After a California wildfire destroyed his home and all his instruments, a guitarist took matters into his own hands and started building for the future.
So, I came up with a new plan for my newfound free time: start building guitars. I started off with the basics—I found myself an inexpensive guitar that I could modify without fear of damaging it. My theory was that 90 percent of the tone is due to the electronics, so this would be my prototyping unit.
I spent $150 each on boutique pickups, settling on a Curtis Novak Gold Foil in the bridge position, (thanks to a demo by PG’s John Bohlinger: “You can’t get a bad tone with these pickups”) for those awesome-sounding distorted tones, and a TV Jones Classic in the neck for that sweet Gretsch-like clean sound. I used a Seymour Duncan Liberator volume pot, since it has solder-free connections which allow for easy pickup swaps. I used top-notch push-pull pots, capacitors, switches, and jacks. The gold-foil pickup sounds great but has lots of treble, so a good tone-knob circuit is essential. I’ve never been a fan of the tone knob on any of my guitars, so I figured I needed to do something different. I tried ’50s wiring, along with a lower capacitance “warmth knob” (both with guidance from PG’s Dirk Wacker). For the first time ever, I loved using the tone knob!
With a background in the aeronautical industry and Malibu beaches, I wanted a body shape with hints of surf, space, and aerodynamics. I took a napkin sketch and started plotting it using Excel. That quickly got out of hand. Next thing I knew, I had a full design spreadsheet, complete with pulldown menus for scale length, pickups, tremolo, body thickness, etc. I was even calculating guitar weight and center of gravity because the last thing I wanted to do was invest all my hopes and dreams into this guitar and find out that it constantly falls off my lap.
After iterating on the design for far too long, I got to work. I wanted the first prototype to be cheap; I knew there would be mistakes. I got the cheapest body blank I could find (poplar) for $60. I wanted a Jaguar-like 24"-scale neck, but those aren’t cheap, so I got a 25 1/2"-scale Mighty Mite neck for $100 and will do the 24" version next time. The first bolt-up revealed that the body and neck resonated shockingly well when I tried them acoustically, but the body required some reshaping for better upper fret access. I finished the body with Rust-Oleum spray paint: primer, metallic blue base coat, blue sparkle, and clear glaze on top. This cost $40 and I’m very happy with the result.
I went with a Staytrem bridge, a Jazzmaster-style tremolo (placed relatively close to the bridge to minimize string buzz), and Steinberger tuners. Finally, I added two additional push-pull pots with solder-free connections for future exploration and wiring adventures.
I love the sound of this prototype, and it fed into my other Covid project, which was to release my first ever EP under the name “Plectromatics.” I learned so much on this journey and can’t wait to see how the 24"-scale version comes out, and what songs it will inspire!
On The Late Show, Louis Cato Steps to the Front
The self-described “utility knife” played drums with John Scofield and Marcus Miller and spent time in the studio with Q-Tip before landing on Stephen Colbert’s show as a multi-instrumentalist member of the house band. Now, he’s taken over as the show’s guitar-wielding bandleader and is making his mark.
It’s a classic old-school-show-biz move: Bring out the band, introduce them one by one, and build up the song to its explosive beginning. It’s fun, dramatic, audiences love it, and that’s how every The Late Show with Stephen Colbert taping starts.
By this time, us audience members have been sitting in Manhattan’s chilly Ed Sullivan Theater for about 90 minutes. We’ve gotten our seats, had a bathroom break after getting settled, and had some fun with warm-up comic Paul Mecurio. The first musician summoned by announcer Jen Spyra is drummer Joe Saylor. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, he jogs out, gets behind the kit, and kicks off an up-tempo second-line groove. Next comes upright bassist Endea Owens and percussionist Nêgah Santos. The band’s trumpeter, Jon Lampley, is introduced, and he’s brought along his bandmates in the Huntertones as guests, so saxophonist Dan White and trombonist Chris Ott come out as well.
Louis Cato feat. Stay Human "Look Within"
The multitalented Louis Cato leads the Stay Human band through a special rooftop performance of his song “Look Within,” from his album, Starting Now.
The audience is now on its feet, the band’s pocket is thick, and the energy is building. When bandleader Louis Cato charges onstage, he reaches his mic on the bandstand and shouts, “I feel good today!” with explosive enthusiasm and a big grin, and the band launches into Jon Batiste’s “I’m from Kenner.” Cato sings the catchy and gleeful refrain: “I feel good, I feel free, I feel fine just being me / I feel good today.” And the audience is feeling the love. Almost everyone is bouncing and clapping along.
