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May 2014

Rick Turner: The Father of Boutique Guitars

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Rick Turner: The Father of Boutique Guitars

Acoustic Roots Electrified, Then Unplugged
The Model 1 blueprint, which sits high on a wall above a workbench in Turner’s factory, is torn on one side and looks deceptively simple. Asked if trial and error were part of the process when going from blueprint to the first Model 1 sent to Buckingham, Turner says, “I knew what I was going to make. I knew what it was going to sound like. I got the first one made and plugged it in, and it was exactly what I had thought it would be. And that was the guitar that really showed me that I could design from scratch and know what the results were going to be—sonically, as well as aesthetically. It was a turning point for me in gaining confidence as a designer.”

Although its forward-thinking features revolutionized the electricguitar universe, the Model 1 was inspired by designs from way back in the history of 6-string luthiery. “I had this Stauffer guitar from 1820s Vienna—[Johann Georg] Stauffer was the guy who taught C.F. Martin how to build guitars,” Turner explains. “The Model 1 is basically a Stauffer with a cutaway and slight modifications.”

With those roots, as well as the soundhole look of its unique, rotating pickup assembly, it’s not surprising that most people think the Model 1 is hollow. “But it isn’t,” Turner says. “It’s a solidbody. I wanted a mahogany body that would give it warmth like the original Les Paul Custom, the ‘Black Beauty’—which is all mahogany and doesn’t have the maple cap. I was looking for the warmth and sustaining quality of the mahogany and the clarity of the Strat.”

However, considering the Model 1’s rather petite outline, what is somewhat surprising is that the guitar is on the heavy side—but that seems to lend it a resonance and character beyond most traditional electrics. “That’s the combination of the mahogany and the maple and purpleheart neck,” says Turner, who also attributes those properties to the relatively wideband humbucker and its ability to remain remarkably clear. “Then you throw in the EQ, which lets you do some really trick things with amp voicings—you know, tickle the tubes with a nice midrange boost.”

These days, Turner manufactures Model 1 electronics in his shop and at D-TAR, the company he founded with Seymour Duncan. The first Model 1’s electronics— which were basically a single channel of parametric EQ without a bandwidth control—were made by Jim Furman. When Turner worked at Alembic, their guitars had similar features but never quite realized their tonal potential, whereas his Model 1 capitalized on an impeccable blend of excellent woodworking, playability, electronics, and, most importantly, tone.

“I kind of like a challenge, so part of the exercise with the Model 1 was seeing how far I could take a singlepickup instrument. It had a frequency sweep control, and then boost and cut, and then EQ in and EQ out, and Volume and Tone. So it had Volume and passive Tone and an EQ section.”

Naturally, the electronics have evolved over the years. Considering its creator, how could they not? Turner expanded the versatility of the rotating humbucker by adding a piezo pickup and updated electronics that allow you to split the magnetic pickup or bypass the onboard EQ. Turner is also developing a more affordable model without the piezo and EQ circuit.


A Turner Model 1 waiting to be finished

Back to His Roots
After turning the electric-guitar universe inside out, Turner’s next logical move was back to his acoustic beginnings. And his purposes there stemmed from a similar dissatisfaction with amplified acoustic tone. Some audio engineers have a hard time listening to music on the radio because of the poor processing and mixing common to commercial music. Turner has similar issues with recordings of acoustic guitars. “Very often, amplified acoustics drive me crazy! God bless him, but I think Dave Matthews sounds like shit! That ultra-quacky piezo sound is not something I like.”

Turner’s issues with piezos in acoustic instruments is what pushed him to form an alliance with Duncan and develop the D-TAR Wavelength, which uses modeling technology, a piezo pickup, a condenser mic, and an 18-volt preamp. Duncan’s VP of engineering, Kevin Beller, helped Turner figure out what he didn’t like about piezos on acoustics.

“I was hearing piezo quack as being very fast clipping,” Turner says. “Well, we finally got to measure it, and Kevin started doing some ball-bearing drops—just dropping a ball bearing through a tube, down a foot, and onto a piezo pickup. And he was getting spikes of 100 volts out of the pickup. When you lay into the strings, you get that very first spike. Under a bridge—under a load—you’re not going to get 100 volts, but you’re going to get more than the nine volts that are available from the preamp. It clips. And a lot of the quack is the recovery of the preamp from that hit. By going to an 18-volt system, you clean things up tremendously.

“The other issue with undersaddle pickups is that, compared to an acoustic guitar, they are relatively phase-coherent,” Turner continues. “But the sound of an acoustic guitar is phase incoherent. It’s all screwed up, because it takes time for the frequencies to propagate out into a top and release into the acoustic field—and it takes different amounts of time for different frequencies. And then you’ve got the low sound coming out of the soundhole, which is also phase incorrect. So what we have come to love is the phase incoherency of acoustic instruments. With a piezo, you’re so close to the string that you’re actually intercepting the vibration before it gets to the guitar. One of the reasons that the piezo sound is so in-your-face is because the highs are coming at you too fast. So one reason we went to digital modeling was to selectively slow down different frequencies based on these complex algorithms. You can get all theoretical about it and say, ‘Oh, the theory about it is wrong,’ but all I care about is my ears. I like the theory to understand what my ears are hearing, but I don’t want to study the theory to tell my ears what to hear.”

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