On an atypically warm, late-December Friday afternoon, Mike
Sherman is scrambling to get the last of his holiday orders
out the door. The lone builder of custom extended-range guitars
has been working 12-hour days for the past five years to produce
the 60 or so one-off instruments he sells annually. In the coming
year, however, he says he’ll be scaling back his annual ambitions by
20 pieces in hopes of working shorter days: “The hours are just too
long,” he says with a sigh.
Although he was recently featured in Robert Shaw’s book
Electrified: The Art of the Contemporary Electric Guitar, Sherman
doesn’t consider himself a master builder. “When I was contacted
about doing it, I thought it was a joke,” he says. Still, he’s been
building since he was 14—when he suddenly found himself fatherless
and with a garage full of carpentry equipment. “I always wanted
to be a musician, and my father was a carpenter and a mason,”
he explains. When his father passed away, Sherman recalls, “my
mom was thinking about selling his equipment, but I said, ‘Y’know
what? Let me start dabbling.’” Tinkering away in the garage, armed
with dad’s tools, a few guitar-building books, and plenty of ambition,
the teenager built what he now describes as a 7-string, Stratish-
looking thing that he was surprised even played. “I’ve been
hooked ever since.”
Before going full-time with his own company, Sherman had a
long career working for builders like Dean, Hamer, and Washburn.
When he was 19, he applied for a job at Hohner and got it. His
next guitar gig was a six-month stint at Dean, which proved to be
a stepping stone en route to a 15-year, on-again-off-again tenure
at Hamer that began in the mid-’80s. “Once I [temporarily] left
Hamer to pursue my own guitar building,” he says. “I was always
building Sherman guitars at night on my own.” He ended up
back there a few years later, only to leave again later for Washburn
Guitars. There, he worked alongside legendary luthier Grover
Jackson to help launch the company’s custom shop in Chicago.
“Ironically,” he laughs, “I wound up going back to Hamer. They
came calling—bribing me with zeros—and I accepted.”
That time he stayed with Hamer for a while, running production
and helping out in the adjoining Ovation factory until going
back to Washburn for a final stint in 2000. But the commute to
Washburn’s Chicago facility from Sherman’s New England home
was exhausting, especially when he was needed on weekends to
help out at home or play local gigs as a sideman. “I was flying out
to Chicago, living in a fully furnished motel during the week,” he
says. “The hard part about that was that I’d shut the factory down
at 2:30 [on Friday] and have to grab all my gear—I’d have a guitar
and my clothes with me—head back, and then my wife would pick
me up at the airport and I’d have to go straight to a gig. It was trying.
Eventually it was like, ‘Okay, I can’t do this anymore, I need to
be back home.’” He went full-time with Michael Sherman Guitars
Left to right: Lee White’s LP 8-string, Waterfall Bubinga 5-String Bass, 26.5" Scale 8-String, and A work-in-progress T-style
Despite long hours blanketed in sawdust, Sherman says he’s
compelled onward by the music people make with his guitars.
He’s quick to point out that, although most people think of guitar
building as a glamorous business, it’s tedious physical labor. “It’s
thankless work sometimes when you have to sand six guitars,” he
says. “But when they’re done, you can sit back and look at them
and play them. And the look on the customer’s face when they
receive it—and the music they make from it—it’s just the most
6-String Luxury Machines
While at Hamer and Washburn, Sherman worked with such bigname
artists as Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Sammy Hagar, No Doubt’s Tom
Dumont, and Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen—and many of those players
continued to be supportive of his work as he branched out on his own.
Guitar collector Lee White was introduced to Sherman by
chance on the online guitar community Sevenstring.org. Intrigued
by photographs of Sherman’s work that he calls “stunning,” White
decided to take the plunge and ordered an 8-string instrument.
When the neatly wrapped guitar package arrived at White’s office,
he was blown away by the complexity and beauty of the instrument.
“My jaw completely dropped,” says White of the set-neck
“super strat” with a burled-mahogany top and fretboard LEDs. “It
was named ‘Bison’ by the Sevenstring.org crew, because the figured
wood looked a heck of a lot like a bison’s head.” He didn’t even
make it home from work before he ordered another—a set-neck
7-string with a flame-topped mahogany body and a piezo-pickupequipped
Floyd Rose tremolo.
After that, White and Sherman hit it off, boozing and bonding
over common interests. One day the two went digging through
White’s guitar collection and hit on a mutual favorite. “For years,”
says White, “I had gone through numerous Washburn N4s, including
the coveted Davies models [Ed. note: Stephen Davies is the
Seattle-based luthier who invented the Stephen’s Extended Cutaway
neck in collaboration with Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt and
Washburn]. None of them hit me like this one oddball quilt-top
N4. When I pulled that out of the case, Mike immediately said, ‘I
remember that one.’” It turns out Sherman had built that very guitar
years before while working at Washburn.
“I had been attached to Mike’s work for years before I even
knew who the heck he was,” he says. Since then, White has
acquired four Shermans—and he has six more on order.