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A sampling of Joe Veillette’s designs (left to right): Flyer 12-string, Flyer 4-string bass, Swift standard-tuned 12-string electric, Baritone 12-string, Double-neck (Joe Veillette’s personal favorite for gigging), and the Gryphon. Photos by Michael Bloom.
During his sojourn away from the workshop, Veillette only produced two instruments. One for Earl Slick and the other went to Joey DeMaio of Manowar, an association that might seem a bit odd at first glance. Known for their beefy loincloth look, sword and sorcery lyrical content, and holding the world record for the loudest performance, Manowar isn’t the first group to come to mind when considering fine acoustic instruments. However, the Veillette and Manowar connection goes beyond simply building axes: The luthier actually sang backup for the band.
“When I was with Harvey Citron, we got a call from John ‘Dawk’ Stillwell, the mad genius tech for Manowar, and he ordered an 8-string bass for DeMaio. After Harvey and I broke up, they would come down and visit me sometimes, and they ended up buying two more 8-string basses from me. I became friendly with them and they’re really sweet people.”
When legendary producer and engineer Eddie Kramer was working with Manowar at Bearsville Studios, which was close to Woodstock, he suggested adding backup vocals to some tracks. DeMaio thought the local Veillette would be up to the task, even though pounding heavy metal wasn’t his normal gig. As the session dragged on in the day, Veillette’s daughter Jasmine was retrieved from school to join in.
This would be far from Jasmine’s only stint at recording. The little girl was also featured on XTC’s “Dear God” on the 1986 album Skylarking. Her presence in Veillette’s life was another force steering him to refocus his career once again. Veillette and Jasmine’s mother divorced, which was a difficult personal challenge. On the professional side, the Phantoms were offered a Vegas residency that involved decent money, but Veillette balked at the idea of playing a repetitive string of monotonous gigs. At the same time, his daughter was growing and he didn’t want to leave the upstate New York area he loved so much.
So he launched back into guitar building, first teaming up with Stuart Spector, known for his sought-after basses. After that partnership ran its course, Veillette started building some of his own guitars again. Journey’s Neal Schon became a customer, then two instruments went to Eddie Van Halen, and the guys from Blondie came along.
“It started really getting easy,” Veillette remembers.
Although today most Veillette instruments feature primarily natural finishes, those early models were all black. “Black spray from cans of Minwax,” he says, laughing. “Black fretboards too. It was kind of a cool look.”
More importantly he discovered a single-bolt neck system that he still uses on all his guitars. “Essentially from engineering, I know that the screws that are the furthest away from the bridge are doing all the work.
Luthier Joe Veillette, pictured here in his upstate New York workshop, started his professional career in architecture but has been building guitars for more than 40 years. Photo by Michael Bloom.
While acknowledging that some players need the psychological security of seeing so many bolts and screws attaching a neck to the body, Veillette argues that his single-bolt system is just as secure, yet it allows much more design flexibility.
A zero fret is another element Veillette began using early on that’s frequently seen on his instruments today. Although he says zero frets got a bad rap when used by inexpensive guitars in the 1950s and ’60s, the actual principle makes perfect sense: A zero fret reduces the importance of the nut, allowing greater experimentation and improvisation with string gauges.
“Some customers insist they don’t want a zero fret,” he says. “And that’s okay. They don’t like the way it looks. But coming from an architectural and engineering background, I’m not going to do something because it looks good if it’s going to make something less functional.”
Since solidly establishing his own brand and workshop after his series of short collaborations in the early 1990s, Veillette has long relied on the talents and efforts of Martin Keith and Ande Chase. In addition to working in Veillette’s Woodstock shop, the two men are dedicated, serious musicians, and Veillette stresses the impact they’ve had in the instruments that go out to players all over the world.
Much of Veillette’s work is dedicated to addressing somewhat unusual sonic palettes. For example, there is the Gryphon, a short-scale 12-string guitar that makes it possible to emulate mandolin, bouzouki, quatro, and other traditional folk instruments. Featuring unison courses, the Gryphon is designed for D tuning. Guitarist Kaki King describes Veillette’s work as “engineering genius.”
“What I love about Joe’s philosophy is that he considers building to be a form of making music,” King says. “Because he is not thinking about pretty inlays, he’s not thinking ‘How can I make this look weird?’ He just wants the sound to be so good that, in a way, he is part of the process of writing a song. When you write a song with a Veillette guitar, you are writing it with Joe because that is his intention. And, I will say that for the songs I have written on that guitar, they really do seem to write themselves. So, maybe Joe kind of preprograms them.”
King points to her tunes “Fences” and “Great Round Burn” off her 2012 record Glow as being particularly good introductions to the Veillette sound. His Gryphon guitars, along with his baritones, might very well be the best-known Veillette models.
“I’ve sold a ton of Gryphons,” Veillette says. “I’ve sold probably 200 out of a shop that only makes five a month. Of course, it helps that Dave Matthews has eight of them.”