On her new solo record Hole in My Head, the folk-punk singer and Against Me! founder gets back to basics: her voice and her guitar against the world.
Laura Jane Grace’s schedule from last December through the first month of the new year was, to put it gently, busy. She performed with Dinosaur Jr. at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, then spent some time in the studio working on a top-secret cover project. She got married in Las Vegas, and flew to Mississippi for a week of recording with Drive-By Truckers’ Matt Patton. She hopped up to Memphis for Lucero Family Christmas, then played solo dates in St. Louis, Denver, Omaha, Minneapolis, and Lawrence, Kansas. In early January, she performed at a star-studded fundraiser in Wisconsin before jetting to Greece for a string of solo shows. Grace doesn’t take the intensity for granted. Over her 25 years as a professional musician, she’s learned the value of momentum.
“When things are moving, just keep moving,” she says. “I’m not trying to jinx anything, but I’m really looking forward to this year, and the future.
”Grace, who is best known for fronting iconic punk band Against Me!, has spent a good piece of the past four years trying to get her momentum back—the sort of energy that feels like a trademark for the singer and guitarist. Since she was a teen, her life has revolved around the seasons of music work: writing, recording, promoting, touring, repeat. Against Me! was three shows into a tour leg when the Covid pandemic slammed the brakes on that 20-year routine, and emotionally, Grace went flying through the windshield.
“My world was just completely turned upside down and shaken around,” she says. Since 2012, she had built her off-the-road life in an apartment in Chicago, but a shift in her personal life meant she had to split her time between there and St. Louis. There were some benefits: Grace couldn’t crank her amps in her apartment, and finding spare private space to play and record would be cheaper in St. Louis than Chicago. She found a studio there called Native Sound, which used to belong to Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, nested above a bar in downtown St. Louis. “I was like, ‘Shit, if Jay can make that work, so can I,’” says Grace.
Laura Jane Grace - "Birds Talk Too"
“When things are moving, just keep moving. I’m not trying to jinx anything, but I’m really looking forward to this year, and the future.”
That studio is where Grace recorded Hole in My Head, her third solo record, which was released on February 16. It’s a lean, uncomplicated folk-punk joyride. Though the opening, title track jolts the LP to life with a full-band punk-rock crush of melody, harmony, and abandon, the rest of the album is primarily about Grace’s vocal cords and her acoustic guitar. “I’m Not a Cop,” a fuzzy, crust-punk, doo-wop ditty, mashes together Modern Lovers’ off-kilter tone with a ’50s rock ’n’ roll shuffle. Then, “Dysphoria Hoodie” pares it back to just Grace and her acoustic for an ode to a baggy Adidas sweater—her greatest protector on days when she doesn’t want the world sussing her gender. Drums and a gritty electric check in again on the short, sweet firecracker “Birds Talk Too,” but otherwise, it’s all acoustic, propped up by a handful of bass lines and some good old handclaps, a tambourine, and shakers for percussion. Why did Grace pull back from years of full-band chaos?
“I mean this in the best way possible, but this record’s coming from a place of fear,” Grace explains. “Fear challenges you and makes you grow, and takes you out of your comfort zone. I think artists are most prolific and do their best work when they’re coming from a place of survival.”
Hole in My Head’s cover art, captured by Dave Decker and illustrated by Annie Walter, shows Grace behind the State Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. The recognizable cobblestones remind Grace of being a teen, doing “deviant shit” in that very alley with friends.
Entering her 40s in 2020, Grace was back in survival mode, a familiar place for her as a teen in Gainesville, Florida. Longtime fans will know this story well: After moving around the world with her family, Grace landed in the inland college town, a military brat turned anarchist punk. Between benders and doing “deviant shit” with friends, she started performing solo as Against Me!, with just an acoustic and her powerful, pitch-perfect roar. She played alone in dives up and down the panhandle before Against Me! solidified into a band. (Even then, their first recordings were as DIY as you can get: Original drummer Kevin McMahon played a bucket drum on the first two Against Me! EPs, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it makes an appearance on their first full-length, the now-iconic Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose.)
“I think artists are most prolific and do their best work when they’re coming from a place of survival.”
