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Builder Profile: Rick Turner on Henman Guitars and the Buddy Holly Guitar Foundation

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Builder Profile: Rick Turner on Henman Guitars and the Buddy Holly Guitar Foundation

Rick Turner, pictured with a partially-finished Henman body, is overseeing production of the boutique brand's new guitars.
While Rick Turner may not be a household name, his contribution to the guitar world has been heard by millions of people across several generations of guitar players. He helped invent the wall-of-sound PA that amplified the long, strange trip of the Grateful Dead. A shattered Gibson SG became, in Rick's hands, one of the first hot-rodded guitars ever created. Turner rebuilt the guitar from top to bottom, not just because it needed it, but because he wanted to push the tone and capabilities of the electric. It later ended up in Jerry Garcia's hands for the Grateful Dead's infamous Skull and Roses live album in 1971. Shortly thereafter, the guitar was never seen again. Rick didn't care, he had already moved on. He has since built instruments for a who's who of guitar heroes including Ry Cooder, John Mayer, Sonny Landreth, and Lindsey Buckingham.

Rick's a busy man, he currently runs three guitar companies—Renaissance Guitars, Rick Turner Guitars, and Compass Rose Guitars. He also co-owns D-Tar along with Seymour Duncan. Together they make high-end, DSP-driven piezo pickups and preamps for acoustics. Rick is also now deeply involved with Henman Guitars, overseeing the production of the boutique electrics that are being built at his shop. The collaboration came about when Henman Guitars designers Graham and Paris Henman parted ways with their original partner and guitar builder, Scotty Bevilacqua [the company was originally Henman-Bevilacqua]. Searching for a new production solution, the duo found Turner. Turner-built Henmans should be available in the early part of 2010. As if that is not enough, Rick Turner also helped establish the Buddy Holly Guitar Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to providing guitar education to youths who otherwise would not have such access.

I recently met Rick at his factory in Santa Cruz, California to discuss his latest projects.

Tell me how you became involved with Henman Guitars.

I met Graham [Henman] at my friend David Neely's guitar repair shop in Hollywood. I just sort of let the word drop that I had a guitar factory and we were operating under capacity, and we that had a CNC machine for the carving of the parts. For instance, this neck is straight off the machine. That's' no hand carving whatsoever, that's right off the machine.

Rick hands me a beautiful, sleek, unfinished neck from a stash under a counter. It's a three-piece laminated Spanish cedar number and even though it needs finish sanding, it feels great. He also shows me one with a heavy-duty truss rod in it that is designed to absorb all the string tension, making the neck little more than something to wrap your hand around while playing. I am not exaggerating when I say every nook and cranny of Rick's factory is packed with similar gems and innovations.

So you just program the machine and...

And design the fixtures to hold the parts. Then, I just let the machine take as much time as it needs to do the job you want it to do. One of the issues when we came into the project was that we had a whole bunch of work in progress. So we've had to try to figure out how to tool up to utilize the work in progress, 'cause there was like four grand worth of fingerboards, and we're not going to not use these ebony finger boards, you know.


A stack of Henman bodies sits fresh off the CNC

Are all the fingerboards for the Henmans ebony?

We do have some rosewood ones, but right now [our focus] is ebony.

How long does it take to make a neck with a CNC machine?

It took me about three days of machine time to carve about 77 necks.

Is that fast? I don't have a benchmark...

That's fast. It's really good and our thing is, I'd rather it take a half an hour more on the machine and cut out 15 minutes worth of hand sanding.

And how long did it take you to set up that machine?

It took a considerable amount of time. It's a considerable investment, Graham [Henman] is paying for the tooling and he has a long view of this.

How many necks do you have to go through before you get it right on the machine?

Three. I've been around the block enough to where I understand how to tool up for this stuff. I'm not a CAD CAM guy myself, but I know enough about production to where I can say, "OK, here's the sequence of events; here are the fixtures that we are going to use; here's how we are going to hold the parts; here's the first operation, so I'm good at that stuff. I'm also at a point in my career where my ego is not on the line. I don't have to build everything of my own design.

You've nothing to prove.

Well, [I like] the idea of working with somebody who is so different in his approach and in his aesthetic and for whom I have very high regard and respect. I'd have never designed these, but I love helping Graham achieve his ideal and throwing my own thing in. For instance, these guitars have back plates on them. So I figured out how to eliminate the back plate. The new guitars, rather than have two huge, [and] frankly, ugly back plates, I've opened up a tunnel and we can drop the electronics in and fish them out. It's kind of like a [Gibson] 335, where we drop things in the pickup hole and the pickups selector switch goes up and through. So we've eliminated parts [and] streamlined the process. I'm designing a circuit board that the pots will be mounted on. So the tone control will be push-pull for single-coil /humbucker mode. Then, if you are on both pickups, it'll hum-cancel. And then you pull out on the volume control and it bypasses the volume and tone control and takes the pickup, the output of the pickups selector switch, direct to the output jack.

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