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How did you build your client base?
At that time we were located near the corner of Yucca and Vine in Hollywood. There were fifty recording studios in the area and across the street there were three recording studios. Capital Records is right there. There were many musicians around there at the time.
I guess it didn’t hurt that you had a big sign that said “Performance Guitar” [laughing].
[Laughing] Right. At that time there were many discos and lots of live music in Hollywood. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights were very busy. Musicians would drop by because they always needed repairs. Johnny Graham and Al McKay of Earth Wind & Fire were clients. I made a custom Stratocaster for Johnny Graham and I made lots of modifications and repairs for them. Jazz guitar player Gabor Szabo came in to have repairs done as well. He was a great player. I loved his style.
What makes Performance Guitar different from other custom builders?
The basic design of Gibson and Fender were good, but there were small things that weren’t so good. We use heavy-duty truss rods and our necks have a flat radius. We also select the best wood that’s completely dry and aged with good grain. Leo Fender was a machinist. He didn’t play guitar but he had great ideas. When we assemble a guitar, every detail is very important. The bridge location, alignment and the angle of the nut is very important. Other than that I have secrets that I cannot tell you.
Yes. Secret and confidential [Laughing]. We also make our own pickups and special shielding and noise protection. We have a lot of experience geared for professional players. We give them exactly what they want.
What was it like working for Frank Zappa?
Frank Zappa was a great musician. I learned a lot from his ideas. I first spoke to him when he called me and said he was going to be touring and recording. I was very busy but he told me to come to his studio to get some of his guitars. I thought he wanted me to repair one or two guitars. I picked up twelve or thirteen guitars! This was in 1981 or 1982. He wanted them back right away because he was recording and was going on tour. We took care of his guitars right up until he passed away in 1993. He recommended me to his musicians and we became even busier.
Is that how you met Steve Vai?
Yes. Steve Vai was in Frank Zappa’s band. Warren DeMartini visited Frank Zappa’s studio, saw my guitars and the next day he came here and wanted us to make him a guitar. Warren Cuccurullo became a client as well.
Frank Zappa had a lot of musicians coming in and out of his band. That must have been great for business.
Yes. His sons Ahmet and Dweezil would come here too. Also Billy Sheehan. He’s a bass player, but he really plays guitar. He use to have a lot of damage to his basses on tour and we would fix them. I also built Tom Morello’s [Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, The Nightwatchman] guitar with the special toggle switch on the lower horn. I built it with a Stratocaster body and a Performance Corsair neck. I built my first guitar with a toggle switch like that on a Stratocaster in 1966.
Did Frank Zappa have any specific requirements for his guitars?
He said he didn’t want all his guitars to do the same things. He needed each guitar to have a different character. We made a special effect in one of his guitars. It was a Stratocaster-style guitar with a built-in flanger. He always wanted creative sounds. He hired a music tech, but the tech couldn’t do it. When we made it he was very satisfied. We also built a preamp boost into some of his guitars.
I remember seeing your guitars appear onstage with Steve Vai when he was in Alcatrazz. He had some very cool pickup configurations. Warren DeMartini of the band Ratt had smokin’ guitars too.
The first guitar I built for Warren DeMartini was in 1984. It was the black Corsair. In 1985 I made the snakeskin guitar that Warren plays. Country players used to have something similar with leather. Warren didn’t want the first version because it was only covered with snakeskin on the top. I took one day to think about it and figured out a way to cover the entire body with snakeskin without the seams. He’s been playing this guitar for more than twenty years now.
Joe Walsh still comes in to get work done on his guitars too. He gets all his guitars free from companies like Gibson and Fender but he doesn’t use them right away. He brings them here and we make modifications. He likes big frets so we make all his modifications.
I came in your store once and saw Michael Schenker’s flying V. What did he have done?
We made a custom guitar for him. The Gibson necks are weak and he needed a strong neck. He asked us to make a heavy duty flying V for him and he was very happy.
It sounds like you fix all the mistakes that the big guitar companies make. What are some of the strange requests you’ve had for building a custom guitar?
A client wanted a guitar in the shape of an axe. Another client wanted a guitar that looked like a keyboard. These were local players.
I like that your customers feel like they’re part of the building process.
We have a big difference in the way we make guitars than other companies. We take the order in the front of our office and can start building it in back. Many custom shops don’t do that. After they take the order they have to order the parts. Then they have to send it somewhere else to have it assembled. They send it somewhere else again to do the paint. We can do everything right in the back.
What’s your turnaround time?
It depends on the model, but if it’s an easy job we can have it done in a couple of months. The more complicated jobs take longer. Our customers are very happy. We also make our own pickups and our own parts. Our most popular model is called the PG-10, which is a custom single coil old-fashioned type pickup. We also have a humbucking pickup called the PG-50. It’s like a PAF with more bite. Many studio musicians are very satisfied. They’re traditional sounding pickups with new technology. Traditional pickups don’t have enough bite and are noisy. My pickups have noise protection, more output and a bigger bite. Warren DeMartini uses the PG-10 in the neck position of his guitars.
I also add metal sustain blocks to Floyd Rose guitars to increase sustain and warmth. About fifteen years ago Warren DeMartini wanted to know why the Floyd Rose guitars lose high end and sustain. I cut out a thick block for him made from a church bell and attached it to back of his Floyd Rose. He was very surprised. The increased mass from the metal increased the sustain in his guitar.
Tell me about your flagship guitar.
It’s the Performance Corsair. It’s a little bit more pointy and 15 percent smaller than a standard Stratocaster. The deeper cutaway on the lower horn also allows for better access to the higher frets. Warren DeMartini plays that model. The pickup configuration and type of wood is up to the customer but the body shape is the same. The standard version comes in alder but Warren has models made from koa and mahogany.
You named your flagship model guitar after your favorite fighter plane “The Corsair,” what’s your other favorite fighter plane from World War II?
My favorite is the P-51 and the Corsair.
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