Against Me! went on to sign with a major label and release two hi-fi punk-rock records, both produced by Butch Vig: 2007’s New Wave spawned their biggest hit with “Thrash Unreal,” and 2010’s White Crosses dipped further into arena-rock waters, an anarcho-Springsteen hybrid. This era famously cost Against Me! a good chunk of their earliest supporters, who felt burned by the band’s “selling out.” Their van’s tires were slashed on tour, and Grace was cussed out on plenty of occasions. But the band cut things off with corporate and went independent again for 2014’s scrappy Transgendered Dysphoria Blues, the first Against Me! record that explicitly detailed Grace’s experience as a trans woman.
That was 10 years ago. It’s as if Grace hit some uncanny peak with the major-label signing, and has since been slowly retracing her steps back to her crust-punk origins: After two solo records accompanied by her backing band, the Devouring Mothers, she’s back to just a voice and a guitar.
Laura Jane Grace's Gear
With Against Me!, Grace ascended from crust-punk streetnik to major-label star. But after two corporate records, the band went rogue again.
Photo by Tim Bugbee
- 1963 Fender Jaguar
- Rickenbacker 370
- Yamaha LJ16
- Fender Twin Reverb
- Rickenbacker TR7
Strings & Picks
- Ernie Ball Everlast Coated Acoustic (.010–.050)
- Ernie Ball Regular Slinky (.010–.046)
- Dunlop Tortex Standard .66 mm picks
Other similarities appeared over the last few years, as if some cosmic clock had been reset and she were back at square one. As a kid, she had spent summers and winters going up to Missouri, where her father lived. She always hated it, and this current era, where that state came back into her life, offered a chance to reconcile with the past. She decided to start working on music again on her own to minimize the risk of greater financial losses—if one week of solo shows got canceled, it would just mean she personally was put out, rather than four band members and five crew. But after decades of touring with a group, going back to just six strings and a voice—something she’d not done on a regular basis since her teens—took some finessing. “You feel afraid in the same ways, but again, a healthy fear,” she says.
“If the whole house burns down, if I can make it out with my acoustic guitar, worst-case scenario I’ll be busking on a street corner and hoping people throw change into the guitar case—but I can feed myself.”
“It’s an exercise in self-reliance,” she continues, “and it’s a comfort to always have that there. That’s what I think is beautiful about the acoustic guitar, is that you’re stripping it down to the bare minimum, and I know, ‘Okay, as long as I have that, I’m okay. If the whole fuckin’ house burns down, if I can make it out with my acoustic guitar, worst-case scenario I’ll be busking on a street corner and hoping people throw change in to the guitar case—but I can feed myself. That’s a comforting feeling. Those barebones tools as an artist; that’s self-reliance and that gives you self-confidence and self-esteem, and then you build from there.
”Plus, just like the modest recordings of early classic rock ’n’ roll songs, Hole in My Head never feels wanting in its simplicity. Grace notes that we don’t listen to Buddy Holly or Dion’s “The Wanderer” and wish there were more modern flourishes or a more discernible kick drum. The aesthetic works, and since she was going it mostly alone, it’s what Grace chased.
When it comes to acoustics, Grace prizes one criterion above all: Does it break strings?
Photo by Travis Shinn
Her coconspirator on the record wound up being Matt Patton, mentioned earlier, who provided bass and backing vocals for six songs. Grace had never met Patton before when he drove from Mississippi up to St. Louis in February 2023 for the sessions—X, then Twitter, brought them together in a moment of “total kismet,” says Grace. The two became fast friends, and Grace says the connection with Patton is her most cherished part of the album. “He took a total chance coming to St. Louis,” she says. “His contribution is immeasurable.” Patton returned the favor last December, hosting Grace for some sessions at his Water Valley, Mississippi studio.
“Those places that people refer to as ‘shithole’ cities, or the places where no one wants to be, I have this natural urge inside of me…. I’m like, ‘I dunno, maybe I want to go there.’”
Grace and Patton worked with engineer David Buzzbee at Native Sound, and Grace brought along four guitars to get the job done. Her all-black Yamaha LJ16 was—and still is—her acoustic of choice, a guitar with which she says she shares “a total soul connection. When it comes down to acoustic guitars, the thing that I’m most concerned about onstage is, ‘Does it stay in tune and does it break strings?’” she says. “That thing does not break strings, so I fucking love that guitar.”
