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George Downing got his start in lutherie when he found a “crappy” Les Paul copy in a trash heap and kept working on it until he got it to work right. Though essentially self-taught, Downing’s father had some experience building banjos, so the budding luthier was able to pick his brain and use the shop in the family’s basement.
Downing has a very unique building style and methodology, drawing inspiration from nature in the surrounding hills of central Tennessee. His approach to guitar building is to keep his designs and methods as simple as possible, make use of locally harvested timber and salvaged materials, and put the emphasis on the inherent beauty of the wood. Some of the salvaged materials come from old barns, fences, and other structures with weather-worn surfaces, saw marks, and nail holes—giving his instruments their distinctive degree of organic, visual interest. Most every guitar Downing creates makes use of recycled wood and he has plans to incorporate much more in the future. Up to now, he has only been using recycled wood for the bodies, but is working on ways to incorporate it for necks. “I’m really picky about what I use in necks, and most of the wood I find in barns is pretty funky,” explains Downing.
Beyond the benefit of the minimal impact on the ecosystem in using salvaged materials, Downing believes there is often too much emphasis placed on the use of exotic woods. “I don’t believe in tonewood,” says Downing. “I used to worry about how these guitars would sound, but the results have spoken for themselves. Tropical woods are very different from American woods, and I will concede that they may produce different sounding guitars, but ‘better’ is completely subjective. I sometimes get frustrated by the limited palette I have confined myself to, but ultimately it forces me to get more creative.”
Pricing and Availability
The turnaround time for a typical, custom order for a Dismal Ax guitar is normally six to eight weeks. Prices currently run from $1500 to $2800, but Downing will be expanding that range in the near future with a line of semi-hollow, carved-top instruments with bent sides for upwards of $3600, as well as some simpler, more affordable guitars as low as $1000. Downing builds approximately 15-20 instruments per year, but plans to double that number soon. Customers are able to order directly through Dismal Ax, or through Destroy All Guitars. Guitars are also available from time to time in various San Francisco Bay Area shops.
The Muleskinner SC
The Muleskinner SC (single-cutaway) models have a 25.5" scale, bolt-on neck with 22 frets, an inline headstock, and choice of a basic slab, rafter, or barn-wood-topped body. This Muleskinner has a yellow-poplar body, a black-locust fretboard, and is loaded with Bare Knuckle Blackguard Flat ’50 pickups. The Tele-style Muleskinner SC models are available with either TonePros Kluson or Gotoh tuners, and a black or brown Bakelite pickguard.
The Muleskinner DC
All guitars in the Muleskinner series are meant to be plain, simple, utilitarian instruments. The Muleskinner DC (double cutaway) models are 25"-scale guitars with a solid or laminated set-neck and angled headstock. The DC model shown has a weathered-beech, barn-wood top and boasts custom options including a tailpiece made from a cast-iron drawer pull, a rusted roof-tin pickguard, and control knobs fashioned from deer antlers.
The Barncat is a blend of Downing’s Barnstormer and Muleskinner models, and includes an optional Bigsby B5 vibrato. This particular Barncat utilizes oak barn wood for the top, a back fashioned from cucumber-tree wood, and has a maple neck topped with a mesquite fretboard. A Rio Grande Bluesbar/ Jazzbar pickup set, Hipshot Grip-Lock tuners, and a Wilkinson roller bridge round out the appointments for this 25” scale, 22-fret guitar.
The Barnstormer SC
The Barnstormer SC is Downing’s main production guitar and the series features bodies built from sections of 2x4 or 2x6 rafters, which can be hollowed out to reduce weight. The Seymour Duncan Jazz/JB-equipped model shown is fashioned from popular rafters, but beech, oak, maple, tupelo, and elm are also available as wood options. Original saw marks are left showing, and lightly sanded to accentuate them. The necks are either one-piece or laminated, and attached to the body with a full-width mortise and tenon joint.
The Redbird started out as a red cedar Tele-style guitar, but has been redesigned with a look similar to the Barnstormer SC. The pictured guitar is a single-cutaway version with three Kent Armstrong single-coils atop embossed-copper pickup mounts, though the standard Redbird is loaded with a pair of humbuckers. A primary feature of the Redbird series is the use of Eastern red cedar—a light, soft wood containing plenty of knots, sapwood streaks, dry rot, bark inclusions, and other proudly displayed visual treasures. Downing donates 25 percent of the sale of any Redbird guitar to charitable causes.
The Road Dog
Primarily using the shape of the Muleskinner series, the Road Dog guitars are custom-order instruments with the striking visual feature of a discarded, automobile license plate for the pickguard. The shown “Bearcaster” is constructed of salvaged, yellow-pine beadboard, outfi tted with Allparts humbuckers, and features Daka-Ware knobs topped with vintage bottle-caps, as well as a tailpiece constructed from an iron strap-hinge. The 1945 Pennsylvania license plate represents the year and state of the customer’s birth.