Magnatone Giveawya

September 2014

Rick Turner: The Father of Boutique Guitars

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Rick Turner: The Father of Boutique Guitars
Not every guitar player recognizes Rick Turner’s name, but one could argue that every guitar player should know it. Many consider him the father of boutique guitar building because of the Model 1 guitar he built for Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham in the mid ’70s. Although he’s also known for his time at Alembic Inc., the brief period he spent at Gibson (before he “ran afoul of corporate politics”), and the three boutique guitar companies he runs today—Renaissance Guitars, Compass Rose Guitars, and Rick Turner Guitars—Turner’s Model 1 is what started it all.

Although some of its features are fairly commonplace on modern electrics, the Model 1’s advanced EQ, custom rotating humbucker (which had fewer windings and a wider frequency response than most pickups of the day), and onboard preamp blazed a trail that led the way to countless advances we take for granted today. Let’s take a look at the journey that led Turner to his place at the head of the boutiqueguitar family tree.

Turner’s Musical Beginnings
Turner moved with his beloved Martin D-28 and Epiphone Howard Roberts from Massachusetts to New York City in 1966. He started playing coffeehouses in Greenwich Village and in Boston with Lowell “Banana” Levinger and Jerry Corbitt (who, with Jesse Colin Young, went on to form the Youngbloods). He had already spent time touring with the folk duo Ian and Sylvia, and had also worked with musicianturned- producer Felix Pappalardi (often referred to as “the fourth member of Cream”). Turner’s musical interests continued to evolve, and by the end of the decade he was in the psychedelic band Autosalvage. They opened for Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, and their album got great reviews in Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. Not that it mattered.

“We quit before we got those reviews!” Turner laughs. “We were way ahead of Spinal Tap, man. And the best gig we ever did was with a band called the Children of Paradise that had Artie Traum and Happy Traum in it. It was at a mental institution on Halloween!”

At the same time, Turner was also earning a little cash doing guitar repair. “I apprenticed in ’63 for a couple of guys in Boston.


Rick Turner says his famous Model 1 design is “basically an [1820s] Stauffer with a cutaway and slight modifications.” This Johann Georg Stauffer “terz” guitar was made sometime in the 1820s at the Stauffer factory in Vienna, Austria—the same factory where C.F. Martin Sr. apprenticed before moving to America. Terz models had a shorter string length and were intended to be tuned a minor-third above standard pitch. This Luigi Legnani model is named after the Stauffer endorsee, who also happened to be the most famous guitarist of the period. Photo courtesy of C.F. Martin Archives
One of them, Stan Stansky, had been a cabinetmaker and didn’t know much about guitars, but he had good woodworking skills. And the other guy, Don Gadbois, was a really good jazz guitar player who knew a lot about guitars but didn’t have much in the woodworking department.

“I learned luthiery primitive from these guys,” Turner continues. “When I look back at the way we did things, I’m in shock. I mean, it was just horrendous. Those were the dark ages of American small-shop luthiery and guitar repair. Nobody knew anything outside of the factories— nobody knew Jack Diddley squat. A few classical builders were starting to do things, and I knew a few people just starting to try to build acoustic guitars. We who got into it in the early to mid ’60s were really on our own in terms of ‘How do you do this?’ and ‘How do you do that?’ Some of the repair techniques were utterly brutal. We didn’t know about steaming necks off for doing neck resets, we just slammed them out!”

Despite the fact that Autosalvage broke up, the band still played a role in Turner’s guitar- building future. “This guy who was a fan of our band brought me these pieces—an SG neck, a completely smashed SG body, and the pickup harness—and said, ‘Here, you want this? Seventy-five bucks,’” Turner recalls. “I said, ‘sure.’ So I had the neck and the wrecked body. I did this body shape that made it symmetrical and took the design to this cabinet shop on Broadway and Bleecker. They cut it out for me in mahogany, and I took it home and hacked away and veneered the back of it with walnut. Jerry Garcia wound up buying that guitar and used it on the Grateful Dead’s “Skull and Roses” album. That’s the guitar— and it has disappeared. Nobody knows where it is.”

Asked what inspired him to buy 75 bucks’ worth of broken guitar, Turner answers simply, “I wanted to build my own guitar, you know? By that time I had been doing guitar repair for four years or so, so I had the chops. In fact, in New York, when I was broke and needed to pick up a few bucks, I would go down to Dan Armstrong’s shop and say, ‘Dan, you got anything for me to do?’ And he would always toss me a fret job or have me glue a bridge on a Martin and pick up 10 or 15 bucks.”

Turner ended up moving to Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and more or less joined the Grateful Dead family. He did an inlay job on one of Phil Lesh’s basses and made a few custom pickups for the band. “In 1968 or ’69, where did you buy pickups? You could get DeArmonds and that was about it. You couldn’t buy Gibson pickups or Fender pickups. Dan Armstrong started making pickups under the tutelage of Bill Lawrence, and I thought, ‘Well, this is just a little cord with a little wire and some magnets—duh!’ And so I started literally handwinding my own pickups, counting the windings by hand. I brought them out to the Dead’s warehouse and showed Ron Wickersham, who had figured out how to measure the frequency response in the pickups. This was when nobody knew anything about what was really going on. The stuff that we take for granted now, we had to invent and figure out.”
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