so that changed the sound anyway, but the necks do sound different. When you compare the two steel strings, the neck-through versus the bolt-on, what you’re hearing is almost like the difference between a nice dreadnought and a nice triple-0. They’re just different. They both sound nice, but they’re different. I’ve actually got a couple of clients that have one of each.
So you’ve got a Telecaster-ish bolt on neck and a cubist-Ram¡rez shape. What’s the 335 part of the design?
These are electric guitars with under-the-saddle-piezo-cable pickups. One of the things that I’ve discovered about under-saddle pickup technology is that it works best when coupled to a top that isn’t moving, so we put a solid platform underneath the bridge similar to a 335’s, rather than just making another thin acoustic guitar with a pickup. The reason this works is that these are differential pickups; they sense the differences in pressure between the strings and the top, actually between the saddle and the bridge. When you put one of these on an acoustic guitar you get this big attack, and then the top starts moving with the strings, so the pickup’s response to string movement is modified, which is less than ideal in terms of producing a natural sound. It gives you a sort of artificial attack-decay relationship, which is not the same thing you’re hearing from the guitar itself where the sound is being driven totally by string movement. So when we put a solid platform underneath the piezo we are changing the sustain characteristics of the instrument, but we’re providing a more stable platform for the pickup technology. We call these “amplicoustic” guitars.
About a year ago Jeff Traugott came over to my shop. He’d been out to a club in Santa Cruz the night before listening to a guy, Bill Walker, who’s got one of his guitars with the Highlander setup in it, and one of my guitars. Jeff came in saying, “What is it with you Rick? Why do your guitars sound more acoustic than mine when mine is an acoustic guitar and yours isn’t?” When Jeff Traugott is telling me that my guitar sounds more acoustic amplified than his does, and Jeff is arguably one of the best builders in the country, I know that I’m on to something.
Tell me about the pickups you’ve designed for these Renaissance guitars, and how that design was developed.
Well, one day David Crosby comes into Westwood Music and says, “Turner, if you design a better way to amplify an acoustic guitar, and I don’t get it first, I’ll have your balls cut off.” (laughter) So what are you going to do? It was something that needed to be done anyway, and I had already done work in that area for Gibson. One really great thing I had going for me at that time was that Jackson Browne basically put his studio at my disposal, which was incredible. If there wasn’t a session happening I could go in and listen to anything, and record it to twenty-four track tape, and listen back. Some of the finest analog gear in the world is in his studio. So that was my sound laboratory when I was in LA. I’d go down to Jackson’s and we’d try stuff all day, and record it, and listen back.
During this period I came across this passive-sonar-array technology, this coaxial wire. I’m good at finding things, and I’m good at talking to engineers at other companies and getting them excited about new applications for their products. You’ve got to be willing to jump out there. Now, with the internet it’s amazing. You can find stuff pretty easily. Anyway, I find this stuff, and it looks pretty interesting.
Is it the wire that they trail behind submarines?
Right, and listen for Red October. It’s a coaxial wire but instead of an insulator, what would be the insulator is rubber impregnated with piezo-ceramic dust. I stumbled on the material, and then worked with Bob Wolstein on its application. I had started working with Bob on hex pickups when I was at Westwood Music and doing the Gibson stuff. He is as fine an electronic-circuit designer as anybody I’ve ever met.
If the piezo material is impregnated in rubber, how does the signal develop.
Well, there’s a center conductor and an outer shield with this stuff in-between. It develops a voltage potential between the center conductor and the outside shield, and it does so radially. One of the things that distinguishes the piezo-cable pickups from flat piezo pickups is that they give you vibrational input from the walls of the saddle slot and the saddle instead of just from the saddle, so they develop a signal more three dimensionally, where a flat piezo responds more two dimensionally. The end result is a more complex signal. You couple that with Bob’s electronics, which I haven’t heard anyone beat, and you’ve got a very, very nice system.
