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TOP: The Dagmar Custom Guitars Vicky model. BOTTOM LEFT: The crown from the Vicky tailpiece is a nod to Queen’s University’s role in developing photonic pickup technology on the guitar. BOTTOM MIDDLE: Vicky’s headstock. BOTTOM RIGHT: Custom lightning bolt inlays on the Vicky model. Photos courtesy of Queen’s University
Mark Trokanski had just decided he was done acquiring guitars when he came across a photo from the Montreal Guitar show that stopped him dead in his tracks. He saw four archtops with completely rounded edges and lightning-bolt soundholes, two of which featured a checkerboard pattern around the curved rims. These instruments sat atop a table labeled “Pete Swanson.”
These guitars were so visually striking that Trokanski ceased reading entirely and simply stared at the instruments, which were unlike anything he’d seen, yet somehow seemed familiar. A 25-year guitar collector and medical researcher, Trokanski already had at least 20 guitars, but he’d never had one made specifically for him from scratch, and the idea of commissioning a piece of playable artwork was too intriguing to ignore.
As days went by and he was unable to put the novice luthier out of his mind, he drafted a letter of introduction and began inquiring about the work. And so commenced a months-long courtship (as they both now describe it) between the builder and collector.
“We were sussing each other out,” says Trokanski, “because the relationship between the luthier and the player is an interesting one. This is someone who you’re going to trust to turn your vision into reality.”
For some reason, Trokanski had absolute faith and trust in the newcomer from the get-go, and after a few communications, things took an abrupt turn. “It was very surreal,” Swanson admits. “All of a sudden Mark said, ‘Okay, I want to move forward, so what do we do next?’”
Perhaps Trokanski was taking a risk. After all, at this point the Canadian builder had made only six guitars and was a novice in the guitar world. But he had a knack for using mathematical calculations to determine how to manipulate wood—a skill he’d developed in the early 2000s building interiors for yachts. It seems Swanson’s background was the perfect storm: Before taking on woodworking, he was a graphic artist, and what he learned about drafting sketches or 3-D rendering, he now applies to his guitar designs.
Dagmar’s Working Girl guitar has blonde flame maple in the houndstooth binding alternating with a black epoxy dust mixture, which luthier Pete Swanson calls “reclaimed wood.“
Yet to understand the genesis of Dagmar Custom Guitars, says Swanson, you have to go back to the weeks leading up to his daughter’s 16th birthday. A friend of his had been cleaning out his garage and was looking to unload a ’60s Canadian bicycle. Swanson saw an opportunity to salvage it and create a one-of-a-kind birthday gift, and with visions of hot rods dancing in his head, he brought the bike home and started tinkering.
“I made a wooden tank and a checkerboard dial for the frame,” he says, “and then when I started to adorn the bike, I thought it would be really cool to do matching fenders.” But he had never made bike fenders before, and wasn’t quite sure how he was going to do it. Almost the very next day at work, Swanson observed a coworker experimenting with an urn to hold the cremains of their boss’ recently deceased father.
“He was taking thin strips of wood cut to specific angles on each side,” Swanson explains, “and at the end of the day he had this octagon-shaped vessel. He then rounded the corners with a belt sander and it became this smooth vase. That night I woke up with a eureka moment thinking about how I could build the fenders by using his technique.”
Dagmar Custom Guitars team of collaborators at the Montreal Guitar Show, from left to right: Mark Kett, Mike McAvan, Denise Trokanski, Mark Trokanski, luthier Pete Swanson, Annette Swanson (Pete’s wife), and Ian Belknap.
Lo and behold, it worked, but Swanson didn’t stop there. Always an innovator, he decided to further experiment, creating a ducktail fender using the same process. “As soon as I realized I could reverse the curve,” he says, “I immediately thought of a guitar.”
A Guitar Is Born
Swanson started to mentally map out what would be his prototype guitar. Around the same time, he enrolled in a business class at a local college with intentions of debuting his own brand of custom one-off guitars. He registered his new company’s name, Dagmar Custom Guitars, in August 2008.
Swanson named his enterprise after Dagmar, a 1950s starlet whose real name was Jennie Ruthy Lewis. Dagmar was curvy—much like Swanson’s designs—and although she usually played stereotypical “dumb blonde” roles, she was revered for her intelligence and wit. Swanson’s affinity for hot rods and all things beautiful made “Dagmar” an obvious choice. In the 1950s, the term emerged as a slang word for bullet-shaped Cadillac bumpers, a nod to the rocket bra made popular by Lewis on various American television shows. (In 1951, Dagmar was featured in her trademark costume on the cover of Life magazine, and during the Korean war a self-propelled anti-aircraft tank was dubbed Dagmar’s Twin 40s in her honor.)
Swanson calls his first guitar (named Ruthy) “fairly simple,” despite the revolutionary process he used to build it. Like all of his designs, the outside is completely round, and the inside parabolic and smooth. The sides are put together with more than 80 pie-shaped segments—think keystones in Roman arches. When the “keystones” are bonded together they form the guitar shape.
“When you add compound curves to a structure,” says Swanson, “the result is a tremendous increase in strength. My guitars do not depend on the top and back plates to counteract the 150 pounds of tension created by the strings.” Essentially, the top and back of the instrument suffer less stress and are freer to vibrate.
Swanson shapes the guitar’s curvaceous body by hand using digital calipers to ensure the thickness stays consistent. To increase sustain, he graduates the thickness in spots, leaving more mass near the neck and fading thinner and thinner near the waist. The inside is laminated with carbon fiber, making the entire structure rigid, yet lightweight. The result is a focused, punchy sound that Swanson and Trokanski compare to an amphitheater effect.
So far, all of Swanson’s necks have been bolt-on, and he says they weather better than others due to increased stability from nine laminations and a carbon-fiber fitting that acts as a small sleeve. It’s epoxy-bonded into the body and fits the neck heel and tenon. A single bolt goes through the neck block and is tightened with an Allen key. Then a thick heel cap is doweled and epoxy-bonded to the body to extend the neck joint. There’s also a small bolt that goes through the heel cap and into the neck heel, which serves as an anchor.