Modern Builder Vault: Tony Cochran Custom Electric Guitars
Internationally syndicated cartoonist Tony Cochran brings an entirely new meaning to “Frankenstein-ing” a guitar: He produces uniquely over-the-top instruments in his Columbus, Ohio, workshop by giving closet-banished guitars an opportunity for a new life. With a fine arts background and a nod to the work of experimental pop-artist Robert Rauschenberg, Cochran approaches his instruments as functional works of art and no two are alike. In fact, there is probably not one that’s like anything you’ve seen before.
Like Rauschenberg, Cochran incorporates found objects into his work that others may consider as junk. He’ll start out with well-made copies of classic guitars he finds at garage sales, Craigslist, and other various outlets before beginning the modding process. But we’re not necessarily talking about swapping pickups, tuning machines, or other hardware—though he does repair any damaged or worn part to work as it was originally designed. Cochran will find his very unique appointments for the instruments by combing through boxes of junk at unlikely places like church bazaars to Salvation Army stores to garage sales.
Once in his workshop, the guitars are sawed, gutted, routed, and whatever else is needed to accommodate their evolution, along with a number of finish-altering techniques that may or may not involve acid, paint thinner, wax, or something else entirely. “Rare guitars are safe from me. I won’t cut up anything classic or with historical significance,” contends Cochran. “But what isn’t safe is the history of the guitar I’m reimagining. A new look demands a new story.” That’s exactly what happens. Beyond their new aesthetic, each guitar takes on its new life with a much more detailed—and often sordid—past history than it had before.
“The only mod I ever performed on a guitar before this project was painting a Zeppelin logo on my mom’s Danelectro in the ’70s (without her permission),” says Cochran. “She was more into Johnny Cash and Roger Miller, so she made me scrape it off.” But Cochran adds, “I mod everything. I can’t leave anything alone.” And he has—from his lawnmower to a Harley to his truck to a power sprayer. Cochran’s clientele spans the globe and includes musicians, music producers, art collectors, and pop stars—people who “love guitars, love art, and aren’t averse to buying something a little outside the box. Having some disposable income seems to help.” He recently had a couple buy one as their 20th anniversary gift to each other. “Beats a blender!” says the luthier.
The incorporated parts—with names ranging from bird flauters to industrial slooters to pictulators—“should look like they belong on the guitar, not a piece of something that I just stuck on there.” When asked about specifics on his appointments, Cochran shared, “I could tell you, but charges could be filed. Seriously, if I pointed out a unique part, then someone would only see that part, not the guitar as a whole.” Shown here are just a handful of Cochran’s unique instruments, along with details on their “new-old-history.”
Pricing and Availability
Priced between just above “I’ll take it” and just under “Oh, my God,” Cochran produces 8-15 guitars per year and sells them directly through his website, which is managed by his wife and partner Vickie Smith. Cochran contends that if it weren’t for her, “I would just have a pile of cool guitars in my basement.” Though he usually finds the guitars on his own, he also enjoys working with a guitar supplied by a customer. Although he likes to retain as much artistic license as possible, he will work with requests to incorporate a supplied part or two. “Provided it’s the proper scale, it’s not a problem.”
The Boostercaster was selected for inclusion in GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked The World, the traveling exhibition of the National Guitar Museum. According to Cochran: “This guitar was found under a hidden panel in the floor of a former mental sanitarium being demolished in Weedle, Louisiana. It was wrapped tightly in oilcloth and string. There was also a note that said ‘Better to just put it back, but I know you won’t. Do not touch booster while playing.’ What can I say … I haven’t!”
“Jack N. told me his Uncle Donny customized this guitar from scavenged pieces of a satellite that crashed into his backyard sometime during the summer of 1956. After the modifi cations were made, however, he claimed that playing it made him queasy and paranoid.” Cochran continues, “Jack traded him for a banjo, but said he was never comfortable playing the guitar either. I traded Jack an old Dodge truck for the guitar, but I won’t play it.”
“The Oikaster was used by Sam ‘Splat’ Redcat during his final performance in 1970,” shares Cochran. “He was closing the East Thompkin Blues Festival with his violent acid-rock/blues version of ‘Dead Man’s Curve,’ originally performed by Jan and Dean. It’s highly modified and not UL approved. A combination of rainstorm, bare feet, and a bootleg amperage booster on the imaginative wiring he used for ‘big gain up top’ fried him like a breaded chicken leg. It used to be shiny.”
“The Chalicecaster was found in a sealed, cedar case locked in the trunk of a beautiful 1957 Cadillac that was purchased at an estate sale in North Chicago. Who owned this puppy? Could have been a priest, but could have been a vampire,” muses Cochran. “Same weird vibe and it has some wear, but you have to admit it’s pretty.”
“Private Eldon R. found this instrument in a steaming pile of rubble in 1964 while he was patrolling a burned-out village on the Mekong Delta. It was in remarkably playable condition despite some charring and corrosion. While the village chief would not say how it got there, he sure seemed glad to be rid of it,” says Cochran.
“John Redstone was rehabbing the Old Dog Saloon in Finster, Wyoming. He found this behind some double thick sheet rock in what had originally been the ladies room. It had an unreadable note taped to the strings and a diagram of how to wire up the red button marked ‘R’ underneath the tone knob.” Both come with purchase and the brown stain on back probably isn’t blood,” shares the luthier. “This guitar might be Fat Jelly Marburn’s ‘Big Green.’ Let’s hope not.”