A vintage Gibson might have been a missed opportunity, but it inspired a pair of builders to reach for greatness.
Everyone has that “one that got away” story, and as a former small-time vintage-guitar dealer, I’ve got more than a few. The blue-chip examples that passed through my hands haunt me, but there were others that just spoke to my soul. I have fond memories of the hunts, catches, and the releases. Even the ones beyond reach or missed opportunities were exciting. Still, there was one encounter that sticks out maybe more than all. In fact, it led to my 50-year-and-still-counting stint as an instrument builder.
In the late 1960s, the Sound Post was a guitar shop in Evanston, Illinois, not far from where I lived. The owner, Rudy Schlacher, was a former violin maker who had cut his retail teeth at Chicago’s famous Guitar Gallery in the early 1960s before opening his own shop. One of my high school buddies, the late Greg Bennett (designer and founder of Greg Bennett Design) worked at Sound Post, so naturally, I was a familiar face in the store. Schlacher was always trying to entice customers to purchase music gear in novel ways and was the first person to extend store credit to me—a blessing and curse.
One day, while perusing the shop’s usual fare, I noticed an odd-looking guitar hanging on the wall. It was a pale yellow color and shaped like a mutant Dorito. The banana-like headstock had a Gibson logo and a sign that read $10,000 in big numbers. This was when a Les Paul Custom sold for $595, so, naturally, I thought it was a joke, but Schlacher wasn’t kidding. He explained that what I was privileged to see was an extremely rare instrument that few heard of, and even fewer had actually seen. I wasn’t sure if he was exaggerating, but he wouldn’t pull it off the wall for me to play. It made a big impression—I was obsessed.
Fast forward a couple years and a thousand life lessons later, I’d learned all about the Gibson Explorer and why Schlacher had put an impossibly high price on his. He didn’t really want to sell it—it was theater. Through the small community of guitar traders, I had made the acquaintance Chicagoan Jim Beach, owner of Wooden Music on Lincoln Avenue on the city’s North Side. Jim was an accomplished machinist and woodworker who made instruments in the back of his small store. He’d been crafting solidbody electrics of his own design but had also made a few Flying V and Explorer replicas as well.
“The banana-like headstock had a Gibson logo and a sign that read $10,000 in big numbers.”
My business partner, Paul Hamer, and I recognized an opportunity to create a hybrid version of our favorite vintage instruments, and we purchased a mahogany husk from Jim in raw state. The previous year, in 1973, we’d created a Flying V bass for me with the help of John Montgomery, a local repair guy who handled our shop’s more difficult jobs, like finishing and neck breaks, in his suburban basement. Montgomery had done some fine repairs on a customer’s Les Paul Standard and had put a flame maple veneer on a Les Paul Professional for the Dutch virtuoso Jan Akkerman, so we had the right ingredients to do something interesting.
What we envisioned was a unique guitar with a bound maple top—a cross between Schlacher’s Explorer and the vaunted ’59 Gibson “Burst.” The mainstream didn’t even know about vintage guitars yet, but that didn’t matter; we knew what we wanted. With some coaxing, Montgomery descended on the Beach husk while we collected the hardware and basically got in his way trying to help in his basement shop. Progress was slow but steady, and by December of 1974, the woodwork, binding, and paint was done at Montgomery’s, so the parts assembly and setup could be completed at our Northern Prairie Music store in Wilmette. We’d put an original PAF humbucker in the bridge position, and the guitar sounded remarkably good. We called it the Standard.
The next day, December 7, 1974, we brought a load of vintage guitars backstage to a Wishbone Ash concert at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, including the newly minted modern vintage Explorer, which we showed to guitarist Andy Powell. He passed on the guitar, but bassist Martin Turner inquired about having an Explorer bass built. Turner and I sat down with pencil and paper and mapped out the specifics: Thunderbird pickups and bridge, narrow neck, 34" scale, and a gloss black finish with a small amount of metalflake, to look “like the night sky,” as Turner described. As we left the venue, Paul wondered out loud, “How the hell are we going to do this?” I just replied that we’d figure it out, just like we always did. We had our first “Modern Vintage” order, and the rest is history. Even the ones that get away can serve a purpose. And thanks to Rudy, for refusing to let me touch that Explorer.