Her 1963 Fender Jaguar and ’70s silver-panel Twin Reverb—both of which she bought off of original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch—were in regular rotation, as was a handpainted Gretsch gifted to Grace from her longtime tattoo artist. Her signature blackout Rickenbacker 370 can be heard on the record, too. But no pedals at all were used, and the low-rent grit of “Hole in My Head” was coaxed not from Grace’s Twin, but from a Rickenbacker TR7, a dinky solid-state 1x10 amp. Grace remarks that she’s obsessed with making records with tiny amplifiers these days. “Maybe it’s cause the studio was upstairs, and I’m like, ‘Fuck, I don’t wanna carry a big amp upstairs,’” she chuckles.
Grace loves her new part-time homebase of St. Louis, Missouri, even though it’s not exactly a prime destination. That’s part of the appeal.
Photo by Tim Bugbee
Over a year on from her introduction to the city, Grace now feels a fairly legitimate affection for St. Louis. Unlike Chicago, which always overwhelmed her, St. Louis is manageable: You can get just about anywhere you need to be in 15 minutes, and rents haven’t spiked to unlivable levels the way they have in other cities. Grace fell in love with the city by bar-hopping, starting with the Whiskey Ring, right under Native Sound. Grace is sober, but that made bar-hopping all the more doable. She could slug nonalcoholic beers, then drive to check out another corner of town.
St. Louis is an underdog city, which endears it to Grace. “Those places that people refer to as ‘shithole’ cities, or the places where no one wants to be, I have this natural urge inside of me that if I hear someone talking about a place like that, I’m like, ‘I dunno, maybe I want to go there,’” she says. “Maybe it’s just a rebellion against the opposite of, that place that everyone else wants to go, I don’t want to go.”
Grace leads a rip-roaring acoustic set last summer in Southern California, captured here in stereo audio by a dedicated fan.
The original Cowboys from Hell bassist reclaims his spine-rattling position as the band's charging piston, while his guitar brother brings his fleet of Wylde Audio gear and a few tone sweeteners from Dimebag Darrell's private stash.
The ’90s was a very peculiar musical decade. It entered with L.A.’s party-time hair metal and concluded with the rise of Nu metal, boy bands, and the real Slim Shady. In between those bookends saw the maturation of Metallica, a cold front moved in from the Pacific Northwest with dark clouds of morose and menace, gangsta rap from the coasts flooded the heartland and suburbs, and punk went pop with big hitters from Green Day, Offspring, and Blink 182. But Pantera proudly flew the flag of metal. Those Cowboys from Hell were Phil Anselmo (vocals), Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott (guitar), Rex Brown (bass), and Vinnie Paul Abbott (drums). They took chances and took no prisoners all while having the time of their lives.
They were originally a glam metal band fronted by Terry Glaze. That lineup put out three albums and tirelessly worked the Texas club circuit from 1981 to 1986. They replaced Glaze with New Orleans cat Phil Anselmo who continued the falsetto tradition but made the band more Priest than Stryper. They released Power Metal in 1988 with latex-laced riffs before trading the Sunset Strip for the mosh pit when they released 1990’s breakthrough marauding Cowboys from Hell. And things completely clicked for them when they chiseled out their core sound with 1992’s Vulgar Display of Power that unleashed power-groove, annihilation anthems “Mouth for War,” “Walk,” “This Love,” and “Fucking Hostile.” That set the tone for the rest of the decade and everyone else in metal was playing catch up.
When Metallica went Load and Reload, they went fiercer and forceful with 1994’s Far Beyond Driven (earning them a No. 1 record on Billboard 200). While Reznor and Manson explored techno, dissonance, and industrial sounds, the four metalheads went darker and harder with down-tuned guitars and even faster tempos creating 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill. And as Slayer tried Nu metal with Diabolus in Musica, Pantera said hold my Crown Royal and doubled down on their demolition with 2000’s Reinventing the Steel.
Bands can burn out and friendships can become more grating than gratifying. Anselmo and Brown continued exploring their side gig with Down (started in the mid-’90s in between Pantera albums and tours) and the idle Abbott Brothers started Damageplan. A war of words filled magazine covers and airwaves making the divide wider. Then, on December 8th, 2004, while performing with Damageplan at Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio, the unthinkable, agonizing, and gut-wrenching onstage murder of Dimebag occurred. (This horrific date was exactly 24 years after the shocking loss of John Lennon.) And in 2018 his brother Vinnie Paul succumbed to coronary artery disease. The idea of Pantera ever seeing the stage, in any form, seemed impossible.
But remaining members Rex Brown and Phil Anselmo tossed around the idea of finding friends to fill in for the Abbott brothers. There are indications they had a list, but anyone who knew anything about Pantera, and especially Dime, would bet their last dollar that Zakk Wylde was the only right option. And Charlie Benante of Anthrax made so many cameos in Pantera’s collection of Vulgar Videos home movies that he was the prime candidate for Vinnie Paul’s throne.