A couple minutes in, when it seems like the song has reached its super-positive-vibe, high-energy climax, Cato shouts into his mic, “How do you feel today, Stephen?” And with that, Colbert comes running out from the middle of the set. Cato leaps from the bandstand toward the host as the crowd explodes. The two grab hold of each other and attempt to spin around, but the bandleader, holding his black-sparkle Tuttle T-style, loses his grip and goes sliding across the shiny stage. There’s a second where both are comically stunned—Kevin McCallister Home Alone-expressions on both of their faces—but Cato quickly jumps to his feet, both he and his guitar unharmed, and runs back to the bandstand, where he keeps the song moving along with his bandmates, who haven’t missed a beat.
All this excitement isn’t even for the TV audience! Colbert is coming out for the un-televised pre-show Q&A. In a few minutes, they’ll do a new taped intro that looks more like what we see every night. But they’ve gotten the crowd energized, and we need to keep it up. They need our energy to do their jobs.
The Late Show Band welcomes a lot of guests up on the bandstand. Here, Cato and Joe Walsh boogie down.
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
As Cato sees it, that’s what his role as bandleader is all about: keeping the audience engaged and amplifying the drama and action of the show. “That translates to the energy that the viewers get at home,” he explains. “For all of us here, we’re able to feed off that energy and do the best possible show that we all can.”
Colbert agrees with that job description and adds that the bandleader himself has the same contagious effect on his players. “Louis is an extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist,” he says, “whose spirit of creativity and collaboration not only elevates everything the band does musically but inspires me to be better at my job.” He adds, “I’m so happy to call him my friend.”
Beyond his infectious energy and charisma, there are a lot of ways Cato keeps the Late Show Band invigorated from night to night. For one, he keeps the music fresh by tackling a new cover song every day. That doesn’t mean running down rote note-for-note charts. Cato and the band take a reconstructionist approach that fans of his work—whether from his collaborations with artists such as the Huntertones, Scary Pockets, or Vulfpeck, or from his regular Instagram cover-song posts—will recognize.
“Louis is an extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist whose spirit of creativity and collaboration not only elevates everything the band does musically but inspires me to be better at my job.”—Stephen Colbert
On this evening, the band runs through a host of multi-genre reinterpretations during the two-episode taping, including a slow-burning and soulful “Smokestack Lightning,” a New Orleans-style “Down by the Riverside,” and a fingerpicked, acoustic-led take of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” that gets Colbert lip syncing along off camera. On a horn-driven arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” there’s a re-worked bridge that creates a generous feature spot for the guest horn players.
Every arrangement brings a new and unique perspective to a classic track, to ensure the band is “not just a wedding band doing a cover of a song on the radio.” Cato adds, “We’re arranging it and making it our own—because that’s the sonic fingerprint of our show.”
St. Vincent jams with Louis and crew.
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
A Lifelong Path
Listening to the story of Cato’s musical life, it seems that this job—with its demand for a blend of careful strategizing and on-the-fly creative thinking, as well as effortless instrumental skills and charismatic showmanship—is what he’s been training for since the beginning.
On the morning of the taping I attended, I meet Cato in his dressing room. Painted with sky-blue walls and a cloud mural on the ceiling, it’s a comfortable place to hang. The bandleader is wearing slim-fit floral pants, a hoodie over a black T-shirt, and a long necklace. He sits across from me on his couch, next to a guitar stand that holds a few instruments—including his Tuttle, a Jesse Stern-built baritone acoustic, and his Univox LP-style—and a ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue with a Universal Audio Dream ’65 pedal plugged into it.
“There’s not a time in my brain when I was not making music in some way or form,” Cato says. His mother, a pianist in the Church of God in Christ, bought her son a Diamond drum kit that he recalls having paper heads when he was just 2 years old, and she started teaching the toddler to accompany her. “I marvel at my mom,” he laughs. “Like, who buys their 2-year-old a drum kit?” After playing those drums every day for a year, he started accompanying her at services.
