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How many guitars did you end up building for him?
I wound up making him four guitars over that 10-year period. I’d make him one and he’d play it a year or two, and then I’d entice him with something else, maybe a little more trim or abalone, and he’d say, “Yeah—I’d like to have one of those!” So I’d make him another one, and then I’d trade him. Now I’ve got two guitars that Chet Atkins used to own and play, and I’ve got lots of pictures of him playing them, so they’re kind of my retirement. Probably my kids will sell them at my funeral.
That must have been a huge boost for your business.
In the ’90s I made 300 NSE guitars, maybe a few more. I’m 61 now, so that was a good decade for me. I was buried with orders because of Chet. But I’m sure glad it was an instrument that I loved, because I wouldn’t want to have made 300 banjos during that time.
You made a 7-string guitar for Lenny Breau back in 1983, and that was kind of unheard of.
What were some of the challenges of designing the 7-string?
Well, in order to get the seventh string tuned up to a high A, we had to really experiment with the scale length, because there isn’t a string available that could tune up to the high A without breaking. So I shortened the scale length quite a bit. I experimented using a capo on the guitar and restringing it, moving the capo around and changing the gauge of the string to find just that certain scale length and string gauge that made the first string feel like it was the same tension as the other treble strings. The guitar had a 22 ¾"-scale length, which is very short. And the string was an .008, which is not all that thin, really. I think Lenny even used a .009 at times. The high A actually worked quite well.
What were some of the other distinguishing characteristics of that 7-string?
It was a classical guitar shape, and I incorporated a really deep cutaway. And Lenny wanted it heavy. It was solid mahogany. That thing weighed a ton. He wanted it to sustain—that was a big part of his sound. He’d do those harmonics and they’d just keep ringing like a bell, so he really liked the fact that the guitar was heavy and had the sustain it did.
What sorts of electronics did it have?
Seymour Duncan made custom pickups for it. There were no 7-string pickups at that time. The string spacing was the same as a classical guitar, and the pickups had to be fabricated so the pole pieces were directly under each string. Lenny also wanted those roller knobs that are turned sideways, like on a Fender Jazzmaster. Actually, I used Jazzmaster controls. Lenny would reach down to that volume control and move it back and forth to get a tremolo sound.