Brown has gone through so much gear. He’s lost amps and donated basses to charity. He’s fostered many fruitful friendships with companies that’s resulted in signature wares for war. His latest partnership has him riding high on a pair of namesake Thunderbirds dressed in black and gold. He still tours with old Spectors who feel like home (if home was a thunderstorm). He’s got a proper pedalboard and rack gear that’s been routed through a RJM switcher (first time ever). And he and tech Bobby Landgraf (also guitar player in Honky and Down for Down IV – Part II) detail the whole chain of tonal command. Then we have a blast chatting with Zakk Wylde who covers his toolbox of Warhammers and Master 100 heads. He ponders what it must’ve been like to have been Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhoads who toured with their iconic instruments and not having any backups! And then his longtime tech Stephen Murillo goes over his rack gear that includes three pieces from Dimebag Darrell’s original Pantera rig.
Rattle and Shake
In recent years Rex Brown has partnered up with Gibson and two years ago saw his first signature Thunderbird take flight. It has a mahogany body, a mahogany neck (with set construction), rosewood fretboard, Hipshot Mini-clovers with Drop D Xtender, Graph Tech nut, and Gibson’s Rexbucker Thunderbird humbuckers. His touring models feature a set of EMG X active pickups for more output and attack. This one (and other 4-strings) ride with Ernie Ball 2733 Hybrid Slinky Cobalt Electric Bass strings.
Here’s a thriftier way to rumble like Rex with his Epiphone signature Thunderbird. It has a mahogany body, 9-piece maple-and-walnut neck, Indian laurel fretboard, brass nut, Babicz FCH 3-Point bridge, and a set of Epiphone ProBucker 760 Bass humbuckers that Rex said remind him of the Bicentennial Thunderbird thumpers.
This pair of ebony and ivory Spectors—one of which has been clobbering concertgoers for over 15 years. The one on the left is a 2008 Euro 4 what Rex calls “Mother Glory,” and it’s the one he always goes back to. It was originally painted white, but he darkened its exterior and brandished it in gold.
The other Spector is 2023 USA NS-5 in black-and-white gloss finish that is his “baby” and he “loves it because he just can’t beat the fucking sound of it. It just won’t go away no matter what.”
Both have EMG X pickups—the Euro 4 has the PJX Ceramic PJ Bass set and the USA NS-5 has the EMG 40DCX.
And the 5-string Spector takes Ernie Ball 5-String Slinky Cobalt Bass Strings (.45–.130).
Slugger ‘n’ Chugger
Brown has plugged into as many heads as you can think, but he’s never been happier than when he’s got a Ampeg SVT-4 Pro supporting him.
The Eich T1000 gives life to the Eich Bass Board. Their primary use was when supporting Metallica and Pantera was forced to have a clean stage, but Rex still wanted to feel the earth shake under his legs. He enjoyed the quake enough to implement on their headline run.
These boxes are tucked into the rack and are always on—an Origin Effects BassRig Super Vintage Bass Preamp, an Origin Effects Cali76 Stacked Edition Dual-stage Compressor, a Darkglass NSG Noise Gate Bass, and a Noble Preamp DI.
Lastly, his rack holds utilitarian items like the Shure AD4D Two-channel Digital Wireless Receiver, Radial JX44 V2 Concert Touring Guitar & Amp Signal Manager, and the RJM Effects Gizmo.
Rex has been on the lookout for anybody able to recast the Ampeg “fridge” 8x10. He claims Mesa/Boogie cracked the code with these custom Mesa Boogie 8x10 Traditional Powerhouse Cabinets that have custom-voiced Eminence speakers.
Rex Brown's Pedalboard
This clean configuration is the first time Rex Brown has utilized a switching system. His stage board has a Dunlop JCT95 Justin Chancellor Cry Baby Wah, a 2000s Morley Pro Series II Bass Wah, Origin Effects DCX Bass Tone Shaper & Drive, a MXR M287 Sub Octave Bass Fuzz, and a Peterson StroboStomp HD.
The brain of everything in the rack and onstage is the RJM Mastermind GT.
And to help “move mountains,” Rex has a Moog Taurus III.
