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Some would say that  music and instruments are  in my DNA. One of my  great grandfathers was from a small village within cycling distance from Cremona, the historic epicenter of the great Italian instruments.  Another played in a large mandolin orchestra  during the teens and 1920s. Sixty plus years later, I was playing the guitar as a young teenager  along with him on the mandolin. He was in his mid 80s and seemed ancient to me, but you could tell he still had a feel for the music.

My  earliest memory  with a  guitar is in the back of my father’s old split bumper Camaro.  I was about five years old and the backseat seemed to be the size of a tennis court;  me and my guitar sliding around on that jet black vinyl into every corner on the way to our  lesson.

By 1979 I was 13 and building my first guitar. I played it in a number of bands for several years and eventually sold it, always working on the next instrument. The $450 I pocketed from the sale back then felt like $6000 today; I was hooked.  A few years later, I’d drive all day with my guitar nerd buddies to hang out on 48th street in Manhattan. In the ’80s that place was legendary with guitar shops everywhere for as far as you could see. For what any kid could earn mowing lawns for 6 weeks in the summer, you could come home with incredible guitars from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Guitars that cost as much as my house today could be had for anybody that wanted one; rock stars would write songs making fun of people who could only afford an old guitar. I’ll never forget seeing  a dozen D’Angelicos sitting stacked on top of each other out of their cases- wood on wood, lacquer on lacquer; stripped of everything and there was a big cardboard box full of  parts. For under $1000 you could have the  one you wanted and they’d build it up from parts out of that old box. We used to laugh and wonder who in their right mind would want one of those old pieces of junk;  just the old Italian guys and jazz heads in the city.  I was amazed that someone would pay $2100 for a 1959 Les Paul Sunburst.  You could always just mow a few more lawns and get another guitar; we thought it was going to be like that forever.

The  first 40  or so instruments were built just for me. Build it, use it, play it to the point of self destruction;  come back and make the next one a little bit better, always after that perfect combination of sound and playability.  People talk about “field testing”, but how far are they willing to go? On over 7000 commercial river miles  and all the way to high up in the Himalaya, I’ve always carried my best instrument. Trains and planes; rafts and kayaks and sailboats;  rickshaws and buses and cars; on yaks and strapped to my own back for 50 days or more at a time. Why would you ever want to carry a “beetrrr” so that you can sound like  garbage in some of the world’s most beautiful natural settings? Life is short; give it your best shot. When (not if) an instrument breaks, fix it again; keep on laughing and pushing it. Working on great vintage and  historic instruments has had a profound effect on how I build new ones.

There are a lot of names and places that I’ve sought out for answers, studied with, and worked for along the way. I try to spend a week or two each year and  study with the people  I’ve always looked up to. They are getting old and passing on, so  I try to get as much of that information as possible before it slips away. Passing it on again to the next generation keeps the tradition coming in  from my end and I continue  it on with my own students.

None of that really matters when all you want is a great guitar. What’s the voice of the instrument like? Does the neck cradle your hand like subtle curves of a long lost lover? Will the tone and volume  knock over a banjo player in the middle of Salt Creek? Or Djangology? Or All Blues?  Or Tico Tico? Or maybe Aerial Boundaries. Does the finish glisten and shimmer like the eyes of a beautiful woman? Is it setup so that you can effortlessly play for hours at a time? Does it inspire, motivate, and capture me such that the wild look comes out and I don’t want to stop playing  or give it back? Who really cares what my degree is in or how long I served in the military or if I listed the correct dates for an old part time job resoling Birkenstocks???

I worked for one of the larger production companies  long enough to realize that I don’t want to spend my days worrying about having dozens of people on the payroll  or trying to keep 1000 cases, tailpieces, and tuning machines in stock. Building guitars for rock stars didn’t mean  much when someone else had their  name on the headstock; even less when a beancounter dork who didn’t  even know how to hold a guitar and called the neck a handle was always yelling at me to make the instruments faster.

The  texture of the the wood, patient shavings from  a nice bronze plane, the smell of hot hide glue and garlic mixed in with a little spruce and rosewood shavings; building one at a time by hand.

Among all of  it, I’ve always been a strong giging musician across a variety of genres. Bad Elton John covers as a ‘tween in the ’70s; hair metal bands in the ’80s; three nights a week playing fingerstyle Michael Hedges covers in the ’90s, lots of bluegrass,  jazz of all types,  Tuesday nights with a  Celtic group, sitting in with an amazing pianist and trumpeter  who played Kind of Blue cover to cover for one set, and a lightning fast Gypsy swing quartet these days. Guitar, mandolin, and upright bass.

Kudos and 1000 thanks go out to my  friends &  mentors:  Mike Kemnitzer, Arnold Schnitzer, Don Teeter, David Nichols, Jeffrey Elliott, Eugene Clark,  Kim Breedlove,  Ron Sacci, Doug Foley,  Danny Ferrington,  David Russel Young,  and Douglas B Mahon.

Cutaway guitar, 1995. Decoupled back braces inspired by a fossilized turtle shell on the Green River’s Desolation Canyon,  Utah.