We developed the Highlander pickup at Westwood Music and in Jackson’s studio. My two contributions to it were finding the technology, finding the coaxial pickup material and working the deal with the company that makes it to get what we needed, and then, since most luthiers shouldn’t ever be allowed to handle a soldering iron, nor to go anywhere near a fine guitar with a soldering iron, I came up with the idea to develop a packaging system that was soldering-iron-free, and that also took care of shielding and so on. I don’t know whether it was Bob or me who thought, what if we could design it to install completely from the outside, through the end pin hole? Anyway, Bob said, “Oh yeah, I can do that.” Of course, now the other pickup companies, Fishman, and so on, have knocked off this preamp-in-an-end-pin concept from Highlander.
Bob had started working on circuit design with computers at that point. He switched over from designing circuits in the traditional way to using computers in no time flat. The guy’s a friggin’ genius. He had circuit-simulator software, and he was able to write a program which set up the circuit for the preamp with all the parts values, and then it changed the parts values slightly and tested each virtual circuit just as though he was working with real-world parts. The amazing thing was that he was able to set his computer up to test 10,000 virtual circuits overnight! By testing all these variations he could determine the parts values we wanted. That makes a difference not only in performance, but also in how much the circuit is going to cost. You can get parts that are rated to various tolerances, 20% parts, 10% parts, 5%, 2%, and 1%, but the tighter the values are, the higher the cost. For instance, he discovered that the input-impedance-setting resistor was the most important resistor in the circuit in terms of noise, and the most important in precision in terms of reproducible results. So bam, that’s a 2% part. Everything else can be 5%. Then he designed this long skinny circuit card that fit in a metal tube that soldered directly onto an end-pin jack, and bam, we were there! I wanted to call it a tube preamp, but that was taken (laughter).
So that was the start of Highlander. Bob and I were partners in that until my guitar making thing, which was starting to take off simultaneously, kicked in to the point where I just said, “Bob, we can be partners or we can be friends, but I can’t start two companies at the same time. You take Highlander and do it.” I’ve continued to use Bob as my primary supplier for electronic circuits, but he and Holly have taken the company and made it roll.
Are you using the Highlander in your Renaissance instruments?
No, because I found another coaxial-pickup supplier. It’s almost embarrassing to admit this, but when you’re paying $16 a meter for pickup material, the guitars that we have now have $3 pickups. They have thirty-eight bucks worth of circuitry, but the pickup is incredibly inexpensive. It’s the cheapest/best sounding pickup I’ve ever heard. It is really getting what is happening there under the saddle. Now, if you don’t like that sound it may just be that you don’t like the sound of the vibrations that happen under the saddle. If you’re in a situation where you’ve got a carefully controlled acoustical environment, and you’ve got a great sound system, and you’ve got a very sensitive sound person, and a good musician, I think the combination of a pickup and a microphone on a real acoustic guitar sounds absolutely fantastic. I love it. But that idealized situation happens maybe 5% of the time. The rest of the time people ought to be playing my instruments.
You see these situations all the time where a guy is on stage, and he’s got whatever he wants, 10,000 watts, all of the outboard gear from graphic equalizers to massagers, and everything else, and yet that under-saddle piezo ends up making his $5,000 guitar sound like an old Ovation.
There are other problems involved. Most of those pickups are coupled to an initial electronics stage which is inadequate to handle the dynamics of the pickup. One of the things that is key in what we are doing is that we are using an 18V system rather than a 9V system, so we have more headroom; it doesn’t crap out when you really dig in. In fact, the piezo cable is a better match to 9V than piezo crystals are. The crystals have much higher voltage transients. Both the cable that Bob uses and the cable that I use have lower output, and they require a certain amount of boosting.
Are you doing any work with piezo-crystal or magnetic pickups?
The Electroline, which is my solidbody bass, started out as a Gibson project, but they didn’t put it into production. It has a completely different design for its pickups. It uses individual piezo crystals, but they are set up so they respond to the vertical pressure of the strings in piezo-pressure mode, and they also respond to the horizontal vibrations in piezo-shear mode. It’s a system where I was able to couple response to two axes of string vibration into a pickup geometry which has two distinctly different pickup modalities. When you shear a piezo you get a voltage differential, or when you pump it with pressure you get a voltage differential, so by designing the geometry of the pickup in such a way that both effects are about equal at equal amplitude you get this total integration of all of the axis of the strings’ vibration. In this case we are applying it to solidbody instruments and getting extremely fast rise times on the most common method of string attack, which is horizontal. In addition, because the piezo is put under a mechanical load that biases it mechanically into a very linear section of its response curve, we get phenomenal low-end response out of these things. If I’ve got a DC-coupled system, or something close to it, where you can watch a speaker respond accurately down to 5Hz, I can grab a string with my fingers and pull it in and out, and you can watch the woofer exactly track the string movement! It’s way subsonic! It’s incredible, and it sounds quite impressive, too.