Zakk travels with familiar company when touring with Pantera, Zakk Sabbath or Black Label Society. It’s Wylde Audio all the time. This winter 2024 run saw him exclusively run with his Warhammer models. They’re built with a mahogany body, maple tops, 3-piece maple neck, ebony fretboard, a Floyd Rose locking tremolo, and his signature EMG 81/85 pickups. All these beasts have Dunlop DHCN1048 Heavy Core NPS strings (.010–.048).
Here’s a special Warhammer that approximates the iconic lightning-strike, blue-burst “Dean from Hell” that old pal Dimebag Darrell used through Pantera’s heyday. To nail the paint job, he enlisted Matt “Chewy” Dezynski, who painted Dime’s Washburn guitars in the 1990s.
Wylde and Free
Just like in our 2016 Rig Rundown with Zakk, he’s still plugging into his Wylde Audio Master 100 heads with a stereo configuration. He has another Master 100 and an old Marshall JCM800 on deck. All the heads are routed into his Wylde Audio 4x12s that are all loaded with Z-Dub’s Electro-Voice EVM12L Black Label Zakk Wylde 300W speakers.
Dimebag Darrell’s right-hand man and tonal technician Grady Champion was on the tour and brought some of his old friend’s secret sauce. Here you’ll see fixtures in Dime’s live and studio sound that include an Aphex Aural Exciter Type C2 Model 104 with Big Bottom, MXR M126 Flanger/Doubler, and a Rocktron Hush Guitar Silencer.
Zakk Wylde's Pedalboard
Out front Zakk sees nothing but Dunlop bullseyes. His signature arsenal of effects seen here include a MXR Wylde Audio Overdrive, a MXR Wylde Audio Phase, a Wylde Audio Cry Baby wah, and a Dunlop ZW357 Zakk Wylde Signature Rotovibe. The lone box that isn’t branded Wylde is a standard fare MXR Carbon Copy.
His offstage rack is home to a MXR Smart Gate and a MXR Wylde Audio Chorus (that’s always on). Both are powered by a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 3 Plus. Another drawer holds Radial BigShot I/O True-bypass Instrument Selector, Lehle Little Dual II Amp Switcher, and a Radial BigShot EFX Effects Loop Switcher.
Gibson Rex Brown Thunderbird Signature Bass Ebony
Epiphone Rex Brown Thunderbird Bass
Spector Bantam 5 Bass
Spector Euro 4
EMG PJX Set Active Ceramic PJ Bass Pickup Set Black
Ampeg SVT 4-Pro
Dunlop JCT95 Justin Chancellor Cry Baby Wah Pedal
Origin Effects BassRig Super Vintage Bass Preamp Pedal
Origin Effects Cali76 Stacked Edition Dual-stage Compressor Pedal
Darkglass NSG Noise Gate Bass Pedal
Origin Effects DCX Bass Tone Shaper & Drive Pedal
MXR M287 Sub Octave Bass Fuzz Pedal
MXR Carbon Copy
Electro-Voice EVM12L Black Label Zakk Wylde Signature 12-inch 300-watt Guitar Speaker - 8 Ohms
EMG ZW Zakk Wylde Active Signature Humbucker 2-piece Pickup Set - Black
MXR Wylde Audio Overdrive Pedal
MXR Wylde Audio Phase Pedal
MXR Wylde Audio Chorus Pedal
Dunlop DHCN1048 Heavy Core NPS Electric Guitar Strings - .010-.048 Heavy
Lehle Little Dual II Amp Switcher
Radial BigShot I/O True-bypass Instrument Selector
Radial BigShot EFX Effects Loop Switcher
Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus 2 x 12-inch 120-watt Stereo Combo Amp
MXR M135 Smart Gate Pedal
Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 3 High Current 8-output Isolated Power Supply
Shure AD4D Two-channel Digital Wireless Receiver
Radial JX44 V2 Concert Touring Guitar & Amp Signal Manager
Ernie Ball 2733 Hybrid Slinky Cobalt Electric Bass Guitar Strings - .045-.105
Ernie Ball 5 String Slinky Cobalt Bass Strings
Built in the 1920s by the storied luthiers, this guitar has maintained an exceptional tone over the years.
From around 1900 up until World War II, Swedish immigrant brothers Carl and August Larson’s two-man, Chicago-based workshop turned out an amazing assortment of handmade instruments. Their products ranged from ukuleles to harp guitars, standard guitars, mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, and even a mandobass. I found this 97-year-old Larson brothers flattop at the 1994 New York Guitar Show, when interest in the brothers’ work was on the rise but the actual instruments were hard to find, with even many experienced dealers knowing little about them.
