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Lex Luthier


Early Christmas Surprise

"He was going to school at Lafayette which is right around the corner from us," said Bob Willcutt.

The owner of Willcutt Guitars learned the teen, who suffered serious injuries in the crash, was often in his shop. Willcutt was a member of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass. His 'big brother', David Portney, contacted the store after the crash.

"Would go around to guitar shops and look at things and dream with the young man," explained WIllcutt.

His mentor says Portwood dreamed big, setting his eyes on a particular guitar.

"Had a picture of guitar he liked to play on and even had the picture on his phone," said Willcutt.

That guitar - an Epiphone Studio Les Paul - is now his.

"He can play anything from rock to blues on it," said Willcutt.

Willcutt and his wife provided an early Christmas surprise for the young man who has been through so much.

"Sad thing is the young man's father was also in an accident at one point, so the boy really needed some help and I thought this guitar might cheer him up," said Willcutt.

Portwood's dream guitar is not the only thing he is receiving. Several employees chipped in to provide some 'extras.'

"The employees really felt close to somebody here in our neighborhood that was injured and wanted to be a part of this," explained Willcutt.

They made sure Portwood has all the necessary accessories to go with his new instrument, including things like tuners, cables, and an amp.

"I hope it gives him something to really focus on and do while he is recovering. He could actually make something really creative and different, you know sometimes you make a bad situation into a good outcome," said Willcutt.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass is collecting donations from anyone wanting to help with Portwood's recovery.

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Friday, November 25, 2016

That Slick Feel

There is nothing like the "slick feel"of a properly setup guitar. Everyone's idea of this is different, but they will know it when they pick it up to play. First we will talk about electric guitars, as acoustics may have some different criteria. The neck needs to be almost straight with a bit more relief on the bass side and less on the treble side, If you can, refine your picking technique to minimize buzz. The string height at the nut is very critical and should only be adjusted with filing or filling by a very experienced luthier. If it has an open wood (not maple with a finish) the fingerboard should be routinely treated with Fret Doctor, which is made of purely organic oils and the frets smoothed and polished. Most fingerboard oils are nothing more than Naphtha, mineral oil, or other petroleum products scented to smell like lemons and could potentially actually harm your wood.The  back of the neck should be cleaned and polished regularly to remove hand deposits. New strings play more in tune and feel more even and responsive. Elixir coated strings are even more slick feeling and last much longer than regular uncoated ones.

Acoustic guitars need a little more relief in the neck to compensate for harder picking styles. When capos are used the action becomes lower so the bridge height needs to be higher to compensate for it. An acoustic can be set lower if only open chords are played. The bridge saddle needs to be shaped to the proper radius and about 1/16"- 1/8" lower on the treble side than the bass side. The top of the saddle needs to be smooth and free from notches. All the other suggestions form the previous paragraph apply.

We recommend that your guitar be inspected at least once a year to keep it in top performance. There is no charge for looking at it and determining if service is needed.
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Posted by:  Bob Willcutt - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How to destroy your guitar in 14 easy steps

Bob Willcutt has been repairing guitars for almost 50 years. He has been reversing damage done by not only time, but mostly by neglect and poor care. If you love your instrument, please DISREGARD THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE!    

Leave your guitar in the car, especially the trunk.
(Even on a 70 degree day, it can sour to 113 in an hour and 80 can go to 172!)

While unloading, get distracted and leave your guitar on the trunk lid or roof, and then later, drive off!
(Never leave your instrument unattended)

Put your guitar in its case and don't close the latches.
(Someone can come along and pick it up way the handle and it will flip out)

Pick up the guitar out of its case and don't hold the lid with the other hand.
(The latch tab on the lid can come down and put a deep dent in the guitar top.)

Lean your guitar against the wall with the strings facing out.
(This accentuates a bow in the neck. If you do lean it, do it backwards with he strings against the wall.)

Use a case with no neck support.
(The best hard cases have a long neck support to help keep the neck straight while in them.)

Don't consistently monitor and maintain constant humidity levels.
(Modern guitars are meant to be kept in 45-50% humidity year round.
Wood is hygroscopic and the top and neck especially, move with humidity changes.)

Put larger string gauges on a guitar than what the factory recommends.
(If you do, the guitar must be readjusted to counter the string tension and/or tuned down)

Squeeze the strings harder than necessary so you prematurely wear out your frets.
(A properly adjusted guitar should play easily without excessive pressure.)

Over tighten or don't adjust your tuning machines.
(Over tightening can break the top collars and button washers and not gently tightening them can cause them to turn crooked and wear out quicker)

Over tighten your capo.
(This will not only squeeze the strings out of tune, but will wear down the frets and possibly make impressions on the back of the neck!)

Leave your keys on a chain or in your pocket especially the right side( If you are right handed) ,wear large belt buckles,  jewelry or other objects while playing.  
(Finishes and wood can not stand up to metal objects.Prevention is better than repairs) 

Try DIY repairs on a valuable instrument. 
(You wouldn't want to be a surgeon's first patient. Many repairs can only be done successfully  with fresh damage. Poor jobs can be forever.) 

Ship your guitar with no padding.
(Strings on acoustics and basses should be loosened and headstocks braced. A proper box and bubble wrap, or other padding used, and the guitar insured.)

Now you know what to do and more importantly what not to do!  Enjoy!
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Posted by:  Bob Willcutt - Thursday, August 18, 2016


In any endeavor, a leader needs to have a clear but malleable vision of what that person expects the final outcome to be. If you are a songwriter, you first need some sort of framework to build upon. Making an online or plan with the structure (or lack of it) clearly laid out keeps one from unnecessarily,  and un-meaningfully rambling on. An interesting guitar lick or catchy vocal phrase can then find its place along with the opportunity to fill in the intro, chorus,bridge, ending, etc into some meaningful pattern.You don't need to follow established patterns but even the most innovative new ones need some sort of vision to direct a an intended result.Recording brings more choices as far as outboard gear,console control, computer plugins,as well as suggestions from musicians, engineers, producers, etc. While considering their input, you should keep to your original vision, or else it is no longer your song .Be ready to learn and change if you feel it is an improvement, but keep that original framework vision strong and intact.It is your song.

Video production brings in more variables such as scene design, lighting, costumes, audio syncing, props, and actors along with all the technical restraints, pre and post, limiting what can be economically done in the allocated  time. If you want the video to portray your original vision, then don't let the video people produce something that uses your music but shows a totally unrelated story just because they think it may be more popular. It needs to show and enhance your original vision.

I am presenting an ideal that a true, seasoned, artist can aspire to, but the real world of studio and video costs, and limitations including the producer's demands and the capabilities and egos of supporting musicians plus the fine print in hastily signed contracts, may impact some of your pure aesthetic plans. 

Be true to your vision. There is satisfaction in seeing and hearing your creations you first and then continuously envisioned it, although embellished with the winds of chance and change.

-By Bob Willcutt
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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Brian T. Majeski Article

What Ancient Greeks Can Teach Us

About Success In The Music Industry - Brian T. Majeski, The Music Trades Online

Watching a blacksmith hammering on his anvil, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras noticed a relationship between the size of the hammer and the pitch of the sound it made: heavier hammers created lower notes, lighter ones produced higher notes. From this encounter he concluded that musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations. Historians debate the accuracy of the blacksmith story, but there's no argument that 2,500 years later, every stringed instrument is based on Pythagoras's equation detailing the relationship between string length and pitch.

   Like Pythagoras, the ancient philosopher Plato also noted that music was based on precise structure and formulas. However, he observed that it also contained a magic, capable of swaying human emotion, which defied precise definition. (Louie Armstrong was apparently channeling the same thoughts when he said of jazz, "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.") Sometime around 370 BC, Plato concluded, "The man who arrives at the doors of artistic creation with none of the madness of the muses would be convinced that technical ability alone was enough to make an artist." This "madness of the muses" probably explains a lot of rock star excess, but it also, to cite the ancient philosopher, allows "music to give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything." 

   Greece today is an economic basket case and the poster child for all that's wrong with Europe. But it deserves credit for turning out the perceptive minds that identified the combination of mathematical precision and undefinable art that define music. Unknowingly, this pair also displayed a pretty perceptive assessment of what it takes to succeed in the contemporary music industry.

   Our industry includes an extremely diverse collection of companies, but the successful ones all manage to blend art and science. The art is evident in products and services that stir the musician's muse. The science includes operational and financial issues necessary to ensure profitability. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the guitar industry. Elsewhere in this issue, we discuss why over the past five years, the acoustic guitar has been one of the industry's bright spots. Chalk some of this up to musical trends that are both extremely fickle and beyond control. However, manufacturers deserve some of the credit for their current good fortune.

   Art and science blend seamlessly on the floors of the leading acoustic guitar manufacturers, where you can see slick computer-controlled carving machines cranking out component parts and automated buffing machines at work alongside skilled craftsmen doing painstaking inlay work. This combination of automation and handwork is augmented by teams that analyze production flow, process control, and materials usage in an effort to push quality and value. Couple these production skills with people who understand what makes a beautiful looking and sounding guitar and you get what one retailer described as "a guitar industry renaissance."

   The Stratocaster, now celebrating its 60th anniversary, owes its longevity to a similar blend of art and science. Through dogged persistence, Leo Fender worked out the physics of guitar design including scale length, the bridge configuration, and ergonomics. But the unprecedented curves of the Strat's body, its tonal versatility, and its original tremolo can only be described as a work of art. There are quantifiable measures for why the Strat is a highly functional instrument. But the reason it has become a timeless icon is beyond measurement. Like a Stradivarius violin, it possesses a magic that has inspired musicians for six decades.

   If the best instruments are defined by of art and science, so too are the industry's best enterprises. Both are needed to address the market. The corporate graveyard is full of enterprises that have offered up exceptional products and inspired marketing efforts but lacked comparable operational and financial skills. By the same token, the market hasn't been kind to companies that have operated on the premise that with slick logistics, selling music and sound gear is no different from moving office products.

   Combining art and science takes a lot of different forms. In retail, it involves good merchandising and promotions along with shrewd buying, tight inventory management, and vigilant cost control. On the production side, it comes down to gear that inspires, delivered at a compelling price. Like most things, this is pretty simple in theory, but devilishly difficult to put into practice. But it's something that sets our industry apart and makes it one of the more interesting places to work. 

Author- Brian T. Majeski

The Music Trades Online

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Posted by:  Willcutt Guitars - Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Small differences affect the sound of guitars

Guitar players are very opinionated about everything. Some ideas about sound can be scientifically tested, but most can only be speculated. Martin tests everything from different tuning keys to bridge pins and records the information gathered by very precise measuring devices. This works if you use the same guitar and only change one thing, but if you take several "identical" examples of the same model there are countless tiny differences in each one. Even if they have different keys there are the weight and tightness of the screws and how many wraps the strings have around the posts etc.
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Posted by:  Bob Willcutt - Friday, December 13, 2013


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Posted by:  Bob Willcutt - Friday, February 08, 2013

Like Lacey?

Being a guitar player, you would have to be up a tree (hopefully a protected endangered one) to not know about the Lacey Act and how it affects musicians everywhere. The Lacey Act, better know as the Endangered Species Act of 1900 was originally enacted to protect the many birds and animals that were being hunted to the point of extinction. It was the first wildlife statute but was not really enforced until 2008 when legislators from Oregon slipped an amendment into a large, mostly unread agricultural bill extending the coverage to include wood and wood products. This was supposedly done to protect Oregon's logging industry but by the way it was written, it vaguely means that unless an owner of a wood product like a guitar, steak knife, flooring or even chop sticks can't prove that the wood was cut in accordance with all laws and verify the exact genus, species, and source of the wood, they could be fined, forfeit their instrument or floor, and face a possible prison sentence! This is especially enforced by the US Customs for travelers with wood or even shell (the dots on your fingerboard) but they have not yet entered people’s homes. I think Kentuckians would make it quite dangerous for agents to invade their living space. 


To show that they meant business, Federal agents made several raids at the Gibson Factory in Nashville and the last time, with guns drawn and the employees forcibly removed from their stations the luthiers were held hostage with their hands above their heads, while the agents confiscated wood.  The government could not prove that the wood was illegally harvested (raw wood does not have barcodes or rfid chips) so they alleged that the wood was imported into the US in violation of an Indian export restriction designed to keep wood finishing work in India. To make matters worse, although the Indian government certified that the wood was properly and legally exported under this law, the US Fish and Wildlife Service substituted it's own opinion and reinterpreted Indian law! They suggested that if Gibson would finish its fingerboards with Indian labor rather than American labor, there would be no issue. Let's get this right, we are in one of the largest unemployment situations in history and our government wants to lay off American workers and outsource more jobs overseas?


NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) has worked with Congressman Jim Cooper, the world's only banjo playing Rhodes scholar, to introduce an amendment to the Lacey Act that would keep guitar builders, retailers, collectors, and players out of our over crowded prisons. (There would be, however, a new wave of prison blues music!) He recommends that pre-2008 instruments be exempt from these rules and that there be an "innocent owner" provision that would protect sellers and owners from persecution and forfeiture of their wood products.  What are the Smithsonian and the Met going to do with their antique wood treasures? All the major US guitar manufacturers have endorsed the protection of endangered woods and are totally dedicated to finding alternative materials. Gibson is starting to use baked maple and laminates in place of rosewood, and Martin uses sustainable cherry and high pressure laminates on some models. The flood of Chinese instruments is so large that it is basically impossible to monitor exactly what woods are used, so the restrictions fall on our US companies.

Seems like there is a plan to comply with a more realistic Lacey act, but the United Steel Workers Union, the AFL-CIO, and various environmental organizations have banded together to uphold the act! And believe it or not, there are only two government employees working for the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) that inspect import declarations. Thousands of these go unread and go to a Government warehouse somewhere,(probably where the Ark is kept) and here's a quote from a Fish and Wildlife official. "I think you are all criminals!"


If all this sounds like insanity, it is. Murderers get let out of prison on technicalities and the Feds want to imprison guitarists! Not only where were your guitar parts from, including the pearl inlays, but what about the leather that your wallet and shoes were made from, and the steak knife handles, and rubber in you tires affects us, but where does it end?.................


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Posted by:  Bob Willcutt - Friday, December 30, 2011

Penny pinching, picking ideas

Well, the economy is not what it used to be. Actually, people have been saying that since ancient times and will still say it far into the future, at least until as Star Trek says, mankind will loose it's enthrallment with materialism and concentrate on furthering human consciousness. This is today, however, and money, which is what our society is based on, is in short supply. You love guitars and the joy, inspiration, and relaxation that come from them. What can you do to still have their pleasures and not go broke? You could cancel Internet access, don't go out to eat, keep the old car instead of trading for the new one, or just take care of what you already have. A good guitar will last for generations, but only if it is well cared for.

Damage from too low a humidity, and unless you live near water, is a problem in Kentucky and most of the United States. Guitar manufacturers, in order to ship their guitars anywhere, build their instruments in a controlled environment of about 45%. Kentucky, as well as most of the Northern states, experience dryness where in the winter months, levels may drop to 10% or lower. A good humidity system, like the one from Oasis, that is kept in the case (with your guitar in it!) is for most people more practical than humidifying an entire house or music room although if you have a large collection of acoustics, this may be your option. Don't over humidify, there are also problems with that. Swollen tops, loosened braces and the possibility of mold and finish peeling have been noted.

If you put your guitar on a stand, I recommend one with a safety mechanism at the top to keep the guitar from falling out. The automatic ones from Hercules and On-Stage Stands work really well. If you rely on a manual lock or rubber band, the one time you forget to use it, will be the time your pet or child knocks it over!. Broken headstocks can be repaired, but a professional job is expensive and lowers the potential resale of the guitar, bass, mandolin, sitar, etc.

Be careful with belt buckles, rivets on jeans, metal zippers and of course buttons. A shirt pulled down over these is not enough protection. It only takes a second to damage the back of your instrument, and it costs money to repair it. Another problem comes from nitrocellulose finishes (Gibson, Martin, Santa Cruz) coming in contact with the vinyl appliqués on tee shirts (especially when you get hot and sweaty and the name of your favorite is embedded into the finish of your new guitar!) or you play hard and lay it on a vinyl couch or in contact with a plastic strap and return to find the finish stuck to it! If you don't cut the fingernails of your fretting hand, you will wear deep holes in the fingerboard and this is another expense, plus it may make the guitar play out of tune. Squeezing the strings unnecessarily too hard will also affect tuning and prematurely wear out the frets. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”

Well if you don't have a nice guitar to take care of, you can rent one, or find a used one at a garage sale and learn to fix it up from YouTube! And if you cancelled your Internet, the public library offers free access. If you were lucky enough to find a used quality guitar, I would not recommend practicing repairs on it. Take it to a qualified luthier for an appraisal. If it is valuable but in poor shape, he/she may offer you a new playable guitar and maybe some extra cash! This way you have helped save a valuable relic for future generations to enjoy.

There are more ways to save those precious greenbacks. You can reshape old picks with a nail file or even make new ones out of plastic bottles, shells, bone slivers, or pieces of wood. I am serious! Some of these sound really good, and since your Internet is cancelled, it will keep you occupied while you think of which song to play next! If the neck is warped, you can have it repaired or to save money, just learn to play slide guitar. You don't even have to buy a slide. There have been some great tunes done with medicine bottles, drinking glasses, and the ever-ready beer bottle!

New strings are an on going expense, but there are some ways around that too. Always wash and then dry your hands before playing. Eating salty greasy fried chicken and then playing will definitely lessen the lifespan of your strings. Coated strings such as the ones from Elixir and Martin cost more to buy, but last so much longer that they are worth the upfront expense. Another old trick is to remove the old strings from the guitar and boil them for about 15 minutes to remove the caked on finger dirt. Let them dry straight, and then put them back on to enjoy a little more time before they finally sound like rubber bands and you have to change them.

If anyone has any more ideas to save money and still enjoy guitar, please email them in and share your thoughts with our guitar community. What ever you do, have fun doing it, and pass it along!

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Posted by:  Bob Willcutt - Monday, December 05, 2011

Celebrate Rare Earth

Electric guitars require some type of magnetic material that is surrounded by thousands of turns of very small wire to transfer the movement of the strings to an amplifier. The amplifier takes the tiny voltage from the pickup and amplifies it so that it can move a speaker cone making the small string vibration loud enough to fill an arena. The strings can be of any ferrous material, either steel, which is an alloy of nickel and other elements mixed with iron, or pure nickel. Pickups use one of three types of magnetic material, which are stronger than plain iron. The Japanese first discovered the magnetic properties of iron, nickel, and aluminum in the 1930s, but with the addition of cobalt in the 1940s alnico was developed. As it's acronym of the first two letters of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt implies, it is an alloy mixed with iron that is twice as powerful as conventional magnets and much more durable. Subtle differences in the alloy recipe makes alnico III the weakest, alnico II is in the middle and alnico V is the strongest. Even though it is considered an old technology, many guitarists prefer the sweet rounded tone that it provides.


Ceramic, which is hard ferrite, magnets have been around since 1954. These mix Strontium with iron to produce a magnet that is stronger than alnico and not as subject to corrosion as those of rare earth. These magnets have low magnetic pull, which enables the strings to vibrate more free without the string pull that can make a guitar play out of tune. Fender Stratocasters are the most susceptible to this problem. When the pickups are too close to the strings, they tend to not intonate properly, or play in tune. These magnets also have a brighter and sharper tone than alnico ones.


Neodymium Iron Boron, and Samarium Cobalt are the most powerful magnets available today, being 5 to 7 times more powerful than ceramics. Because of their power, a very small Rare Earth magnet can do the work of much larger traditional ones. This is important for active pickups where the extra space freed up in the pickup casing can be used for active circuitry.  They are also used for microphones where the smaller weight makes the diaphragm more responsive, and in speakers where the smaller size reduces the weight of the speaker cabinet.


Where do these elements come from? Science tells us that hydrogen was the first element in the Universe and due to nuclear fusion, elements from helium on up to iron (remember your Periodic Table) were created in our, and other suns. All elements heavier than iron take extra energy to be created, instead of the energy dispersed from the nuclear fusion creating the lighter elements. The only source of such tremendous energy is from Supernovae. When massive aging stars at least 9 times the size of our sun have exhausted their engine of nuclear fusion, they suddenly collapse and form either a neutron star or a black hole, sending heavy elements through out space. This tremendous gravitational collapse mixed with extreme heat can produce the heavy elements that we use in guitar pickups, cell phones, and the many wonders of our modern day world. Ironic that a star had to die so some rocker could be a "star" with a hot electric guitar!


Many of these strategic metals come from countries that are not the most politically stable or have the best history of human rights. South Africa has large deposits of chromium, used on cars and guitars. Afghanistan has one of the largest deposits of lithium, used for high efficiency batteries, and other rare elements. China controls most of the rare earths and as they develop their industries, they will not be exporting these raw materials to other countries. In the future, guitar pickups, speakers, and microphones will mostly come from China. This is a wave of change that effects international politics and is inevitable, and unfortunate. We can always play our acoustics, although they will be made of synthetics such as carbon fiber, as the exotic wood supplies are being restricted and supplies of tropical woods are being exhausted. Oh well, play music often, and live happy!    
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Posted by:  Bob Willcutt - Monday, November 14, 2011

Experience PRS 2011

Fall is in the air, the Chesapeake Bay crabs are in season, and Paul Reed Smith held it's annual "Experience PRS" event at their cutting edge factory in Stevensville Maryland. PRS fans from all over he world travel to meet the factory experts, endorses, and Paul himself. Dealers snatch up new models as soon as they come off the line. This gives a new meaning to "factory fresh" and as soon as they were displayed, customers would buy them. There was no sign of a recession, just good times and lots of music.

Besides the state of the art guitars and upbeat attitude of everyone there, a reoccurring theme kept surfacing. Paul, and his old band-mate, now president Jack Higginbotham have a long history of "giving back" to charities and musicians who need a helping hand. Having helped Orianthi (the young female guitarist of Michael Jackson's "This is it Tour" get more exposure, they have promoted more talented female guitarists. Some were there checking out the new models, and playing on one of the open stages during the event. There were some great musicians who never "made it" but were able to showcase their talents on stage. Eighties type rockers, teenage girls, jazz musicians, and foreigners with a different twist all played and were sincerely appreciated by all. One fusion jazz player, Charles Wright, who with his trio took "on the edge" fusion guitar to a new and believable level. Check him out at www.charleswrightmusic.com

Robert Lee Coleman who played with Percy Sledge and James Brown during the 60s was one of the most humble and soulful players there. Paul rediscovered him playing in a dive with an old Fender Squire and an old cheap amp. Not wanting this great musician with such an illustrious past to spend his last days like this, brought him to the Experience, let other pros jam with and learn from him, and presented him with a brand new USA PRS guitar and amp. Upon receiving these gifts, with tearful eyes, he profusely thanked Paul and said he had never in his whole life ever been given anything, including the respect that the whole PRS community had shown him. This is reminiscent of Paul rediscovering Ted McCarty, who led Gibson through their glory days of the 50's and 60's with designs such as the Les Paul, 335. SG. Firebird, Flying V, Explorer and patents on such innovations still in use today like the humbucking pickup, pickup rings, the tunematic bridge, stop tailpiece, and too many to mention others guitar things we take for granted today. Ted was retired and forgotten about until Paul asked him to mentor him and help design a new model PRS model named the McCarty, of course. Respect and a new project brightened up his last years.

Last year PRS donated, all USA built, six electric guitars (including a Custom 24, a Hollowbody Spruce, a 305, and the retro Starla and Starla X), one acoustic (Angelus) guitar, and seven PRS amplifiers to the Musicians Institute College of Contemporary Music's (MI) GIT program in Hollywood California. The Guitar Institute has produced some of the greatest musicians playing today and the support of PRS providing professional grade instruments is an investment in the future of the instrument.

A few years ago, Paul Reed Smith donated 208 PRS guitars, one to every public high school in Maryland. He wanted to give back to his home state, which he has remained loyal to and expanded his factory providing much need jobs to the state. Jack Higginbotham has a love for racing vintage cars such as Porsche 944s and old BMWs and can do his own mechanical work. He and PRS have for years sponsored "Laps for Life", a racing event with the proceeds going to the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University. They also have an annual golf tournament and auction of PRS guitars, sometimes signed by endorses, with the proceeds going to Johns Hopkins. This year they are also working with Ken Wood, a Maryland well driller who having been contacted by a church about digging equipment he was selling, asked what it was for. After hearing that it was for a remote village in Ghana, he donated the equipment, and traveled to Africa to install it. He has since gone to Africa 15 times and spends 4 months a year there helping to bring water to thousands of people in need. Prs has offered to help finance this project and continues to donate to many worthy causes throughout the world. When you decide to buy a great guitar like a Paul Reed Smith, you are also helping people in need, and spreading the joy of music. Rock on!

