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Rick Turner: The Father of Boutique Guitars

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Rick Turner: The Father of Boutique Guitars

The Alembic Years and Fleetwood Mac
Thus began Turner’s critical, tumultuous Alembic period. Turner co-founded Alembic with Wickersham, and the company’s initial aim was to push the envelope of live sound through the medium of Grateful Dead shows.


A corner of Turner’s factory with the original Model 1 blueprint on the wall.

Turner worked on practically everything Alembic touched, including designing speaker cabinets to eliminate standing waves in the Dead’s Wall of Sound PA system— which had McIntosh power amps pushing 125,000 watts through 450 drivers. Once Turner, Wickersham, and the other folks at Alembic had tackled the acoustic and electronic considerations of large PA systems, they focused on the instruments— primarily Lesh’s basses and Garcia’s guitars. Soon things started to snowball: A carving job Turner did for an early Alembic bass made for Jack Casady helped put Alembic on the map as an instrument maker, as did their work for Stanley Clarke.

Before Turner’s time with Alembic was up, he found himself involved with another milestone in the history of rock and roll—the studio sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album, which the band was recording at the Record Plant just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Turner was sent over to do a setup on John McVie’s Alembic #33 bass, and he ended up staying for much of the sessions to work as a guitar tech because Lindsey Buckingham’s Strat had an Alembic Strat-o-Blaster preamp that kept blowing his Hiwatt amps.

“The preamp was turned up all the way—that’s 12 dB of gain coming out of the Strat-o-Blaster!” Turner relates. “Evidently, the Hiwatts were set up so that the gain structure expected a normal electric guitar output from the guitar. When you jacked it up by 12 dB, the amp tried to suck more current through the power transformer and it just fried. But it sounded great for about 15 or 20 minutes! [Laughs.] At about that same time, I did a Strat-o-Blaster in Lowell George’s Strat. So that whole Waiting for Columbus live album by Little Feat—that’s all Lowell with his Strat cranked way past 11.”

Turner left Alembic in 1978 with many lessons learned. “Alembic electric guitars were noted for being too clean and sterile sounding,” he notes. “And it was often attributed to the electronics. I came to the conclusion that it was not the electronics— it was the way the guitars were made. The very stiff neckthrough- body construction, with a primarily maple and purpleheart neck, didn’t allow enough warmth and body to come in.”

Given his involvement with the legendary acid-trip rock band of the flower power era (and of all time), as well as the freewheeling, “free love” reputation of the scene it dominated, one could easily assume Turner sort of stumbled onto the recipes that his highcaliber instruments and electronics are known for. Nothing could be further from the truth. He studied acoustics and the science of sound extensively, and even took Don Davis’s famed Synergetic Audio Concepts (aka “SynAudCon”) class. He also learned invaluable lessons from his association with Wickersham (whom he calls “a genius”), John Curl—who remains on the cutting age of audio design—and Dead live sound mixer Owsley “Bear” Stanley. In fact, the lessons garnered from this time with Alembic and the Rumours sessions with Buckingham were crucial to Turner’s development of the Model 1.

“Based on talks with Lindsey, and also the general criticism of Alembic guitars, I started thinking very deliberately,” says Turner. “I said, ‘Okay, what I’ve got to do is climb down off this branch of the tree and get down on the ground and look around for another tree to go up, in terms of guitar design.’ I went to a set-neck guitar with a mahogany body to try to get the best of both worlds. I wanted more of that clarity from the body, because I had played that hybrid SG and didn’t like its whippy neck. I also thought the SG was fabulous within about a one-octave range, so I wanted to extend that range. The choice of an arched top and back was very deliberate. I really thought about every aspect of the instrument. And then I showed Lindsey the blueprints and he said, ‘Oh, you know, I’d get one of these. I’d like the first one.’ And then Alembic blew up on me. Part of the settlement was that I left with the design.”


Few get to see the beauty of the Model 1’s backside
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