The family moved around a lot. Cato’s father was in the Air Force, and Louis was born on a base in Lisbon, Portugal, before moving to Dayton, Ohio. Not long after he started playing in church there, they moved again to Washington, D.C., and when Louis was 5 they settled in Albemarle, North Carolina. A few years later, Louis started playing guitar on a “little burgundy sunburst acoustic. Eventually, I busted a string and busted another string and just kept playing with four strings. I delved more into bass from playing bass lines on the acoustic guitar. So, for my 9th birthday, my dad bought me a 4-string bass.”
“I’d show up to Tip’s and we’d do a week of writing sessions with John Legend or have André 3000 in the studio for a couple of weeks.”
While it was strictly pragmatic reasons that initially drew him to the bass, he says his biggest inspiration was the bass player he knew best: his mother’s left hand. Her playing, rooted in the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) style, “involves heavy left-hand bass. I wasn’t as psyched to play bass in church since the way my mom plays is very defined. But eventually I kind of had to learn how she plays. It was always just her and me playing. And I had to learn to move with that and follow that. She’s a great bass player.”
Along the way, Cato picked up more instruments. By the time he headed to Berklee, he was playing drums, guitar, and bass as well as tuba, trombone, and euphonium. “I was going from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a large pond of super-talented people who had heard oodles of music I had never dreamed of,” he recalls. So, he decided to focus his studies on the instrument he’d played the longest.
Louis Cato's Gear
A glimpse at Cato’s pedals and amp, which mostly live outside of the camera’s eye, behind his stage monitor.
- Univox LP-style
- Tuttle Custom Hollow T
- 1961 Gibson SG reissue
- Martin OM-28
- ’65 Fender Princeton Reverb reissue
- Boss FV-500H Volume Pedal
- Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner
- Dunlop Cry Baby
- 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre
- J. Rockett Archer
- Truetone Jekyll & Hyde
- Xotic RC Booster
- MXR Carbon Copy
Strings and Picks
- D’Addario EJ16 (.012-.053)
- D’Addario EXL110 (.010-.046)
- Dunlop Max Grip .88 mm
Cato completed just two semesters—fall ’03 and spring ’04—before deciding to concentrate on playing the gigs that were paying his bills. “My rationale was, much to my parents’ chagrin, here’s an opportunity where I can keep learning on the job and be working my way out of the debt I went into in this year.”
Gigging with wedding and church bands gave the multi-instrumentalist an opportunity to keep all his instrumental and vocal skills alive. “My oldest daughter was born soon after that,” he recalls, “so I felt really, really aware of how lucky I was, how lucky any of us are, to make a living and support a family as a musician.” Cato spent five years in Boston, playing various instruments in gigging bands, and he frequented local institution Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club, just two blocks down the street from Berklee, “for self-education and inspiration. When that felt like I hit a ceiling, I looked at where I could go to continue my inspiration and working on the kind of projects I wanted to be working on, and that led me here.”
By that time, Cato’s friend Meghan Stabile, had moved to New York and created the promotion and production company Revive Music, which was dedicated to the kinds of jazz and hip-hop collaborations he wanted to pursue. Cato moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn, with his band Six Figures— “There were six of us; we did not make six figures!”—and would head back to Boston each weekend for the gigs that were paying his bills. Eager to soak up the New York scene, he’d return to New York on Sunday nights and go directly to jam sessions.
All that time back and forth on the Northeast Corridor paid off. A self-described musical “utility knife,” Cato’s multi-instrumentalism, as well as his talents as a songwriter, arranger, producer, and engineer, made him a major asset as a collaborator, and the New York scene took notice. Soon, he established essential connections that would affect his career, forming “an instantaneous brotherhood that continues to this day” with producer Kamaal Fareed, aka Q-Tip. “Through that, I ended up really delving into a lot of relationships and credits.”
The two artists worked on high-level collaborations that not only bolstered Cato’s reputation but served as a major piece of his education. “I’d show up to Tip’s,” he explains, “and we’d do a week of writing sessions with John Legend or have André 3000 in the studio for a couple of weeks. Sometimes things would come from it, and sometimes nothing would come from it. But being in the creative process on that level in a trusted space was invaluable for me. I learned so much.”
Outside of Q-Tip’s studio, Cato was learning from plenty of masters, mostly from behind the kit. “It’s really special when you find yourself learning things you connect to,” he says about his work alongside artists such as bassist Marcus Miller, keyboardist George Duke, and guitarist John Scofield. “And I learned so much about myself from connecting to some of these people.”
