Guidance from resources such as Premier Guitar can be the most valuable tool at your workbench.
You’re lucky to be reading this. No, not
because my column is full of wonderful,
enlightened words, but because Premier
Guitar as a whole is an invaluable tool. I
wish that this much expertise and information
had been so easily accessible when I
was starting out. Actually, I wish guidance
like what’s contained in PG’s offerings had
been around for some of my clients over
the years. It would have saved us all a lot
of heartache! The answers to subjects like
matching speaker impedance, adjusting
amp bias, or even slotting a string nut are
right at hand today—making it difficult to
believe that they once seemed like black art
to the average musician.
While still in high school, a friend and I
embarked upon the creation of an amplifier
company in the basement of my parent’s
apartment building. We had successfully
built several speaker cabinets, so it seemed
logical to move on to amplifiers. With a
rudimentary understanding of electronics—and a lot of optimism—we forged ahead
in the dark. My friend was a ham-radio
fiend who had successfully transferred his
skill at mending radios to butchering the
power supply of my first Marshall amp.
How could we fail? The process dragged on
slowly as I leveraged my growing collection
of amplifiers into a rental service.
Graduation came and went with no
finished amplifier, but we still pressed on.
A few years later, my job at a small manufacturer
of test equipment provided us with
access to electronics distributors, and introduced
me to the Thomas Register. Before
Google, or even the internet, the Thomas
Register was the way purchasing agents and
designers found components and services.
Sort of like “yellow pages” for the industry,
it was a hardbound, multi-volume encyclopedia
of goods and services in the U.S., and
I loved it. If you needed a capacitor, metal
chassis, or someone who did chrome plating,
all you had to do was look it up.
It was this young gearhead’s delight to
spend hours simply poring over the descriptions
of stuff. The only problem was that
you had to know what you were looking
for. Without 15 different YouTube videos
on how to select a power cable, I was forced
to read actual electronics textbooks (very
dry stuff when you’re anxious to build the
world’s next greatest anything). With no
money and even fewer organizational skills,
my partner and I parted ways before a
decent prototype was deemed marketable.
It was probably for the best, but the exercise
had a lasting effect.
Another of my many early jobs was as a
“technician” and delivery driver for a place
called Music Dealer Service in Chicago. My
duties included simple setups on guitars,
changing out blown speakers, and driving
a delivery truck. MDS was where all the
music shops in Chicago sent both their
in- and out-of-warranty repairs, and we
had our hands on everything imaginable,
new and old. It was here I was exposed to
people who actually understood how guitars
and amplifiers worked, and I was in awe
of their skill. I had my nose in everything
because I wanted to learn more than how
to carry a Fender Rhodes up four flights of
stairs. Most of these guys were graduates
of technical schools like DeVry and the
Illinois Institute of Technology, and they
spoke a language reserved for the geekiest of
engineer/musicians, but I still managed to
absorb a few basic things before moving on.
When involved in creating my first custom
instrument some time later, a repairman
named John Montgomery mentored
me. Monte was a crusty old salt who had
learned repair by doing. He was well versed
in brass and woodwind upkeep, as well as
basic finishing and crack repair on stringed
instruments. Once again, the opportunity
to learn presented itself by challenging
Monte to help build a bass with me. But
when it came time to inlay the fretboard,
we were stumped, so I enlisted the help of a
local luthier named Bozo Podunavac.
Although Podunavac was known for
his acoustic guitars, especially 12-strings,
his trademark was copious use of inlay.
Apprenticing for years in his native
Yugoslavia, Podunavac learned his craft the
old-fashioned way by studying with a master.
And after emigrating to the United States
in 1959, he worked in a repair shop before
striking out on his own in 1964. I was fascinated
by the idea of building guitars from
scratch, and seeing it firsthand was exciting.
Here was a guy who clearly had a vision and
the skills to bring that vision to life, and it
was the first time that the entire picture was
presented before me. As long as I kept learning,
it was truly a great adventure.
Over the decades, I’ve been lucky to have
the opportunity to compare notes, work
with, and ask questions of some extremely
talented and knowledgeable guitar people.
I’d like to think that a small bit of it has
rubbed off on me. This (and a lot of trial
and error) has served me to a point where
I might have something to share as well.
Some cynics say that the world is getting
broader but shallower, and that the depth of
knowledge that comes from studying a single
subject has given way to a kind of generalism.
Would I have learned as much if I’d
had access to something like the internet, or
even a Stewart-MacDonald catalog? It’s hard
to say, but it doesn’t surprise me how many
people are thirsty for information. And having
this resource at your fingertips is more
focused than rummaging blindly through
the pages of the Thomas Register.
noted designer, builder,
and player who co-founded
one of the first boutique
guitar brands, in 1973.
Today, as the director of
Dantzig Guitar Design, he continues to
help define the art of custom guitar. To
learn more, visit guitardesigner.com