Back when I was in college, I spent about three years obsessed with the design, construction and customization of electric guitars and basses.
For the most part, this was a natural side-effect of my more central obsession with music itself, and one which I’ve since observed is shared by musicians the world over. We collect them, polish them, protect them, show them off, trade them at shops, online, at trade shows and at open-mic-nights. We spend hundreds of dollars on books and magazines about them, and thousands, tens of thousands or, rarely, much more on the instruments themselves. And generally we carry on as if we’re in love. Because we are.
The instruments themselves are as varied in quality, beauty, rarity, and value as any collectible. And as with other collectibles, they are as varied and wide-ranging as are their owners themselves. In some ways the study of guitars is as much a form of history, anthropology or psychology, as it is a study of craftsmanship, engineering or art.
For the most part I was (and still am) partial to those with a natural elegance, usually with visible wood grain, and smooth, curving, ergonomic shapes. But they must also be unique, since that’s what allows an instrument to become an assertion of its owner’s own take on his art, and on the world.
So back in college, before I really tried to do the rock star thing (though I was planning it), my obsession with guitars led me to start seriously thinking about building my own. As it happened, one day I stumbled across a book on building electric guitars and basses at Powell’s Books, and that was it. There was no turning back — I had to do it.
I started with a fretless 5-string bass. It had a neck-through-body design and laminated body ‘wings’ with a bookmatched zebra wood face. Basically the design was just like the one in the book. And that it was fretless had the advantage that I didn’t have to buy or make a fingerboard. since positioning the frets would have been a very precise exercise, and I didn’t think it was something I could do perfectly on a first attempt.
In the end, the bass turned out ok. It sounded awesome, but it was unbalanced and the craftsmanship was a little amateurish. It did turn out well enough though, that a friend and former bandmate decided to commission a guitar from me.
This instrument too, had its problems. It didn’t have the balance issue largely because we used a pre-made neck, but the body was too thick and heavy. So much so that later we would replace the body completely. And though I’d tried to make the electronics as flexible as I could, there were in some ways too many controls and options (a trait which the owner’s previous guitar had in common). And yet this guitar too turned out well enough to drum up another commission from Vance’s friend and former housemate, Mark Perlson…
Flash forward 19 years…
Here I am sitting around on a Friday night, ego-surfing on my new PS3, and what do I stumble upon two and a half lives later? Mark Perlson / Jake Savin guitar number three. I was compelled write a bit about that life long ago as a guitar maker, and share the pictures Mark took of what turned out to be the last guitar I made, at least until now:
After two and a half attempts, I think I mostly succeeded with Mark’s guitar. I’d had enough practice at this point that I could work the wood much more precisely, even given the relatively modest hand-tools tools I was using. The woods we chose together were gorgeous. And the design choice, borrowed from Pedulla, to use the wood itself for all the covers and mounting surfaces, was a good one, and well enough executed. I also really like that we went with an oil finish instead of high-gloss polyurethane, though this decision was as much practical as it was deliberate.
But as it turned out, this guitar too was heavy. Not as heavy as its predecessor, nor as unbalanced as my first guitar, but in the end what was just a bit on the heavy side for the young man I made it for, is more than Mark wants to deal with now. But it sure is pretty.
Now I must admit that I was a little saddened to learn that Mark is thinking of retiring this guitar, and recovering the parts. He’d use them to make an instrument that’s a little less unwieldy, if not quite as unique. I don’t think he’ll mind that I re-posted his very nice photos here, but I’m sad that there may not ever be any more.
Maybe — just maybe — Mark would be interested in my taking that too-heavy guitar off his hands, instead of hiring someone to re-make it into something else. Not that I think it’s wrong what he’s planning. After all, it’s just a guitar, and it’s his guitar: We designed it together, and I made it for him, and he paid me for it. It’s just that I’d rather see this unique thing I made stick around for a while.
How ’bout it, Mark? You game?