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Posted by:  Bob Willcutt - Thursday, September 29, 2011

End of Summer, Not Endless

By Bob Willcutt

School is back in session, vacations (what is that!) are over, and it is time to get back to work. It is also time to prepare your guitars, for the challenges of winter. Modern acoustic guitars are built in a controlled environment of about 45% humidity and 72 degrees temperature. This is done as an ideal standard so that they can be shipped or you can relocate them anywhere in the world and expect the same performance from them. In Kentucky you have to use artificial humidifiers to maintain the standard. During the winter, and sometimes in the summer if you run a lot of air conditioning, levels can drop to 10% or so. When the moisture within the wood escapes into the dry air, the top will shrink causing a change in the playing action. The neck can bow and if severely dry; it can cause the wood to crack as it shrinks. If left like this for too long, it can cause expensive repairs or worse, permanent damage. This can be avoided by either humidifying your music room, or better yet using a quality humidity system that fits in your case, and monitor it with a digital gauge, and remember to add distilled water when needed. I have seen many customers come in with a dried out guitar, and find a humidity system in the case pocket, sometimes never opened! The best system I have found is the one by Oasis. It uses a tube (easily removed for playing) that holds 30 ml of distilled water, curling up to let you know it is time for a refill, and a digital gauge that lets you know what the humidity is inside the case. Of course this approach needs to have the guitar kept in the case when you are not playing, and keeping the tube filled with distilled water when needed.

A good cleaning of the fingerboard with a dry washcloth and then a treatment of good fingerboard oil helps to keep the board from drying out. A dry board can crack, warp, and as the fret slots expand, the frets themselves can become loose in the wood! This causes buzzing from the frets vibrating, and changes the alignment of the frets causing more dead spots and buzzing from high spots. Most fingerboard "oils" are basically linseed or mineral oil and naphtha with some lemon scent added to hide the smell. These "oils" just sit on the top surface of the wood. By not penetrating it, they actually can cause cracking in the wood below the surface. Their nice look is quickly gone as it evaporates rapidly.  Fret Doctor treatment is an organic plant based elixir that soaks deep into the wood preventing these problems, and because it soaks in so deep, the look and protection lasts much longer. I like to use a small short hair artist's brush to work the Fret Doctor deep into the wood grain, and around the frets. Let it soak for 30 minutes and then buff off the residue for a lustrous shine! Repeat 4 times a year for the best results.

To help the guitar community better understand their products and care, most of the large guitar companies are venturing out to the local guitar stores. Within the last week, we had visits from the entire upper management team from Epiphone including the crazy "Dr. Epiphone" of international fame. Kevin the head of Kramer's product development showed new up coming models and their quest for "the holy Grail" of Eddie Van Halen's early sound. Taylor sent the factory rep that explained body sizes, woods, and electronics and matched those elements to customer's needs and wants. He was also accompanied by "Sam the Man" a Taylor official luhier who did free checkups and minor repairs for Taylor customers. Martin Guitars sent their factory rep and master performer Craig Thatcher to play different models and compare their musical and construction attributes. Craig has recorded and written with such performers as Buddy Guy, Derek Trucks, John Hammond, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jonny Lang, Train, Robin Trower, Dicky Betts, Savoy Brown, Jorma Kaukomen, Marty Stuart, Roseannne Cash, Roger McGuinn, The Spenser Davis Group, and even Herman's Hermits! Fender Guitars sent Dale Wilson a Master builder and the two heads of the Fender custom Shop to do an in store clinic and "petting zoo" of the best Fender has to offer. Dale signed guitars and did a setup and nut shaping on a Custom Shop Strat in front of everyone. No secrets, just good honest luthiery!

All in all it looks like Lexington's guitarists will be keeping warm and happy this winter with their well cared for new and old guitars, and the exciting new friends they have met through Guitar networking at their local music stores. 

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Posted by:  Bob Willcutt - Monday, September 12, 2011

Summer NAMM 2011

By Bob Willcutt

A hot summer, rising gas prices, a global recession, and no shows by the electric guitar icons (Fender, Gibson, and PRS) still could not stop the success of the summer NAMM (National Association of Music Merchandisers) show held in Nashville Tennessee July 21-23. The 310 exhibitors and over 10,298 attendees made the show a viable showcase for the industry. The top 100 dealers for the country were honored at an awards ceremony and dinner. These top dealers have survived the economic climate and have figured out how to evolve their business model to better serve today's musical instrument customer.

Kentucky had its representation with Burris amps and pedals, and Q lighting. Ben Lacy was jamming away at a cable booth and was drawing the usual huge crowd. Phil Bradbury, who played for years in Lexington bands, had a booth with his "Little Walter" amps. These are used and endorsed by Reggie Young, Vince Gill, Brent Mason, and Kevin Wilson from Stevie Wonder's band, and more.

Due to the lack of major electric guitar manufacturers, there was a noticeable acoustic guitar vibe, which sort of goes along with Nashville' country roots. Martin had a large booth with many one offs, Custom Shop pieces, and unique accessories. There was enough time available that you could actually get to talk with Chris Martin, heir to the Martin name and legacy, himself! Dick Boak, the Director of Artist and Public Relations and archivist of the history of Martin were also there to talk about the guitar trivia that we all are obsessed with. Summer NAMM is all about the people who love music and it's instruments.

Taylor Guitars featured Brian Swerdfeger, the director of sales and product design. He is the one who brought the GS Mini, a full sounding guitar that will fit in an overhead airline compartment to the market last summer. This year he was promoting the BTO (build to order) masterpieces. Spectacular examples were shown, but the main idea was to show how a customer could spec out his own dream These feature the more popular 12" radius fingerboards, and your choice of either swap ash, or maple capped bodies in a plethora of finishes. The electronics are easily switched with solder fewer connections, so you can change your sound, instead of your guitar. Taylor has their own design for pickups that reduces the pull on the string allowing more string movement and therefore, more harmonic overtones. This is also enhances with their own bridge of highly resonate aircraft aluminum. These are not copies of iconic guitars, but rather something fresh to the market.

Wechter guitars from Fort Wayne, Indiana brought more unique products to the market. Abe Wechter’s history goes back to his apprenticeship at Gibson with master luthier, Richard Schneider. In the early 1970's they worked on the Mark series guitars and the reissues of the J 45 and J200 icons. He has since built many handmade instruments under his own name for some of the biggest names in the industry. By combining modern manufacturing wonders like a Plek Pro. (The German auto fret leveler and setup machine) that every guitar, no matter what price range, is run through in Indiana. Abe trains the workers and uses advanced CNC machines that guarantee consistency. Master resonator guitar maker Tim Scheerhorn has worked with Wechter to bring affordable, quality-sounding resonators to the public and turns the aluminum cones in his USA shop. Another "hole in the market" was the "Nashville tuned" parlor size guitar. It is built with a very thin solid spruce top to resonate with the D and G strings lighter gauge tuned an octave higher than normal. It has the sound of an autoharp, but plays like a guitar, and being Pleked, quite well!

Planet Waves had a mini clip on tuner the size of a tuning key. Someone had a giant stapler that would punch out picks from old credit cards, milk jugs, etc. Small mom and pop shops were selling new ideas that are literally made in their homes and every one in Nashville had a song that they just knew would be the next hit, if you would only listen! Guitar artist Doug Voker had a whole booth full of his unique "art guitars". From animal skins, to gold leaf, to an inlaid chain saw chain on the front of an Explorer, to all sorts of paintings on the guitars, it was like going to the Met! Nick Huber, the German luthier, had his prototype hollowbody named "Reitbergen" the maiden name of his Dutch wife and he played it through a "Little Walter" amp.

The cool thing about the Nashville show is the people. The town has the most friendly people everywhere and this transfers to the vibe of the show. The industry leaders would talk with dealers and customers in a southern easy going manner, and everyone was glad to be around and in the music industry.Summer NAMM was a nice escape from the realities of the outside world, and they signed on to have it in Nashville again next year!

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Break on through to the other side... The Doors to other dimensions!

By Bob Willcutt.

Warning! This article contains ideas and information that may be upsetting to some people. The cumulative knowledge about our Universe, that we as humans are learning about, is rapidly growing and though by no means complete, is expanding at an accelerating rate.

These ideas are not necessarily refuted nor endorsed by the author, advertisers, or publisher. They are not in opposition to traditional faith based beliefs, but rather they compliment and support them.


We live in a world of three dimensions (length, width, and height) plus a forth, called spacetime. Einstein showed us that time is not an absolute, but is relative to who is observing it. (You can use this to explain to your band mates why you are late!) The language of the universe appears to be mathematics and quantum physics goes deep into its meanings. We now believe there are eleven dimensions and “M Theory” (Having nothing to do with Marshalls or Martins but rather membranes) attempts to unify string theory and other theories into Einstein’s elusive goal of a “theory of everything”. This still has to be tested and measured by the classic scientific method, but we are getting closer.


When I was in school, the smallest parts of atoms that we knew about were protons, electrons, and neutrons.  Now we are aware of, but have not proven, the existence of subatomic particles. Fermions make up matter, and Bosons are force-transmitting energy. The amazing thing about Bosons is that they can be in MULTIPLE PLACES AT ONCE! This is where we bring in the music part of the article and get “back on track”! If a performer, through his/her music can enter another dimension (Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, for instance) the same energy he/she was feeling could actually be felt by people listening to it. We have all felt the energy of large crowds at concerts and games, and it is different than watching it on a small TV. In fact, the closer the experience can be, through proximity or the highest quality audio video, to the origin of the source, the closer the listener can be to the energy experience of the performer. Mathematics may be the language of the Universe, but music is it’s soul.  String theory states that all particles of matter are said to be in excitation modes, like a guitar string vibrating under tension.  So it could be said that, everything in the Universe, musical instrument or not, is a form of music!


Of the four known forces that we know about (gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear force) gravity is the weakest. This is why you can pick up a guitar while the whole mass of the Earth is pulling against it. When one object in the Universe is moved, theoretically every other object, even something as large as the Sun or Jupiter is also affected but very little. And no, you are not the center of the Universe, as everything affects everything else. The heavier the object (Hammond B 3, Ampeg SVT) the more the effect.  Newton’s second law of motion states that force equals mass times acceleration, so when you drop that B3, the force that pulls it towards the earth, and how big a hole it leaves in the ground, is determined by the weight and height it is dropped from. Getting back to guitars, a quality strobe tuner, like Peterson makes, will show the effects of gravity on tuning your guitar. If a guitar is laid on a bench, held in playing position, or held with the headstock facing the sky, there will be three different pitches of the same string. Tune your guitar in the position that you will be playing on it and it will be in sync with the gravitational pull of the earth. After the Big Bang when the Universe expanded from a single point, of pure matter and energy called a Singularity, the law of Gravity started to take effect. Lucky for us in these visible four dimensions, it had glitches and was not perfect. This is why there are random patterns of galaxies and particles and continual change and modification is evident. The other seven dimensions may be where the rest of the Universe is. Seventy percent of the Universe is made up of Dark Matter, twenty five percent of Dark Energy, and only the remaining five percent is the energy and matter that we know. Now you know where your lost picks, bridge pins, and of course socks, have gone!


Some people are not attuned to energy transfers and like Barbie dolls, these are unattainable dimensions for them. There is a difference between liking a piece of music, or the performer, and really genuinely feeling the exact dimensional shift that he/she is experiencing. Being “in tune” with God, your inner self, and your surroundings has been a quest for ages. Music is only one way to experience this. Art, dance, literature, and other human endeavors can also transmit  “out of this world” experiences, but with guitar music, it starts with luthiery providing the instruments to achieve this.

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Monday, May 23, 2011

How Does it Fit?

By Bob Willcutt


If you look at the way a warrior of old held his/her sword, lance, or Kentucky long rifle, you can see how a guitarist feels comfortable holding a guitar at the angle enlisted by his/her ancestors! Maybe the term "axe", referring to a guitar, came from this. The headstock is tilted proudly up and the body is hung low like Jimmy Page and it just feels natural. Even when seated in a classical guitar position with a footrest, it is basically at this angle. Whenever the position is changed, like tilting the headstock towards your face to look at your fingering, there can be wrist or arm discomfort. The left hand should be held in a cup like position almost like you are holding a baseball. Either keep your thumb slightly below the center line of the back of the neck in the classical guitar position, or the "rock" position with your thumb over the top of the neck ready to fret the 6th string when needed. In either case, the left hand should be kept in that ball position. If you are playing finger style, the right hand should be in the rounded ball shape with the fingers pulling up perpendicular to the strings and the thumb extended out almost straight so that it picks down parallel to the strings plane. If you pick this way, you can have the action set much lower than normal, and minimize the chance of fret buzz.


If you use a pick, the pick angle must be such that the strokes are absolutely parallel to the string plane. The natural tendency is to pick down into the string, which will force it to hit the frets and BUZZZZZ! This is not the fault of the guitar, but user error. Some players refuse to believe this, but if they were to look at themselves sideways in a mirror from the headstock direction, they will see that even when they think they are picking sideways, they are often at that fret collision angle. If the string is picked in a direction that will collide with the frets, it will hit them and buzz. This is just physics.


Over the years, players who have not heeded my or other Luthiers advice, and believe it is not their fault, have sought out different remedies to "fix" playing problems. Master Canadian Luthier, Linda Manzer, has patented a wedge shaped body design that with the treble side thicker and the bass side thinner, tilts the guitar in towards the player and reduces the pressure on their right forearm. There are some players who have medical conditions that need to relieve the pressure on this area of their arm, but too much tilting can cause the left hand to have to stretch under the neck more than it should, and cause strain on that hand. Master Luthier Grit Laskin, also from Canada, has patented a beveled arm rest on the top of the lower bout of his guitars. Taylor Guitars has recently licensed this design for some of their guitars. And let's not forget the 1954 invention of the Fender Stratocaster that originated the comfortable electric guitar design that still has yet to be improved on.


Some players feel more comfortable with a large body such as a 17" Gibson J-200, and others prefer smaller bodies of 16", 14", or even 12" lower bout widths. Body depth is a factor in how far you must reach over the body. It also makes a difference whether the neck joins the body at the 12th, 14th, or in the case of a Santa Cruz H-13, the 13th fret! The width of the nut 1 5/8, 1 7/8, 13/4, or 2" affects the feel. Over the years I have heard many players say they have "short stubby fingers" and want a smaller neck or nut width so they can reach around the neck more easily. Unfortunately this does not always help, because when the strings are closer together, they have to be more careful to not let their fingers lean over and touch another string. Correct hand positioning is the correct answer to this problem, but changing guitars to find this out helps sell more guitars!


Looks and image association is another factor in the feel of of an instrument. If the guitarist associates the way a favorite player holds an instrument in a picture or video with his/her stance, then it may make him/her feel like this is the right feel. Body and neck finishes of unfinished rosewood, mahogany,or maple can be left natural or can be coated with nitrocellulose, polyester, epoxie,or tung oil. Satin verses gloss or semi gloss and various "relic" age imitating finishes have have gone in and out of favor with guitarists over the years. Dean Zelinsky of DBZ guitars has even developed a carved-in texture on the back of the neck on some of his new models.


Cutaways offer more access to the upper registers and come in a sharp "Florentine" or smooth "Venetian" style. Interesting variations such as a "Stevens neck recess. to Linda Manzer"s thumb indention on the bass side of the top of the guitar near the fingerboard, expand on this concept. Even necks that are purposely twisted for comfort have been tried. In fact a perfectly straight neck is not the best playing one. A slight twist gives more relief to the bass side of a neck and allows the bass strings room to vibrate more and play cleaner, with less buzz. The treble strings, which don't move as much as the bass ones, can then be set closer to the “almost straight “side of the neck.


I have previously discussed the factor of color with how a guitar feels to you, but my ten-year-old daughter Angela maybe better exemplifies how this affects all of us, even me!


“If the colors are neon and bright, that fits crazy and wild fun, people like me. If the colors are dull and dark that means you are more of a calm person. Same with just wood color guitars. The more wild and active people might be rock stars and play the really addicting songs that kids like. Some adults like them too, though. The dull colors are for older people such as your parent like my dad. A song that is dull is, The Cave. Kids like it and so do some adults. A kid would fit a more colorful guitar with bright, neon, active, and fun colors. Adults would fit more dull colors like wine red, black, brown, or just plain wood. All guitars fit different people. That is why there are so many options. Different options mean different people and different guitars. I would be a bright green guitar, my dad would be a wood guitar.”



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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Monday, April 25, 2011

Santa Cruz Guitars

By Bob Willcutt

Richard Hoover , the president and owner of Santa Cruz guitars, started working on guitars in 1966. His first job was taking apart his own Harmony guitar and then successfully putting it back together, improving on the original construction. His father, a skilled cabinetmaker, taught him basic woodworking methods, but as was with many others, and me, information was hard to find, and kept secret by the old established guys. Ironically all of us who lived through the 60s and 70's are now the current "old guys", but now it is the norm to be open and helpful and encourage the new luthiers. In the 70s he had a fine Martin D-28 which was stolen by a thief that actually did him a favor! He decided to build himself an even better guitar, and he has never stopped improving. He met Bruce McGuire, an amateur luthier who had studied under Art Overholtzer, the famous guitar-making instructor at California State University, and later Jim Patterson who both helped him learn the trade of lutherie.  Some of his early guitars were labeled as "Otis B. Rodeo" and used a bucking bronco as a logo. At the last NAMM show a "cowboy guitar" was featured, reflecting back to these early guitars.


Santa Cruz, California turned out to be the perfect location for a guitar company. Clarence White, Tony Rice, (with Kentucky connections), Dan Crary, David Grisman, Leo Kottke, Don Fahey, James Taylor, Steven Stills, Joni Mitchell, and others were in and around Richard's shop. They were creating new types of acoustic music and need something more balanced and easier to play than the Dreadnoughts then available. A different radius curve on the fingerboard and a wider more intonatable saddle along with a new bracing pattern fit right in to the needs of the day The model D was born. By then it was the mid 70s and Brazilian Rosewood was getting more rare, and mahogany was considered a cheap alternative, so Richard chose Koa with it's tone half way between the two, as his wood of choice. 


Their second model, my favorite, was called the H 13. Paul Hostetter,(hence the name H), a musician and luthier from Chicago, moved to Santa Cruz in the 60s and brought the idea of Nick Lucas type body with it's small slope-shouldered OO shape and 13 fret neck. When this was introduced, it was so different that it did not sell well. Since then it has been accepted and is now an important part of the Santa Cruz line.


Around 1978, Tony Rice, who played in Lexington with J.D. Crowe, came to Santa Cruz Guitars with the idea of them building a more balanced version of his 1936 D-28 that he got from Clarence White. The soundhole of the Martin had been enlarged from repeated pick wear, and the fingerboard was bound with out any dots. I had installed this fingerboard when Tony lived here, in Lexington, sometime between 1970-74. Because of the narrow size and extra fret and that the origin of the fingerboard was forgotten, it was erroneously thought to have been from a Gretsch electric installed in the 50s! I clearly remember that the fingerboard was originally made for a Martin D-35. In order for the binding to fit on it, the old binding was removed and a slot was cut for an extra fret, the 21st. The sides of the fingerboard were shaved, and then refitted to the original neck without hurting the original neck wood or finish. A custom spaced ivory nut was then made and installed and the frets were leveled and crowned to perfection. Tony, unlike many bluegrass guitarists of the day, wanted his action as low as an electric guitar, so the tolerances had to be perfect. He was able to get the volume he needed from picking exactly parallel to the fingerboard, not at an angle the way most people do. These two famous attributes from his 1936, the fingerboard and enlarged soundhole, were kept on the new model, but Tony determined the final voicing. It was not meant to be a Martin copy, but rather a custom vintage inspired instrument. Two versions are available, the Standard, with a slightly smaller sound hole than Tony’s and Indian rosewood back and sides, and the Pro, featuring old growth Brazilian rosewood, the original size sound hole, and a slightly shorter 24.25" scale length. These models have sold quite well over the years and many other models have been introduced since.


Richard Hoover with his dozen or so dedicated luthiers, continues to bring quality guitars to the world that will “last more than a lifetime!” “By adhering to the principles of physics and the tried and true practices of lutherie, SCGC guarantees the most sophisticated instrument of it’s kind.”






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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Monday, March 21, 2011

NAMM oral history.

By Bob Willcutt

 There is a wonderful resource for the history of this generation’s music industry available for free at www.namm.org/library/oral-history . For over ten years, NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants), has been collecting audio video interviews with the icons who have shaped our music , instruments, and stores and have placed them in alphabetical order on this site. Since more than 1000 have been done, I will review what I think are the highlights for guitarists. You may find other interesting ones that peak your own interest and may want to share them with your musician friends. Some of these people have passed away since their interview, and more are leaving us every year. This is a chance to hear some of their stories in their own words and better understand the music world of the last century.



Alan Parsons is known for his 1970’s and 80’s Alan Parsons Project, but he talks also about his work on the last two Beatles albums and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, as well as being the producer for many other English greats.


Van Alexander co-wrote “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” with Ella Fitzgerald in 1938. He talks about being the arranger for Benny Goodman, Paul Whiteman, and Ella. He later, around 1948, gave up his swing band to work in movies with Bing Crosby and others, and  with TV shows such as “Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and Denis the Menace.


R.C. Allen the California master luthier talks about the great builders in the early 1950’s such as Leo Fender, Lowell Kiesel of Carvin, and Paul Bigsby, all household names for guitarists.


Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull fame, was active in England during the music inspiring 1960’s. He felt intimidated by the “Guitar Heros” like Clapton, and decided to make his mark with a different type of instrument, the flute! His passion for music made this classical instrument fit in with the rock music of the day, and if you ever stand on one leg while playing, you can’t help but remember him!


Muriel Anderson, who has performed in Lexington, is best known for her All Star Guitar Nights. This is a show that has been at NAMM since 2000 and has featured many of today’s great guitarists including Lexington’s own Ben Lacy!


Mr. Shiro Arai, the founder of Aria Guitars was instrumental in developing and exporting Japanese guitars to fill the need for more reasonably priced instruments in the 1960s and on. The established American manufacturers could not fill the demand created by the Beatles and others during that time period.


William (Bill) and Patricia Bartolini founders of Bartolini pickups, talks about the science of waveforms and acoustic sound patterns which applied to guitar and bass pickups, this work has been a reference ever since.


Jeff (Skunk) Baxter talks about his founding Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers as well as his work as an advisor to Roland. Besides being a sought afteras a  consultant for many guitar companies, it is rumored that he also worked for the C.I.A.!


Bob Benedetto is one of the most respected luthier’s luthier. Besides showcasing his building abilities, he gives credit to others who have inspired him.


Dick Boak, as the Director of Artist Relations for the C.F. Martin Company, worked with Eric Clapton and the entire Limited Edition series, which began with the Gene Autry guitar. He also helped with Martin’s Millionth Guitar project and the development of some Martin strings and books.


Bruce Bolen talks about his 50 years influencing the music industry. Working first at Gibson during the CMI days, and later with Fender, he has worked with nearly all of the major guitar companies and players during these influential days of guitar history.


Dave Brubeck (Take Five), Solomon Burke, Kenny Burrell, James Burton (Elvis), Bill Carson (Fender), Ron Carter, Wayne Charvel. George Clinton, Billy Cobham (Them Changes), Bill Collings, Jim D’Addario, Dick Dale, Charlie Daniels, Jol Dantzig(Hamer), Herb David (Herb David), Greg Deering (banjos and luthier training), Bo Diddley, Bill “the Buddah”) Dickens, (Bass expert) Seymour Duncan, Jim Dunlop, Doyle Dykes, Duane Eddy, Nokie Edwards (Ventures), Keith Emerson Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) , Buddy Emmons (Pedal steel  (Surfing music) , Phyllis Fender (wife of Leo), Lawrence Fishman (Acoustic guitar pickups) , Fred and  Dinah Gretsch, George Gruhn , Michael Gurian ( Guitars and Luthier tools), Yoshi Hoshino ( Ibanez, Tama) Ike Turner (What a great wife he had) Grover Jackson Jackson guitars), Henry Juskiewicz (Gibson), Carol Kaye ( More bass sessions than Thor!) B.B. King, Grit Laskin (Guitar Inlay and building), and on and on and on and on….

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sunny California and NAMM 2011

By Bob Willcutt

I left the cold, snowy Kentucky weather and headed west to California for the annual NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show. Not only was the 72-degree weather a wonderful experience, but also the attitude of those attending the show was the best I have seen in years. It was not just the weather that brightened spirits, but the music industry was emerging from one of the world's largest recessions to be more efficient and organized than ever. Taylor, Martin, and Fender posted their best years ever, and buyers were purchasing guitars of much higher levels of quality. The scarcity of rare woods has become more apparent and many players, after seeing he values of their homes and stock accounts go down, are investing in quality instruments. Guitars treated with proper care, will last hundreds of years, and besides the fun of playing, may actually appreciate in value. The guitar is as popular as ever, and a new generation is embracing its joy and benefits.


Namm started out with a breakfast session the morning of the first day of the show. Even an eight o'clock time did not defer the crowds from attending. Maybe it was the free California style food, but more likely it was the surprise guests that are known to appear. Vic Firth of drumstick fame, and Bob Zildian of cymbal fame recently merged their companies. Bob had no heirs to leave his company to, so he felt his old fellow drum manufacturer would be a good choice to carry on (as Hank Jr. said) "The family tradition." These men were certainly up in years, but were as excited and funny as any young person. Well, I guess that’s normal because musicians are entertainers, aren't they? And being in the music industry they were supportive of each other, not treating each other as enemies, but comrades in the world of music.


Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland, was on a live video chat from Japan. Even though he was in his 80's, he was just as alert and funny as Vic and Bob. He had worked in a munitions plant during WWII, (on the other side) as a child, but grew to an industry leader by hard work after the war. He was most proud of the work he did with Roland and Sequential Circuits in developing MIDI, the language that still allows instruments to communicate with each other. When asked what advice he had for 25 year olds entering the music retail industry, he just laughed and said " Twenty five years olds don't listen to advice, they think they know it all!" AH, the words of wisdom that flow from experience.