That’s my Universal String Pickup, and I’ve put them in guitars and basses. For Ry Cooder I put them on a thing that’s called Big Thunder. It’s like an oversized lap steel with a 5¦ string length and piano strings. It’s got two sides; it flips over. One side has eleven strings, and the other has nine strings. Ry uses it for a lot of soundtrack work. One of the things about these pickups is that they’re very high output, and if you shield everything correctly they are totally silent. I met an engineer from Ocean Way Studio at a party. Ry does a lot of his soundtrack recording at Ocean Way, and this guy didn’t know that I’d done the pickups for Big Thunder, but he knew that I knew Ry. He said, “Man, Cooder came in with this thing and plugged it in, and we threw the faders up on the board because it was so quiet we thought there wasn’t going to be much there. He starts to play it and the woofers practically hit the back wall, man! BOOM!” (laughs) These are ultra-quiet 18V electronics with very high output pickups. I mean, these pickups will put out ten volts easily, and so you’d better have 18V available or you’re sending the first transistor that signal hits to the mental ward. (laughter) It’s gone, man, it’s gone! It doesn’t know what the heck hit it!
We are making systems that are getting scary close to acoustic-instrument quiet response with this piezo technology. I like instruments that are like the perfect Victorian child: they don’t speak until they are spoken to. I don’t want to hear hum, and buzz, and hiss coming out of a guitar or a bass. I want to hear music. I realize that there are limits to what we can do with electronics, but if I can deliver a clean, quiet signal directly from the instrument, it’s that much less work that all of the rest of the electronics have to do. These piezo-crystal pickups are just scary with how low their noise floor is, and how incredibly wide their range of response is. The joke is that it’s whales to bats; we are subsonic to ultrasonic with our pickup response, and very linear at that.
Oddly enough, some of the linear-response pickups are less than ideal, especially when you look at the application as a total system; they have these low-frequency bumps which are there in the energy put into the instrument by the player, but not in the acoustic response of the instrument. With those I will actually go in and lower the input impedance of the preamp to roll off lows before they even get in. If you take the input impedance from 10meg down to 1meg, what you are doing is raising the low-frequency cutoff point. On a guitar, for instance, even a guitar that’s going to be tuned down to D, you don’t really need flat response below 60Hz, so why have it? If it’s not doing you any good get rid of it, because those low-frequency bumps gobble up tremendous amounts of head room in all of the other parts of your system. They draw current that’s then no longer available to do a good job on the rest of the response range. By lowering the impedance of the preamp you are basically using the interface between the pickup and the preamp as a high-pass filter to get rid of the low-frequency stuff that simply isn’t music.
I really learned this one working on a sitar pickup for Ravi Shankar. The sitar is not an efficient radiator of low-frequency sound, even though the fundamentals of the lower notes on the strings are there. By making a pickup system which was very flat down to below 60Hz, it made the sitar sound like a surbahar (bass sitar). I’ve had to intentionally mismatch the pickup to the preamp to roll off low end.