Back in 2015, Cato received a phone call from pianist Jon Batiste. The two had never met, but Batiste rang him up about a mysterious project—a theme song for a TV show that he couldn’t disclose. “I had a wisdom tooth appointment back in Boston, and I got a random call,” Cato remembers. “I think his exact words were, ‘I’d love to have your ears on it.’ And I followed my gut, rescheduled my trip, stayed in New York an extra day with an abscessed wisdom tooth.”
The two got together to co-write and produce “Humanism,” which would become the theme song for the Stephen Colbert-hosted Late Show. Batiste played piano, Cato played the guitar, bass, and drum parts and “put on my editing hat.” They brought in Joe Saylor—who would become the show’s drummer—to play tambourine, as well as saxophonist Eddie Barbash. “After the session,” Cato remembers, “I went back, got my wisdom tooth out, and went back on the road with John Scofield.”
Three of the four go-to guitars Cato uses on The Late Show: a black Tuttle T-style, a cherry-red Gibson SG, and a Martin OM-28.
At first, Cato played the multi-instrumental role of his dreams, attempting to surround himself with every instrument he could play. “That lasted about three days before reality set in,” he laughs. “Slowly, one by one, things started disappearing—a floor tom going away here, a Pro Tools setup going offstage there. Eventually, as the band formed out, I moved around to what was needed. I was the utility guy—played a lot of kazoo, a lot of cowbell.”
While on the road drumming with Sco’, Cato got the invite from Batiste to join the show’s band, Stay Human. “It was a huge life shift for me,” Cato explains. “I was making really good money on the road with really good musicians, which was really fulfilling. And I took a chance. I loved the idea of being a part of something creatively from its inception.”
Eventually, Cato settled into a more consistent electric bass role, until Batiste brought in upright player Endea Owens, and he moved to guitar, where he’s mostly stayed. When Batiste left the show last year, Cato took over as bandleader—officially starting this season, back in September—and decided he’d lead from his role as guitarist. “Of all the places I occupied,” he says, “guitar was the easiest and most natural to me to lead the band, in the energy. From behind the drums, it’s a different thing, and we’ve done it when Joe was out. But it just was a really natural progression.”
Same Show, New Job
In just a few months, Cato’s new role as bandleader has had an impact on the show. The renamed Late Show Band’s engine seems to be burning on a new kind of fuel. And it feels as though that energy is coming directly from Cato.
When we talk, the guitarist is deeply engaged, in a kind of hyper-focused way that is not intense but more casually un-distractable. He brings that same focus to the show. While Colbert delivers monologues, Cato is zoomed in on the host, listening to every word, often riffing around on his guitar to contribute musical commentary. During interviews, he’s taking cues and following the tone of the conversation, looking for ways to adapt.
The bandleader gig requires loads of big-picture improvisation, but also lots of prep. Cato explains that each week he makes a set list, but the band will react and make changes in the moment. “My job ends up being a lot of judgement calls that affect the flow of the show,” he says. “We have a group of compositions we wrote for the show that can complement different moments. If there’s a major energy shift in an interview that takes a turn or something happens in the day, like a tragedy, we’ll call one of the songs we wrote for the show for a moment such as that. Recently, we had a guest on that started improvising a song. So, I have on our in-ear mic and call out the key and start playing, and we all jump in, and now we’re doing this instead.”
Cato poses with his black-sparkle chambered T-style, made by Tuttle. “When I’m checking off core priorities in sound,” he says, “if I’m going for rhythmic things, I go to the Tele.”
Photo by Scott Kowalchyk
Watching the Late Show Band in person, I see this play out as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen explains the steps the U.S. can take to avoid a recession. It’s a heavy and heady conversation, and, frankly, it’s anything but fun. Cato knows he’ll need to pick the audience back up. As he watches from the bandstand, he gives tempo cues to the band, who nod along, so they can effectively shift the energy and get the audience re-focused for the next guest, actor/director Sarah Polley.
As a guitar player, Cato says he sticks to playing things that feel most natural to him so he can concentrate on his bandleading duties. He adds that he considers himself more a rhythm guitarist than a lead guitarist. (It’s worth noting that his delineation is more conceptual than musical: Cato is an inspired and dynamic melodic lead player, but his deeply rooted phrasing and feel is at the forefront of everything he plays, so the rhythm-first thing applies to it all.) “This is not a space as a guitar player where I’m jumping out of the box trying any and everything and exploring,” he explains. “You get to some of those places. But for me, it always has to start from something I can do while leading the band and reading the energy and making judgement calls.”