The brothers’ instruments manifested some advanced designs: Their guitars were steel-strung decades before Martins. Tops and backs were built with a slight arch—“built under tension”—and August patented an ingenious laminated X-bracing system in 1904. The main brace was a sandwich of spruce with an ebony or rosewood center strip, which increased strength without significantly adding weight. Their name would be better remembered if they put it on the instruments, but they never did. Much of their output was marketed under other sellers’ names; in-house brands included Maurer, Prairie State, and Euphonon, but never Larson.
The headstock is overlaid with Brazilian rosewood and accented with a pearl floral pattern inlay.
Photo by George Aslaender
This guitar was built for William C. Stahl, a mandolin virtuoso who turned to teaching and publishing, and one of the brothers’ largest accounts. While primarily promoting mandolins, he also sold guitars. Not all were Larsons, but the brothers’ wares made up much of his line, and Larson-built instruments would appear in Stahl’s trade ads by 1907. He claimed they were built under his “personal supervision,” which is unlikely, as Stahl lived in Milwaukee! Stahl denigrated “machine-made” instruments; his were “handmade … reasonable in price and perfect as human hands can make them … the loudest and sweetest-toned in the world.”
Some Stahls carry a paper label; others, like this, show a “Wm. C. Stahl, Maker, Milwaukee” hot stamp on the back strip. Stahl’s 1912 catalog offered a range of guitars; this most resembles the Solo Style 8. According to Larson historian Robert Carl Hartman, the serial number indicates that it was constructed in 1927. A 12-fret, 13 1/2″-wide concert-size guitar, it sports many typical higher-grade Larson appointments. The back and sides are Brazilian rosewood, with more figure than the straight grain Martin preferred. The spruce top has laminated X-bracing; many Stahl guitars did not. August Larson may have originally intended to reserve his patented system for his own wares, but perhaps by the 1920s, the distinction was lost.
“Their name would be better remembered if they put it on the instruments, but they never did.”
Visually, this instrument is quite elaborate. The top is bordered in ivoroid with delicate half-herringbone wood marquetry bands bordering abalone inlay, as is the soundhole. The back is triple bound with marquetry down the center. The flat-pyramid ebony bridge has engraved pearl stars on each end. The 24 3/4″-scale mahogany neck is carved to a wide but comfortable round-backed shape, and is 1 7/8″ wide at the nut. Most period guitars (including Martins) usually featured a “V” profile, along with an “ovaled,” or arched, fretboard, so this gives a surprisingly modern feel for a 97-year-old guitar.
This guitar was made for William C. Stahl, and has a “Wm. C. Stahl, Maker, Milwaukee” hot stamp on the back strip.
Photo by George Aslaender
The thick ebony board is bound and inlaid with shaped pearl pieces and dots, while the headstock is overlaid with Brazilian rosewood, accented with a pearl floral pattern inlay. The tuners are engraved ivoroid-button strips typical of the period. A number of Stahl guitars of this pattern are known, including one rather famous example with a colorful history of ownership by Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Felix Pappalardi of Mountain, who used it on the evocative song “The Laird” from Mountain Climbing!
Larson products have distinctive construction and finishing traits fairly consistent through a 40-plus year span and amazing range of designs. The guitars often have a distinct sonic character. I characterize this one like an acoustic version of a good Telecaster; singing high end that never gets shrill, a tight, well-defined bass, and shimmering mids with more natural reverb than many flattops. It records extremely well, being particularly responsive to open tunings where the overtones mingle but retain their clarity.
This guitar has seen some ups and downs over the last century: The finish shows numerous wear marks and scratches with repaired cracks to the back and sides. The neck was reset and the bridge is a replica with a compensated saddle. None of this has impeded its sound at all.
When Stahl promoted his instruments a century ago, he wrote, “The music of the future won’t be the caterwauling of gut. It will be the virile pulsing of the plucked steel-string,” claiming, “No instruments can be made any better.” This pearl-trimmed gem goes a long way towards proving both points.
Before Joe Silvius started working for Martin 27 years ago, he thought he was going to become a professional baseball player. When his shoulder told him he could no longer pitch, however, he was forced to come up with a plan B. He grew up five minutes away from the Nazareth, Pennsylvania, factory, and, given that his father, brother, aunts, and uncles had all worked there, taking that path for himself only made sense. Unexpectedly, it turned out to be an ideal one.