Sam Ash, the son of the founder with the same name, said his dad still deals with all complaints himself, and his mother still takes bookwork home. Sam and his two siblings try to keep up with their hardworking parents and after having to start at the bottom of the employment ladder emptying trash, realize that the old school ways of actually doing work helps them maintain a company that withstands economic downturns. During the recession they remolded stores and refined their website, rather than recede their market share. This company is different from their main rival, which is owned by a market capital conglomerate.


Bernie Williams, the former New York Yankees baseball player, is also an accomplished guitar player as evidenced by a video featuring his jazz version of "Take me out to the ball game". He said he started playing guitar and baseball at age 8 and has enjoyed both ever since. He talked about the importance of early musical training, as well as sports, to enable young minds to grow. Too many art and music programs are being cut from schools, while sports are still maintained. He stressed that both are needed for a well-rounded education.


Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, talk show host, and Presidential hopeful, talked about the same thing. "Music and arts programs are vital. They're not extra curricular, they're not expendable. and they are not extraneous, they're essential!" He is involved with a foundation to promote music and works with NAMM to try to keep music alive with our young people. There are so many prominent people in the world that want to promote music that maybe the educational systems will listen.


The music industry is tiny compared with the other parts of the world economy, but it always alive with the passion and hard work of the small community of members. This is something that other parts of the economy don't understand. In spite of some music star's big incomes, the rest of the industry is run by people who just want to be a part of it and love music and gear more than money. They want to share their enjoyment of music with others and the annual NAMM show is where they can share ideas and hopes for the future.


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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Monday, January 31, 2011

All You Breed is Love, love...

By Bob Willcutt

One of the most innovative, and perhaps artistic guitar companies today is Breedlove Guitars. As with many of the present day luthier based companies, their story takes many directions until they finally find themselves and leave a lasting legacy. Kim Breedlove was born in 1949, near here, in Lafayette Indiana. The next year his family moved to San Diego, California and in 1960 he was playing in a little league with the future famous Hawaiian luthier, James Goodall, and even studied art with Goodall's mother! Speaking of strange intertwinements of time and places, my best friend in High School that I also played in a band with, was Clarke Kawakami.  I had not heard from him in thirty years, when he tracked me down through the Willcutt Guitars website. He had become a luthier on his own like me, and was working with James Goodall in Hawaii! As I look out my window at the ice covered parking lot, and thinking of Clarke in Hawaii, I remember the old saying, "Bloom where you are planted'! 

Kim then received his bachelor's degree in art, drawing, and painting from Long Beach State University in 1972. To celebrate, he took a surfing trip to Mexico and after visiting the guitar-making town of Peracho he decided to become an instrument builder. When he returned, Kim played banjo in a bluegrass band and taught art lessons but he really started his luthiery career when he bought tools from a luthier's widow and built banjos and dulcimers. Remember this is the same time period when Paul Reed Smith, Jol Dantzig, Bob Taylor, Richard Hoover, myself, and most of the current builders started. In 1976 he started to work with Greg Deering and Geoff Stelling (both famous banjo builders today), his younger brother Larry Breedlove, Tim Luranc, and John Gerlg. These last three are still at Taylor guitars. In 1978 Kim got his Masters of Fine Arts from San Diego State and developed and designed the Stelling mandolins. Kim was so enthralled with the mandolin that he started playing one in his bluegrass band instead of the banjo.  To this day he is one of the most respected mandolin builders.

In 1982 Larry Breedlove and Tim Luranc joined Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug at Taylor Guitars. In August of 1984, Jeff Huss (of Huss and Dalton) moved from California to Charlotttesville, Virginia, and Kim and Geoff Stelling came out in November. They built their new shop over the next few months and hired Jeff Huss in June of 1985. Kim and Jeff did most of the work as Geoff did very little of the actual building. Kim's wife Marna ( who was Geoff's half sister) came in a couple of times a week and did the buffing. Kim trained Jeff Huss and the two of them worked together for several years, mostly just the two of them. Jeff remembers Kim as "A real nice guy, and a very good craftsman and teacher, It got to be funny after a while because he wasn't much of a talker. Do you remember the old Bugs Bunny side cartoon about the sheep dog and the wolf who would punch in, and in the morning and after greeting each other, then proceed to do their jobs trying to steal or protect sheep all day, and then at the end of the day they would punch out and say, 'See you tomorrow?’ That's kind of how we were. I learned a lot from him about not only the craftsmanship. But also just about how to keep your nose to the grindstone and take pride in your work."

Kim became vice president of Stelling, a job that would train him for his own future company. In 1989, Larry Breedlove and luthier Steve Henderson left Taylor Guitars and started the Breedlove Guitar Company in 1990. Keeping on good terms with Taylor, they became a repair center for Taylor and started experimenting with new guitar designs such as the JLD bridge truss system and the graduated top thickness that are hallmarks of the Breedlove sound.  In 1993 Jeff Huss left Stelling and started building guitars. In 1994 Mark Dalton was employed by Stelling. Also In 1994, Kim moved to Oregon to work with his brother Larry Breedlove in order to build high-end professional guitars. With Kim there to take care of the new company, Larry decided to leave and go back to Taylor Guitars, where he is still employed as a Master Luthier. By 1995 Kim was able to start building mandolins to his specifications. These featured such new ideas as radiused fingerboards, floating fingerboards, and specially tuned and resonate tops and backs. Master luthier Jayson Bowerman joined them that year and became a very important contributor to their Master Class level program.

The winter of 1999 almost shut the company down. They found out that the finish they had been using since 1995 was defective, and hundreds of beautiful handmade guitars were damaged. Warranty repairs were flowing in and it was not their fault! Then, glues failed on their bridges and orders for new guitars were affected because of this problem. This all translated into a financial crisis! That summer Peter Newport was hired to bring management and focus to the ailing company. The finishes were changed to a super durable and shiny one and the bridges were then installed with super-epoxy glue. I remember when Peter was driving around the country showing the new improved Breedlove guitars and when he showed them to us we became their newest dealer! In 2002 they started "The Breedlove Experience" where everything was done to make buying a Breedlove an unforgettable event of a lifetime. The purchase price of $6000 not only included a fine guitar valued at $6000, but the customer would go to the factory for a private tour, pick the woods, body shape, trim level, and frets. At no additional cost he/she would also get concierge and chauffeur services, a guitarist's message, a finger style manicure, an exotic/scenic car tour of the countryside, an acoustic cave exploration, an interactive shop tour, musical workshops and private performances by renowned Breedlove endorses, and upscale fine dining! 

In 2003 they introduced the Atlas series of import guitars. Instead of chasing the lowest dollar guitar market, they instead had them built to there exacting specifications and priced them as such. In 2006 they introduced the Mark Series of electric guitars using a modification of their CM acoustic shape. These were totally different from the standard Gibson-Fender shapes but were quite pleasing in their own right. To celebrate the building of serial number 10,000 of all Breedloves built, Kim personally built, designed, and intricately inlaid a guitar out of the most outrageous "Retirement Grade" old growth Koa. Because of his interest in herpetology, (the study of snakes), a passion he shares with George Gruhn, his theme was a nest of snakes hatching and traveling from the inside of the guitar, up the fingerboard, and on to the headstock. This guitar has probably been the most photographed, and viewed guitar all over the world, guitar. All of this work was done, not for a run, but for only one, which is known as "The Exodus"!

Because of increases in efficiency, they were able to introduce a $999 U.S.A. built guitar with a heavy-duty hard-shell case in 2010. The NAMM show for 2011 is just around the corner, and I bet they will trump the market with some new breakthrough again. Here are some of the awards they have received over the years:

1993 Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans (ASIA) award for Best New Guitar Design for the CM design model

1994 ASIA award for best new guitar design for the CM classic

2000 two Players Choice Awards from Acoustic Guitar Magazine (one for the Ed Gerhard model)

2002 Players Choice Award from Acoustic Guitar Magazine

2004 Players Choice Award from Acoustic Guitar Magazine

2005 Readers Choice Award from Guitar Player Magazine

2006 Guitarist Magazine (England) Award for the Atlas Series AC25/SM as the best acoustic electric guitar

2007 NAMM summer show Best in Show for new Mark 1 electrics and the new FF style mandolins

2008 NAMM winter show Best in Show for the new Mark 2 electric guitar

2010 Breedlove is sold to Bedell Guitars, Two Old Hippies

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dantzig With The Stars... The rise and fall of an American icon.

By Bob Willcutt

Chicago in the 1970s was alive with bands such as Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Cheap Trick. Jol Dantzig was playing in bands right in the midst of it when he met another guitar player, Paul Hamer. They decided to open a music store " Northern Prairie Music and buy, restore and sell used guitars. Remember the great Gibsons and Fenders were only 10 or so years old and were selling at ridiculously cheap prices. Contacts were made with many players of the day and it wasn't long before they were being asked to build custom guitars with even better specs than the old ones. In 1973 Jol made the first Hamer, a short scale Flying V bass. Even though they were partners,they decided Hamer would look better on the headstock than Dantzig! By 1975 orders were starting to be accepted from the stars. Ted Turner from Wishbone Ash, Martin Barre from Jethro Tull, Rick Derringer, and of course long time friend Cheap Trick's Rick Nielson patronized the new company. Gibson designs, like the Explorer and Flying V were modified with flame maple tops and bindings. Crown inlays were done in genuine mother of pearl instead of plastic, and there was extra care put into making the finishes crystal clear. Some of the earliest models used Gibson pickups, but production required a steady reliable source and Larry DiMarzio began making them to Hamer specs.Early ones were stamped DiMarzio, and later ones with Hamer. Dantzig was not trying to compete with with his $1200  Hamer Standard, while Gibson Les Pauls were only $600, they were competing with the vintage Les Pauls in quality and attention to detail. Remember how poorly constructed Gibsons and Fenders were from that era, and you can see the market gap they were trying to fill. By 1977 times were hard for the whole guitar industry, and Jol had to sell off his collection of vintage guitars and buy out two of the original owners, leaving Jol Dantzig and Paul Hamer. 

In 1977 Hamer produced the "Sunburst", a double cutaway LP Jr with a curly maple top and either binding and crowns or plain with dots. In 1978, they built their first 12- string bass from an order from Cheap Trick's bassist, Tom Peterson. When these were played through an Ampeg SVT, it truly was the "Hāmer of the Gods"! King's-X is even more remembered for that sound, that no electronic gear can duplicate. A less expensive 8 string bass was offered later in the year. Hamer seasoned the high quality wood used for the necks and therefore had very few neck warpage issues. Other companies, motivated by production schedules  could not do this, and so there was no real competition. There is even a 12 string bass website to keep this heritage alive. Check it out!  http://www.12stringbass.net/

Frank Untermeyer, who was working on his Master's Degree in international business, joined Hamer and Dantzig in 1978 and added cash and marketing skills. Jol kept 60% of the company, Hamer 20% and Untermeyer 20%. They then moved to Palatine, Illinois and in 1980 to a 12,000 square foot building in Arlington Heights, where they stayed until 1997. Eventually Hamer was bought out by Kaman (the company who owned Ovation and the USA distribution of Takamine), who held on to it until Fender bought Kaman in 2008.Fender  recently sold off all of their existing warehoused Hamers and are only taking a few custom orders. Fender still owns the name, but the future of Hamer is uncertain. Their greatest creations, built from 2002 until 2008 when Willcutt Guitars was their largest dealer, will become true collector's items because under Jol Dantzig's care, were as close to the "Ultimate" as possible.

It's All About the Artists

Marc Amendola - Coretez and Fear the State
Frank Aresti - Fates Warning & Dragonspoon
Chester Bennington - Linkin Park
Pierre Bouvier - Simple Plan
Mark Browne - Melissa Etheridge band
Felicia Collins - CBS Orchestra
Julian Coryell
Kal David
Frank DeBretti - Blake Shelton
K. K. Downing - Judas Priest
Tom Dumont - No Doubt
David Ellefson
Evil J - OTEP
David Grissom
Geoff Hartwell
Jon Herington - Steely Dan
Gustaf Hielm - MESHUGGAH
Billy Joel
Lawrence Katz - The Mighty Mighty BossTones
Keb' Mo'
Tim King - SOiL
Morgan Lander - Kittie
Kelly LeMieux - Goldfinger
Troy MacCubbin - t.A.T.u
Ben Mauro
Mige - HIM

Justin Millar - tHrOnE
Tim Mitchell - Shakira
Jason Moss - Cherry Poppin Daddies
Mr. Jumbo
Rick Nielsen - Cheap Trick
Jimmy Olander - Diamond Rio
Russ Pettit
Steve Puccia - Coldread
Francis Reyes - The Dawn
Mark Rivera - Billy Joel/Ringo Starr
Kevin Roentgen - American Pearl
Craig Ross - Lenny Kravitz
Matt Scannell - Vertical Horizon
David Sease - Stretch Arm Strong
Japs Sergio - Rivermaya
Joel Shearer - Pedestrian
David Sinclair - Sarah McLachlan
Matt Smith
Mark Stewart - Paul Simon Band
Shane Theriot - Neville Brothers
Glenn Tipton - Judas Priest
Shawn Tubbs - Carrie Underwood
John Werner - Andrew WK
Brad Whitford - Aerosmith
Rob Willis - The*Ga*Ga*s
Lyle Workman
Adam Zimmon - Shakira

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Premier Builders Guild

By Bob Willcutt

In this golden age of custom guitar building, some stars shine brighter than others. Overwhelmed by orders and anxious customers, these Master Luthiers are limited by the hours in the workday and their resources for purchasing supplies. Each builder must purchase and maintain their own equipment and tools. Metal hardware, strings, and electrical components are usually less expensive when purchased in bulk. Customer service and warranty repairs take time that would be more optimised for building. What an obvious decision it is to bring them all together under one roof and share the benefits of a larger production facility. Gene Baker and his team at Premier Builders Guild in Rancho Arroyo, California build b3 Guitars (Built By Baker), and guitar models designed exclusively for PBG by Master Boutique builders Roger GIffin (see last month's article), Johan Gustavsson, Saul Koll, and Jason Z. Schroeder, who although they live in other places, are in constant contact with Gene at every stage of the building process. Alt de Facto guitars, however, are designed and built by Dennis Fano at the Fano Guitars workshop in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. Tone King amplifiers are designed and built by master amp builder Mark Bartel at the Tone King workshop in Baltimore, Maryland. Everything is definitely built in the USA!


Before founding PBG, Michael Bernstein led a large corporate merchandise company. By implementing a new business approach featuring contemporary design, guaranteed delivery times, and innovative customer service, he grew his brand from a regional concern to a global leader. Being a guitar enthusiast, he joined with his lifel ong friend Howard Swimmer and created Premier Builders Guild in the fall of 2009. Howard Swimmer works with Michael Bernstein in planning, production, marketing, artist relations, dealer relations, dealer support, and customer service. Howard also comes from a retail background of high end audio, like Martin Logan and other exclusive brands. Jimmy Lovinggood is not only in charge of building relationships, but he is also the bass player in Gene Baker's band! Even in my store, the employees have been known to play in each other's bands and work together in friendly, harmonious relationships.


Gene Baker started his Master Luthier career with a stint at the Gibson custom shop at age 25. He then moved to the Fender Custom Shop, first as Master Builder, and then Senior Master Builder. Gene worked with Robben Ford on three models and also created original Gene Baker originals. While in the West Coast he became good friends with Roger Giffin, which proved helpful in bringing  Roger into the PBG. There was a small window of time when he had his own small production of "Baker" guitars, but this proved more of a business, and less of a building profession. b3 guitars are individually built by hand, and each model is aimed at a specific tonal space, such as water,wood,metal, or fire.


Saul Koll played guitar and sang for The Charms, an acclaimed band, from 1984 to 1995. His Glide models are uniquely "then and now" with radical shapes inspired by the offbeat classics of the 60's. His client list includes discriminating artists such as David Torn, Elliott Sharp, Lee Ranoldo, Matt Henderson, and others.


Jason Schroeder as the lead guitarist for Clear Cut, understands what does and doesn't work in a live playing environment. His standard versions of the Edge, Chopper, and Radio Lane models are built by Gene in the PBG facility, while his Custom Versions are available directly from Schroeder Guitars. His client list includes such notables as Lindsey Buckingham and Neal Haywood of Fleetwood Mac, Tommy Kessler of Blondie and Blue Man Group, and Broadway's Rock of Ages, and Chris Traynor working with Gavin Rossdale.


Dennis Fano produces makes the Alt de Facto guitar line. His motto is vintage taken forward using the time-tested features that the great Luthiers of the 50s and 60s developed. Aged nickel hardware, time-tested woods, a distressed lacquer finish, and classic design aesthetics are fused together with such modern features as a compound radius fingerboard, Tonepros hardware, ToneStyler tone controls, and custom wound Lindy Fralin pickups. The end result of this marriage is the look and feel of an old friend that meets today's high expectations of a very desirable guitar that you will never want to let go of!


Building for over twenty years, Johan Gustavsson has become Sweeden's master guitar builder. His Bluesmaster Junior and Special models are built to his exacting specifications. His deep understanding of " the inner being" of a guitar comes from his experience as a carpenter of fine furniture, a touring and session guitarist, and from being an expert repairer and restorer of vintage guitars. His originals sometimes sell on the secondary market for more than they did originally! Now with the PBG more people have the opportunity to own a Gutavsson designed guitar.


Roger Giffin, with his incredible client list, was covered extensively in my last article. His Valiant model, built his old friend Gene Baker only at the PBG, is an advanced ergonomic design

that is only available here. His other models are totally built by him and are available through a small network of Giffin dealers.


As mentioned earlier,Tone King amps are built by Mark Bartel at his Baltimore Maryland shop and are distributed through the Premier Builders Guild network of dealers. More amp and guitar builders are being considered in order to expand the lines offered.The demand for product seams to ignore the general economic forecasts. I will try to keep you informed of future changes in this exciting new method of building and marketing boutique guitars.

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Thursday, November 11, 2010

PRS Experience 2010

By Bob Willcutt

The crisp smell of fall was finally in the air, and it was time for another PRS Guitars experience at their Maryland factory. Eric, Will, and I anxiously headed out for this must see event! The factory was open to the public, as well as dealers, and their operations were visible to all. This seems to be the norm these days. When I did factory tours in the 1970s and 80s, there was a veil of secrecy. I remember when Gibson would not let anyone carry cameras on tours, especially if you were near the carving machines ( pre CNC, using basically WWII technology).  Today with the Internet, miniature spy cameras, and a large volume of workers telling their stories, things are pretty much out in the open. PRS, like many of the guitar factories, has not only opened up the entire factory to tours, but they allow you to talk with the workers about techniques. PRS has even posted some of the operations on Youtube! What a great time to learn the secrets of luthiery!


Guitar players and collectors are a strange breed. They are always searching for something new, whether an elusive sound, a new look, or another vibe, but it can't be tooooo different! Guitar companies, like most manufacturers, must continually come up with new variations of their proven designs. Fender, Gibson, and Martin have tried to branch out from their proven old models, usually with less than stellar results! The companies that started in the 1970s and 80s (PRS, Taylor, Larrivee, Music Man, Breedlove, etc.) have been out there long enough that they are now established entities and must stay close to their roots. A new color, or in PRS's case, a new finish named V12 is an example. This is a super thin nitro/acrylic, super clear finish with new binders to resist weather checking, yet retaining the feel of an old traditional finish. Notice the reference to a nitrocellulose finish like, as Paul Smith said, was used by his teachers (the old school builders like Fender, Gibson, and Martin). Notice he did not go too far afield and promote a new epoxy or polyurethane finish. He promoted something new, but still tied it to the tried and true successes of the past.


There was a new Paul Jackson Jr. sem- hollowbody called the JA 15. A single cut, semi-hollowbody with 2 "F" holes, 2 humbuckers, and an adjustable bridge and stop tailpiece. Yes there were the PRS specs of neck design, inlays, hardware, and finish, but there was definitely a reference to the Gibson designs of yesterday. This should appeal to players familiar with both company's designs. A safe marketing bet that only time would tell if it was successful. Someday, it may become the standard for crossover guitars that even newer companies may imitate. Companies must always revaluate their design changes, and like any gambler, "Know when to hold them, know when to fold them!"


Another model shown was the McCarty 58, a double cut design that pays homage to one of guitar building's greatest men, Ted McCarty. Ted was head of Gibson during their golden years of 1950 to 1966. He brought their production up from 5,000 a year to over 100,000 a year with such innovations as the Les Paul, ES-335, SG, Firebird, Flying V, tun-o-matic bridge, (with engineer Seth Lover), the humbucking pickup, the stop tailpiece, and a plethora of supporting metal plastic, and wood parts that were invented during his tenure there. Can you even imagine what music, as we know it, would be without these remarkable achievements? It would not exist, as we know it. PRS tweaked the neck carve with the pattern neck shape of a modern design based on Paul's pre factory designs. The late 70s to mid 80s were Paul's early golden years when he hand built guitars for Carlos Santana, Ted Nugent, Peter Frampton, Howard Leese, and others. He has been in the business long enough that he can now consider his own early designs as historical milestones to be referred back to. The Europeans have a saying, " For Americans, 100 miles is close, and 100 years is old, while they say 100 miles is far and 100 years old is almost new!" As Tower of Power said, "What's hip today soon becomes passé." Or if you wait long enough, almost anything becomes a classic!


Not to neglect Leo Fender's 1950s-1960s contributions to the world of guitars, PRS announced the NF3. This is a familiar shaped double cutaway body with a maple neck featuring a maple or rosewood fingerboard, 25.5" scale length and a 5 way switch, but equipped with the PRS headstock and 3 Narrowfield pickups. These pickups condense the width of the pickup from pole to pole, and wind the wire of the coil deeper in towards the body. These extra windings give more output than a conventional single coil and are hum cancelling yet they maintain a narrow magnetic field under the string. This amplifies the fundamental of the note, like on the Fender classics of yesterday, but ads more output and the added benefit of noise cancelling. Similar type pickups have been built for decades, but not with the PRS name and Paul's ears deciding on the final approval of specifications and cosmetics. The new DC3 has similar features, but features 305 pickups and a steel bridge instead of brass. Does that sound like it is alluding to Leo Fender's designs?


Perhaps Albert Einstein can attempt to explain the recycling of guitar ideas with this statement. "The distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.... and the future exists simultaneously with the past." T.S. Elliot said, "Time present and time past/are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past." Steven Hawking also writes about time, relativity, and the strange world of quantum physics. Wait a minute, just forget a bout thinking too much, just audition a quality guitar at your favorite guitar shoppe, or have your trusted luthier revitalize your old one, and just play and enjoy it for what is is! Or was, or will be......



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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Monday, October 04, 2010

Roger Giffin

By Bob Willcutt

In this golden age of custom guitar building, some stars shine brighter than others. Overwhelmed by orders and anxious customers, these Master Luthiers are limited by the hours in the workday and their resources for purchasing supplies. Each builder must purchase and maintain their own equipment and tools. Metal hardware, strings, and electrical components are usually less expensive when purchased in bulk. Customer service and warranty repairs take time that would be more optimised for building. What an obvious decision it is to bring them all together under one roof and share the benefits of a larger production facility. Gene Baker and his team at Premier Builders Guild in Rancho Arroyo, California build b3 Guitars (Built By Baker), and guitar models designed exclusively for PBG by Master Boutique builders Roger GIffin (see last month's article), Johan Gustavsson, Saul Koll, and Jason Z. Schroeder, who although they live in other places, are in constant contact with Gene at every stage of the building process. Alt de Facto guitars, however, are designed and built by Dennis Fano at the Fano Guitars workshop in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. Tone King amplifiers are designed and built by master amp builder Mark Bartel at the Tone King workshop in Baltimore, Maryland. Everything is definitely built in the USA!


Before founding PBG, Michael Bernstein led a large corporate merchandise company. By implementing a new business approach featuring contemporary design, guaranteed delivery times, and innovative customer service, he grew his brand from a regional concern to a global leader. Being a guitar enthusiast, he joined with his lifel ong friend Howard Swimmer and created Premier Builders Guild in the fall of 2009. Howard Swimmer works with Michael Bernstein in planning, production, marketing, artist relations, dealer relations, dealer support, and customer service. Howard also comes from a retail background of high end audio, like Martin Logan and other exclusive brands. Jimmy Lovinggood is not only in charge of building relationships, but he is also the bass player in Gene Baker's band! Even in my store, the employees have been known to play in each other's bands and work together in friendly, harmonious relationships.


Gene Baker started his Master Luthier career with a stint at the Gibson custom shop at age 25. He then moved to the Fender Custom Shop, first as Master Builder, and then Senior Master Builder. Gene worked with Robben Ford on three models and also created original Gene Baker originals. While in the West Coast he became good friends with Roger Giffin, which proved helpful in bringing  Roger into the PBG. There was a small window of time when he had his own small production of "Baker" guitars, but this proved more of a business, and less of a building profession. b3 guitars are individually built by hand, and each model is aimed at a specific tonal space, such as water,wood,metal, or fire.


Saul Koll played guitar and sang for The Charms, an acclaimed band, from 1984 to 1995. His Glide models are uniquely "then and now" with radical shapes inspired by the offbeat classics of the 60's. His client list includes discriminating artists such as David Torn, Elliott Sharp, Lee Ranoldo, Matt Henderson, and others.