I am learning how to do these manipulations with magnetic pickups, too. In the Alembic days we went to very low impedance pickups to get this wide-frequency response, but now I’m into this very high-impedance pickup coupled with a buffer that’s tailored to control the resonance of the magnetic pickup. Magnetic pickups tend to have sweet spots of impedance matching, and this is not stuff that you can measure. You try different resistors on the input until it sounds good, and there it is. In this case I’ll have 20K-25K DC resistance on the pickup, and match it up to 125K input, or go down to 80K input until I’ve got the sound right. Once the sound is right it stays right because it’s being preamped so it’s not going to change. So I get a very hot ceramic-magnet pickup to sound warm and clean at the same time. Now ceramic-magnet pickups sound different from alnico pickups. They tend to sound harsher. There is a kind of magnetic resonance, if you will, that is a high-frequency boost that they tend to allow. Part of it is the inductance of the coil, which is different for an iron load. A coil wound on a ceramic magnet has very different magnetic characteristics. Its field doesn’t collapse in response to the vibration of the string, and it tends to sound more brittle; but if you surround it with a really high-impedance coil it starts to mellow out. If you then start messing around with the input impedance of the preamp you start to get some very interesting results, and even if you are losing some output, so what? The signal doesn’t have to drive 30′ of cable. It’s just going to a preamp. I’m not going for output, I’m going for tone. You can always get output. That’s a piece of cake. So we’ve got magnetic pickups that are twice the DC resistance of a Gibson humbucker, but with more highs. That is totally opposite to what I had previously believed possible. To me it’s almost counter intuitive, which is great because it forces me to really think. These pickups are very stable and very dynamic. It’s just a different sound, and that’s what it all comes down to: how good does it sound? The measurements are great for checking quality control, but they don’t tell you whether it is musical or not. A lot of this is just fiddling around with variables until you are happy.
The other thing we have discovered is that coil-damping material is incredibly important. I used to superglue my coils. Now I am vacuum impregnating them in shellac, and the pickups are much mellower. Who’d of thunk it? And that’s because there are physical coil resonances. With superglue-soaked coils you had a much more brittle-sounding pickup. Now we are using shellac, and I really like the results. They are a little squooshy, but you don’t get any obvious ringing. They are very quiet when you tap on them, and they sound great. They are closer to the wax-soaked, and with the vacuum impregnation the shellac is going all of the way in. This is within the last month. I’ve been making magnetic pickups since ’68, and thirty years later I’m still going, “Whoa! Lets throw out everything I knew and try this!”
I’ve also done some interesting experiments rewinding classic pickup forms, Strat, Tele, P-bass, J-bass, Guild/Hagstrom Starfire, and Gibson Humbucker, using seven-strand Litz wire. This is seven strands of 44 ga. wire in parallel in a slow rope twist; the strands are insulated from one another. You can think of it as winding a pickup with Monster cable. The result is a pickup with extremely wide coil frequency response and incredible group delay or phase response. It takes the coil’s electrical response out of the sound of the pickup and lets you hear the magnetic characteristics of the sound. Very interesting…. There is a strong part of the sound of any magnetic pickup which has nothing to do with the characteristics of the coil. It’s what I call the magnetic response; it’s the dynamic three-dimensional-geometric interface between the string, the magnetic field, and the physical dimensions of the coil.
The future is going to be in digital signal processing (DSP) devices that take that oversimplified signal and add the simulated complexities of wood and air. And it’s coming, folks. It’s not a pipe dream. I’m amazed that no one has really done it, but we are less than five years away from mind boggling DSP enhancement of Piezo pickups. All those little microphones that people are putting in guitars are going to be yanked out in ten years.
Is it just a question of advancing the technology?
It’s not a technical thing at all. It’s a psychological thing. The people that know how to do the DSP work, know how to write the programs and know how to do the algorithms, are far more interested in electronic music than they are in acoustic music. Digital heads are not acoustic guitar freaks, for the most part. It’s a mind-set. The technology is there now; it’s just not being applied.
So that brings us pretty much up to date. But then, of course, my brain won’t shut off at night. I’ve also been working on designing some new solidbody basses with bolt-on necks, and I’ve gotten back into magnetic pickup design. I designed what I call the Model T electric guitar with a Rickenbacher double-horseshoe-style pickup, and a K-Craft body shape with formica top and back. The first ones had Formica fingerboards as well. I’m just kind of bouncing all over the map with design ideas at this point, but the Renaissance is the guitar I think could really make it commercially. This has the potential to hit the right price point with the right performance. The scary thing is that in order for us to do that we have to make a Renaissance guitar for less labor cost than Roger Sadowsky gets for a fret job, the whole damn guitar! If it’s costing us more than $350 in labor we’re not going to hit our price point and we are not going to be successful in business. That’s just where it’s at.
How do you figure?