“We’re arranging it and making it our own—because that’s the sonic fingerprint of our show.”
That rooted, pragmatic ethos applies to the gear he chooses as well. “I never was a big gear person,” he admits. Luckily, he has Late Show Band tech and informed gearhead Matt Mead to help him keep his pedalboard well-stocked. “There’s so many things I’m learning about the job and trying to keep straight in my head that this ends up getting the short end of the stick, and it wouldn’t work if there was not a Matt Mead to make up the rest of that stick and make it sound good.”
“The show throws a lot of curveballs,” Mead points out. “He steers the boat as far as the tones he’s looking for and if there’s a particular sound he’s looking for. Sometimes, I’ll recommend stuff and say, ‘Hey I notice you’re doing this, maybe we should try this.’”
Cato’s collaboratively curated pedalboard is pretty simple at its core: It starts with a Boss FV-500H volume pedal, a Boss TU-3, a Dunlop Cry Baby, and 3 Leaf Audio Octabvre. Cato shows me how he uses the latter for more traditional, Hendrix-style playing, but he points out that the band plays a lot of montunoes, and he tends to use the octave pedal for those. For drive, he uses a J. Rockett Archer and a Truetone Jekyll & Hyde, which are followed by an Xotic RC Booster and an MXR Carbon Copy, all into a Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb reissue, and powered by a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power Plus.
In live performances outside of The Late Show, Cato uses various guitars, but says that the studio’s cold temperature doesn’t do many favors for instruments such as his Gibson Luther Dickinson ES-335 or some of his acoustics, so he’s careful when selecting which guitars come on stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater. The three guitars that most commonly appear on the show are his black Tuttle Custom Hollow T, a cherry red Gibson SG 1961 Reissue, and a Martin OM-28.
Another guitar that sometimes appears on the Late Show is his LP-style Univox, which I ask Cato about in his dressing room. “If I need to be altogether comfortable,” he explains, “I pull out the Univox, because it’s my earliest guitar. I’ve had this since high school.”
Cory Wong "Lunchtime" - The Late Show's Commercial Breakdown
When musical guests visit The Late Show, they get the full-band treatment from Cato and company. Here, Cory Wong sits in for a rhythm guitar showdown of the highest level.
Back when he first got the guitar, Cato remembers, it was in rough shape, desperately in need of wiring and pickup repairs and a new set of tuners. It stayed that way until he was in Boston. When he picked up a wedding band gig playing trombone and guitar, he was lucky enough to have a roommate who could get the Univox performance-ready by replacing the original tuners with locking units, cleaning out the electronics, and swapping the pickups for a pair of Seymour Duncans.
“I didn’t even know there was a such thing as a professional musician.”
But Cato says that even before those repairs, he’s always “loved it because it’s all I had. I remember I was playing a little Vox amp, and this guitar had a feeling out of that amp. This guitar just became home base and felt super natural to my fingers. If I need to just not be thinking at all, this is home.”
Did he ever dream he’d be on television every night, holding this Univox and chumming with a late-night host? “Never! Not once!” he says. “It was just a product of my nurture growing up in a small town. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a professional musician.” And yet, Cato pursued music as fully and single-mindedly as he could. “I just knew that I liked it and felt connected to it.”
Battling a scary health diagnosis during the pandemic, a guitarist set out to conquer some bucket-list items and learned how to build his own pickups. He’s built 13 guitars and counting.
I’m an avid reader of Premier Guitar and have been modding Fenders since I can remember—way before the name “partscaster” was ever used. I’ve been battling bladder cancer the past few years. Little did I know just how important my love for single-coil Strats was going to change my life. Due to the Covid-19 shutdown, I couldn’t have surgery for five months until hospitals opened surgical wards again. I was going through chemo treatments and cancer was consuming my life. I had to find a way to keep myself and my mind busy. I couldn’t be around anyone, so what was I supposed to do? It seemed like every waking moment was being consumed by thoughts of cancer, cancer, cancer.
Believing I had very little time left, I decided to tackle some “bucket list” projects. Two things I’d never done: 1. Learn how to paint guitars, specifically vintage nitro paint jobs on unfinished bodies, and 2. how to make pickups.
Jobe Jude holds one of his handwound pickups.
