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more... GearBuilder ProfileOctober 2008Ren Ferguson

Big Sky Builder


Big Sky Builder
Ren’s sketches for the ebony bridge of the Pirates J-200

He recalls the intense labor he put into the “Pirates of the Caribbean” J-200, which was built for Johnny Depp in honor of the movie, which Ren admits he was slightly obsessed with. That obsession came about from a line in the movie, where Depp is marooned on an island and begins reminiscing about his ship. Depp says, “A ship is more than a keel, a hull, a deck and sails – what it is is freedom.” The line struck a chord with Ferguson, who believes that a guitar is more than just spruce, mahogany and some lacquer; it is also freedom.

Ren’s son, Matt, played a band with some folks from Disney and began talking about the guitar his dad was designing – this led to visits to the set of the movie for Ren. Photos of Depp on the fantail of the ship were supplied by Disney and were eventually carved into the guitar’s ebony bridge. Coins were procured for the fret inlays. The guitar was made from close-grained spruce and quilted maple and finished in a shade of purple that was transparent, but had veils of opacity as well. The finished guitar was purchased by Disney for an undisclosed sum – it is reportedly valued at $100,000.

Most of the “Master Museum” collection – his most valuable and collectible creations – is comprised of J-200 body styles. It’s a model that has had a special place in Ferguson’s heart for a number of years, since he ordered a Gibson J-200 from the music store he worked at in Westchester, California. “It didn’t come in for over a year,” he recalls. “I ordered a sunburst and the guitar came in pasty white.”

The Plant
Big Sky Builder
Ren Talks Wood
We asked Ren about the woods he prefers building guitars with; he told us his ear prefers the sound of red spruce and Brazillian rosewood. However, considering there will be no more Brazillian rosewood guitars coming out of Gibson, due to the company’s new focus on preserving endangered woods, he has been forced to develop some good-sounding alternatives. We asked Ren to tell us how he approaches three of the most popular types of woods, and what he typically hears in guitars built with them.

“It’s friendly – it holds on to the chorus notes really well and gives you this back-filled sound. If you pick with your fingers, you can get great clarity. Ragtime and blues can be played on mahogany and sound perfect.”

“It seems to sound a little bit darker. Rosewood is harder to set in motion – the reflective sound and energy required to set it in motion are a little more substantial. Rosewood has a richer tone than mahogany, a more enduring sustain and a sweetness, but perhaps not excitement of a mahogany instrument.”

“Maple is clean and clear and holds the midrange incredibly well. It projects really well. Maple may not have the sustain of rosewood or the “party” sound of mahogany, but maple may project more or seem louder than any of the other woods. Eastern U.S. maple tends to be a bit denser or harder than its western counterpart; quilted maple is the softest of the lot. You will get more punch from the eastern flame woods, but more warmth from the western variety.”
There’s a dedication to the Boseman plant that few companies can match. At one point Henry contemplated moving the operation back to Nashville, and the staff at the plant said they would be happy to load up the equipment and wave it goodbye. It seems that, in spite of the cold, long winters, Montana and its scenery have gotten under the skin of its natives. “We have nine months of winter here and three months of relatives,” Ren says fondly. “The unemployment rate in Bozeman is at 3.2 percent, so getting new workers takes a while, but few workers leave the plant because guitar making is in their blood.” Of the approximately 100 employees in Bozeman, about half of them play the guitar and about 25 percent of them do so with serious intent. Ren boasts that Robi Johns, the director of sales at Bozeman, is one of the best classical guitarists he has ever heard.

The Bozeman factory is located on a street conspicuously named Orville Way, and is nestled in a pristine valley situated between the Gallatin Range and the Bridger Range, named after mountain man, Jim Bridger. Bozeman is a relatively small town of approximately 30,000 inhabitants. According to Cindy Andrus of the Bozeman Convention and Visitors Bureau, “Bozeman is not easy to describe to someone who has never been here before. It is one of the most diverse small towns in the Western Rockies. It is blessed with an eclectic mix of ranchers, artists, professors, ski enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, all of whom are drawn here by world class recreation, Montana University and a slice of old fashioned Americana. There are hundreds of scenic vistas nearby and Bozeman is a mere 90 miles from Yellowstone; all in all, the area lures visitors from around the world.”

It’s definitely an environment that inspires creativity. Many, if not all, of the new models coming out of the Bozeman plant are Ren’s designs, including the Songwriter series, the Doves in Flight, the J-2000 and the Monarch; they all have their beginnings in his imagination. There’s really no limit to the lengths Ren will go to develop the perfect design. He went as far as packing several models of Gibsons, Martins and Taylors full with wheat to measure the volume of each instrument and to determine the best “recipe” for the production of each of the limited vintage reproduction Gibsons he was making. In his quest for the best sound he has determined that all Gibson flattops have had an inherent 28-foot radius, or parabolic convex shape, incorporated into the top. This keeps the pent-up energy countersprung so when the strings are plucked the sound is immediate and forceful.

When asked how he gets his ideas and inspiration for his gorgeous inlay work, he responds, “I am a great thief!” Having gotten ideas from coffee cups, wallpaper and clouds in the sky, he steals them all. He has always seen things that others have missed. He recalls waiting in the doctor’s office and seeing patterns in the linoleum, in the carpeting. As a kid he was always whittling a neckerchief slide or making a Jiminy Cricket out of oldstyle clothespins. “I have always seen things that weren’t there to be seen,” Ren says.

Although he does enjoy making fine, high-end instruments like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" guitar, he says his favorite guitar is the next one he is getting ready to build.

As time has passed, Henry Juszkiewicz has realized what a golden goose he has in Ferguson. Having consistently made good products out of something as variable as wood, Ren has been given the unprecedented opportunity to remake any and all models of the acoustic guitars produced at the Bozeman plant. A recent production of Hummingbirds made with fine quilted maple is just one example of the freedom afforded to Ren. When Gibson is considering a reissue, they will get numerous examples of a certain guitar and compare them extensively; they will then pick the instrument that has the best tone, feel or “mojo” of all the examples.

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