For starters, says Hamer Guitars cofounder Jol Dantzig, avoid stock typeface at all costs.
There was a time when the shape of an electric guitar was all you needed to see to know who made it. That seems quaint now, right? There are so many builders, and so many guitars that lean heavily on previous designs. I’m as guilty as anyone of synthesizing styles, but the sheer volume of entries into the marketplace can cloud your vision. This is nothing new for orchestral instruments whose forms have been practically identical for centuries. Usually, you’ve got to look at the logo to be sure if it’s a Yamaha or a Conn. (I have to do this with cars nowadays.) As the guitar industry gets increasingly crowded with “tribute” instruments, it becomes difficult to know exactly what you are looking at. Because of this, the brand logo becomes more important than ever.
In simple terms, a logo is a graphic design element that represents a product, brand, or organization. It can be a symbol, words, or a combination of both. Designers will tell you that a typeface is not a logo unless it is so specialized as to not be mistaken for anything else. Coca-Cola, Gibson, and Fender spring to mind. Over time, and with lots of advertising, typeface logos can become embedded in the public consciousness. Studies have shown that children recognize and associate symbol logos before they can read—think Pepsi or Apple—so those designs really hit us at a deep level. Logos are also a point of pride for customers of each product tribe, and it seems everyone is searching for that.
Other aspects a good designer will take into consideration is if a logo will readily adapt to different mediums. A full-color logo might not translate when cut out of steel in reverse, whereas a properly constructed symbol will. If you’re going to produce guitar logos of mother of pearl to be inlaid into a headstock, you have to be cognizant of the limits of your routing capabilities, as well as whether or not the logo will be a single or multiple-piece part. Just because you can draw it doesn’t mean it can be made easily. More parts equal more cost and effort. However, there are lots of companies that supply finished shell-inlay parts for big manufacturers and small shops, too. They can guide you with their decades of experience when refining your logo for production use.
Besides inlay, there are quite a few ways to apply a logo to an instrument. Centuries ago, instruments might have been signed in ink, or have a paper label decorated with the builder’s name. Eventually, names migrated to the headstock, where potential buyers could see them from a distance, such as in a shop window. This also allowed performing musicians to promote individual makers by merely appearing in public. As instruments moved towards being a commodity, the burden of identification fell more and more to the brand logo.
In the 20th century, factories started to build ever larger quantities of guitars, and handlettering became inefficient, and lacked consistency. The job was replaced by industrial processes, including cloisonné or printed metal tags which were glued, nailed, or screwed to the peghead. Another popular method was silkscreen. Like T-shirt screening, an operator placed the headstock into a fixture with a hinged-screen frame. The frame closed down on the headstock and the operator swiped screen ink with a squeegee. Gibson still uses this technique to replicate their golden age instruments. For costlier guitars, mechanical routers and pantographs were able to accomplish pearl inlay logos at a fraction of the cost of handwork. Today, computer automated routers do this work in even small shops.
The most ubiquitous method today is the waterslide decal. Invented in France in the 1700s, the printed decal—or décalcomanie—consisted of a printed image suspended in a thin film on a piece of paper. The image is released onto an object with water. Those who grew up building model airplanes will instantly recognize the process. These decal logos are inexpensive to make and can be applied quickly, making them perfect for mass production. Used by many guitar makers including Gibson, Fender, and Martin, they can be added over the finish or topcoated after application. You can even make them on a computer printer using decal paper.
When designing a logo for your band or brand of gear, you might want to avoid that stock typeface no matter what type of process you use. When we founded Hamer in 1973, graphic designer Max LeSueur chose a stock font (bookman bold italic) for our brand. I liked it because it was the font that Italian frame builder Colnago used on their world-beating racing bicycles, but now it looks like dozens of other dated 1970s examples. So, whether your logo is a painstakingly executed inlay, silkscreen, or decal, it is your call to action, your personal identity, and your tribal flag all rolled into one. Choose wisely.