“I can’t explain it. It’s incredible. It really is,” he says. “Obviously there’s thoughts—I’m sure everybody has them—of something else, maybe better, but I can’t see anything better than this.”
Here at Premier Guitar, we’ve done profiles on master guitar builders in the past. But unlike many guitar factories around the country, Martin doesn’t have master builders, exactly. They rely on a crew of highly skilled specialists, rather than individuals who oversee a guitar’s production from start to finish. Silvius, whose title is exotic tonewood specialist, is one of the former.
After the loss of his baseball career prospects, Silvius left college to work at the factory, where he started out in the string division. He then moved on to fretting, and then pre-finish (which involves body sanding before finish is applied), where he stayed for two years, eventually running the department. About 23 years ago, he switched over to the sawmill and acclimating areas, and for the past six or seven years, he’s been working in the custom shop as well. There, he’s responsible for guiding dealers in selecting the perfect wood for their custom builds.
“Obviously there’s thoughts—I’m sure everybody has them—of something else, maybe better, but I can’t see anything better than this.”
But before that can happen, incoming wood—that ends up on the shelves for dealer selection—must be inspected and acclimated, or dried. Now, when it comes to guitar building, wood drying may not sound like the most thrilling aspect. But after forests and lumber yards, it’s where guitars begin, and if that core material isn’t handled with care, intuition, and technical expertise, there would be no guitars from Nazareth (or anywhere else, for that matter).
Part of Silvius’ expertise is knowing how to treat a wide variety of tonewoods to reduce their moisture content—the woods Martin accepts can come in at up to about 40 percent—to the desired range of six to eight percent. The process involves “sticking,” where cut pieces of lumber are literally placed on horizontal support “sticks” of wood to enable air to flow through them. Then, the wood is placed in a kiln set to temperatures specific to the species being dried (as high as around 160°F), until the ideal moisture content is reached.
Silvius explains that customers have been increasingly interested in seeing unusual grain patterns on their guitars, such as that shown by this cocobolo back.
Courtesy of Martin Guitar
Sometimes, wood is brought below that desired range and then reacclimated, which helps to “stabilize the wood for less issues in the future,” explains Silvius. But every species dries differently, and has to be handled carefully to ensure that it survives the process: If it’s dried too much, the cells in the wood will die, making it brittle, which also prevents reacclimating. If it’s dried either too quickly or too slowly, it can lead to different types of damage that make the wood unusable.
Ebony, for example, takes six months to dry—if it’s done any faster, it will crack. “I would say ebony is probably the most complicated,” Silvius explains. “We’ve gotten really good at controlling it. Everybody wants ebony for their fretboard and bridge, so we gotta make sure we keep that in as good of shape as possible.” Then there are other woods like gonçalo alves, “which is a rare wood—it’s hard to work with. It doesn’t like to stay flat. We put plastic bands around it to help keep pressure on it to try to keep it as flat as possible.” Other tonewoods, like rosewood and sapele, are more forgiving, and take just two weeks to dry before they’re put in the kiln.
If you’re wondering about torrefaction (the process of drying wood at an extreme temperature to capture the sound quality of vintage guitars), that’s done by a vendor offsite. Silvius explains that it requires a specialized kiln with a controlled low-oxygen atmosphere, and a proprietary “recipe.”
Having worked in the acclimating area for more than two decades, Silvius is knowledgeable on how to put a wide variety of tonewoods through the drying process.
Once the incoming wood has gone through the acclimating process, it’s then ready for the production line, and the custom shop. For the uninitiated, the custom shop offers a unique experience for dealers from around the world to come in and design their own guitars to be sold at their locations, down to choosing the type and sets of wood to be used. The designs themselves may not be “exclusive,” per se—as dealers’ requested builds might be similar to those chosen by peers—but are often created with their specific customer base in mind. (The custom shop also has guitars pre-built for dealer selection, if they might be interested in buying a finished model as opposed to designing it themselves.) Some recent visits have been from Haggerty’s Music from South Dakota, Reno’s Music from Indiana, Empire Music from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Andertons Music Co. from the U.K.
“The piece of wood that they select has to speak to them. It’s all a perception. Everybody loves things differently.”
“Every dealer is different,” Silvius comments. “Some come in with an actual plan. They know what guitars they want; they know what species they want. They get a list, come in, do their thing, and leave. For others, it’s like a supermarket. They look at the shelf and say, ‘Let’s take a look at some of this.’” A lot of Martin’s exotic woods are kept in locked cages that only a handful of employees have access to, Silvius being one of them.