Jason Schroeder as the lead guitarist for Clear Cut, understands what does and doesn't work in a live playing environment. His standard versions of the Edge, Chopper, and Radio Lane models are built by Gene in the PBG facility, while his Custom Versions are available directly from Schroeder Guitars. His client list includes such notables as Lindsey Buckingham and Neal Haywood of Fleetwood Mac, Tommy Kessler of Blondie and Blue Man Group, and Broadway's Rock of Ages, and Chris Traynor working with Gavin Rossdale.


Dennis Fano produces makes the Alt de Facto guitar line. His motto is vintage taken forward using the time-tested features that the great Luthiers of the 50s and 60s developed. Aged nickel hardware, time-tested woods, a distressed lacquer finish, and classic design aesthetics are fused together with such modern features as a compound radius fingerboard, Tonepros hardware, ToneStyler tone controls, and custom wound Lindy Fralin pickups. The end result of this marriage is the look and feel of an old friend that meets today's high expectations of a very desirable guitar that you will never want to let go of!


Building for over twenty years, Johan Gustavsson has become Sweeden's master guitar builder. His Bluesmaster Junior and Special models are built to his exacting specifications. His deep understanding of " the inner being" of a guitar comes from his experience as a carpenter of fine furniture, a touring and session guitarist, and from being an expert repairer and restorer of vintage guitars. His originals sometimes sell on the secondary market for more than they did originally! Now with the PBG more people have the opportunity to own a Gutavsson designed guitar.


Roger Giffin, with his incredible client list, was covered extensively in my last article. His Valiant model, built his old friend Gene Baker only at the PBG, is an advanced ergonomic design

that is only available here. His other models are totally built by him and are available through a small network of Giffin dealers.


As mentioned earlier,Tone King amps are built by Mark Bartel at his Baltimore Maryland shop and are distributed through the Premier Builders Guild network of dealers. More amp and guitar builders are being considered in order to expand the lines offered.The demand for product seams to ignore the general economic forecasts. I will try to keep you informed of future changes in this exciting new method of building and marketing boutique guitars.
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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Can't Weight

by Bob Willcutt

Summer, and time for a road trip to find our guitar building roots, and the meaning of G.A.S.( If you don't know what this refers to, come by my store to meet other guitar acquisition syndrome addicts!) So nine hours from here, I pulled into Nazareth, just a feeling 'bout half past dead...(So, here’s to you Mr. Robertson!). The C.F. Martin factory has the most mojo and history of any guitar building operation in the world. 177 years of innovation and the pursuit of perfection continues to project them forward, inspired by their great guitar legacy. From 1833 and still going strong, C.F. Martin has defined the meaning of a steel string acoustic guitar. Every other brand, no matter how successful they have been, has compared themselves to this icon builder of guitars. Although Martin has advanced to modern fingerboard radius specifications, synthetic materials, onboard electronics, and performer on stage designs, they are still best known for their traditional pre war designs. The Dreadnaught defines bluegrass, the O,OO,OOO,OM are the finger picking standards of the guitar world, and they understand the difference between the customers who want a reasonably priced American made all solid wood guitar like the D- 28 and the purists who want hide glue construction, rare exotic woods, fossilized ivory fittings, custom inlays, and are willing to pay the up charges for these attributes.


When you first approach the new factory, you are drawn to the facade facsimile of the old original factory with the company name reproduced in the gleaming white letters standing out against a backdrop of aged earthen tone brick that the original factory had. Already feeling the history and the respect that this company deserves, I slowly walk towards the front entrance and notice a large Martin headstock inlaid into the walkway. A fretboard of black granite, with frets looking like a train track enticing one in through the doors, leads to the receptionists desk surrounded by a granite round counter like a sound hole rosette. Looking down, I then notice  the body of the guitar is inlaid into the floor complete with a pickguard. Then I look up and see that the ceiling is covered with a latticed ceiling treatment of an abstract bracing pattern. No expense of time or treasure was spared, and the modern, yet craftsman like abstractness shows Martin's ancestry as well as its embracing of future designs. To the left is the newly redesigned "1833 Shop", featuring all kinds of Martin branded merchandise, and the "Pickin' Parlor" where you can try out various Martin guitar models, while sitting on custom made wood stools. All of the employees working there, both on and off the clock speak very highly of Martin and are proud to be included in many business decisions. Of all the guitar companies I have visited, this is the only one that listens to and encourages ideas and suggestions from dealers, collectors, and of course players. The others only use ideas from the top of the management hierarchy and discourage outside influences.


Also on the left is the world famous Martin Museum. Enter this theatrically lighted enchanted environment, and you are drawn deeper into the magnificent Martin mystique. The Martin Museum experience is elegantly presented in an artistic and functional pathway of multicolored showcases. They are divided up into different sections with more interesting guitar artifacts than a week's worth of intense examination could uncover. Imagine old, unused parts from the early 1800's and one of kind masterpieces from their entire history. The Million dollar Martin, serial number 1,000,000 and the pink Clair small guitar designed for Chris's five-year-old daughter have special places in the hallowed showcases. There is even a section in the back with some of Chris Martin's personal memorabilia, like a Ferrari wood steering wheel, colorful Chinese vases, and a Tim Teel ,Director of Instrument Design, custom made cobalt steel, cocobolo and pearl inlaid handle and sheath, luthier's chisel which was featured in Fine Woodworking magazine. These show the human side of Chris Martin and his appreciation for all things that are both artful and just plain cool!


And then the real factory tour! Upon entering the pearly gates, it is evident by sight and sound, the ambiance that shows the deep concern that Martin has for it's employees and customers. Everything is open, well lighted, and clear Plexiglas shields protect workers and visitors, while encouraging openness of thoughts and ideas. The most modern CNC machines work next to the veteran masters hand fitting a dovetail neck joint like they did for the last 177 years! Some jigs and machines are custom made by or for them just for this factory and they are always searching for new ways to produce a better product. Mr. Carmen Cortez, Customer Service Advisor gave me a behind the scene tour of the repair department. Here, guitars a shipped in from around the world with various needs to be addressed. A few are legitimate warranty repairs, but most are do to customer neglect or accidents. One customer had his guitar vault flooded, and besides water damage, there was severe mildew. A humidity level of about 45% is ideal to store guitars, but when they get really wet like these, there are even more problems. Shipping damage, as well as the neck resets that unmaintained guitars seem to need over time, constitute more of the workload. When parts are needed, they use the best available for that guitar. However, if it is a rare, very expensive heirloom, then original antique parts can be sourced to make the restoration as authentic as possible. This however is quite expensive, and old wood braces, Brazilian rosewood bridges, and vintage tuning machines are hard to find at any price. The Luthiers there all had a "can do" attitude and sincerely cared about the guitars and their work quality.


Nazareth is only a day's drive from here, and if you were a true guitar aficionado, then it would be well worth the trip. Please contact them first for tour reservations, and while on the trip, see how many songs you can remember that were written or performed on a C.F. Martin guitar. And, when you get there I bet you will start singing..."Pulled into Nazareth....

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Friday, August 13, 2010

Summer NAMM, 2010

By Bob Willcutt

The Summer 2010 NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) was held in Nashville Tennessee June 18th through the 20th. Although it was held in a reduced size, it still exhibited some interesting experimental things. This year, most of the exhibits were held in the main convention hall. Only a few of the normally filled auxiliary rooms on the mezzanines were utilized, and the vibe of the show was less intense than earlier summer shows. The guitar manager of a large east coast music store had this to say. If any more than one representative from a store was sent, than it would be considered over staffing event!


There were small electric guitar exhibits, but the major players in that market (Gibson, Fender, PRS, and Marshall and Korg amps) were not in attendance. Therefore, the acoustic guitar makers had more time to shine in the Nashville spotlight! C.F. Martin had a large booth, exhibiting everything from their entry-level models to their traditional, like they used-to-make-them in the golden pre-war days, to their modern Songwriter series, which was designed to compete with the newer West Coast brands. Breedlove had a large booth with their non-traditional yet exceptionally ergonomic designs of guitars and mandolins. Taylor, another West Coast brand had the only separate guitar room and showed their wide variety of easy playing acoustics and electrics to a packed crowd.


Boutique builders of exquisite near perfect guitars such as Collings and Santa Cruz were well visited and had their entire display inventory sold to appreciative dealers for their discerning customers. Although these prices are at the top of the guitar market, there was more interest here, at the halls of perfection, than with the plethora of cheap import copies (with what ever name you wanted on the headstock) where mass production rather than the pursuit of perfection rules.


The Ernie Ball booth was as large and well visited as ever (players still need strings), and Ernie's son Sterling Ball had his son Brian helping on the sales floor. It is rare for a family business to survive to the second generation, much less the third, but it looked promising that it will continue in the family. New sting masters such as Curt Mangan were also doing a brisk business. Seymour Duncan whose name is synonymous with guitar pickups walked the floor visiting old friends but did not have a booth. He seamed more relaxed because of this and we reminisced about how in the 1970's he and I would scrounge through the old parts bins at the Gibson Kalamazoo factory while attending their factory training seminars. He was after pickup parts, and I, old wood bodies and necks. Strange how this affected our future careers. Life's full of changes, you never know which road you will travel.

 Q Lighting, a Lexington based company that sells worldwide, had one of the most popular booths.  Bob Burris the amp guru showed his high gain “Dirty Red” amp head as well as his old favorites the “Royal Bluesman” head, “Shadow” combo, “DC Cab”, and Boostier II & Boostiest II pedals.  Ira Cooper unveiled their latest mini stage lighting system using Q Lighting LEDs, an incredible benefit to small performing acts, giving convincing stage lighting in a package about the size of a guitar stand!  This was not only deemed “Best in Show”, but two were used to light the stage of John Sebastian’s concert that night.  The slower pace of the show allowed them to describe the products to their fullest extent and give personal demos to a more interested clientele.

All in all, it was worth visiting this show. Even with the Internet, there is nothing to take the place of touching, feeling, and hearing a product. Seeing where the attendees hang out and get excited about is very helpful in making intelligent buying decisions. Add to that, the rekindling of old friendships and the making of new ones makes it a must be there experience.



Bob Willcutt

Willcutt Guitar Shoppe

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Friday, June 25, 2010

Where We've Been and Where We're Going

By Bob Willcutt

In Luthiery as in many of life's endeavors, it is sometimes good to see where we have come before we decide where we are going. Looking through some old Guitar Player magazines from 1976 (I moved to my present Rosemont Garden address in 1979) was an enlightening experience. They were having a retrospection about their past 12 month issues. There were eighteen rock stories, thirteen on jazz, eight on bass, seven pop, six blues, five classical, four folk, four country, three steel, and one on flamenco.  They also ran nine equipment related stories. Seven were historical ones, three were about guitar in non- USA countries, two on technique, and two on guitar education, one of which was on guitar as a career. How would that compare with today? The pop and folk, and steel markets have regressed, and blues and country have grown. Rock has been the driving force for the mass guitar market for more than half a century now, and continues to grow for all ages of players.


The ads are a blast from the past! Black Diamond was introducing their "Country Bluegrass Strings", Guild, an independent company located in New Jersey, the Madeira line of import guitars and banjos, Whirlwind  was trying to differentiate the public's perception of them from Whirlpool washers, Teac was raving about how the new 4070G reel to reel tape deck would reverse the machine, not the tape. This was important when recording so you would not have to worry about running out of tape right in the middle of that important hot solo! Ovation was promoting the Matrix, the world's most advanced guitar design. The neck was made using a single "precision die-cast aluminum piece”, integrating fretboard, frets, tuning peg mounting holes, and an I-beam neck brace. Strong, light and finished to look and feel like ebony and mahogany, it claims to have not needed a truss rod. I have seen several bent ones over the years which proved that idea false and have seen others that needed new frets, but couldn't be refretted as the frets were part of the neck! Not content with just challenging the acoustic market, they introduced the Deacon, Deacon 12 string, Preacher, and Breadwinner. Today, I doubt if any have survived the landfill, unlike the "less advanced" traditional wood guitars which when properly cared for, last for hundreds of years.


Stanley Clarke, sporting his Afro, was promoting the Marshall solid state bass amplifier, and Acoustic was promoting the Model 400 Stereo power amp. A four hundred watt power amp was concert quality, very expensive and not very reliable. Now, a four thousand watt power amp in a cheap light-weight package is available to almost anyone. Mixing boards were measured by the foot, now by inches, and are now computer controlled. Electronics gets better and cheaper. Rare, high quality wood, as a finite resource does, not. 


St.Louis Music Supply with an upside down peace logo on their Electra guitars. was promoting the MPC (Modular Powered Circuits) guitar with "all the effects you need. built right into the guitar in removable modular form. You now have fingertip control over these special effects!" Phase Shifter. Fuzz,Tank Tone,Treble Bass Expander, and Power Overdrive!" They also had a large rotary switch instead of the regular toggle, and specially wound humbucking pick-ups that you could "throw in or out of phase, put in series, or in parallel!" Since there was no web address, you had to write in for a brochure.  This was only 16 years after Gibson discontinued the Les Paul Standard! Was this progress, or regression? I think time has answered that question!


C.F. Martin was promoting the Bicentennial Commemorative instruments the D-76 Guitar and the V-76 banjo. Since these were tradition-based instruments, they have maintained and in some cases appreciated in value, unlike some of the "new" ideas that our industry experimented with. Gibson was promoting the new S-1 guitar with three single coil pickups and an alternative to the Fender customer. Ron Wood was the best endorsee they could come up with, and the guitar has long been discontinued.


Fender was doing an ad campaign for " Mirror, mirror on the wall, who plays the fairest of them all?" The answer from the mirror was the new Fender "Starcaster." An attempt to counter the S-1 from Gibson, this was a thinline 335 type instrument that you can find in the landfill near the S-1 and Matrix. Even though Fender had the iconic Strat and Tele, against the objections of Bill Carson and Freddie Tavares (the designers of the Fender Stratocaster), the executives decided to cut labor costs by applying a thick coat of tone killing polyester finish to the neck and body instead of using the time proven method of applying thin coats of nitrocellulose lacquer. This was done in the name of the almighty dollar, not for the pursuit of the ultimate tone! Trying to grow market share by copying the ideas of the competition has proven a hopeless endeavor. The greatest success today has been the refinement of the original ideas that the great companies developed in the mid 20th century.


There was a glimmer of non-materialistic hope in an article by Richard A. Honeycutt. He talks about the moisture content of wood at the factory and the acclimation to the local dealer and then onto the final customer.  At that time there probably were not any humidity controlled guitar shops and no reliable humidifiers or digital gauges for guitars. He talks about the slow oxidation process and the mellowing of the sound through co-vibration as the guitar is played. He claims there is a tonal difference between one that is finger picked, and one that is played hard with a flat pick. He states that his article was obtained from many books and articles on guitar and violin making, and from discussions with chemists and instrument and furniture makers. What a difference the Internet has made on the spread of easily available knowledge. Don't believe everything you read online or elsewhere. Use information to make your own decisions but keep an open mind for new developments. 


Not since Jimmy Piersall ran the basses facing backwards after hitting his 100th home run in 1963 has the music industry looked back to their earlier successes and tried to learn from their failures. Making what is old, new today but still revered as iconic, is a challenge.



Bob Willcutt

Willcutt Guitar Shoppe

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The guitar and you. Who R U?

by Bob Willcutt

The psychology of guitarists and their instruments could fill a library of books or downloads on your iPad. We will touch on only a few points in this article. What came first, the guitar or the guitarist? Instruments evolve from the requirements of their players and the compositions they are trying to master and perform. Styles of playing come from the capabilities and limitations of the instruments that are available. Hendrix on a Rickenbacker, Clapton on a Gretch hollowbody, or Vai on a Tele would not have created their iconic tones. When a 4,6,8,9,or 12 string guitar is put in the hands of an accomplished musician, music begins to evolve. Different tunings, scale lengths, woods, electronics, etc, inspire different results. Then the subjective comes into play. Does one guitar sound better than another? Who is to say what "better" is. Measuring devices can help with comparisons, but the guitarist can change tones and sounds with pick or finger angle. Likewise, humidity in the air, and definitely in the instrument, affects tone and playability. Gravity is also a factor. A guitar sounds different, and the tuning will change according to the angle it is being held.  A quality strobe (not an inexpensive type) tuner will demonstrate this. But what do YOU hear? The human brain is a marvelous creation, and different in each of us. Your past experiences and memories of a Marshall Plexi cranked up all the way with a Gibson Les Paul and everything on 10, influences your search for that sound. When Howard Leese from Heart visited my shop last year, he said he created solos using a Les Paul, or more recently his own Howard Leese PRS, to take into account, the time delay of the notes bouncing back from the ceilings of arenas.  While his guitar was sustaining a note, the echo of a previous one would still be hanging in the air creating an eerily fluid sounding harmony.  Players who only create their solos in the studio, may miss this wonderful opportunity of live concert playing and how this experience changes ones formulation of a guitar solo. Is this real or just in your head? Who knows! If you can dream it, you can find it or at least trope towards it. Imagine. It's easy if you do....


"See me", the guitar beckons. Model, shape, color, logo on the headstock, and stage (or basement) lighting all affect how the guitarist perceives it. A black or red guitar gets played more aggressively than a shell pink one, unless there are underlying hostility issues. An iconic guitar model such as Gibson Les Paul, Fender Stratocaster, Martin D 28 and others, probably leads the guitarist into classic styles of music more than a modern one possibly could. Would you play Early Cream solos on a Parker? You could, but this may not be your first choice for inspiration. Seeing a professionally setup tremolo system on your guitar, with the arm just begging to be used, leads to it's use even when it is inappropriate. Yes, there is such a thing as "Guitar Etiquette"!


"Feel me", the guitar also beckons. The shapely curves lure you to caress it. This instinct is probably built into our DNA for the preservation of the species, and is used by marketers ad nauseam. A satin, or oil finished neck, loves to be stroked and musical passages tend to fly up and down the fretboard more than with a sticky or rough neck. "The feel" can also be influenced by how perfectly the guitar is setup. There are no tutorials that can match the expertise of an experienced luthier. Anyone can turn a screwdriver and hook up their personal tuner, but the luthier understands the limitations and potential of each adjustment and most of the interactive proportions of these adjustments. When one setting is changed, everything else needs to be reset. An acoustic may not feel right when it has been allowed to dry out. Guitars are designed to be stored at a constant 45% humidity, and as close to 72 degrees as possible. Neck angles change, making the intonation change from when your luthier set it last month. This results in something just does not feeling right, even though you may not be able to put your finger on what exactly this is. Time to stabilize the instrument environment and then take it in to your luthier for a checkup. If it feels right you will play better and your audience will appreciate the music more.


"Touch me" your instrument calls. Beyond feel, there is evidence of how your guitar connects with you. This resounds on many different levels. First is the pleasure releasing natural chemicals in your brain when you think of, then see, then feel, then play your favorite instruments. Then you can connect with your inner self and bring true spontaneous life connection to your music and soul. Sounds like love doesn't it? Well I guess it could be a form of it and at least no one gets hurt.


Just like the patient says to the doctor, " Heal me" you feel that warm gush of pleasure streaking through your veins when you see your guitars, hear their music, feel their smooth action, touch your soul, and enjoy the heeling your daily frustrations.  A great playing guitar properly setup by your luthier is by any standard, cheap at the price. This is a guitarist's reality and we won't get fooled again. Luthiers have work to do and loads to lift, so that you may play, dream, and then drift into musical bliss.

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What does the color of your guitar do for you?

by Bob Willcutt

What does the color of your guitar do for you?  

Besides sound and feel, what makes a musician choose one guitar of the same model over another? This conundrum could go on forever, but today we will explore one of our basic instincts. The human perception of color. Just go to an auto paint store and see the samples of, let's say, something as common as blue. The variations are endless. Base coats, tints, mixtures, and final top coats incorporating a plethora of tints and textures, such as suspended solids in a satin finish, add to the possible color variations. Wood adds more dimensions with staining, sanding or chemical  treatments. The light that is used for viewing makes a difference. Compact florescents, ceiling florescents  and incandescents come in many colors from warm yellow to harsh almost blue tones. Halogens, Xenons, and commercial grade LEDs provide sharper contrast and depth of color exposing the different layers of color in a quality finish. Plus color, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Getting back to basics, Let's look at "Basic Black", Jack. Since antiquity, black, which is the absence of color reflection, has symbolized authority and power. Think of black leather clothing for rockers and bikers. High fashion uses it for mystery and because of it's non reflecting properties elegance and the ability of making the subject appear slimmer. Guitars painted or stained in translucent black make the player feel powerful and maybe a bit sinister. Could you imagine Darth Vader in any other color? Even black has many variations in color and you can usually spot some purple or grey as it is almost impossible to get a perfect color balance for true black in all types of lighting. Most Ebony fingerboards and bridges have some degree of black stain to hide streaks of color. I personally prefer the natural variations in grain, but some people consider this to be a defect.

White however, is the even reflection of all color, and the variations of these are even more pronounced than in black. White is associated with purity and cleanliness.  Most religions from  the Egyptians to the Vestal Virgins of ancient Greece, the Shroud of Christ, to the Pope have used it. Brides, as well as guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Randy Rhoads are associated with the color. In the shop, this is the hardest color touch up, as there are millions of variations. Take the same brand and model of guitar and put five or six together and you will see variations. Even a white car has different shades of white because the rubber bumpers and sheet metal take the paint differently and become more obvious as age effects it. White wash or blonde was popular in the 1950s furniture market and thus was used on the Fender Telecasters and Les Paul Specials of that time. It is once again making a come back in popularity in both markets.

Red stimulates a faster heart rate and breathing pattern. Perhaps it was built into us to warn of danger from blood, poison berries, wild girls, or dangerous snakes and insects. No other color gets your heart racing like the red on lips, a shiny new red Ferrari, or that candy apple red Stratocaster! Speaking of Strats, Fender has many reds such as Dakota, Candy Apple, Chrome Red (both with metallic base coats and translucent top coats) Fiesta, and occasional custom colors. Remember that each paint batch of each color can yield slightly different results. If color is important to you, look at the guitar in the daylight and which ever kind of light source you have at home. Stage lighting is another story, as it is designed for active excitement, not accurate color rendition.

Blue has a peaceful easy feeling with its calming thoughts of the clear sky and calm oceans. Many countries use it for a flag or military uniform color to instill loyalty. It is one of our most important colors representing the third rock from the sun. It rarely is found as a natural wood color except for small mineral streaks and has not been that popular as an instrument color. Guitarists love to play the blues, but not the blue guitars!

Green is abundantly found in nature and has a calming effect, but maybe this by nature is why it is not as exciting as some other colors and so there are few green guitars sold.

Yellow represents the sun, gold and fire. A sunburst finish uses a yellow center finish with a red or brown edging. Yellow toners are sometimes used over figured wood to emphasize the grain and figure patterns. Gold plated or imitation gold hardware is used to add a feeling of quality or luxury to a guitar. When you see cheap imports with "gold hardware"--you know all that glitters is not gold!

Purple represents rich thick blood and is associated with royalty and luxury. As a pure color, except for Fender's Midnight Wine, it has not been that popular except when it is seen in the hues of Brazilian Rosewood where it lives up to the ancient legend of the "Wood of Kings."

Orange is a mixture of red and yellow and expresses energy, balance, warmth and enthusiasm. Variations of this are popular with Gretsch, Fender, and Gibson. In most wood varieties, it is visible in some shade. Mahogany, Spruce, Cedar, Maple, and of course Brazilian Rosewood all exhibit some form of orange. Orange you glad you noticed!

Brown represents reliable, earthy stability and heritage. From the Gretsch Country Gentleman, to the back of a Les Paul Standard, some sort of brown is always in style.

Favorite guitar woods are chosen not only for their sound, but also for their color and beauty. The "Holy Grail' of instrument woods is Brazilian Rosewood and whether used for fingerboards, bridges, or acoustic guitar back and side sets, it can contains almost all of the above mentioned colors in one gorgeous display of nature!  The dark black streaks, green lines, purple haze and orange, red and browns defy categorization. The wonderful color is the result of an older tree's production of extractives trying to protect itself from insects. Sometimes this color is even made richer by the tree falling or being cut and left in water for years. Fungus and minerals enter the tree through cracks and insect holes, bringing in more color variations. Old growth trees exhibit vastly more intense color variation. When the jungle canopy was more dense and the trees had to fight for sunlight and grew much slower than the newer non jungle ones do. The result is tighter grain, more density and more musically deep sustain with old growth wood. Unfortunately most of it has been harvested and now even the stumps are being reclaimed and used for guitars.

When picking a guitar, one thing that is of upmost importance, is what will make you want to pick it up and play? For some people it is the sound, others the feel, and to some it is the color and all it represents. There are a rainbow of choices, so pick one!

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Wednesday, May 12, 2010


by Bob Willcutt


No, this is not a new guitar model from Fender, Martin, or Gibson.  It is the inanimate value attached to a product or service.  The intrinsic value is the true worth of an object determined by the parts and labor to actually produce it.  This in itself is hard to monitor as where do you draw the line.  Besides the time a worker spends building a guitar for his paycheck and the delivered price of raw materials, do you count the cost of management, security, environmental compliance, insurance, and inventory control or just the time spent shaping wood and metal?  Soon you begin to figure out why manufacturing is being outsourced to the East where there are not so many "extras" added, as well as a substantially lower base pay rate.

The real expense in making customers desire and ultimately purchase expensive products such as high end guitars, is the marketing of a concept.  This makes the the object more valuable than the intrinsic value of the product being considered.  Marketing, in eye-catching print and web ads, catchy musical theme songs, logos, product placement in movies and concerts, bundling with established winners and the ever growing use of real or fabricated blogs, customer reviews, Facebook posts, and the use of product placement helps drive the sales success of a product.  Yes, Virginia, companies pay, in one form or another to have their brand seen, not just in the hands of "stars", but to have them placed on sets in sitcoms and movies.  Guess which brand shows up in almost all of Disney's productions?  Here is a hint.  It starts with a "G"!

