Updated: May 25, 2022
My first dabblings in luthiery involved instrument maintenance – how to set up an electric guitar and perhaps upgrade hardware. My pal Alden Ludlow and I played a lot of music together in middle and high school and we would put our heads together over a kitchen table and dabble at setting up a guitar. We learned a lot about intonation and what NOT to do to a guitar long before we started having the courage to wield soldering guns and start switching out electronics.
Those eventual adventures in circuitry led me to audio engineering and it is how I got interested enough to built my first recording studio (Sweetifish established 1987) in an old milking barn in upstate New York. But my guitars were forever needing some sort of tweaking, and when I wasn't recording music or playing out, I was fiddling around with my instruments. I began disassembling guitars I was playing and “Frankensteining” them into interesting "upgrades." But while I started investigating the electronics more deeply, I didn’t actually do much upgrading of the parts of my instruments myself. I might sand off the finish on a neck to make it more comfortable to play (lots of finishes interact with my sweaty hand to interfere with my playing), but I didn’t actually dedicate myself to really taking apart and rebuilding guitars until a few decades later when I finally had a reasonable woodshop in my home in Carmel, NY. Here I got to start teaching myself to re-fret, rewire, and refinish junk store finds to make them not only cool to look at but decent playing and sounding instruments......Here are some of those early guitars…
A First Act ME537 Single Pickup solid body that I found for $20 in an antique mall in Plattsburgh and bought so I could learn to re-fret a guitar. In the end I reshaped the neck, switched out the hardware, pickup and electronics, and gave it a new finish. This guitar (nick-named the Black Moriah) ended up being a lot of fun to play with and sounded pretty good. I gave it to one of my students at Hostos Community College in 2010 or 2011.
A Les Paul kit guitar that I found on line and I upgraded the electronics and hardware to be on par with the parts I had on an actual ’74 Standard that was my main axe at the time. I learned to produce a reasonable tobacco sunburst for this one after two failed attempts. This guitar was built as a gift for my son-in-law Enzio "Z" Goble in 2011, and I called is ZPaul in his honor.
Weird story: years later due to a mishap with a storage locker, Enzio lost this guitar. I got a call from a stranger asking if I wanted to buy the guitar back (I often make a note of construction date, who I built a guitar for, and sign my guitars). I made an offer which he promptly tripled and I laughed him off the line.
I’ve always liked lipstick pickups in a Stratocaster and decided to build a parts-caster with these and some fancy custom design elements that I found on eBay. The pickguard ended up having a nifty southwestern deco vibe, and the neck was made from rock solid zebrawood by a wonderful Israeli luthier I found online. I worked for a worn and weathered finish, which instead came out pretty blech, but the guitar SANG! and played magnificently. Named The Ranchcaster, I ended up donating the guitar for a raffle at a fund-raising event for victims of the Philippine Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
I found my swamp ash tele body with a very interesting knot on its face that I used to build my first full on traditional tele guitar. Again, the focus here was working with cool electronics (my first vintage Seymour Duncan set) trying out a range of capacitors and pots to see how it affected tone. I built a capacitance comparison box much like the one that Erick Coleman built for StewMac and I have used this on every electric guitar I have built since. I also tried out my first treble bleed circuit on this axe. The neck was a Warmoth that came fretted, and needed only a leveling and polish before this guitar was finished and auctioned off to raise funds for victims of the 2016 earthquake in Ecuador.
The swamp ash tele led me to build another telecaster that I still have and play to this day. It is an ash body that was purchased from StewMac and a Mighty Mite neck which I shaved down to be more comfortable to my hand and re-fretted with a thicker fret wire and wired up with another set of Seymour vintage
pups but with reversed controls and some oil filled caps that I found in an old junk shop. The concept for this guitar, which I call the Burlison Blond '15, was inspired by Paul Burlison’s vintage Broadcaster which I got to play one afternoon when he was recording for my label back in the ‘90s. In building this guitar I experimented with adding mass to the headstock for more sustain and ended up adding a set of very heavy Gotoh locking tuners… I have toyed with the idea of drilling out a space for adding a metal bolt to a headstock but have not yet committed to the concept. All of my guitars since have the heaviest tuners that they can manage without becoming top heavy.
While I finished the guitar back in 2015, I only got around to applying a Roeboy! logo with a nod to Paul Burlison in 2022. His guitar had a maple fretboard, but this is otherwise true to his wonderful axe as I remember it.
It was around this time that I discovered an Ebay shop called The Stratosphere. Their selection of genuine Fender parts first attracted me to their site, but I found a few other gems. One in particular was a black Les Paul Studio Robot guitar body & neck marked second which was available for a rather low price and which had been stripped of all its electronics and hardware. My friend and Hostos Colleague, Joe Cunningham, had done me a HUGE solid by re-veneering an old Alamo guitar amp that I had rescued from a garage sale. It’s birch veneer had been destroyed by a flood, and the speaker was ripped and non-functional but the amp checked out. Joe was into interesting and artistic veneer jobs at the time, and I asked him if he could spruce up my amp…. He went to town with a wonderful burled cherry and trimmed the amp with a patterned edging making the amp shine and he wouldn’t take a dime for the job.
So, knowing Mike is a huge Zeppelin fan I put together a vintage late 60’s electronic set up on the old Robot, set it up with equally vintage styled hardware, and even added a lovely “Zoso” truss plate to the Les Paul and gave it to him. He loved his Joeso LP, and I got to feel like we had a terrific trade of craftmanship.
One last parts-caster needs to be mentioned here. I have some an insanely talented nieces and nephews that I love dearly. One in particular is a very gifted singer/songwriter who has not only sat in on several Rees Shad sessions but who I have produced some recordings for. She now performs as Juliet Quick, and her primary instrument is the ukulele, but she does play guitar as well, and we got talking about guitars one afternoon and I started describing my old ’68 Mustang that Tanya Leah absconded with several decades ago due to its small size fitting her equally small hands just so. Juliet asked about the instrument with interest and I decided I would find a modern version and customize it for Juliet. I found a modern Fender Squier/Bullet in a hideous green that had the modern pickup configuration and toggle, and a rather bulky neck. I shaved the neck down to within an inch of its life, and re-fretted with a wider set of frets. I shopped around and found the parts to return to the original on/off switches found on the original guitars, added a funky oil filled cap with a treble bleed and some vintage radio knobs that are completely wacky, but allow for the player to more easily use the very large volume knob for swells while the narrow strip top tone knob clearly indicates tone position. The blue Finish is nothing like factory gorgeous, it is rough sprayed and a bit punky, and I scorched a Roeboy! brand that I bought for my ukuleles into the headstock next to one of Juliet’s old promotional stickers to forever declare this JK17 Mustang guitar as uniquely hers.