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Although you’ve made a mark with totally unique designs, do you
ever miss making more straight-ahead instruments—and would
you ever go back? And what about basses—will you ever make any?
I see my work as an oeuvre to be completed once. So there are periods to go through. I’ve left the common guitar behind me at this point, and I know I will never turn back. All of my former models are history—I even threw away all the leftover bodies and necks of my Dr. Mabuse series from the ’80s when I first put my workshop in order. But there are some things I miss from that period. For instance, polishing the varnish when you’re doing a glossy finish. Each of my current models is painted in a soft-feeling matte finish. I did this to create a design identity, but in the future I will probably work with glossy finishes again.
For the same reason—to create an identity—I stopped making basses when I started with the Birdfish series. I was afraid that basses would dilute my work. In my eyes, there is no way to succeed in building guitars and basses at the same time unless you’re Leo Fender or one of the companies building generic guitars or modernized Fender-based instruments, like all the major companies now. Honestly, do you really appreciate a PRS bass or an Alembic guitar? I built about 30 basses in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but I haven’t picked it up since then.
On your website you talk about that transition away from
building traditional instruments. “I was dissatisfied with my
guitar work … I had been looking for a wider challenge, which
I couldn’t find in the realm of traditional guitar building …
[from] my study, I learned to look at my guitar work from a distance.”
What did you mean by that?
If you are concerned with your everyday work, you won’t see the whole picture. I interrupted my guitar-building work while I studied design and became concerned with a different approach to creating things. The common way is to imitate existing things with some modifications and maybe some improvements. The other way is to go back where it really starts and to put things together in a new way. This is what I did after the study.
Can you briefly describe the genesis of each of your three main
The Birdfish is a guitar that follows Leo Fender’s principle of designing a disassemble-able guitar that enables you to interchange body timbers and slide-able pickups. The Tesla [Classic] was intended to emphasize the use of guitar defects [hum, microphonic feedback, and a killswitch] that are isolated on the three momentary buttons. The Niwa was intended to be an ergonomic design with more traditional headstock construction.
Why do you work alone, as opposed to having people who specialize
in, say electronics or metalwork?
If you are really interested in how things work, you will become better than any specialist. Just ask Ken Parker. I can’t imagine getting more satisfaction than I do when I’m learning new techniques and skills. It puts me in the position of being able to paint the
All your guitars are dreams to play. The action is low and there
doesn’t seem to be a sharp corner to annoy one’s hands anywhere—
from the nut to the bridge. However, the Tesla guitar
can be a bit of an adjustment: Although its scale length is 25.6",
the bridge is so close to the butt-end of the guitar that it can
feel like you’re missing a couple of inches of guitar neck when
you’re reaching for open-position chords. In addition, fretting
higher on the neck can feel awkward for players who like to feel
their thumb wrap around the other side of the neck. What was
the impetus for these pretty radical ergonomics?
The neck access on the higher frets is much different from a normal neck—you can’t wrap your thumb around—but the tonal benefits from this supported-neck construction made me decide to go for this uncompromising solution. I don’t see my guitars as examples of how guitars should be. Each year, we see maybe six million conventional electric guitars for traditionalists put on the market—plus my 25 unconventional guitars for unconventionalists.
Considering your engineering background and how radical your
designs are—from the shapes to the finish to the pickups and
their housings to things like the Niwa’s recessed tuners—it’s
somewhat surprising that you mostly use stock bridges and tuners.
When I started with the Birdfish in 1995, I used the Tune-o-matic bridge as a ready-made part because I wasn’t able to produce my own bridge at that time. Later, I liked the fact that this bridge kind of connects my guitar with the traditional heritage. The Tesla first had an ABM bridge, but I found that the Tune-o-matic sounded better. It’s interesting that you mention this, though—maybe I should design my own bridge with the same tonal character. Do you think the Tune-o-matic undervalues the spirit of my guitars?
No, I wouldn’t say it undervalues it at all. I was just curious if
you’d thought of designing your own—especially since you’ve
designed and made much smaller components such as screws in
your own shop. That said, I would love to see what you’d come
up with if you did design your own bridge.
Thank you! I’m putting that idea in a corner of my brain where I can retrieve it anytime.