The mental and historical positive memories associated with a brand that was played or seen with by someone, and actually perceived by a whole generation as a positive experience can enhance its value and marketability.  Just think of the influence that Eric Clapton has had on a few models of certain brands that have in themselves become icons in their own right.  It is not totally the man and his choice of guitar, but the synergistic relationship between the two.  If Eric tried to promote a gym shoe, a brand of chewing gum, or some lesser quality brand that the public never accepted, then there would be less than stellar sale results.

There has been a recent trend for high end guitar and car manufacturers to have their "state of the art" products like the Fender, Gibson, and Martin Custom Shops and the Mercedes AMG S Series, and their own lesser in price, prestige, and quality versions.  Come on now, could you convince yourself that a C series is as good as an S series Mercedes and that a Fender Squire or Gibson Epiphone is the equal to their custom shop versions?  There is a difference.  You just have to pay for it!  Some people just can't tell the levels apart and don't want to or can't pay for that level of performance.  They desire it, but try to find ways around the price tag.  Besides the normal haggling between a buyer and seller, some customers trope towards online auction sites and fall prey to off shore copies complete with the prestigious brand's name, logo, and inlay patterns.  Used instruments with questionable or extensive wear aftermarket or fake parts and humidity problems often show up in these online sales partly because they cannot be examined and partly because there is such a strong belief that there is a way to "beat the system!"  The rationale that a copy made in China is going to sound and play as well as a USA Custom Shop still drives that part of the market.

People want the "concept" and that is one reason that the icon guitar lines will always have an advantage over the new start-up companies.  They still must advertise to keep that prestige concept in customer's minds, but not as much per unit sold as a new guitar line would.  There are some newer brands like PRS, Breedlove, Collings, Taylor, and Trussart that have been out for over 25 years that have competed successfully because of their quality designs, excellent advertising, and product placement that would qualify as excellent alternatives to the iconic guitar brands of the Nineteenth Century.

Fender, Gibson, and Martin have been around longer than some of the newer brands, but younger generations may buy different total concepts and these second generation brands may become the most desired and purchased products.  Only time will tell.
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Posted by:  - Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Anaheim, a Disneyland for the music industry!

by Bob Willcutt

Every year during the cold dreary weather of January, music dealers from all over the country and even the world, head to sunny Anaheim California to experience the newest and best products that the music industry has to offer. There is a chance to meet the people who actually designed and built the music masterpieces and tools of yesterday, today, and possibly the collectibles of tomorrow. This is the beginning of a new year, and just as some believe the "Big Bang" was the opening downbeat for the creation of the universe, the NAMM show (National Association of Music Merchants) in January is the debutant for the year's musical instrument world! For over a century, NAMM has hosted the shows that have seen the fads and icons of the music products industry come and go and in turn shaped the music we have all come to love..

Musical instrument manufactures have been working all year and usually right up to the last minute leading to NAMM. These  new designs are propelled by advances in manufacturing, sourcing and the introduction of new materials, both raw and component as well as keeping an eye on historical genetics. A company like Gibson or Fender must carry some of it's historical attributes blended in a new way. Have you ever noticed how manufacturers keep coming up with "new versions" of the same old models? Sometimes there are radically new designs of guitars and accessories. Some are not really marketable, but are an ego statement for their inventors. If they are not well received and ordered, then they will wither away into obscurity. A foot operated sheet music page turner, or a clothes hanger that hangs your guitar in the closet are examples whose future success has not yet been determined. Others, such as the Oasis humidity control system, which was judged "Best in Show" is guaranteed a successful future.

Gear heads are defined as people who love the music products as much, if not more than the music they produce. Some are excited by the sounds, either new and different or vintage and reminiscent of some memory they hold dear. The sound of Jimi Hendrix's Marshall full stack dimed in a concert is what I think a Marshall should sound like--not the toned down pre-gain of a small version made for the bedroom. Others are attracted to rare woods or inlays. Still others find it easier to overly examine these instruments for any minor flaws because this is easier than spending the countless hours perfecting their playing technique. Some even get out a magnifying glass trying to find a minuscule "flaw" in the wood or finish! How do these people ever pick a mate if they are that particular?!

Some booths have performers. Some of them are famous, some are just great players. There was a 12 year girl playing at the Martin Guitar booth, who sang and played music she wrote. An agent from Disney (remember this is Anaheim, home of Disney) who was walking by, heard her and signed her on the spot! 

All the booths must keep their volume down to an acceptable level. This is extremely difficult for excited musicians with the newest coolest gear in their hands but the NAMM security people carefully monitor this. The overall ambient noise level of the convention center however can rival that of an airport.

NAMM sponsors a Breakfast with Champions every day before the show opens. We heard inspirational talks and performances by such icons as Chris Martin (C.F. Martin Guitar Company), Yoko Ono reminiscing about her late husbands love of the music industry, Quincy Jones who defined popular music for decades, Victor Wooten as bass extraordinaire. There were also awards given for being in business 75, 100 , 150 years and even for a Japanese drum manufacturer celebrating a 400 year old continuous legacy.

In summary, the winter NAMM show is a prelude for the coming year's performance of the music industry as well as a way to renew old friendships and establish new ones based on the love and enthusiasm of the music industry! Visit your local music store to find out what they have brought back for you to enjoy. The musical search for that elusive tone and feel never ends!
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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Willcuttpedia: C.F. Martin & Co.

By Bob Willcutt

In the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists, philosophers and other foreword-thinking expanded the world’s perception by changing the boundaries of discovery, of knowledge, and how men and women saw the world and their place in it. Like artists of the Renaissance, the thinkers of the Enlightenment worked simultaneously in distinct areas, often living and working in a cultural milieu where one could seek to harness and categorize the principles of electricity one moment and foment political revolution the next, while appreciating the qualities of a fine instrument in the process.  They created legacies they continue to live and thrive, though not everyone was on board with these shifting paradigms.

A group of violin makers in early 19th-century Austria and Germany had a peculiar view of things. The way they saw it, since they built cellos, violas, and violins, it was their job to build these relatively newfangled things called gitarren. No one should do that, let alone do it better than the members of the Violin Makers Guild. When one member of the Cabinet Makers Guild, a former apprentice to the legendary Austrian luthier Johann Stauffer1, tried to hang out his luthier’s shingle in Germany, the litigiously envious violin makers took him to court to put a stop to his mingling in their business.

This guitar maker, Christian Frederick Martin (1796-1873), eventually won the case after others testified to his skills and talents as a craftsman. Shortly afterward, in September, 1833, he left Germany for New York City, presumably one step ahead of a mob of haughty violin makers seeking revenge. Martin’s decision to emigrate from Germany to the United States would be only one of his many accomplishments that others (and their descendants) would seek to imitate. Unbeknownst to Martin, a group of foresighted men and women in his new homeland had been busy making preparations for his arrival.


Fifty-seven years earlier, fifty-six American colonists scribbled their john hancocks on a piece of parchment they called the Declaration of Independence. Coincidentally, one of them—the first one to sign the document, in fact—actually was named John Hancock. Imagine the odds of that happening! When Connecticut’s Oliver Wolcott glanced at the text, he noticed that Virginia’s Thomas “Catgut” Jefferson had taken what Wolcott thought as too much liberty with the line he had suggested to Jefferson a fortnight previously as the two men sat in a rural Pennsylvania tavern near the Moravian town of Nazareth, drinking warm ale as they played Visée suites on their baroque guitars. After observing how the barometric pressure in the region enhanced the sound of their instruments, Wolcott told Jefferson “We are endowed with certain unalienable Rights—you know, Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Tonal Bliss.” When Wolcott informed Jefferson of his displeasure with what the latter considered “a marked Improvement,” Jefferson attempted to pacify his companion, telling him to imagine himself as a “taught String of bronze.” An unidentified engraver preserved the scene in a little-known print that records Wolcott’s final words to Jefferson: “Catgut, I will rust!”2

According to the reports of some historians, Wolcott later traveled by carriage to the Maryland home of another of his fellow signers of the Declaration, Charles “Capo” Carroll, whom Wolcott complimented as a better musician than Catgut Jefferson. According to Carroll’s journal, the two stringed-instrument enthusiasts hatched a plan to seek out a mystical forest to the west where trees of many species such as spruce, maple, and other woods with special resonant properties grew in vast quantities, nurtured by rich soil. After Carroll mentioned that a Pennsylvania native named Boone claimed to have found a land west of Virginia with such a forest and ample game for sustenance, Carroll told Wolcott that they could find the forest once their “soles trod gently upon grass of blue.” Wolcott declared that they should begin their search for what he called “Ritual Cult Twigs”3 once they settled “that urgent revolution business.” Their plan was threefold: to hire Boone to blaze a trail for them to the forest that they regarded as a tonal utopia; to celebrate their discovery; and to find someone who could actually craft the wood into something of visual and aural beauty, ideally a man who possessed the requisite skills to construct guitars and practical items such as cabinets.

Carroll vowed that he would “endeavor all my days, with the tenacity of a badger, refusing to lie beneath the soil until I found such a man.” Wolcott died in 1797, never achieving the “tonal bliss” he sought, though he did receive some satisfaction the year before his death in seeing his former pal Catgut lose the presidency to John Adams. Wolcott died in 1832, the last surviving signer of the Declaration, not long after having a vision that this man would soon be on his way.

In his dream, one of Carroll’s final journal entries notes, the man would create a legacy that spanned generations and centuries, becoming synonymous worldwide for quality and tone. “Oliver would be pleased. I shall tell the lad Willcutt forthwith,” he wrote, referring to one of Wolcott’s descendants who altered the spelling of his name so that he could apprentice simultaneously with different woodworkers.4


            Not long after arriving at New York City in 1833—the same year that Samuel Colt perfected and began production of his innovative revolver, which would also have its own place in American mythology—Martin found a city with a rapidly-growing population, a hubbub he found alienating. The Lower West Side alone, where he had opened his new musical retail and repair shop on Hudson Street, had a population of about 100,000 people. With a copy of that morning’s Sun spread across his work bench, Martin glanced at the headlines that further flamed the resentment toward the many vices and violence in the Five Points area. Martin’s immediate concern, though, was in finding a way to increase the sales in his shop, to get his instruments in the hands of musicians. To do so he had to participate in distribution network comprising a hodgepodge of individuals who could either help with access to materials or to find new customers. In some instances, as with his friend Heinrich Schatz, who had taken to Anglicizing his name as Henry, Martin was obliged to allow a nominal partnership. Instead of the now famous designation on the guitars his family continues make, “C.F. Martin & Co. | EST. 1833,” some of Martin’s guitars from this period featured another name in addition to Martin, including Schatz’s.

            Hearing the bell above his doorway sound, Martin looked up to see two men entering the shop. He smiled and walked toward them. “Guten Morgen, Herr Fehrman. Und wie geht es dir?

            Edward Fehrman, a local music instructor and one of Martin’s regular customers, was also a German immigrant. Martin had met and befriended many such people from his homeland. Fehrman introduced his younger a companion, who was spending time in New York as he made his way from his home outside Washington, DC. The man, whose name Martin first thought to be Wilcox only to be gently corrected, had a shock of reddish hair and was growing a beard, probably from forgetting his razor after leaving his Maryland home. After shaking hands with Martin, he laid on the counter a guitar that seemed delicate and might have a pleasing sound to match had someone not crushed its soundboard, possibly with a boot heel. Its birdseye maple back remained intact at least. Martin recognized the instrument immediately as a La Cote from its long, sleek waist. He had seen a few of them, fewer since leaving Germany.

            “An unfortunate accident,” Willcutt explained, “but a good price.”

            “I can fix that. No problem,” Martin told him. “But wouldn’t you prefer a new one?”

            Martin caught the man eying a particularly small instrument, one with an unusual tuning.

            “Ah, a terz,” Willcutt said. “Lovely.”

            “You know your guitars,” Martin said approvingly.

            “Perhaps. I know quality and what I like. That guitar meets both criteria.”

            “See,” Fehrman said. “I knew you two would make good friends.”  

            Within a few years Martin sold his shop and followed Schatz to rural Pennsylvania, an idyllic locale far more amenable to his Saxon spirit than lower Manhattan. As yet another musician,5 one with a certain affinity for Martin guitars as it happens, stated many years later, Martin went down to Nazareth as though looking for somewhere to hide, to lay his head. Martin decided to stick around. He purchased eight acres of land outside the town of Nazareth, considerably smaller than Schatz’s spread but more than sufficient to suit Martin’s needs and pragmatic ways. There was something in the soil, and in the air, he thought, unconsciously echoing the statements of another man who had sat on that same site many years earlier.

            Martin fared well in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. His business and family grew, and his heirs grew into the business. At his new factory, built in 1859 at the intersection of Main and North in Nazareth, Martin’s company produced instruments with features such as the short-lived adjustable neck, and more endurably successful, an innovative X-bracing system Martin introduced in the 1840s. Although the stability and tonal advantages Martin’s bracing system offers cannot be denied, one wonders nevertheless if the system indicates a secret code, an X-marks-the-spot as it were indicating the acoustic nirvana that enthusiastic musicians had so long sought. Certainly, Wolcott’s descendant, about who far too little has been revealed until now, thought as much. A peripatetic man, he appears to have traveled extensively and made frequent visits to Nazareth to renew his friendship with C.F. Martin. There Willcutt enjoyed the company Martin and his Viennese-born son, C.F. Martin, Jr., regaling with tales of his ancestor’s musical dreams and desires, which history has otherwise ignored. In deference to the Martins, the young Willcutt began referring to himself as “J.R.,” a nominal imitation that he expressed as his way of declaring his appreciation for the Martin family’s skills as craftsmen. While strumming the terz guitar he purchased from the elder Martin that spring morning years earlier, J.R. told the Martins about the nation’s seventeenth state, a place where the grass was blue, the soil rich, the trees plentiful; and where horses ran fast, women were especially beautiful, the whiskey was smooth; and, most importantly, where men and women went to play guitars and express themselves in song, singing the odes of their homelands from Europe.

            “Mark my words,” J.R. is reported to have told the Martins. “One day the area ol’ Boone opened will be famous for these things.”

            The elder Martin nodded. “Imagine, my friend, if I could find the right man there, someone with skill and knowledge of his own, who understands what we know!”

            “Of course,” his son added, “we would insist on integrity. Such principles must always be in alignment with the tradition of quality we endeavor to continue.”

            “Yes,” J.R. said. “He could show your guitars to the people of Kentucky, the United States, the world, and let them see with their eyes and ears. Anyone who wants a Martin guitar could possess one. And I’d bet this man would view it an honor to be your distributor.”6

            J.R. sat back and played his guitar. “We don’t not own these things but only hold them for a little while,” he said. “But the time we have with our guitars is special. When you have a guitar, you have something to keep your hands occupied, and playing is a definite self-fulfillment or catharsis. What a moment of awe that is.”




1. Johann Stauffer (ca.1800-1845) originated a headstock design with the tuning keys aligned on the left side of the headstock and incorporated a distinctive French-curve style. C.F. Martin’s early guitars paid homage to his mentor by featuring this design, and in the 1940s the Californians Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender would resurrect the style on their most famous instruments.

2. Wolcott at times uttered strange remarks that supposedly, upon careful consideration, are thought to be a lost code. After rearranging the letters in various combinations, searching for possible anagrams, we still have no idea what such statements might mean.

3. see note 2.

4. According to certain less reliable historians, as a youth J.R. Wolcott altered the spelling of his surname when he fled from Connecticut to Maryland in order to avoid what would assuredly have been the painful justice visited upon the young man’s noggin by an irate farmer after young Wolcott was accused of compromising the purity of either the farmer’s daughter or dulcimer, possibly both.

5. The authors were unsuccessful in finding a source that could state unequivocally whether the Wolcott in “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show” by the Band bears any relation to any actual people named Wolcott or Willcutt. But we say, why not?

6. The conversation between JRW and the Martins can be found in Almost Forgotten: American musical history and tales of the anonymous and obscure by Ian Cognito (State University Press, 1978).



Advisory Notes: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” So says Edmond O’Brien’s character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, pointing out how certain versions of history are preferable to others.  Some of the above ostensible facts have been altered slightly while others have been made up entirely. Readers should feel free to decide whether they prefer old facts to new legends, or vice versa. But tone never lies, and Willcutt Guitars and C.F. Martin know all about tone. No disrespect, expressed or implied, is intended toward any actual historical figure or their families. 

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Thursday, January 21, 2010

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also...

By Bob Willcutt

With the economy being what it is you hear a lot of talk about wealth.  One thing I have learned in my aging process is that wealth can mean different things to different people, ages, and cultures. Aside from pure numbers, wealth can be manifested in the ability to show a warm, sincere smile, to be able to quickly and accurately remember names, to feel true empathy, or simply by having perfect pitch and a pleasing vocal tone.


To a baby, simply the sight of its mother or favorite pacifier brings pleasure and a sense of comfort.  A toddler and young child may desire toys and candy. A pre-teen tropes towards friends and fashions.  A college student his or her own apartment, a car, or season game tickets.  A young adult values as signs of wealth a prestigious career, expensive car, an exclusive country club, or the "right" neighborhood. A mature adult is thankful for a successful, healthy and safe family and the wealth of peer respect for one's accomplishments.  All through life, especially near the end, good health, a clear mind, and being at peace with God become even more important forms of wealth than just money in the bank or other material possessions.


Parallel with this is society’s constant desire for the wealth of money, power and possessions. (Even the small child always wants more toys.) However, this rarely brings true, complete happiness.  Some people find it elsewhere in talents such as Yoga, art, writing, teaching, multi-lingual expertise and, of course, in music.  Hidden, even in the small musical part of the world's wealth, there are many forms and definitions. The ability to sing is fairly universal, although in some cultures women cannot perform in public and veils tend to mute their voices for their husbands. Persian music uses quarter tones like the frequency right between the white and black keys of a piano, classical and acoustic guitarists are concerned with the volume of the unamplified instrument, and electric players with sustain, harmonics, and attack. Wealth can signify being the best at something like Eric Clapton with his early "Woman Tone", described as the tone of a soulful woman singing" ewoooo", created by a skillful blend of hand vibrato and full harmonic tube amp distortion like on "I Feel Free.”  Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan had the wealth of mastering the Fender Telecaster with all of its subtleties and apparent simplicities. Larry Carlton mastered the Gibson ES 335 and Chuck Berry helped invent Rock and Roll guitar.


These are not just accomplishments, but examples of alternative wealth. The ability to not just redundantly attempt to play the same musical piece ad nauseam, but to learn more about it each time and improve, not just in speed, but in understanding and the depth of a master's presentation. The tone that properly held hand positions and fingernail or pick attack gives is a form of expertise, mastery of the instrument, and personal wealth.


To achieve the full potential of the wealth of guitar playing, different types of guitars must be explored. In the world of electrics certain styles sound better on a Telecaster and some on a Les Paul, etc. The nuances go on forever with not only different brands and models but with hardware changes and weights. If the player and listener are keen enough to notice these subtleties then that in itself is a form of personal wealth. Different woods make enormous differences in tone, attack and sustain with both acoustic and electric players.


Wealth with instruments also extends to the rare, vintage, and collectible guitars purchased for their potential monetary gain sometime in the future or with owning prime examples of the world's dwindling supplies of rare woods. Guitars made of Brazilian Rosewood are purchased by players for their superior sound and beauty, but also by non-players admiring them and figuring they will be unattainable in their children's lifetimes.


What does wealth mean to you?  Only you can answer that.  Your friendly local guitar shop, however, can tempt you with some great material choices!

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dealer Camaraderie

Excerpt from "The Experience" by Jenny Domine
in Music Inc. Magazine - Dec 2009 | Vol. 20, No. 11

Every year, PRS holds an open house known as "The Experience" at their factory in Stephensville, Maryland as a way to connect with the public and to introduce new models.  Our own Eric Cummins had this to say of the Experience:  

"The value of the Experience is not so much what we will sell, here," he said.  "It gives us a chance to meet with people we only communicate with by e-mail and telephone.  It personalizes something that can be impersonal in a lot of ways."

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Posted by:  - Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Swift Trip to Taylor

By Tyler Nelson, Guitar Specialist at Willcutt Guitars, Lexington, KY

When Taylor Guitars called and asked me if I would be interested in attending their “Taylor Guitar University” I must say I was excited about the invitation, but initially more excited about a sweet, free trip to California! The factory is located in El Cajon just south of San Diego.

My expectations were I would spend four days of fun in the southern California sun, enjoying the beaches, Mexican food, and look at some cool guitars.  “After all,” I thought to myself, “I’ve been playing guitar for 10 years and worked in a high end guitars shop for three years so, what’s Taylor guitars going to teach me about guitars that I don’t already know.” Turns out, the Taylor University was an intense learning experience I will not soon forget!  It was anything but just a factory tour and playing some cool guitars. The trip gave me insight into modern guitar building, woods, environmental factors, design, as well as many other behind the scenes aspects of guitar building, and the industry as a whole.

 I flew into San Diego airport where my friendly Taylor rep, Barney, greeted me and from there we were shuttled to our hotel in old town San Diego. It was located in a very historic part of the city founded by the Spanish in the 1500’s. San Diego is one of the oldest cities in the US, brimming with Spanish and Mexican influence, like much of southern California. From our hotel we proceeded to a seafood restaurant where were we were lauded with buckets of lobster tail and pitchers of margaritas. And, can you believe it, we were expected to be up early in the morning at eight so we could catch a ride to the actual factory in El Cajon!

Taylor is the number two acoustic guitar maker in the US. They are second only to the venerable Martin. What company of Taylor’s clout has their owner and the company namesake meet you at the factory?  Not only did he meet and greet us, but Bob Taylor, founder of Taylor guitars, also took us on a personally led 2-day tour of the factory.  Bob is a guitar nut, considered by many in guitar circles as a modern day Leo Fender or Ted McCarty. He’s thought of every aspect of the guitar you could imagine and more.  He is a true innovative inventor, and just an all around nice guy.

Bob Taylor started our tour outside the factory, with the first and most basic aspect of guitar production:  the woods. Taylor uses numerous woods for their guitars including Mahogany, Maple, Koa, Brazilian and Indian Rosewood and Cocobolo.  All Taylor guitars have mahogany or maple necks, regarded as the most stable and toneful woods for that purpose.  Maple, sourced from the northern US, is a less commonly used wood for their necks.  The mahogany, preferred for their necks, is another story.  Rather common 25 years ago, Mahogany is a rainforest wood that has been heavily forested for the last quarter century. It takes roughly 30 years to grow large enough for use in guitar production. Taylor has worked out a deal with a local tribe of natives in Honduras to harvest a handful of trees; deemed good for guitars, the rainforest, the environment, and the ecosystem.   

For bodies, Taylor uses a variety of other woods.  Koa, a wood indigenous to Hawaii, sounds much like mahogany, but has a beautiful a golden striped appearance. It is not endangered, but only grows in Hawaii.  Ninety percent is on public lands, which is illegal to cut. Therefore, Koa must come from the 10% of lands that are privately owned and, for that reason it’s at a premium, price-wise. Bob Taylor considers Indian rosewood to be the best wood for guitar use; it sounds good, its fairly easy to get and it is easy and consistent to work with.  For these reasons he feels all his models work well in Indian Rosewood. They have been buying Indian Rosewood from the same Indian family since the late 80’s. Cocobolo, from the Pacific coast of Mexico, is a wood Taylor just started using in the last couple of years and it very similar to Brazilian rosewood in sound and appearance. Brazilian rosewood is the most highly prized wood they use, and its no longer legally cut. All Brazilian is registered or has to have been imported before it was banned.  Brazilian was farmed to the point of near extinction for furniture, tool handles, and instruments.  Because of this it was made illegal to cut in the late 1960’s.  Brazilian is regarded as the pinnacle of guitar woods in sound and beauty. Only a handful of Taylor’s will feature legally harvested Brazilian Rosewood.

The technical aspect of Taylor guitars is where they have really made a name for themselves.  Taylor has been the forerunner in guitar building, design and computer-aided design.  They have invested huge sums of money and research time into making the guitar building process more accurate and consistent.  This helps them to build better and more reliable guitars.  Machines now perform some jobs that would have taken skilled luthiers many hours to complete.  This helps to make the process quite a bit shorter and more cost effective. The amazing thing with these machines is that before Taylor started using them, they didn’t exist. Taylor worked with a machine design company in southern California, which had to fabricate all the machines Taylor uses. They were designed from scratch specifically for each job Taylor needed them to do. No machines in the world had been designed for guitar building before Taylor. Now many companies have adopted the types of machines that were pioneered at Taylor. These machines do every thing from cutting, sanding, and even applying the finish. Taylor stands as the leader in computer aided guitar building.

The Taylor story dates back to the late sixties when Bob Taylor, a teenager, tried to built his own acoustic guitar.  The third guitar he ever built is at the factory and, though built as a copy of another guitar, it still shows many of the design aspects still present in Taylor guitars today; mainly the slim neck, great playability and bolt on neck. Taylor’s main problem with other acoustics of the time was that they lacked the playability of modern electric guitars. Taylor set out to create a good sounding acoustic that played like an electric. To this day, Taylor claims they build the best playing acoustic guitar on the market, and when you get your hands on one and compare it to others you’ll see what they mean.

