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Which components are outsourced?
I outsource hardware and electronic components, such as tuning keys, pickups, and electronic switches. Oh, and cases. In the future, I will be machining more of my own hardware. But all of the woodworking is done in-house and always will be.
How do you go about selecting and mating pickups for your guitars?
That really depends on the design and tonal goals of the project, but my clients tend to drive this decision based on what they want from the guitar. I am fortunate that we have Jason Lollar nearby. I use his pickups in most of my guitars because they are well made and they bring out the nuances of my guitars quite well. His ability to nail a custom design is uncanny. If I have a selection I need to choose from, I use my ears.
How has your approach to building guitars evolved or changed over the years?
My approach has always been experimental, and that has allowed me to explore construction concepts and theories that are unorthodox and somewhat radical. I also get to design and build some pretty out-there stuff. I still believe the guitar is an acoustic instrument, and this has shaped the way I design and work. But my craft continues to evolve due to the fact that I am constantly learning about what makes a great guitar. What I’m building today I feel is light-years ahead of where I started. I hope to look back in five years and think the same thing about today.
What do you consider to be your most unorthodox and radical theories and approaches?
From a theoretical perspective, I do not differentiate between acoustics and electrics. I see them at opposite ends of the same spectrum. The concept of a solidbody acoustic allows me to incorporate ideas from both ends of the spectrum. Without giving too much away, I will say that I have developed acoustic designs that allow characteristics of a solidbody to shine through, and vice versa. The design and construction techniques play out more in my semi- and full-hollowbody and acoustic-style guitars, which are much more complex structurally. Being self-taught, I design bracing systems to fit the design I am working with. So the “out-there” construction concepts relate to blocking and tonal-structural bracing designs that are very different than the typical X- and parallel-bracing systems employed by the vast majority of guitars today, both acoustic and electric. Just take a look at the Flaretone design or my Hollow Dragon to see some of these concepts at work.
I understand you burned a guitar you deemed a “tonal dud.” Others might have passed it off as a factory second.
The guitar that I burned was a simple case of catharsis. It was a very early guitar for me—my seventh—and I was exploring the concept of solidbody acoustics. I was looking for the sweet spot, in terms of chambering depth as it relates to the overall resonance. Well, I found it and proceeded to pass it by rather quickly. I routed away too much vital wood and the guitar lacked the vibrancy and liveliness my other guitars had. It sat for two years before I finally got tired of thinking of ways to fix it. So to get it out of my mind, I got together with another builder who also had a problem guitar, and we took them out back and had a burning.
What amps do you use for testing guitars?
I use a Siegmund Midnight Special, which I like because it brings out the acoustic qualities of electric guitars. It gives me insight into how the small choices add up in the finished instruments.
Tell us about your full-access, heelless acoustic neck joint.
The full-access neck heel is the most amazing neck joint ever, what else do you need to know? Seriously, this neck joint came out of a year-long design concept to bring electric guitar playability to the acoustic realm. The prototype design was built into a 3"-thick guitar body, and it has the best neck access of anything I have ever built, solidbodies included. I only wish it wasn’t so time consuming to construct. But the success of the design makes it worthwhile, as there are a number of benefits over a traditional acoustic neck joint. Because of the solid coupling, the notes have consistent tone and resonance all the way up to the last fret. Also, the neck geometry is stabilized to an extent that it should never need a neck reset.
What’s in store for you in the future?
Full-sized acoustics with full-access neck heels, of course! It is the culmination of my quest for the perfect acoustic guitar for electric players. And, yes, there will be archtops with the new heel design or some variation. Also, in the next few months I will be introducing an exciting new series of guitars featuring the Skyway tremolo.
What is it about the Skyway that excited you enough to design a whole series around it?
The Skyway takes a new approach to the tremolo that results in a near-frictionless system, with direct acoustic coupling to the body. This results in a trem that has the tuning stability and tone transfer of a hardtail bridge. It is quite incredible actually. In addition, they are very lightwieght, which makes them attractive to me for unconventional usage. I can’t say too much more about the new designs right now except that they will be unique in the marketplace.
Tell us about some of your benchmark guitars.
The first benchmark guitar for me was my own personal solidbody, serial #001. This was the first electric guitar where I deliberately applied all of the acoustic principles I had learned from Harry Fleishman. The result was an electric guitar that had amazing depth, clarity, and a complexity—or, better yet, a musicality—that my instruments had never had before. I realized I was onto something when I got a comment at a guitar show from a gentleman who said he never liked electric guitars before, but found mine to be very musical. The next benchmark is the Dragonfly design, starting with #015. This guitar blended the framework of an electric guitar with an archtop to produce an acoustically rich, electric-fusion guitar. It is still my most popular model and one of the most flexible, in terms of tonal variety and design. I have built several versions with different levels of hollowness, and each one is a successful design in its own right. The Falcon #066 and the Hollow Dragon #082 both follow in this series, as the design becomes more acoustic in nature, yet remains firmly rooted in electric guitar.
Which guitars are personal favorites?
A while back, I built an all-Madagascar-rosewood electric that was just amazing. That guitar could do anything, and it was beautiful and smelled so good! Recently, I built a fantastic Dragonfly (#092) that’s simply stunning. The tones were beautiful and the guitar just felt so good to play. But my true favorite is always the one I’m going to build next—it’s an obsession.
Do you ever have a hard time letting go of a guitar?
Oh yeah, it can be tough. I sometimes wish I could keep one for myself. But my chosen path is to provide the tools. The best thing is to hear the music played with these instruments. That makes it worthwhile.