The rule of thumb is that you divide your price per unit into thirds: one third labor, one third parts, one third gross profit. We, in fact, are trying for a higher gross-profit number. We’re trying for 39%-41% because we’re trying to put out a catalog and advertise this thing, and those kinds of things add costs to the sales. It’s pretty intense when you jump from luthier to production guitar maker. It makes a lot of luthiers nervous when you start to talk about time estimates and spread sheets, but Gibson and Ovation are my competitors, and you know that they are on top of that stuff. If you want to compete you have to play the game. We know what every single screw and every minute of labor in a guitar costs, and it all adds up. Hey, we’re selling these things at 50% off list, and we will go lower than that. If somebody’s going to buy a half a dozen instruments at a time there’s the “wicked good deal.” So on a $2,000 instrument I don’t make $2,000, I gross $1,000 or less. That’s just the reality of what we’re doing. It’s another mind-set entirely trying to do what some of the luthiers who have broken through into production have done, the guys at National for instance, and certainly Jean Larrive. Bob Taylor is the leader. He’s the guru in this for all of us. He’s the man, in terms of breaking through from lutherie to become a production guitar maker and really succeeding. It’s amazing what Bob has done.
You started out as an acoustic guy, both in your music and in your repair work, then you drifted into the thick of the electric-music scene. You are still best known for your work with Alembic and the Grateful Dead, for your work on pickups and electric instruments, and now you are in production with your Renaissance guitars, but I saw that you brought an acoustic guitar to the show. Tell me about that.
My love for vintage instruments, 60-, 70-, 100-, 150- year-old instruments, is still there, and my roots are in acoustic music. My current passion is Howe-Orme instruments. I collect Howe-Orme mandolins and guitars. They were made in Boston in the 1890s. The guitars have a mechanical neck joint that is adjustable, and they made no attempt at hiding it. The neck angle, and therefore the action, can be easily adjusted, and the fingerboard is cantilevered over the top, allowing the top to vibrate completely. Those guitars, which I first started seeing in the early ’60s in Boston, proved to me right off the bat that dovetail joints are totally unnecessary tonally. I don’t care what the Bluegrass guys say, you don’t need a dovetail joint to make a good-sounding guitar. These Howe-Orme guitars sound different, but they sound fantastic. They have tremendous sustain, incredible low end for the size of the guitar, and they are very, very clear.
I was never interested in making another dreadnought, or 000, or J-45, or J-200, or whatever, it’s been done, and I’ve got friends and neighbors who are very good at doing that, but I always thought I’d be ready to make acoustic guitars one of these days. I’ve worked on them for thirty-five years, and I certainly know how to put them together and all that, but I never had all the design elements in place for something that could be uniquely my style, and be a valid tool, not just another weird guitar. But now I do.
I’m trying to make a flattop that’s got maybe 20% of the nice qualities of an archtop: midrange cut, and power, and note definition in a chord. But I want more sustain and a little more warmth in the low end. I particularly want harmonic sustain. I want those harmonics to hang in there with the fundamental as long as possible.
I’m also trying to build an acoustic guitar that projects acoustically. I think that now in the acoustic guitar field we’ve got control over whether the guitar projects or whether it envelops the player. An enveloping guitar may be an easier sell, but a projective guitar is going to do that live job better, and frankly, I think if you want to put a pickup in an acoustic guitar you should just get one of my Renaissances, because they do a much better job. They should have been playing Renaissances last night at the show in the bar (Healdsburg, summer of 1999) because all their guitars fed back. Lou Hinckley did a great job on the sound, but he couldn’t control those guitars and get any level. The Renaissance doesn’t feed back. You could play with Led Zeppelin on stage and not have a feedback problem. So when I’m making acoustics, I’m making acoustics.
I’m influenced by the Howe-Orme guitars, and I’m influenced by the Larson Brothers guitars, and by Stefan Sobell’s guitars. I like the incredibly wide dynamic range that Stefan’s guitars have, and the really focused midrange, and the power, especially when played by Martin Simpson. Stefan’s guitars are biased more toward archtop sound than mine are.