The second aspect of guitar design that Taylor introduced was the bolt on neck acoustic.  The bolt on guitar neck was pioneered by Leo fender in the late 40's, but had never been successfully used on an acoustic guitar.  The benefits of the bolt on neck guitar are: more easily replaced when broken, easy adjustment when necessary and, of course, greater ease in manufacturing.

Taylor has not rested on their laurels.  In the last few years, Taylor has introduced the expression system, the NT neck and a line of electrics. The expression system was one of the first acoustic guitar pickup systems created by a guitar manufacturer. They designed their system to address the problems with other systems by Fishman, Baggs, and others. Feedback, sound and output problems, as well as the fact that most systems required massive modification to the guitar, were issues they felt must be dealt with. I think Taylor’s system sounds better, has less feedback, and is much more streamlined than any others. Taylor’s newest innovation has been an improvement on their own bolt neck joint introduced 20 years ago. They call it the NT neck and it allows the user to tweak the actual neck angle of the guitar with the use of small shims in increments of thousands of an inch. Electrics have also popped up in the last few years.  Taylor, a new comer to the electric guitar market, is changing the game again with a full line of solid bodies and semi hollow guitars.

Taylor isn’t all about the importance of manufacturing and churning out guitars.  The proof is in the list of people playing Taylor guitars.  From Taylor Swift to Shine Down, Taylor has a list of endorsers a mile long that prove Taylor’s are among the best. Taylor gives no free guitars to anyone, as has been the company policy since the beginning, famous or not. That means a lot when you know there are brands out there that are paying big time players thousands a show for their endorsement.

Taylor has been at the forefront of guitar manufacturing for the past 20 years.  With production numbers only surpassed by Martin, Taylor is making about 400 guitars a day and leading the pack in innovation. Bob Taylor has no plans to slow down anytime soon. He still has a hand in much of the actual building, part of what keeps Taylor at the top when it comes to acoustic guitars. All in all, Taylor University was defiantly an education. I left knowing much more about guitar production in general and a new respect for Taylor guitars in particular! 

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Friday, November 06, 2009

Huss & Dalton

By Bob Willcutt

HD. What does it mean to you? When an random sample of average people were asked this question, the answers were diverse depending on their particular interests. High Definition television, or HD for short, ranks high on a scale of recognition, as does HD video. This is now common on youtube, and most new video recorders. Handymen think of Home Depot, and bikers live for Harley-Davidson. Guitar players in the know however, think of Huss and Dalton. They are appreciative of the masterpiece creations of a small shop in the rolling hills of Virginia. Staunton (If you pronounce the U, they will know you are an outsider) is in the middle of nowhere, unless you are traveling east from Kentucky towards Maryland to of course visit the PRS factory. Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton, with a few chosen helpers, produce some of the most impressive guitars being built today and possibly of all time. 


Jeff Huss moved from North Dakota to Virginia in 1984 to pursue an interest in Bluegrass and Traditional music. This interest led him to Stelling Banjo Works where for nine years, he honed his craft of instrument building. After the first 5 years at Stelling, he made his first quality guitar which his boss excitedly bought and started to take to festivals. Even Mark Dalton bought a guitar from him! 


Mark Dalton hails from South Central Virginia where his family has long enjoyed traditional music in the home and community. He began playing guitar at age 13 and banjo by age 18. It was at a jam session in the early '90's that he first met Jeff Huss. Mark became employed by Stelling in 1994 and began his career in instrument building. On a visit to Jeff's shop in the summer of 1995, the two began formulating ideas that led to the creation of Huss and Dalton Guitars. While appreciating the traditional design of respected guitar companies, both had visions of a steel string guitar that paid homage to tradition, while incorporating improvements in the structural design and tasteful cosmetics. Growing from the original two man team, they now have 10 or so employees in their old pencil factory of 4000 square feet, which they moved into in 1999.


Being well mannered southern men, they don't like to brag, but they have had some high profile customers purchase their guitars. Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Paul Simon, Robin and Linda Williams, Gerry Leonard ( David Bowie ) ,  and Albert Lee are just a few of their satisfied customers.


What makes their guitars so special? There are other great builders today like Collings, Santa Cruz, Bougeouis, Petros, Fox, and others, but H&D have a few different ideas which they are happy to share and not keep secret. The The top wood is joined, glued and then subject to a weighted defection meter to determine how thin to thickness sand it for maximum flexibility and strength. The top is bent to a 25' arc and mated to the braces which are cut on that curve. The whole assembly is then sanded to fit the sides and kerfing perfectly. They also bend the sides the old fashioned way with water and heat adding no softening chemicals to the wood, like most factories do. This keeps the wood pure and more resonate.


As Oasis Musical Instruments Ltd. said, expressed as only the British can, in their magazine interview with Albert Lee, describing his new Huss & Dalton;


"This guitar generates a huge sound. The lows punch like a prize fighter and the high frequencies are amazingly extended. I have often heard people describe acoustic guitars as 'piano-like' , but it is the first time the term has ever seemed appropriate to me. This Huss & Dalton really does sound like a grand piano, most likely a Yamaha, with a brick holding the sustain pedal down! The tone is three dimensional and room filling with harmonics that swirl and collide in the most intriguing way."


In the early days, a system was initiated to build guitars in a small production capacity, rather than the one-at-a-time "free building" style that Jeff had previously employed. Later, a move to a small shop allowed the hiring of their first employees and a gradual increase in the number of instruments being produced. The business continues to grow, still utilizing hands-on "bench style" building techniques, making each instrument with individual loving care.

All Huss & Dalton guitars are braced with hand split Appalachian Red Spruce, which has a greater strength-to-weight ratio than other brace woods. The bridge plates are all made of Honduran Rosewood, selected for its superior tonal properties and resistance to string ball wear. All tops are of AAA grade and individually checked for their load bearing abilities. Strength and flexibility is the balance that is achieved through testing , thickness sanding and retesting again and again until That piece of wood is at it's utmost performance level. Genuine bone is used for all their nuts and hand compensated saddles for sound and durability.The necks are quarter-sawn Honduran Mahogany,Maple,Walnut,or Spanish Cedar, and employ the use of a steel reinforced truss rod. Neck shapes are very fast, but they also can be custom fitted to your hand. Every fingerboard is ebony, a beautiful, dense and traditional wood that is resistant to wear. Every fingerboard is bound, usually in wood to match the wood binding on the guitar. If the player wants an unbound look, they are bound in ebony. By binding the fingerboards,no fret ends are seen or felt and the finish won't chip away at the fret ends either from playing or with the eventual refret after many pleasurable hours of playing.


The inside is as clean as the outside and even the screw heads line up perfectly. The playability and non-compression is truly amazing and complements the light gauge strings that are recommended on the oo and FS, keeping the dynamic, alive sound. All the other models can handle medium as well.


The next time you are traveling through Virginia, stop by and witness some amazing workmanship, or call or email them for a great DVD showing how their guitars are constructed, or visit one of their fine hand picked dealers near you.

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Friday, November 06, 2009

McPherson Guitars

By Bob Willcutt

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Lexington, Kentucky was known throughout the nation as the "Athens of the West," for its cultural and educational benefits.  Sparta, Wisconsin is known for its hard working and intelligent manufacturing centers, and happens to be home to two of Matt McPherson's companies, Mathews Bows and McPherson Guitars.  Thousands of years ago in Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta were bitter rivals.  Today the two namesakes come together to bring you the very finest creations of innovative and aesthetically pleasing guitars.

This spring, I was invited to visit his state of the art factory workshop. Everything was so well organized and clean, you could eat off the work benches. The workers this year are the best they have ever had. Each one is a master builder, capable of building a complete instrument to their master’s stringent requirements and expectations.

McPherson guitars is the brainchild of Matt McPherson, a design guru with more patents to his name than Imelda Marcos has shoes in her closet.  His incredible ear and unrestricted design ideas have opened up new possibilities for guitars as well as a plethora of other products he is involved with.  He has all the latest CNC, laser, and analytical tools, but his guitars still must play and sound right to his and other ears.  The fact that he has many renowned performers coming through his studios and trying out the newest creations certainly helps the validity of his design choices.

McPherson guitars are made to have the most stable neck in the business and can travel--in the supplied custom made Ameritage case--from Alaska to Brazil with no movement in action or tone. One piece of hard South American Mahogany is carved out to cradle a large military spec. carbon fiber rod the whole length of the fingerboard, even over the body. The the junction of the neck to body uses a cantilevered neck design that never touches the top, allowing it to vibrate freely.  The bracing pattern is unique in that it utilizes a pattern with no touching cross braces and paper thin diagonal spruce reinforcement.  The offset soundhole is also a step away from tradition, creating an increased flexible surface area on the central part of the instrument.  Each guitar also comes with three hand fitted bone saddles bearing the serial number of that specific guitar, each hand filed for the compensated Buzz Feiten intonation system, and each with different heights, so that you can keep your action fairly consistent when changing string gauge, or the humidity level changes.  These are not generic saddles--they are made and set up for that specific guitar!

Matt's attention to detail is simply incredible.  Even the tiniest areas of his guitars, such as the point between the top of the "P" on the headstock is the original piece of wood from that exact spot of the peg head veneer!  Other manufactures would most commonly fill these gaps around the logo inlay with colored glue or putty.  The inside of every McPherson Guitar is carefully inspected with a tiny TV camera to make sure that there are no glue stains, wood chips or splinters, or markings of any type. And if at the final quality control station, the guitar just doesn’t measure up to Matt’s standards of fit and finish, or it just doesn’t sound right for some reason, it is sadly destroyed. There are no seconds.   

And who would notice, right?  Matt would.

Perhaps his father recited the ancient adage like my father did every night before bed,

"In days of old, craftsmen wrought with greatest care, each unknown and unseen part, for God sees everywhere."

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Oh, No! Now what do I do?

By Bob Willcutt

It seems like nothing gets taken care of, unless there is a crisis.  Call it procrastination, blind sightedness, or just living in a bubble, but one's guitar often gets neglected.  With winter rapidly approaching, the humidity level in the atmosphere, as well as in the wood of the guitar, starts to drop.  A guitar needs to stay in the humidity range of 45-50% year round, and that is impossible to keep with out a room, or better yet, an in-the-case humidity system.  The only way you can accurately monitor this is with a digital humidity gauge.  If you don't, the problems will show up in the form of loose frets, high action, or a hump in the fingerboard around the 12th fret.  Get a humidity system or you will be seeing your luthier soon!

Are your notes starting to sound dead or are there buzzes that happen no matter how hard you squeeze down?  Move the strings to the side a bit, and you will probably see fret pits, or worn places, from the strings pushing down on the frets from many happy hours of playing.  If they are less than one quarter of the way worn down, they can be milled flat, re rounded and polished out.  All of the frets must be aligned this way.  If you only filed the worn frets and left the upper frets alone, the upper ones would be higher than the lower ones and they would cause the string to shake, rattle, and roll.  Not a good thing!  If they are worn more than one quarter through, they must be replaced.  They do not grow back.  If you only play in the first position, you may only need the first few frets replaced.  The farther up the neck you play, more frets will wear and, therefore, need to be replaced.  If it needs more than ten new frets, I usually recommend all of them be replaced because the whole length of the fingerboard wood can be radiused to an even plane for incredibly accurate fretting.  Refret today, make it a joy to play!  Don't procrastinate--they won't get better on their own!

Have you noticed that notes are sounding sharp when you play in the middle of the neck and the strings are generally hard to press down?  Perhaps you need a neck adjustment.  You could ignore these symptoms and watch as it gets worse over time, often to the point of not responding to an adjustment.  You can watch as the wood of the neck itself becomes warped to the point of no return, or take care of it as soon as it is noticeable.  I recommend a qualified luthier to make any adjustments, but if you try it yourself, remember that anymore than a quarter turn on the truss rod means there is something else going on that may require additional work.  Truss rods and their adjustment nuts do strip out, or even break, and that can be an expensive or terminating event for your guitar.  When in doubt, have it checked out!

Case latches and handles should be periodically checked for stability and security.  If your guitar falls out of its case or the handle breaks, your guitar could receive more than just surface damage.  Periodically check the edges of your guitar for finish chipped or raising up from being hit, even so very slightly.  If the chip is repaired when new, before any dirt or oils get into it or your clothes or the case pull it, the results will be much more effective.  Once again, don't procrastinate--it won't get better on it's own!

Have your electronic controls, switch, or jack started to make noise or even cut out when you make adjustments?  It is a relatively simple matter to clean or replace worn potentiometers and it could save you from noise or even a total failure on a gig.  If you have an older vintage guitar, the old parts should be cleaned first and not removed unless it is absolutely necessary.  If they must be replaced in order for the electronics to function (remember, this is an instrument made to be played), keep the old parts in a sealed bag inside the case and label it with the model and serial number of the guitar they came from.

And the most obvious things like tuning keys, strap buttons, and strings should be inspected for wear and replaced when necessary.  Just like auto maintenance, if you take care of it, then it will take care of you and your friendly local luthier is here to help.
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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Monday, September 07, 2009

They're Coming!

By Bob Willcutt

They're coming!  One if by land, two if by sea...

Mark your calendars now!  Mr. Paul Reed Smith, the famous guitar builder, Mr. Howard Leese, formerly with the band "Heart," and others, are coming to Kentucky!  (And you thought I was talking about Paul Revere!)  These two icons of rock history will be visiting Willcutt Guitars in Lexington, Kentucky for a free meet and greet on August 7, 2009.  Besides being easily recognizable to any serious guitarist, they both have interesting stories with a local flavor.

Paul Reed Smith was born in Bethesda, Maryland, about 5 miles from where I (Bob Willcutt) was born a decade earlier, in the Chevy Chase district of Washington, D.C.  As teenagers, we both would hang out at Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center, first on H street in downtown Washington and later, after the store's moving, in Wheaton, Maryland.  And we both were greatly influenced later in life by our experiences surrounding the store, although in different manners.

As a matter of circumstance, the man who sold me my first electric guitar (a Guild Starfire 3), Ed Cornett (who happened to be born in Kentucky), was the same man who, years later, recommended that Chuck Levin hire Paul Smith as a repairman.  Paul started his building in the mid 1970's about the time I, now settled in Kentucky, started to make my own electrics and opened a repair business.  It soon became apparent to me that there was more of a need for quality repair services in Kentucky than a small, custom builder and my direction turned towards repairs and retail merchandising.

By this time, Paul, still in the D.C. area and becoming connected with the up and coming rock bands of the day, began to build his own line of custom guitars.  Through dedication and hard work, he built and grew his new line, Paul Reed Smith Guitars, into one of the very top producers of quality guitars in the world.  Today, PRS Guitars produce about 70 guitars a day in their state of the art factory located in Stevensville, Maryland, near Chesapeake Bay.  Willcutt Guitars has been the number one dealer of Paul's guitars for seven years and has supported his line since the mid 1980's.

Howard Leese is a California born guitarist, record producer, and musical director who played with 'Heart' for 22 years and then with 'The Paul Rodgers Band.'  (Paul Rodgers has a rock resume that includes an incredible list of the Who's Who in the rock world.  In fact, he had gigs with Kenny Jones of the Who, Jimmy Page, Joe Satriani, Queen, Free, and, of course, Bad Company.)

Howard Leese did a concert at Rupp arena in Lexington with 'Heart' in the early 1980's and spent several days in town working on the show.  I managed to get backstage during a rehearsal and let Howard try a highly customized Gibson Les Paul with a pearl pink paint job and chrome hardware including Schecter pickups that I had put together in the shop.  Howard tried it out and agreed to purchase the guitar, using it on stage in the performance that night.  While there, Howard showed me his rig, which included a fine guitar from a "new" Maryland builder:  Paul Reed Smith!

The next day, Howard contacted me and said he was so impressed with the work on the Les Paul that he trusted me with his prized Fender Telecaster.  He had owned the Tele since high school and had foolishly sanded it down to natural wood.  (It is visible in this condition on the back of Heart's Bebe Le Strange album cover.)  He wanted it painted Lake Placid Blue with a high gloss clear topcoat, which I did, and added the matching headstock color and custom wiring and special fretwork.

He called me about a month later and asked me to bring it to a concert hall in Cincinnati where 'Heart' was performing.  I was allowed on stage during the show, in the guitar tech area, and presented the refinished Tele to Nancy Wilson.  To my thrill, she used it for the rest of the night!  When they came through Lexington again years later she was still using it, and I believe she continues to cherish and use it to this day.

Stop by Willcutt Guitars on August 7th to meet Paul Smith and Howard Leese, hear great music, talk about old times, and, more importantly, hear plans for a dynamic and growing future.  And while here, be sure and check out our newly remodeled guitar museum, showcasing some of the beauties I have collected over the years!

Register on line at www.willcuttguitars.com to attend this FREE event.
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Posted by:  - Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wait Until Tomorrow

By Bob Willcutt

Upon moving to Kentucky back in my college days, I began hearing the phrase, "If you don't like the weather in Kentucky, wait until tomorrow!"  It only takes a couple of years living in this area to realize the significance of this statement.

Our weather during the change of seasons can be (as this year has proved!) very unpredictable.  This brings its own set of problems for fine instruments.  Last month I discussed how winter and its dry conditions could create havoc on your guitar.  This month we will examine the spring and summer conditions in our area that can affect the prime playing condition of your fretted instrument.

Ever wonder why your guitar can suddenly go out of tune in the spring?  Spring time in Kentucky equates with rain and up and down temperatures.  This means that when it is cold your instrument is subjected to the drying effects, which reduces the air humidity, from heating your house or car.  When it is warm we naturally turn up the AC, which also removes moisture in the air.  The best possible humidity level for your guitar is a constant 45%.  Unless you live in a museum and never take your instrument out if it, this is probably not a realistic level for any normal home!  So, you learn to take preventive steps and do the best you can.  A digital humidity gauge is the only way to monitor this.

While April showers bring May flowers, I can't say the effects of rain are always as positive for an instrument.  Rain, damp basements, and any low lying area that collects moisture are the culprits for a slew of potential instrument problems.  Excess moisture can quickly cause a guitar to become swollen.  The instrument's top can rise up, making the playing action too high.  The fingerboard can swell wider than the neck leaving a step that you can feel and see.  Cure?  Let it dry out to 45% and have it professionally checked for proper adjustment.

Next, we get to heat.  When the temperatures start going up remember to never leave a guitar in your car (much less the trunk!) not even for a few minutes.  Treat your guitar like a beloved pet that you would never let overheat!  Temperatures inside a vehicle can quickly rise to double the outside temperature and a hotter temperature leads to loosening glue and, even worse, warping wood.  An ounce of prevention can save you a lot in repair costs!

If you need advice on the condition of your guitar, come see me.  My staff and I, like any reputable guitar shop, can give you advice on the proper maintenance, storage, or, worst case - restoration, care that your instrument needs.
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Posted by:  - Monday, March 02, 2009

Cold Weather Blues

By Bob Willcutt

This is the time of year when I see a common problem showing up on many acoustic guitars.  There are obvious signs; a hump at the 14th fret and strings that are extremely close to the fingerboard; strings that rattle when using the upper register; frets sticking out the side of the fingerboard; a sunken area in the top of the guitar between the sound hole and bridge.  All of these point to a dried out guitar.

Guitars are built to be kept in a humidity range of about 47%.  When the air temperature drops, the humidity drops.  Add to that the drying effects from modern furnaces and you could easily have a guitar exposed to about 10% humidity during the winter months.

Fortunately, there is a rather easy and inexpensive preventive measure you can use to keep your instrument in great playing shape.  I recommend a digital humidity gauge and humidifier.  My top picks are the Kyser and Planet Waves brand humidifiers that are kept in the case with the guitar.  Properly used, a humidifier will give your guitar the moisture it needs during the cold months.

If your guitar already shows signs of dryness, try keeping it in the case with a humidifier for two weeks.  You should see improvement with the action.  If you still experience problems, take your instrument to a reputable repair shop where they can bring it back into alignment for you.  Fret problems can occur on both acoustic and electric guitars.  I humidifying does not bring the frets back in, you can have the fret ends professionally filed and rounded.

Be aware of the effects of humidity on your instrument.  When shopping for a new guitar, be sure the store you decide to purchase from keeps their humidity levels up to par.  Don't be afraid to ask - this is your investment!  Proper care of your guitar will assure you many years of enjoyment for both you and your friends!
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Posted by:  - Monday, March 02, 2009

Lights! Camera! Action!

By Bob Willcutt

Lights!  Camera!  Action!  If I had a dollar for every time someone asked for their 'action' to be set as low as possible without buzzing, I could probably get that condo in Maui!

What is action?  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has many definitions for the word but two in particular fit for the guitar player; 10 the manner or method of performing; 20 the manner in which a mechanism works.  I define 'action' as how an instrument responds to the touch of a player.  To achieve optimum action on a guitar one will be best served by using the expertise of a Luthier who has knowledge of the mechanics of the instrument's parts and knows how to intertwine them with a player's style.

An instrument's action is set up initially at the factory, where specs usually require the distance between the top of the fret wire at the 12th fret to be 5/64 to 6/64 on the 6th string and 3/64 on the first string.

However, many other factors come into play.  The height of the nut, truss rod adjustment, amount of string windings on the tuning key shaft, tailpiece or bridge saddle angle as well as the construction of the strings used makes a difference in the tension of the strings, allowing them to move without hitting the frets.  When a string hits a fret you end up with a buzzing sound - not good!

Most people that come in to my shop assume that "lowering" the action will allow them to ease up on the pressure they put on the strings.  This is not always the case.  Some people have a normal tendency to press down hard on the strings and strum hard.  This is a playing style.

For someone with this style I would actually need to raise the action for their playing to feel more comfortable.  The type of strings in use on the instrument can make a difference, too.  Strings with a small round core are easier to manipulate and don't need as much pressure placed on them.  If you tend to press hard on the strings, then a large hex core string might be best for your guitar as they do not move as much.

Fender guitars tend to accentuate buzz because of all the metal used in their construction.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as this is part of their sound.  The deeper sound of a Gibson will lesson the tendency to buzz, but you lose some brightness in the sound.  Once again, not a bad thing.  The guitar just produces a different sound.  This is why there are different manufactures supplying guitars and why many players feel the need for a "stable" of guitars.  You just have to understand the playing abilities of each individual instrument and and pick the one that is right for your style.

Another factor that people don't like to hear about is the player factor.  It is a natural tendency to pick down into the string plane making the string aim into the fingerboard, thereby buzzing.  The correct way, which I learned from Tony Rice, is to pick absolutely parallel to the string plane.  This takes practice, as it feels unnatural, but if you do it properly you can have the strings set much lower without buzz because the strings are moving parallel to the fingerboard and string plane.  Watching yourself play in a mirror looking from the headstock towards the body will allow you to see the pick angle you are using.

When you see your favorite players on stage it may look like they are hitting the strings really hard, but a lot of times it is just an act.  Remember, if your string is hit, it must go somewhere!  If you hit a string too hard it will most likely bounce down onto the fingerboard and create a buzz.  The height of the fret wire is important, also.  If frets are worn, the strings will buzz no matter how the guitar is set up.  This indicates that it is time for a professional re-fret.

Bottom line?  Play clean and articulate on a property set up guitar and you will have the elusive "low action" without buzzing.
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Posted by:  - Monday, March 02, 2009

Let's String 'em Up!

By Bob Willcutt

When your strings look dark, crusty, or rusty and like rubber bands; when you have lost all attack and definition; when your intonation is impossible to deal with and you want the most out of your guitar, change your strings!

You may be asking, "What is the best set of strings for my guitar?!?"  First and foremost, do you have an acoustic, electric, or classical guitar?  Each guitar calls for different strings, so like they said in the Old West, "Let's string 'em up!"

Most acoustic guitars are only strong enough to handle light or custom light gauge strings.  Medium or heavy sets will warp the neck and pull the top up.  The center core of the string, which can be mode of the lightest silk, nylon, or small round steel wire, is what makes a difference in the tension or pull.  A longer center core or one made with a hex angle shape gives more tension in relation to the outside gauge.  The outside windings can be made of phosphor bronze alloy, an "80/20" or other alloys or nickel.  What is the difference in each winding you're wondering?  A phosphor bronze alloy will give a warm bottom end with a clear, sparkling high.  The "80/20" (80% copper, 20% zinc) or other alloys give a tight, punchy midrange.  Nickel has magnetic properties and will work better if you have a magnetic pickup in your acoustic.  There are also bronze flat wound strings available for acoustic guitars that are smooth to the feel and have minimum squeak.  Which are great for the recording studio or sore fingers, but are not as loud acoustically.

Electric guitars typically do not use bronze strings because of, you guessed it, they have magnetic pickups.  All the string windings are pure nickel, nickel plated steel, burnished steel, stainless steel, or some other variation.  The same rules of tension with a round core being more flexible than a hex core, still applies.  Short scale (24_") instruments like Gibsons, typically take a slightly heavier gauge (10's or 11's).  Long scale (25_") instruments like Fenders, usually work best with lighter gauges (9's or 10's).  Anything heavier on either type of guitar requires modifications to the nut and bridge.  

Classical guitar unwound strings are either black or clear nylon and more recently carbon fiber.  The wound strings are usually silver plated copper over a silk center core.  Steel strings should never be put on a classical as they will pull the bridge and top up and eventually split the rollers of the tuning keys.  Nylon strings should not be put on a steel string acoustic as their larger gauge will not sit into the nut slots and the heavier for steel braced top will not resonate enough.  Also, the smaller tuning machine shaft would take a frustratingly long time to bring it in tune.