How—despite being embraced by Jeff Tweedy, Stone Gossard, Ty Tabor, Dweezil Zappa, and other luminaries—this acoustic-electric hybrid was somehow DOA.
It’s not often you get the kind of idea that wakes you up in the middle of a dream and makes you sit upright, but that’s exactly what happened to me in December 1991. It’s also the only time it’s ever happened to me.
I’d been approached by guitarist Tommy Shaw about the possibility of constructing a doubleneck instrument that was half-acoustic/half-electric. It was the era of the “power ballad,” when a song would begin with an acoustic-tinged intro and verse, which would then lead to the inevitable power-chord riffage that was engineered to saddle up the tune and ride it home. Most bands used acoustic guitars—often held on stands—before switching to electric. Tommy wanted to dispense with the switchover by building a single guitar that performed both tasks. He’d tried a piezo bridge on an electric, but the results were dismal, so the doubleneck concept was his solution.
At the time, I was working on a project for Ovation Guitars, called the Viper, that was basically a response to Gibson’s Chet Atkins solidbody acoustic. This guitar was a semi-hollow, Les Paul-sized guitar with a spruce top and an acoustic bridge fitted with the requisite piezo saddle. My first thought was to just graft a Viper together with a humbucker-loaded solid half to create a doubleneck.
I had been struggling with the design for a few days when I had my epiphany: “I could just put humbuckers on the Viper and control the output with a simple switch.” It seemed so perfect I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it sooner. I went back to sleep, and in the morning I called Tommy to tell him about the “dual” guitar idea. At first, he wasn’t so sure. I think that the doubleneck visual might have been as important as the sound, but eventually Tommy gave me the green light. Of course, dreams can be simpler than reality.
The Ovation piezo sound was acceptable by 1980s standards, but putting that bridge onto a semi-solid guitar wasn’t helping the cause, so I enlisted the help of EMG’s electronics wiz Rob Turner to create a preamp/EQ that dialed back the quack. We spent several days in his workshop in Petaluma, California, tweaking the curves until I had what I wanted: a softer attack that gave the guitar a more natural sound without sacrificing too much presence. After all, it did have to cut through the mix onstage.
Back home in Chicago, the guys in the shop produced the guitar from my drawings and I assembled the electronics. After the setup guys put the strings on and tuned it up, we held our breath as the first notes were played. The humbuckers were routed to one output and the acoustic sound to another. The idea was to use two discreet transmitters (or cords), with the magnetic pickups going to the guitar amps and the bridge output to a DI and into the FOH board. The onboard 3-band EQ could be trimmed by Tommy’s tech to suit the stage, using a small screwdriver. I was pretty happy with the result and so was Tommy. Incidentally, I kept three small sound holes clustered in the upper bout as a nod to the Ovation project that spawned it.
After the successful run with the guitar, we decided to offer it as a model. Christened as the DuoTone, it went into production and became quite popular with a number of guitarists, including Ty Tabor, Stone Gossard, Dweezil Zappa, Jeff Tweedy, and many others. I figured we had a hit on our hands—a workable hybrid that actually sounded great. After a few years, the second version replaced the round holes with a proper f-hole, and the flat, spruce top gave way to a carved one. The electronics were upgraded as well, with the use of a Kynar cable transducer beneath a bone saddle, and Rob Turner created the version 2.0 electronics to match. A subtle change was the use of a TRS jack in addition to the acoustic output, which allows the use of a stereo cable to carry both signals. It just kept getting better.
In the end, the DuoTone didn’t capture the imagination of guitarists the way we thought it might. Despite some of the best musicians in the business using them, and a fairly substantial ad campaign, the average guitarist wasn’t smitten with the idea. Maybe it was viewed as an empty promise, like so many gimmicky guitar products—like the Guitarorgan or the EBow. Or maybe, in true guitarist fashion, players just wanted to play real acoustics for the actual sound. Still, there’s a soft spot in my heart for the DuoTone project, which I think of every time someone comes out with their own version.