“I’m not much of a salesman,” he adds. “When they come in, I shoot ’em straight. I’m not going to tell you something just because I want you to buy this guitar. That’s not what I’m about. The piece of wood that they select has to speak to them. It’s all a perception. Everybody loves things differently.”
In the past, Martin would have rejected wild-grain East Indian rosewood for its nontraditional patterns, seen here.
Courtesy of Martin Guitar
Sometimes, the selection process can lead to some humorous, unconventional scenarios. One year, a group of dealers came in from Japan, who were all interested in the same pre-built model. “The custom shop director brought in a putting mat, and they actually putted,” Silvius says, laughing. “Whoever made the putt got the opportunity to buy the guitar. It’s just fun.”
Silvius says that the cultural trend in the guitar world over the past several years has been all about aesthetics: wild-grain East Indian rosewood, striped Gabon ebony, flame and quilted maple. Customers today are looking for something more distinctive in a guitar’s appearance—and that trend has steered Martin in a wildly different direction from where they’d been for decades. “It was about tradition, so everything had to be perfectly quartersawn [cut to yield straight-grain pieces]. If it wasn’t, we would reject it. But now, people love the look of the [different grain patterns]. Doesn’t necessarily affect the guitar—the sound or anything. It just gives you that ‘wow.’”
“We took a trip to New York recently,” Silvius shares. “I was at Rudy’s [Music], who’s going to be here next week to select wood, and the gentleman who works there was telling me what he wants. He likes more traditional, straight grain. But he needs something that his customers are going to turn around and go, ‘Wow, the back just looks incredible.’ These dealers know their customer base. They have regular customers that come in, and they know what they want.”
In Martin’s custom shop, Silvius guides dealers in selecting the right woods for their custom guitar designs.
As Silvius alluded, quartersawn wood has straight grain, and has long been highly sought-after. But it’s becoming scarcer, partially because in order to get it, harvested trees have to be at least 24″ in diameter. A less expensive alternative, flatsawn—one of the kinds Martin used to reject—produces wood with “cathedral,” or spire-shaped, grain patterns. And especially given the shift in popular preference, Martin has been bringing more flatsawn wood into their production line. However, Silvius comments that flatsawn is harder to work with, as the pieces can be fickle: “It twists. [Some pieces often] turn into almost like a potato chip and we can’t use it. But other pieces stay flat.”
Aside from handling unruly wood, Silvius’ biggest challenge in his work overall, he says, is “probably our own internal specs. We are so critical of the material itself. Our standards are set so high that sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Because we want everything to be perfect, and it just can’t be. It’s wood. Even when I match sets—we like everything to have perfectly matching grain or perfectly matching color, or both, and sometimes you just can’t. We beat ourselves up over it.”
“People love the look of the [different grain patterns]. Doesn’t necessarily affect the guitar—the sound or anything. It just gives you that ‘wow.’”
When Silvius plays more of a role in selecting the wood for a dealer, which can be another option in the custom shop experience, it becomes a bit more personal for him. “I try not to take much home with me, but I do,” he laughs. “Say they want a high-end D-45, and I gotta select either the Brazilian rosewood, or maybe the cocobolo. Did I make the right choice? Are they really going to be happy with that guitar when they get it? But I’ve also had dealers come in that, when I would meet them for the first time, say, ‘So you’ve been picking out my wood! Thank you,’ and just give me a handshake. It feels great when that happens.”
Ultimately, Silvius says it’s those relationships that make up the best part of his job. It doesn’t hurt that, because Martin employs so many Nazareth locals, he also works alongside many people whose family members he grew up with. “It is a really close-knit community. Even the VP [Deb Karlowitch], she retired a couple years ago, but I graduated with her son. Her husband, when we walked home from school, would pick us up sometimes on the way.”
As Silvius emphasizes the passion that Martin’s roughly 500 employees have for their work, which he says speaks to their consistently high-quality products, it might surprise you that he doesn’t play guitar. “It’s funny, because I’m not a guitar guy. I’ll be honest with you,” he admits. “I always blame it on having short, chubby fingers.
“I wish I would have tried to learn during [the pandemic]. I still want to learn to play, I just gotta get into the right mind-frame. My kids are now older, so I’m not going to sporting events and everything. It’s time I should learn.”
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