Whenever you change your strings, have a clean work area so tools don't get caught under your guitar and scratch it.  Change the strings one at a time to lessen the shock of all coming off at the same time and the neck flexing out of adjustment.  It is tempting to cut them all so you can clean, but it is not good for the guitar.  A few drops of quality fingerboard oil rubbed into rosewood or ebony fingerboards is a good idea, but never on maple boards!

Gortex or other types of coatings are becoming popular as they increase the life of a resonate string, but nothing sounds as good as a brand new set, tuned up and strummed for the first time.

The most important thing to remember when changing strings is to protect your eyes!  Wear glasses or safety glasses because coils  of new springs can fly open unexpectedly or the excess ends cut off at the keys can fly up at your face!
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Posted by:  - Monday, March 02, 2009

Made In The USA! pt. 2

By Bob Willcutt

Let's “finish” what we started last month!    

In the last issue I talked about the construction phase of a Gibson Les Paul guitar in the Nashville Tennessee factory.  We left off with the frets being leveled and filed either by hand, or more so today, by a Plek machine.  The next step is the color prep.

Before a guitar goes to the paint and finish department, it must proceed through a series of important steps.  It must be noted that Gibson does not release any seconds or finish flawed guitars, so every step has to be inspected and passed as perfect.  The dumpster in the back attests to this mandate!  First, the body and neck are sanded with 280 grit sand paper by hand.  This evens out the binding/wood seam and removes any glue residue as well as smoothes the wood.

Next, a series of orbital sanders with a finer grit are used to make the whole guitar silky smooth.  While this is being done, the guitar rests on a porous rubber pad, similar to what goes under rugs to keep them from slipping, placed on top a vacuum table.  This sucks up the sawdust for health and fire safety.  With mahogany, like found on the back of a Les Paul body and on most necks, the open pores of the wood are filled with a colored grain filler applied with a paintbrush.  The excess is then wiped off and left to dry.  This distributes the color and gives another chance to check for finish irregularities.  Deep sanding marks show up as dark.  If dark spots are found, the previous steps must be repeated.

A final finish is only as good as the steps preceding it.  Color prep QC is the final step before proceeding to the finishing room. The guitar goes to an electrostatic booth if it is to be coated with a solid or opaque color using atomization.  The guitar is charged with a positive charge and the paint is charged as negative.  This allows the color to transfer efficiently and evenly across the entire body and neck.  The next stop is the shade booth.  

The top is masked off with tape and the filled mahogany backs and necks get their first coats of nitro cellulose lacquer.  Although environmentalists may not like it, the smell is like ambrosia to guitar aficionados.  There is nothing that says boutique guitars like that smell.  Being a conscientious company (and complying with environmental standards), excess spray is filtered from the air before any of it reaches the outside of the factory.  The guitar is then transferred to the shade booth on line two.  A skilled painter will apply any shading or sunbursting of the neck or back with a spray gun.  Each guitar is slightly different because of this human touch.  In line three, the top is sunbursted with unique shading in whatever the work order dictates.  

The next step is one of the most time consuming and tedious and one of the most subject to customer scrutiny.  The bindings on the body, neck and headstock, and around the nut are hand scraped to remove any over spray acquired in the spraying process.  These bindings could have been covered with painter's tape like other guitar manufacturers, but Gibson has always felt that a scrapped line was cleaner, more accurate, and even.  No robotic machine can correct for little nuances in construction like a highly conscientious human can.  In order to achieve a quality result in the allotted time allowed, the individual luthier can use his/her choice of new microscope glass slides (the edges are incredibly sharp), razor blades, or sharpened pieces of clock spring steel.  Usually their fingers are taped for protection, not just from cuts, but also for prevention of blisters, and for support.  The guitar then goes to color line QC to find any flaws before top coating in six or seven coats of clear finish.

Now the guitar moves on for scuff sanding to level the orange peel and any drips in the lacquer.  This is done by hand on a vacuum table to contain the sweet smelling dust.  The top coats of lacquer flow evenly on the smooth sanded surface and look fairly shinny, but still it must be checked over in the lacquer line QC with any touch ups made.  One nice thing about using nitro cellulose lacquer is that small imperfections can be repaired (unnoticeably melted in).  The bodies are hung on a revolving rack, like a dry cleaner uses, around the top of the factory building for four or five days until they are dry enough for buffing.  First the protection tape on the fingerboard is removed and the fingerboard and frets are cleaned by hand.  Now the guitar goes to the buffing department where a worker holds the guitar and rotates it against large stationary cotton buffing wheels of declining coarseness.  Some manufacturers have given this up for robotics, but Gibson feels this hands on method achieves the best results.  

Now the guitar is perfectly shiny except for the fingerboard.   Another worker cleans and polishes the frets and oils the fingerboard before sending the guitar through another QC station and then to final assembly.  The CPA (control panel assembly) is where the electronics are wired and soldered into a prewired unit.  This is then installed into the guitar and the jack is connected.  The peghead tuning key holes are reamed until the excess lacquer is removed from them and the tuning keys can mount flush and turn smoothly.  Next, the guitar bridge and tailpiece are installed and adjusted for approximate action.  Plastics, such as the backplates, pickguards, and truss rod covers are added in a clean area.  This is where dust, buffing wax, and fingerprints are removed.  Here, too, problems can be addressed and sent back to their appropriate station for repair and correction.  If it passes, then everyone in final assembly signs his or her name to the matching serialized inspection card.  

The last step is the final inspection, where the action and playability are set to factory specs.  A final hand polish, and the guitar is placed in it's case, it's shipping carton and off to a dealer where it will find a home with a loving guitarist.   Again, there are no "seconds" (finish flaws), which would confuse the customer and diminish the reputation of the manufacturer.  With all this hand work and numerous inspections - all by proud American laborers - there is no wonder that these guitars seem to hold their value so well, sometimes even appreciating over the years.   

Made in the USA and proud of it!  Something the Gibson company can still say today!
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Posted by:  - Monday, February 23, 2009

Made In The USA! pt. 1

By Bob Willcutt

Made in the USA!   Not something all guitar companies can claim these days.

A few years ago, I was privileged to attend the Gibson Academy in Nashville, Tennessee.  This educational seminar for dealers was held in the factory where they build the world famous Les Paul guitars.  One of the most interesting parts of the seminar was the factory tour.  We were taken through while it was in full operation.

First stop was the rough mill where wood is cut and sorted.  In the old days, full boards were brought in and there was a lot of waste created looking for the perfect clear or curly spots that are needed for fine instruments.  Wood vendors, who are able to sell Gibson exactly what they need, streamline most of this work now.  This eliminates time, waste material, and storage space.  

Wood is then put into a vacuum kiln to dry to the required moisture content.  This helps to reduce future cracks, swelling, and other unpleasant movements.  The Les Paul two-piece tops are bookmatched (the grain lined up on each side so they match like an open book) and glued in batches of ninety on large glue wheels that resemble medieval torture racks.  The maple tops are then glued in presses to their mahogany backs.  Sometimes the mahogany is chambered to reduce weight before the top is added.  This lightens the weight and gives an airy resonance to the guitar.  The bodies are then put twelve at a time into a body line carver to make the famous deep dish carved top of the Les Paul.

Neck blanks are band sawed out of stiff quarter sawn mahogany planks.  A groove for the adjustable truss rod is routed from the top edge of the neck.  The adjustable truss rod and wood spine are added.  Fingerboard blanks of rosewood or ebony are slotted for frets and inlaid with mother of pearl, abalone, or pearloid. Then the fingerboard is radiused with a diamond wheel surface grinder to render the inlay flush with the fingerboard.  The fingerboard is hand fretted, bound, and then gang pressed to seal the frets tight against the wood.  The fingerboard is then checked by a quality control expert and inspected for high frets, uneven inlays, misaligned side dots, as well as uneven bindings.  The headstock veneer is normally made of a black fiber material inlaid with mother of pearl, or silk screened with the Gibson name (the original Gibsons used pear wood stained black), and glued onto the neck in batches of ten.

The fingerboard and nut are glued onto the neck and then that assembly is hand rolled on a vertical belt sander to finalize the shape.  Even though the neck blanks are cut on a CNC (computer numeric controlled router), this final sanding is done by hand, making each neck feel slightly different, which ensures one will fit your hand perfectly!  (This is another reason to try a guitar before you buy it, as each one truly does have a different feel.) 

Now that the glue is dry, a saw called a rabbet is used to rout a channel, or groove, along the sides of the body for binding, which is then glued into place by hand, and wrapped in cotton ribbon like a mummy until dry.  The body is then slack belt sanded to not only smooth it, but to make the binding on the sides flush with the wood.  The neck tenon is hand fitted into the mortise of the body by an expert with a chisel like it was done a hundred years ago!  The left-right axis and the pitch angle are critical to a thousandth of an inch.  When correct, it is glued and clamped into place.

The frets are leveled by hand with a file and checked with a metal straight edge.  Gibson is, however, moving all fretwork to be done by a Plek machine.  This computer-controlled marvel straightens the neck, levels and rounds the frets, trims the binding, and cuts the nut groves perfectly each time.    

Next month we will continue our tour with discussions on Gibson's finishing, wiring, and final set up.
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Posted by:  - Monday, February 23, 2009

Files, Files, Files

By Bob Willcutt

Here is some information you can “file” away for future reference!

People are always asking me what tools are needed to do guitar work.  After 40 plus years in this business, I use an assortment of old favorites as well as new and improved tools offered by luthier supply catalogs.  I also find myself making my own tools when a specialized repair presents itself.  Naturally, as in any repair work, there are the basic tools you must have and then there are the tools that are necessary for more in depth work.

The basic tools you must have are quality screwdrivers, string cutters, and a socket and wrench set in both metric and SAE sizes.  These will suffice for most jobs that the average person would want to tackle and you probably already have these.  But now, let’s take a look at some of the special tools used by instrument builders and repair people, unique to the trade.

Files, files, and more files are necessary for fret work.  Long, single cut flat files, or diamond coated metal tool sharpeners are used for leveling frets and truing the bottoms of fingerboard nuts and bridge saddles.  Beveling files put a consistent angle on the end of the frets.  Special flat fret end dressing files and three corner fret dressing files (as used by the craftsmen at the old Gibson Kalamazoo, Michigan factory) are used to round fret edges after leveling.  Now, fret crowing files put a nice curve on the top of the fret after leveling and are preferred by most luthiers today.

Fingerboard nuts need small files with rounded bottoms available in different widths that match the gauge of strings that the guitar player uses.  There are even ceramic fret polishing wheels to fit in a Foredom handpiece and there are fretboard metal guards to help protect the fingerboard while filing happily away.

A good hammer with little recoil and a soft face is a necessity for fretwork.  Your basic carpenter’s hammer is too heavy and could damage frets.  End cutters in different sizes are used for pulling and trimming frets.

Reamers are used for fitting bridge pins into a bridge, enlarging the endpin hole of an acoustic for an output jack, and for enlarging the peg head holes to accommodate different tuning keys.  They are used as well for enlarging the holes in import electric guitars when the switches and potentiometers are updated to larger, sturdier electronic components.

Inspection mirrors in different sizes with miniature lights on them are used to see inside of acoustics.  Vices of different sizes are like an extra pair of hands and so are medical forceps and other surgical tools.

A good buffing wheel and many types of polishes keep things looking new.

For electronic repair and installation, I recommend a temperature controlled solder station.  Remember to never use a large gun type solder unit as these create a magnetic field and could ruin or decrease the output of magnetic pickups as well as melt the insulation on the delicate wires.

These tools will do most jobs, but, please…for the sake of your instrument, do not practice on your prized, collectible guitar!  Get an old junker and hone your skills if you want to try your hand at repairs.  But, then again, a professional luthier works on instruments daily and has the best tool of all.  Experience!
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Posted by:  - Monday, February 23, 2009

Should It Stay Or Should It Go?

By Bob Willcutt

Should it stay or should it go?  Yes, as hard as it may be for some to conceptualize, there are times when a guitar is no longer played or the money and/or space could be used for other things.  When this happens, you need to make a decision of whether to store or sell the instrument.

If you are storing a guitar for any length of time it should be kept in a sturdy, hardshell case with a good, supportive neck support.  The temperature of the storage space should be 65 – 75 degrees F and the target humidity should be 45%. Remember, if the humidity is too low, the wood can crack.  And if the humidity is over 50%, you risk mildew.  Keep the guitar away from sunlight, furnace vents, and exterior walls.  An interior closet is a good location.  If you are concerned about fire, you can double or triple the drywall thickness or fit a closet with special fire resistant drywall.  Cases should stand upright.  Note:  if the guitar is not in a case it should never lean against a wall as this may bow the neck after a period of time.  Electric guitars should have the strings up to pitch as the necks are made to counteract the tension of the strings.  If there is no pull the neck could bow and warp backwards.  Acoustics should be tuned down a full step because of their greater tension. For short term storage a wall hanger works better than a floor stand because the weight of the guitar pulling straight down helps keep the neck straight and it is out of the way of pets and children.
If you decide to sell your guitar on Ebay or to a vintage guitar dealer, you should carefully photograph it to prove its pre-shipment condition.  On Ebay, the more pictures you post, the better - and use a good, digital camera.  There is nothing worse than a grainy photo!  Place a copy of the shipping label inside of the case to act as a backup if the box label is knocked off.  Most shippers require double boxing.  This is accomplished by placing the guitar in a quality hardshell case with a good neck support which is then wrapped with 2 inches of packing material and placed inside a guitar shipping box.  These can often be obtained from guitar shops or purchased from uline.com.  Wads of newspaper or large bubble wraps work the best for packing as peanuts tend to shift in shipment and are a terrible mess for the environment.  If you do not have a hardshell case, make one out of cardboard and surround it with packing inside of another box. Wads of paper should totally surround the headstock, bridge, and knobs with a smooth side facing the guitar so the edges don’t scratch the finish. Do not let bubble wrap touch the finish of the guitar especially in hot weather as there may be a reaction with the finish.  Use good quality heavy duty shipping tape.  There is a difference!
Before packing, electrics should be kept to pitch and acoustics tuned down for the reasons explained earlier.  Any small objects should be put in a bag in the case compartment and taped shut.

The rule of thumb when shipping is pack well and keep the time in transit to a minimum.  Air costs more but shipping distances of over 100 miles helps with this.  Avoid shipping when there is a holiday or weekend as this means time in a holdover, truck, or warehouse and a greater chance for damage.

If all this is too much trouble you can take it to the UPS Store, Kinkos, or another packer/shipper and they will be happy to handle it for you.

Better yet, keep it and play it.  Every guitar has its own individual voice and feel and may once again spark your creativity.  That’s why a guitarist needs many different guitars - to catch that magic mood in each different song.  I hear stories all the time about the ones that got away and how the player wished he had that old friend to remind him (or her) of some sound or the good times they had while playing the instrument.  So, think hard.  Should it stay or should it go?
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Posted by:  - Saturday, February 21, 2009

Loved Ones

By Bob Willcutt

Time to bring your loved ones in for a spring check-up.  No, I’m not talking about the kids here, but those other loved ones in your life – your guitars!

Twice a year, ideally in the spring and fall, you should bring your guitar in to be checked by a professional luthier.  You can do this yourself, but the luthier sees hundreds of instruments per year and has the experience to better warn of problems before they happen.  A quick check over should be at little or no cost.  Ask for an estimate if more detailed work is called for.  Hopefully, nothing will show up in the check, but frets may work loose from the fingerboard, an acoustic bridge may start lifting from the top, the neck may need adjusting, and saddles, nuts and keys may have worn burrs on them.  Check the pickups.  Electric pickups tend to loosen and work their way down away from the string and need to be adjusted.  Acoustic pickups need to be vacuumed out.  The “action,” which involves not only the height of the strings away from the neck, but the feel and comfort of actually playing the guitar, should be evaluated, also.

If your luthier sees that the instrument is in need of a lot of adjustments, he or she may recommend a set up, which involves the proportional setting of all possible adjustments to make the instrument respond in the best possible way.  Remember, just like picking a doctor or dentist, you need to find a luthier you feel comfortable with.  Price should not be your only consideration – the experience of the person you choose to work on your prized guitar should be of great concern.  Ask for references and examples of previous work.  Check with guitar manufacturers to see who they have listed as an authorized repair center.  Above all, trust your instincts!  

With the change from the dry, winter months to the warmer, more humid weather of summer, you still need to maintain the humidity levels of your instruments.  If you followed my earlier advice (you did, didn’t you?) you have kept your beloved instruments at a 45% constant humidity monitored by a digital hydrometer gauge.  While you won’t need to add as much distilled water over the summer, you still need to monitor the levels, especially if you use air conditioning.  

Your outside environment may also affect your instruments.  If you live in a damp environment, such as near a lake or river, you may need to monitor your humidity gauge more closely as humidity over 50% can cause mildew and warping.  A dusty environment, such as near a farm or area near new construction, can ruin electronic components.  In this case, make sure you turn your pots periodically to reduce dust build up.  If they are in need of cleaning, this is job best left to a professional.

Fingerboards should be cleaned and oiled with guitar fingerboard oil at least twice a year.  Also, your guitar should be thoroughly cleaned inside and out.  Use a guitar polish and polish up the wood surfaces.  And don’t forget your case!  Vacuum out the case and clean out any unused items from the storage areas.  This will help to prevent scratches and will get out some mildew spores if moisture has been a problem.

A spring check up may be just what the doctor ordered for your guitar.  If nothing else, think of it as a way to spend an enjoyable afternoon or evening gazing upon a loved one!
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Posted by:  - Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pickup Lines

By Bob Willcutt

I can say I have probably heard every pickup line out there.  Now that I am older and wiser, I am often asked, “What do you recommend as the best pickup line?”  Easy to answer!  The best pickup line is …. the one that customizes your guitar to the sound you want!

Sometimes a guitarist will enjoy the feel of his or her guitar but gets tired of the sound it produces.  Or, perhaps, you are trying to get your guitar to match a sound on a favorite recording.  There are a few ways you might go about doing this.  You can modify the sound with an effects box or a modeling amp.  There is even computer software that will allow you to modify the sound.  But, one might argue, the best way to go about this is to get the sound you want out of the guitar before any modifications have been applied.  One way to achieve this is through installation of a new pickup on your guitar.  For this article, we will concentrate on pickups for electric guitars.

A pickup is basically a magnet and coil of wire that acts as a conductor of sound.  The pickup takes the mechanical vibration of the string, sending it through the magnet and coil of wire where it is changed into a small electrical current.  This current can then be increased by an amplifier.  The type of magnet used in the pickup construction, the number of turns on the coil, the width of the coil and even the placement of the pickup itself all effect the tone, volume, and quality of the sound produced.  You can have several different pickups on a guitar.  Why?  Perhaps you want to sound like Joe Pass on the neck pickup today and Metallica on the bridge pickup tomorrow.  You can achieve this feat by using the same guitar with two different pickups!

The humbucker pickup, originally designed by Seth Lover at Gibson Guitars, consisted of 2 coils of wire, wired series, out of phase, that cancels AC 60 cycle hum.  The originals had an unfinished Alnico II magnet and non-symmetrical coil winding and, along with no wax potting, produced an airy tone full of harmonics.  Over the years, different magnets, such as the Alnico V and Ceramic, and over windings have produced many variations of the original.  You may think of over winding as a bad thing, and if we were talking about clocks it would be.  But over winding a pickup produces more bass and higher output.  Not necessarily a better sound, just different.  

As I stated above, the width of the pickup coil effects the sound, also.  A narrow Les Paul Deluxe or Firebird mini humbucker would have a more fundamental and brighter tone that a wider humbucker, even if they both had the same magnets and number of coil windings.  A wider humbucker will warm up the sound by capturing more of the harmonic structures of the string vibration.

With Fender guitars the difference in the sound produced by the pickups becomes evident with the narrow neck pickup of a Telecaster being a very clear, pure tone and the bridge pickup, by being wider, producing a fat, thick, rich in harmonics tone.  This, mixed with its placement near the bridge, accentuates the natural treble tone of the string.  Note how a Stratocaster pickup in approximately the same place, but narrower in width than the Tele bridge, has a bright but less fat tone.  A nice combination is to modify a Tele by putting a Strat pickup between the neck and bridge pickup.  The width of the three proportions, wider from neck, middle to bridge, makes up for the lessening string movement from neck to bridge.  A Fender Jazzmaster pickup has a very wide coil and low output to get its mellowness from the more string harmonics it is under.  All of these ideas were thought up and implemented about 50 years ago and are still used today.

Theories and “mojo” surround all modified pickup designs.  The size, power and materials of the magnets; placement of rails, studs, screws and other magnetic material either on, under or through the coils makes a difference in the sound the guitar can produce.

EMG active pickups have a patented preamp in their potted casing which eliminates most outside noise.  Potting is done by submerging the completed pickup, including its cover, in hot wax, epoxy or resign.  This keeps the coils of wire from vibrating at high volumes, which in turn causes microphonic (non-musical) feedback.

If a pickup construction is very tight, you can run lots of gain and enjoy controlled musical feedback of your choice of notes.  For example, simply by moving closer to the amp and speaker while hitting a note, the sound will continue resonating while the note jumps up an octave and increases in sound intensity.

When choosing a pickup, remember that clarity is the most important factor.  You can always add distortion externally, but you can never add clarity.  As always, I recommend that players concentrate on their playing technique and not rely on equipment changes to cover up for poor playing habits.  Once you get the proper playing techniques mastered you can enjoy the plethora of sounds possible from the same guitar, but with different pickups.  However, if you have a vintage, pre 1980 instrument, any change of the electronics (including the solder joints) could affect the resale value of your instrument.  So, before changing anything – ask a professional!
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Posted by:  - Saturday, February 21, 2009

Just One More!

By Bob Willcutt

“How many guitars does a guitarist need?  Just one more!”

Johnny Hiland recently made this statement at a guitar clinic held at Willcutt Guitar Shoppe.  Although a few spouses and significant others may not totally understand this concept, I think most of my customers, not to mention myself, wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment.  

Why the need for “just one more?”  There is a certain pleasure and inspiration that comes with the acquisition of a new guitar.  Less expensive than collecting exotic cars, boats or vacation homes, the new purchase can inspire new levels of musical competence and appreciation of the advanced techniques employed by the Luthiers of today.

There are so many types of guitars that it is often necessary to own several different types to enable a certain style of play.  And when you add the other stringed instrument categories, such as mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, basses and foreign ethnic instruments, your collection can quickly accumulate.

The first decision for any new purchase usually involves the choice of acoustic vs. electric.  It is not as clear a choice as one may think and certainly involves more thought than, “Do you want to play folk songs or rock and roll?”  How you play, where you play, and the audience you plan to play for all will influence the type of guitar you need.

Acoustics achieve their sound through their own vibrations, exciting the air around it.  They may also have pickups to amplify them even more.  Piezo, ribbon, magnetic and miniature microphones are all used to replicate the “natural” acoustic sound without coloration.  Remember, you are ending up going through an amp or PA and everyone has an opinion of what sounds natural.  How the guitar is played, i.e., with a pick, fingers or tapping, also effects the tone.

Electric guitars use the strings and body resonance to be captured by magnetic or piezo pickups and amplified to make a speaker excite the air.  There are many various designs that offer different degrees of resonance and harmonic overtones.  An electric guitar can be made with a total solid body, a chambered solid body, a semi-hollowbody (open sound holes but a solid wood block or blocks to mount the bridge and tailpiece) or a full hollowbody (the bridge rests on the top and the tailpiece is stationary or vibrato and it is connected to the end block).  There are lots of variations within each variety and all sound and respond differently to the touch and to the amplifier.

Once you make your initial decision, you have other style choices to consider.  Twelve string guitars, available in both acoustics and electrics, are an interesting carry-over from the mid-evil Lute.  The first two courses of strings are in unison and the lower four are in octaves with the higher pitched strings a smaller gauge.  Usually the octave string is the first picked on a down stroke, but the Rickenbacker electrics are backwards.

Classical guitars have been around for hundreds of years.  They are made with thinner tops and braces to get more volume and tone from the soft tension nylon strings.  (Incidentally, classical strings used to be made from catgut.  See how far guitar assembly has come?)  The tuning keys have large rollers to increase the tuner ratio for the looser strings.  Because of these factors, steel strings should never be used on a classical guitar.  For the same reason, you should never put classical strings on a steel string guitar as these guitars have thicker tops, braces and smaller tuning key rollers.  Also, the nut grooves would have to be re-cut with larger slots and there would not be very much volume.

Flamenco guitars look like classicals but they typically have cypress backs and sides and German spruce tops to give a bright, projecting sound.  Original models featured wooden, violin style tuning pegs and non glued-in bone nuts and bridge saddles to project a bright, percussive tone.

Resonator guitars with bridges mounted on metal cones produce a lot of volume and can be played with a metal bar if the strings are raised or fretted like a regular guitar.  Alternative tuning is often used on these instruments, which have gained popularity in recent years with the current interest in country and blues music.

Hybrids of all these categories go on forever.  So, when you get bored with what you are playing and need some inspiration, there is always that one other guitar that you can purchase to create a different sound.  And, if asked by your significant other why you need another guitar, perhaps you should ask how many pairs of shoes or ties (or in the case of my wife, Christmas ornaments!) they have!
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Posted by:  - Friday, February 20, 2009

Sound Advice

By Bob Willcutt

“I heard this guy playing and his guitar had such a killer sound!  I want my guitar to sound just like that!”  As a luthier I hear this statement more than I can begin to recount.  Many factors effect the sound of a solid body electric guitar and we will explore some of them in this article.  However, this discussion is dynamic and never ending!