And so, it began. I contacted Gary at Branzell Guitars in Nevada, a luthier originally from my area. He told me there was a learning curve (boy, he wasn’t lying) and started guiding me through the ins and outs of making great pickups. He recommended a Mojotone Pickup Coil Winding Machine for me. My favorite vintage Fender pickups are the ’57/’62s, but they’re lacking a RWRP (reverse wound, reverse polarity) middle pickup, which really gives you that Fender quack in position 2 and 4. So, if I could get in the ballpark of the Fender ’57/’62s and Mojotone 59s, I would be a very happy builder. After trying three types of wire, my favorite tones came from vintage Formvar wire and the plain enamel. I only use Remington wire. It will unwind from the spool with no issues and the wire sounds the same, spool after spool. I soak my flatwork in lacquer and let it dry overnight before winding.
If you’re a player that has no issue dropping $400 to $500 on some handwounds, I encourage you to buy a pickup winder and learn to make your own pickups. It takes time, but you’ll learn faster than you think. You can make them get the tone you’re after. Just about any handwound pickup will beat any factory pickup. One reason I think is in the tightness. It’s all about the feel you get when doing the windings. Once you have it down, you can make the same spec pickups time after time.
Now to find unfinished bodies for painting. I ended up with six new and one used. The used body was a 1999 MIM Fender I purchased from a young lady named Julie. This was a gift from her father. After many years, she decided to repaint it. She was unhappy with the results, so she sanded it down, all the way back to unfinished wood. I bought the body and painted it shell pink. My first question about paint was: Do I buy a sprayer, or can I do it from a can? My friend Frank Harrison, who owns a hundred Strats, (he says the number is much lower) told me to find Gracey’s paint. And yes, the can works. I added a rosewood neck and named her Julie, of course. It is one great guitar.
Jobe Jude’s “paint locker.“
So far, I have seven paint jobs and 13 other “partscasters” going at once. Screw you, cancer! I am keeping busy. I have learned more in the last two years than I have in 50 years of playing and working on guitars.
In 2022, I had a setback with the cancer and several rounds of treatments. On August 26, 2022, I had retesting to see if it had worked. My closest guitar warriors gathered for a cookout the following day. Good or bad news, we were all going to be together. Good news! No evidence of disease found. I’m not out of the woods; it’s cancer. But I have hope.
I hope my story can help someone. Special thanks to PG for letting me share it and everyone who helped me through this pathway.
A guitarist enlists his friend to build a teardrop guitar like the one he saw Brian Jones playing with the Rolling Stones in the early 1960s.
Since I was an 11-year-old in 1963, I’ve been drawn to the teardrop-shaped guitar I saw Brian Jones playing in pictures of the Rolling Stones. It had such an artistic and classical shape compared to the Strats, Jaguars, and traditional ES guitars that were so popular among my preteen friends. I never lost the attraction to the Vox Mark VI guitars.
In December 2021, I was talking to my good friend Jeff, a builder and guitar tech extraordinaire, and mentioned that I always liked the teardrop. On a whim, I asked him if he’d consider building one for me. I seriously doubted he would have the time, and if he did, I would be waiting a long time. “Well,” he said, “I really would need a plan….” I thought, Hm, he’s a little interested.
I searched the internet and found a great drawing from the TDPRI forum and brought it to him. Jeff said he had a piece of mahogany that might fit, and that he’d also been looking at vintage Vox necks on eBay. He showed me the listing for a neck from a 1964 Vox Spitfire or Hurricane (the seller wasn’t sure which). We sealed the deal when he pointed out that the headstock didn’t have the same paddle design as the classic teardrop, and I told him that that was my least favorite part of the teardrop design. I preferred the headstock on the Spitfire/Hurricane.
The project went quickly from there. The plan was not to replicate an exact 1963 Mark VI, but to create a modern, roadworthy guitar with all the visual appeal of the Mark VI. Jeff went to work and four weeks later, I demoed the guitar before finishing. It felt and sounded incredible.
The pickups are a pair of Seymour Duncan P-100s wired through a 4-way modded (series/parallel) switch. The bridge and tuners are from a hardtail Fender Strat that Jeff happened to have hanging around. The maple headstock complements the warm white lacquer finish perfectly, and the guitar is appointed nicely with the obligatory Vox-style chicken-head knobs.
When I took delivery of the guitar, it looked absolutely beautiful, and I was onstage with it that weekend. I had a feeling that it would raise a lot of interest at shows and sure enough, on most nights, a guitar player in the audience finds their way to me and wants to talk about the guitar that they too remember from the ’60s. Every time I put the teardrop on and plug it in, I feel like I’ve come full circle with that kid from 1963 who dreamed about playing electric guitar in a rock ’n’ roll band. It’s pretty cool when dreams come true.