I was inspired by the Howe-Orme neck-attachment design, and I came across an August Larson patent that is almost the same thing, but we are modifying it in some key ways. They used two jack screws under the fingerboard, one on either side of the heel. I’ve added a third jack screw at the heel-cap position. The three adjustable jack screws have machined points that stick out of the heel, and I’ll be putting metal sockets on the body to receive them. This point-contact system is very much like some of the vibration-control designs you see in high-end-stereo systems and aerospace gear. The conical points act as one-way-mechanical diodes, vibrations will be able to go from the neck into the body, but will be inhibited from coming back from the body into the neck because there is so little contact area. The idea is to drive as much energy into the body as possible, and have as little energy as possible going to areas which are not acoustically active. I’ve also added an attachment screw which holds the neck in place. On the Howe-Orme guitars, when you take the strings off, the necks fall off, which is disconcerting to most people.
Ultimately this becomes as simple a neck joint as you can do practically, and it’s totally adjustable. This system will not only allow you to tilt the neck; you can also make intonation adjustments because it enables you to move the whole neck towards or away from the body. It does mean that you’ve got a negative neck pitch, which is interesting. In that sense it’s a little bit like what Greg Byers and Tom Humphrey are doing, but this was also done in the 1890s by the Ellias Howe company.
Are you doing anything different with the body?
I’ve put flying-buttress braces, solid graphite bars, from the waist position on the back up to the neck block, so there are no compressive forces on the top at the neck; it’s all transferred down into the sides and back. It stiffens up the guitar like crazy, essentially removing the responsibility of supporting the neck from the top so the top can be designed totally for tone and not for structure other than holding the string pull. So far the results are wonderful.
This guitar is for Henry Kaiser, and it’s going to Antarctica, so we are deliberately overbuilding it. The back braces are graphite-topped. The back will support a 170 lb. static load. I was actually able to stand on the center of it. The fingerboard is made from layers of birch which have been dyed and laminated together under high heat and pressure with phenolic resin, and I’ve got the graphite bars dadoed into the underside of the fingerboard so that I can use bars which are a full µ\Ê§ tall. It’s a structural fingerboard rather than a structural neck with a fingerboard added. Once I get the fingerboard dressed out it’s not going to change. It doesn’t matter what changes the guitar top goes through, the playability of the fingerboard is going to remain constant. If the action does go up or down because of the top moving with humidity changes, all you have to do is adjust the neck to make it right again.
It looks like you have a truss rod in there, too.
There is a neck adjustment, but it’s more to adjust desired relief than to compensate for strength. I’m frankly not even sure whether the truss rod is going to do anything because the neck is so stiff. You’ll have to really crank it to get anything happening, but it’s there. I’ve got necks like this without truss rods that have been on instruments for over a year and haven’t moved at all.
Did you do anything different with the top?
The top is graduated from .135§ along the center, down to about .080§ at the edges. I figured out a way to do that on my thickness sander. I made a carrier board which has a slight dish, and I put the plate on that and run it through the machine end-to-end. The pressure from the sanding drum pushes the plate down into the dish, so the edges of the bouts automatically get more taken off, and you can actually control it very accurately.
How about the bracing?
Well, it’s an X-brace system, but because of the graphite rods, and because the end of the fingerboard floats, there is no need to load the upper bout with bracing. I just put a couple of small diagonal bars up there and left it free to move. One other thing that’s a little different is that I took a little cove-cutting router bit and relieved the sides of the X brace and the tone bars, which gives them an I-beam cross section. That really increases the stiffness-to-weight ratio. The results are everything that I had hoped for, and Henry is very happy. In fact, he just ordered a baritone neck for it, and because of the attachment system, changing necks will take about as long as changing strings.
That’s fabulous! If you don’t care which fret is at the body you could put any neck you want on it! What’s the Antarctica angle?
Here’s a funny thing. Henry discovered that no album has ever been recorded in Antarctica, so he’s the guy to do it. He’s got a National Science Foundation grant for a musical expedition to Antarctica. He’ll be an artist in residence at this American base at the South Pole. In one of the rooms at the base there is a steel pole in the floor that marks the South Pole. Henry’s going to use it as a slide (laughter) and play slide guitar on the South Pole. He’s taking a Steve Klein electric, one of my Renaissance baritone 12-strings, and this custom acoustic with the adjustable neck attachment that I’m building for him, so we are guitar outfitters to a Polar Expedition!