The way the neck is attached to the body is very critical to the overall sound of a guitar.  Neck-through construction, where the neck goes all the way through the body of the guitar to the end, is used in certain Jackson, Ibanez, or Gibson Firebird guitars. The sides of the body are then glued to the sides of the neck.  This type construction allows the upper midrange tones to be pronounced and is quite popular with finger tapping styles and Metal music.  (The Firebird was designed in the 60’s before that type of music was invented and due to other factors does not work well for these styles while still performing well for others.)

Some people do not like the look of a neck-through design, or the pronounced midrange harmonics, so they have come up with various alternatives.  Vincent Guidroz, of New Orleans Guitars, does a hidden neck-through of book-matched woods and covers the top with a book-matched conventional, two piece top of maple, swamp ash, or cypress.  From the front, the guitar it looks to be a normal two piece design, but from the back you can see that the neck goes all the way through the guitar body.  This produces a more mellow sound that a total neck-through with sides attached to the body.

David Thomas McNaught uses a Set-Thru-Neck© that encloses twelve inches of neck inside the body cavity for amazing tone transfer and sustain without pieces of glued together wood.  The neck extension goes far enough into the body to mount the bridge and tail piece into it without being visible.  This design must fit perfectly, even though it is not seen, for the guitar to have peak performance.

PRS, Gibson Custom Shop, and Hamer use an extended neck tenon that fits very tightly into the body and extends all the way under the neck pickup.  (Note:  Less expensive Gibsons and most imports use a short neck tenon which does not reach to the neck pickup.  It is easier to manufacturer and requires less engineering skill and time, as the longer tenon must fit tightly into the body at a much longer length.)  The body is made of a one piece back (usually of mahogany) and a two piece book matched top, typically of maple, as has been done for over 50 years.  This design produces a deep, warm sound that matches well with bright sounding amps.  Can you hear that Les Paul through a Marshall stack yet…??

The angle of the peghead, or headstock (where the tuning keys mount), affects not only the tone but the feel in the lower positions.  Fender normally uses a straight non-angled headstock, which uses less wood and is much easier and less expensive to manufacturer.  Unless tapered shaft tuning keys are used, which Fender uses on certain deluxe models, a string retainer is needed to keep the strings from jumping out of the nut as there is not enough downward angle from the nut grooves to the key.  The vast number of Fenders built this less expensive way and sold over the years attest to the public’s acceptance of this simple design.

Headstock pitch affects the tone and feel of a guitar.  Gibson uses a 17º headstock pitch on their Les Paul models (except for some 70’s models), a 14º pitch on their Firebird, Explorer, and on most lower priced Epiphones.

Historically, solid body electrics have been made of wood.  Through the years there have been alternative materials used such as James Trussart’s metal bodies, Kramer and Travis Bean aluminum necks, Graphite fingerboards and necks like Modules Graphite and fiberglass and plastic experiments acrylic like the new Ibanez Steve Vai and the Ampeg Dan Armstrong.  These materials all produce different sounds.

Nuts can be made with different types of mammal bone, ebony, Graphite, Tusc or brass.  The material used will effect the tone of the open strings.  Very close tolerance parts such as Sperzel, Gotoh and Schaller keys, as well as Tone Pros locking bridges and tailpieces increase sustain, which is the ability of the guitar’s notes to ring uninhibited for a lengthy time.  Loose parts, especially the keys, bridges and tailpieces, rob sustain.  Of course, as Einstein proved, time is relative!

You have keep in mind that these are only opinions and generalizations.  No matter what manufacturer you prefer, the final determination of which guitar gives that “killer sound and feel” must come from you!  And, if you are like most guitar enthusiasts, you will want more than one guitar to achieve the widest spectrum of sound possibilities!
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Posted by:  - Friday, February 20, 2009

Wood Choices

By Bob Willcutt

When you visit your local guitar dealer looking for an acoustic instrument, you may start hearing a lot about the material, usually wood, from which it is made.  While you may be familiar with the types of wood (maple, spruce, rosewood, etc.), do you know the differences that each can make in the sound and look of a guitar?

Each individual piece of wood cut down in the forest will have its own sound characteristics.  The weight density of the wood, the drying process used and how the end piece of lumber to be used is cut from the log all affect the outcome.  Therefore, while I can give you my opinion of the tone a particular wood will produce, or which wood should be used in the building of an instrument, the true test will be how the guitar sounds to your ears, looks to your eyes, and feels in your hands.

One hundred years ago, the preferred wood for guitar tops was Red, Appalachian or Adirondack spruce.  Some guitar companies still offer this wonderful, full sounding old growth wood for tops, but it is more expensive and becoming harder to find.  German and Englemann spruce are sometimes used as a replacement.  Today, most of the acoustic instruments being made use sitka spruce from the Pacific Northwest.  [As a side note, there is only one place where old growth (250 years old or older before lumbering) sitka spruce is still harvested; a company in Southeast Alaska, Sealaska, that is owned by Alaskan natives.  This company has come under the scrutiny of Greenpeace, who claims they are clear-cutting these forests without any regard to the end use of the wood.  Therefore, a 300 year old tree could possibly live on for decades in a great sounding guitar or just as well end up used for paper pulp or even disposable chop sticks!  [There is an excellent article in the July ’07 issue of Premier Guitar that discusses the issue and what the Taylor, Martin, and Gibson guitar companies are doing about this.]

Other woods are being used in smaller quantities for making tops.  Red cedar is a favorite of classical guitar builders as it tends to produce a smooth, warm sounding, finger-picking guitar.  However, it might not be the best choice for a Bluegrass player looking for projection and volume.  It dents quite easily so you must be careful with your pick and fingernails!  Koa from Hawaii, while rare, sounds incredible and looks stunning.  Less expensive versions of Koa, such as Dao and Tasmanian Blackwood, are now being used on some of the lower priced exports.

As old growth wood becomes more and more scarce, innovative approaches are being used to harvest “left-over” wood from previous cuts.  Redwood from trees logged in the 1800’s and floated downstream to the mills sometimes sank.  These old growth trees, some thousands of years old and preserved in the cold water, are now being harvested and making some wonderful tops for companies like Taylor and Breedlove.  There has even been a “new” source of Brazilian Rosewood, harvested from the stumps left behind after previous logging of the forests.

The backs and sides of a guitar are usually made of a harder wood.  The number one favorite by far is Brazilian Rosewood, although this wood is becoming more expensive and rare.  Besides giving the instrument a stunning look, Brazilian Rosewood usually produces a tight, low end that is favored by many acoustic players.  Less expensive variations now being used are Indian Rosewood, Cocobola and Ziracote.  Cocobola and Ziracote both sound and look great so are likely to end up on an instrument with a natural finish.  Indian Rosewood is economical and plentiful and can be found on guitars in the $300.00 price range and up.  

Koa, walnut, and maple are also used for guitar back and sides.  There are many variations of maple being used.  Two of my favorites, western fiddle back maple and big leaf quilted maple, are softer but look impressive and have a nice, warm sound.

Necks should be made of stiff materials, such as eastern hardrock maple or Honduras mahogany.  Mahogany used to be one of the cheaper woods but lately the prices have risen close to that of Indian Rosewood.  Honduras is generally considered the best, but cheaper varieties are coming from further south.  Woods from Africa, such as Limba (Korina), Sapelle (stripped ribbon), are also now being used.  Fingerboards are generally made from Ebony, any of the Rosewoods, or Cocobola.

The real test, as I mentioned above, is how all of the components sound together to your ears when the instrument is played.  It really is true that two instruments from the same manufacturer made with the same woods can sound totally different.  What advice can I give to anyone about to make an acoustic guitar purchase?  Play it, look at it, feel it, and, most importantly, fall in love with it.  When chosen correctly, an acoustic guitar can be a life long source of enjoyment!
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Posted by:  - Friday, February 20, 2009

Shake, Rattle, and Roll!

By Bob Willcutt

Shake, rattle and roll!  While this combination may be suitable for the gym or dance floor it is definitely not what you want to experience with your guitar.  So you have a rattle in your guitar?  Let’s roll!

Annoying sounds can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint because the guitar, by definition, is a machine designed to transmit sounds.  Every part of the instrument affects the tone and sustain of the original sound vibration.  This is why fine instrument builders take pains to hone down to miniscule measurement standards even the most basic parts used in building their creations.  

While even fine instruments can sometimes have adjustment problems that cause unwanted sounds, I most often see sound problems in the multitude of import guitars that are available in today’s market.  A common problem is a metallic buzz, often due to a high fret that is closer to the body than the fret you are using.  Most import guitars do not glue their frets into the fingerboard.  When the wood fluctuates with humidity changes, the frets can rise up.  This is especially prevalent on the cheaper imports, which are often made of soft wood.  This problem can be addressed by tapping or pressing down the fret, but is best done when the fret is actually glued in place.

You can also get a metallic buzz sound from a truss rod that is too loose or, if sounding in the open position, a worn or poorly cut nut.  Humidity can again come into play by drying out the body of the guitar, causing the action to become too close and creating a buzz.

Rattles, another common problem, can come from loose tuning machines, their gears, bushings or buttons, a loose truss rod cover, the nut on the end of the truss rod, a loose fingerboard nut, bridge saddle, strap button – in other words, any part of the guitar!  The electronic parts of an electric guitar or the internal braces, or kerfing of an acoustic can also come loose and cause annoying sounds.  Sometimes these sounds are not coming from the part you might suspect.  A loose key could cause a sound that seems to be coming from the body.  A good way to expedite your search for an unknown rattle or buzz is to have a friend strum the guitar while you try touching the different parts of the instrument.  Of course, an experienced Luthier can probably locate the source fairly quickly using experience and a trained ear.  

Now comes the part that guitarist don’t want to hear – player error!  A string, when plucked, is a moving object.  If the angle of the pick attack is other than absolutely parallel to the fingerboard, the string will collide with the frets and buzz.  This is just physics.  To check your angle of pick attack, position yourself in front of a mirror or have a friend critique your technique.  When you master the angle, you can have a much lower action on your guitar and more mobility without that annoying buzz!

The sooner you find and fix the problem creating a buzz or rattle, the better.  While a good musician may be able to overcome unwanted noises in a guitar, no one needs that frustration while playing – regardless of whether you are playing for pay or strictly enjoyment!
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Posted by:  - Friday, February 20, 2009

Whassup? A Setup - That's What!

By Bob Willcutt

Whassup?  A set up – that’s what!


As a luthier, I am asked about guitar setups all day long.  What exactly is a guitar setup, you may ask?  Quick and simple, a professional “setup” is the adjustment of all major parts of the instrument to enable it to stay in tune and perform to it’s maximum potential.  Precise fret leveling and crowning or making a custom made nut or bridge are considered jobs beyond the basic setup even though a newly purchased guitar may sometimes need these modifications.


I recommend a setup on any new instrument purchased.  Some people may question why a new guitar would need such work, after all, it just came out of the box from the factory, right?  Most guitar companies set up their new instruments to certain specifications before leaving the factory, but that does not necessarily mean these are the correct specifications to suit your style of playing.  Also, many instruments loose their optimum settings during shipping, especially when coming from overseas or stored in warehouses that are not temperature and humidity controlled.


Like an alignment or rotating your car’s tires, a setup is not something done only once in a guitar’s lifetime.  It needs to be done on a regular basis to keep your guitar in its best playing condition.  Finding a luthier you are comfortable with, who understands your playing style, makes this a simple process--not unlike taking your car in for an oil change at your favorite auto shop. 


Prices for luthiery work may vary by the level of expertise, reputation, insurance, and locality of the luthier.  For example, repair rates in New York City or Los Angeles are probably higher than in a small town in Eastern Kentucky, all other things being equal.  Like choosing a medical or dental professional, what is the most important factor?  Price or the quality of work performed?


Besides achieving factory recommended specifications, there is a little ‘mojo’ (if you don’t know what this is, listen to some old Howling Wolf recordings!) that only comes from experience in making the final adjustments that turn an average guitar into a pleasure to play.  Even with something as mundane as changing strings there is a difference in labor and materials, as others and I have found out the hard way over many years.  Each luthier has their final tweaking to be what he or she has learned by experience to “feel right.”  The final piece de resistance is the laying on of hands.  The sweet spot found by a professional adjustment is always by feel and is difficult to describe in words.


Some customer complaints are not in the realm of the luthier to rectify.  Statements like, “My guitar doesn’t sound or feel like it did last week or last year,” could be well founded or could be due to low AC power from the building caused by too many electrical circuits in use by air conditioners, equipment, or lighting.  As Tower of Power famously said, “You can’t cut loose without that juice!”  One case comes to mind of a customer who complained of a buzzing that only came from his guitar when he was home playing in his bedroom.  The culprit?  An overhead fluorescent light.  Or there may be atmospheric pressure playing tricks with your hearing and sinus pressure.  There is also the “people” effect, which results when the humidity level in a packed room goes up, affecting the sound and your hearing.  And last but not least, those people standing adoringly in front of your amp screaming (like my wife used to do for me) absorbs sound, especially the higher frequencies, making you want to turn up your volume, distorting the speaker, which results in a totally different sound than the one you had last week in practice.


Let’s just say, a luthier must be part social worker, too!

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Friday, November 21, 2008

Are You Experienced?

By Bob Willcutt

As Jimi would ask, “Are You Experienced?”   Mixing the beautiful fall weather and the lust for fine guitars, I traveled to the Paul Reed Smith factory near Annapolis, Maryland, September 19th and 20th.  Even though located right on the Chesapeake Bay, the air is crisp and clear and not too humid, making for a nice place to build guitars!  


PRS has made the decision not to exhibit at the Summer NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in Nashville. [NAMM holds a trade show for dealers held twice a year and visitors are usually not allowed admittance.]  For the second year in a row, they instead have hosted a free event for guitar enthusiasts, players, collectors, dealers, celebrities, and the press at their factory in Stevensville, Maryland.  Dubbed "The Experience," the event is open to anyone who preregisters through an authorized PRS dealer.  The event provides a rare opportunity for a guitar enthusiast to see first hand the inner workings of a guitar factory, hear popular artists playing signature PRS instruments, and talk with the people behind the guitars.  The freshest bay seafood and spectacular views as you cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, add to the lure of The Experience.     


The factory produces about 70 guitars a day with only 240 employees.  Most of them are avid guitar players and understand the nuances that only a player can impart on an instrument during construction.  Their feelings of pride, responsibility, and being part of such a great company is evident in every person I talked with.  One of the interesting things is, for the first time in history, there are no secrets in luthiery!  I once heard Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars speak of this sharing of knowledge when he referred to the old axiom, “when the sea rises, all of the boats rise” while discussing how the whole guitar industry would improve with shared knowledge.


Throughout the property, there were tents and display tables set up with hands on demonstrations.  An arbor press was set up so people could set frets into a real PRS neck under the watchful and helpful supervision of a master luthier from the Private Stock division.  Scraps of curly maple were set out with genuine PRS custom stains so people could work with a Private Stock master to create the beautiful colors unique to Paul Reed Smith guitars.  Another quality control "setup guy" worked with customers, providing instruction on how the correct PRS adjustments and specs are achieved.  These demonstrations were offered to customers with all levels of expertise.   Prototypes of the new PRS acoustic guitar and various electric models were also on display. 


The artist exhibitions take place throughout the day giving guests the opportunity to mingle with some of today’s best guitar artists about their favorite (or signature) model PRS guitars.  Imagine talking one on one with David Grissom, Paul Jackson Jr., Johnny Hiland, Mark Tremonti, Al Di Meola, Pat Travers, Gary Granger, Howard Leese, and others.  It is all part of The Experience!  Paul Reed Smith himself gives a seminar on the history behind PRS.  Paul also set up a huge display of PRS's historically significant instruments all the way from his first totally hand built guitars to various limited edition and spectacular Private Stock models.   


And then, as we used to say in Lexington's own Mag 7 Band, "Here's the one you have been waiting for all night".... the factory tour!  Guests are guided through a tour of the factory, beginning at the point where the wood comes in the door, and taken all the way through to the finished product.  Only the best instrument quality woods are chosen for their guitars.  Like the great Gibson Les Pauls of 50 years ago, North American maple from Michigan through Canada, mahogany from South America and Africa, rosewood from India, swamp ash from Louisiana, and some even more exotic woods from around the world are used to produce PRS guitars.  The best tops are given the "10 Top" designation, or stored away for use within the Private Stock department.  Stiffer pieces of mahogany are used for necks, while the lighter pieces are used to construct bodies.  The moisture content is brought down to 5% for necks, and 2% for fingerboards in slow-cook hot rooms.   


Bodies are made with the newest of technologies such as RF (radio frequency) gluing and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) routing machines.  The book matching of the maple tops, where the wood is cut or split in half and then joined evenly to counteract the opposing grain stresses and esthetically match up, is still done by hand.  Good hand-eye coordination and a sense of balance are required skills for this task--still best done by a caring human.  The necks are cut on a CNC router and dried again to make sure there is no chance for future warping or shrinkage.  (When you feel the fret ends sticking out the sides of a lesser guitar you know the wood was not dried enough before it was turned into a guitar.) Their unique truss rod--the strongest in the business--is waxed before being installed into the neck and checked for any unwanted movements that may cause a sustain-robbing or annoying rattle. 


If you want to really experience all that you can from a great guitar manufacturer, mark your calendars and contact your local PRS dealer for more information.  Registration for the event starts in early summer.  Come enjoy The Experience in 2009!


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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Saturday, November 01, 2008


By Bob Willcutt

Note:  The following warranty information references the current Fender, Gibson and Paul Reed Smith warranty statements as posted on their websites.  Other major manufacturers have very similar warranties.

Is it warranty, or is it not warranty?  For this article, that is the question!  Like a car, a guitar has a warranty.  Unlike a car, this warranty is not based on exact numbers such as the number of times it is played and does not involve keeping detailed records of every string change.

Nobody wants to pay for a guitar, only to later find a problem that may affect its playability or cosmetics.  A reputable dealer will thoroughly inspect an instrument with a full inspection before delivery to the customer.  Most problems can and will be found at this point.  But, what if 6 months later you get a buzz when playing or a tuning key comes loose?

The first course of action in the event of a problem with an instrument is finding your receipt.  This acts as proof of purchase and any warranties, if applicable, start from your date of purchase and all warranty claims require a copy of your receipt.  Also, all warranties require the instrument to have its serial number intact and readable.  The next step is returning your instrument to the dealer where it was purchased.  If you have purchased from a local dealer, this is straight forward enough, but what if the guitar was purchased by internet or mail order, or you have moved away from where it was originally purchased?

When shipping your guitar back to the original dealer or to an authorized repair center, you must know that all shipping costs associated with the evaluation and repair are at the expense of the customer.  Manufacture warranties do not cover any shipping expenses.  And if the manufacturer or dealer denies the warranty claim, you will be left with the decision (and expense) of having your prized instrument repaired by someone that you are unlikely to be able to communicate with directly.  With the rising costs of shipping these days, some problems may be best handled by finding an experienced luthier in your local area and paying their repair rates as opposed to the expense and risk of shipping.

Do not just assume that an authorized dealer will be able to process your warranty claim if you did not purchase the instrument from them.  Many dealer service centers handle warranty work only on guitars purchased from them due to the tremendous work load of an experienced luthier and the relatively low reimbursement rate and excessive paperwork required on warranty claims.  Save yourself time and aggravation by calling or emailing first.

Your next step is to find out what exactly is covered under your warranty.  The official Fender limitations and exclusions, which are typical of all manufacturers, list the following items NOT covered by their warranty:

  • Fret wear, nut wear, strings and batteries.
  • Setups, adjustments, or routine maintenance of any kind.
  • Damage to finishes or cracks, splitting, or warping of wood due to changes in temperature or humidity, exposure to or contact with the sun, fire, moisture, body salts and acids of perspiration, guitar straps, guitar stands, or any other chemicals or no Fender approved polishes.

The Gibson warranty even goes so far to exclude the subjective issue of tonal characteristics.  Unfortunately, these exclusions can lead to some heated discussions between customers and dealers who are left relaying the manufacturer’s policies.

Electronics are typically warranted for one year no matter if they are on an acoustic electric or full electric.  This is for their basic function and not noisy controls (which are commonly due to dirt or salt air) or worn saddles on piezo amplified acoustic electrics.

So, you might ask, exactly what is covered?  Most manufacturers have a statement that says your new instrument is warranted to be free from defects in materials in workmanship for the life of the original purchaser (i.e., nontransferable).  After all of the above exclusions it pretty much leaves you covered for the unlikely events of all the binding coming off because of a bad batch of glue or someone forgetting to install a ground wire or truss rod.  These types of problems are likely to show up in an entire batch of guitars built at the same time and not in isolated cases.

So, what do you do about that problem that shows up 6 months later and probably isn’t covered by warranty?  If you have purchased from a reputable dealer, you may very well be in luck!  This is a dealer who will stand behind the products they sell, even when the problem is not covered under a manufacturer warranty.  Most problems can be addressed and fixed with little or no cost to the customer and reputable dealers are more likely to have an experience luthier on site that can discuss your guitar’s problems with you.

Even when a dealer is reimbursed for an instrument repair by the manufacturer it rarely covers the true time and expense related to the labor costs and parts.  And often, repairs dealers do “under warranty” are done as a service to our customers with no reimbursement from manufacturers.  Even on covered repairs, required freight charges, professional set ups, final adjustments and replacement strings are usually done at the dealer’s expense – not the customer’s – and not reimbursed by the manufacturer.

Fortunately, most instruments made in this day and time are built with care and will serve you well over your time of ownership.  If the time comes when you do need service, find a luthier that you feel confident with and let him or her take loving care of your prized possession!

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Monday, September 01, 2008

Care and Cleaning

By Bob Willcutt

I recently received the following question from a reader and thought I would share my response as I feel this covers one of the most important aspects of caring for your instrument.


In the past few months, you had an article on guitar care.  I try to keep my equipment clean, but have trouble with the following items:

-Fretboard.  I have guitars with maple, rosewood, ebony (and some I can’t discern) materials.  What method and/or cleanser would you recommend?  I have used lemon oil on the rosewood and unknowns, which seems to treat the wood well, but is not a great solvent for dirt/grime/goo/schmutz.

-Metal.  Most of my guitars have chrome plated hardware.  It’s pretty easy to wipe off the tuners after I twist on them.  But the nooks and crannies of other locations, especially the bridge, are very difficult.  What method and/or cleanser would you recommend for regular cleaning?  And, what method and/or cleanser would you recommend for polishing and removing oxidation?  A couple of my guitars have black hardware, and one with gold colored plating (real gold?). What differences might that make in cleaning and polishing?  And if the hardware can’t be polished clean, what are your thoughts on re-finishing? …re-plating? …re-placing?



Thanks, L.L., for your question.  It sounds as if you are really putting forth the effort to keep your equipment in great shape.  Some of these topics have been discussed in previous articles, but at the risk of repeating myself, I will go into more detail on these points, including my recommended products.


Cleaning fretboards (fingerboards):  First, let me start by saying if you have excessive grime on your Ebony or Rosewood fingerboard, it may have to be professionally scraped*, the board conditioned with a quality oil, and professionally buffed to its original luster. *Note:  Maple or synthetic boards like Martin’s Micarta or any with finish over the wood (like on Rickenbacker guitars) should not be scraped.  When in doubt, ask your Luthier!  If there is mild buildup, Kyser Klassics Dr. Stringfellow Lem-oil has some sort of solvent mixed with lemon oil that does a good job of cutting through the “dirt/grime/goo/schmutz.”  Naptha or lighter fluid cleans well, too, but be sure to keep away from fire or flame and do not let the fluid touch the finish or binding.  Most people should stay with the Kyser Lem-oil.  For just moisturizing your ebony or Rosewood boards, Gerlitz Guitar Honey and Dr. Duck’s Axwax also work well.  By far the best fretboard conditioner is Fret Doctor, which you can purchase here.  It should be applied with a small paint brush and buffed out.  When cleaning, please use a dry terry cloth washcloth or other such cloth and never use steel wool, especially on guitars with electronics.  The metal particles from the steel wool can reap havoc!


Cleaning metal:  Chrome parts such as tuning key buttons can be wiped off with guitar polish like Fender/Meguiars Mist & Wipe.  Electric guitar bridges may be cleaned with this, also, using a toothbrush or artist’s brush and cloth.  Remove all traces of the polish as it contains water, which can rust the screws.  If there is oxidation on the metal parts that the Mist & Wipe does not remove, use Simichrome, a wonderful German metal cleaner that does not leave a visible residue.  Never use Brasso, as the white powder tends to remain stuck in crevices.  Never use any metal cleaner on gold or black chrome as the thin plating is easily worn away.


If the corrosion is more than the above step scan take care of, you could replace the parts (keeping the old ones for historical preservation).  If replacement parts are no longer available you could have them re-plated.   Look for a company that specializes in antique car restorations, as they could probably do a more careful job on these small parts than a place that does heavy-duty bumpers and truck parts, for example.


When in doubt, go slow and be conservative, especially on vintage instruments.  I have seen vintage guitars cleaned so perfectly that they look like they have received a finish job.  Believe it or not, this is not good for the resale value!  And, as always, a professional Luthier who does this work every day may help avoid costly mishaps!

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Posted by:  Tom Jones - Friday, August 01, 2008