Reader Guitar of the Month: The CooderMapster
An affection for Ry Cooder and Arlen Roth inspired this glorious guitar amalgamation.
My introduction to Ry Cooder and slide guitar came with the 1986 Walter Hill movie Crossroads. As a teenager searching desperately for music with more feeling than the hair-metal bands my friends listened to, I’d begun buying Chess reissues by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, so I already knew I liked the blues. I was especially drawn to the slide sound, but I didn’t really know how it was done. Crossroads helped fill in the blanks, and before long, I was buying my first guitar, putting a piece of cut-off brass pipe on my finger, and trying (and failing miserably) to emulate the sounds I heard Ry Cooder making. To me he was magic: How did he make everything sound so good?
Arlen Roth to the rescue….
To the rescue came Arlen Roth and his Hot Licks Slide Guitar VHS video, which I ordered via an ad in a guitar magazine. He was Ralph Macchio’s guitar coach in Crossroads, so I figured if he could teach an actor with no previous guitar playing experience, he could teach me. He laid out open tunings, scales, and left- and right-hand damping techniques, and with that solid basis I was able to take off on my own. Roth had a different tone than Cooder with his heavy brass slide versus Cooder’s glass, but he had the same kind of magic in his playing. I was especially enamored of Roth’s black map-shaped National Newport he used in the video. I’d never seen anything like it. Someday ....
Speaking of cool guitars, Cooder’s famous Coodercaster with the Valco string-through lap-steel pickup, big plate, and Teisco gold-foil pickup was something I considered unobtainable. This was, of course, back in the days before there was a cottage industry producing emulations of this previously singularly unique instrument.
Fast-forward a few decades, and my admiration for those two mentors hasn’t diminished, but I never managed to get a cool map-shaped National electric. I also never jumped on the Coodercaster bandwagon, the repro market for which is in full swing. The yearning for both was still there, but in the case of the National map guitars, the collector’s market priced them into unaffordability. However, I came across a used Airline Map STD by Eastwood for a good price on Reverb. It’s red, not black like Roth’s National Newport, but the red-and-white color scheme reminded me of J.B. Hutto’s Airline, so it would do.
There’s even a little J.B. Hutto in the CooderMapster’s mixed genes.
When I received the guitar, I liked the way it felt and played, but I’m not a humbucker guy (the pickups had been upgraded to Duncan ’59s). And then it hit me: Why not make it a Coodercaster? I lucked into a couple of vintage, bona fide Cooder-style Teisco gold-foil pickups that were liberated from a trashed guitar, so all I needed was a Valco-style lap-steel pickup. A viable original would be difficult to get. I also don’t like the idea of harvesting pickups from perfectly good-working lap steels for my vanity project, so it came down to Mojo or Lollar. I went with Mojo because they seemed to have ironed out the notorious phasing issues without a special wiring harness.
I could fumble my way through the wiring, but I knew some routing was needed to install the Mojo, so I had that done by Gavin Gaines at Southeast Guitar Repair. Mounting the gold-foil on a piece of pickguard material cut to the size of a humbucker ring was my idea, and it worked well. The Mojo pickup needed a riser to get it to the right height, and the pickguard had to be cut back a little, but otherwise it wasn’t difficult. However, the string spacing needed help. The treble strings were okay, but the bass strings lacked punch and volume, so I ordered a new Tune-o-matic bridge. I then notched the saddles to line up with the pickup polepieces, which made a marked improvement in tone.
And a wonderful tone it has! The 24.75" scale and largely hollow construction of the Map makes it sound a little different than the typical Strat 25.5" scale and solid body, but it’s recognizably Coodercaster-ish. The pickups balance beautifully, with the Mojo lap steel being bright and cutting, while the gold-foil offers warmth and chime. The combined pickup setting doesn’t have the dreaded phase issue. The extra volume control also allows a bit more flexibility than the typical two-knob Coodercaster, allowing individual volume control of the pickups.
Since it’s an Airline Map and a Coodercaster, I named it the CooderMapster. When I play it, it reminds me of my guitar heroes Ry Cooder and Arlen Roth. To them I say: Thank you, gentlemen, for the instruction, the enjoyment, and the inspiration.
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