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Rick Turner: The Father of Boutique Guitars - Premier Guitar
Nice writeup, and a legacy deserving of pride. I suppose one could argue all day about who the "first" boutique maker is/was, and bring up folks like Paul Bigsby. But labels are one thing, and accomplishments are another, and the article outlines many accomplishments, one of which is establishing the widespread legitimacy of a boutique builder. We're honoured to have you here as regularly as we do.
I was completely unaware of the musical history prior to the guitar-making self-reinvention, and the start of Alembic. Autosalvage's album was one of the albums they would send you for free if you subscribed to Rolling Stone, if I remember correctly. Or maybe I'm confusing it with an individual track from Autosalvage appearing on a compilation they would send as a subscription bonus. Either way, a part of Bay Area music history.
I was going to ask where the name "Alembic" come from, but took a moment to do the inevitable wikipedia search, finding an appropriate entry: Alembic - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The connection between the alchemical derivation of the term, and its application to music gear, or rather, why you folks thought "This perfectly captures what we're trying to do", still evades me. Any insights here?
Actually, Autosalvage was a New York band...that should have been a San Francisco band. Nobody "got it" in New York other than a few fanatics, film maker Shirley Clark, and one club owner...Howard Solomon at the Cafe Au GoGo. We were way too weird for the Greenwich Villagers who wanted light pop, blues, or folk, and we weren't heavy hard drug users like the Warhol crowd and the Velvet Underground. Neil Diamond's manager heard about us from someone and came down to the Au GoGo to see if we were suitable to be Neil's back up band; NOT! He was completely flummoxed, I'm happy to say.
When I first met the 'Dead I was still doing some studio guitar and bass playing in the Bay Area, so one of the reasons we got on so well was that they knew me as a musician as much as a guitar tech. I played on Don McLean's first album (pre American Pie), played bass on the Joy of Cooking's first studio demos, did an album with Jerry Corbitt that was produced by Charlie Daniels, and produced one with Jeffrey Cain for the Youngbloods' label, Raccoon, distributed through Warner Bros.
Oh, one other thing...all due respect to Bigsby, D'Angelico, and some of the others, but I think the reference as "boutique builder" really best applies to small production shops, not one-man lutherie shops. In my time at Alembic, for instance, I oversaw and directly participated in the building of over 1,200 instruments. At the first round of Turner Guitars, we hit about 200. Since then about another 2,800 instruments have come out of my shop. You can see the influence of my early Alembic design work in a whole lot of boutique and luthier-made basses, in particular. That's not a statement of ego, it's simply a statement of fact. Before I started building Alembics, hardly any makers featured neck through construction (respect to Rickenbacker, of course) or a wide range of exotic hardwoods (OK, Bigsby and bird's eye maple), and nobody, with the exception of Bigsby, was making his own pickups and getting them really out there in the public eye.
In fact, on my way back up to the office after coffee (I posted before I went down), I started thinking that I may have been wrong about the Bigsby comment; and that there is a substantive difference between making custom one-offs, and the notion of a boutique maker who has a line of instruments made with attention to details. Your comment only serves to remind me that my second instinct was the more correct one.
While I have never been there (Oakland was as close as I've gotten), I am of a generation for whom anything "San Francisco" was implicitly magical. I had the good fortune to attend a massive outdoor Airplane/Dead show in Montreal during 1967, when Pigpen was with the band, and everybody had STP stickers on everything, and saw the Youngbloods about 2 years after that, who impressed me with the fullness of their sound for such a small combo.
One of these days, someone should put together a compilation album of guitar-makers who are also players. les Paul was not the only one. For example, Grit Laskin is apparently a very respectable player, and Paul Reed Smith is reputedly a decent player too. And like yourself, jason Lollar has a track record as a pro musician. When I had lunch with George Gruhn last year, he mentioned that Henry Juskiewicsz was also a pretty fair player....although that was probably the only kind thing he had to say about Henry.
nice to see a little canadian connection there with Ian and Sylvia Tyson. he's still on the road as far as I know.
Very nice article, Congrats."..I like the theory to understand what my ears are hearing, but I dont want to study the theory to tell my ears what to hear.
Working with Ian and Sylvia was an incredible experience. They were really good to their musicians in the studio and on the road, and I got to play in some of the best...and worst venues in North America.
Ian's still active, though his recent throat surgery has wrought a change in his voice and style that is about as abrupt as Blonde On Blonde vs Nashville Skyline Dylan, albeit in reverse. He kind of sings like Leonard Cohen these days, in a gravelly voice. ironic, since Cohen started out wanting to be a country singer. Still quite the cowboy, though. And "Four Strong Winds" has repeatedly been voted one of the greatest Canadian songs ever. Never fails to get me misty-eyed. I imagine there is a greater tradition of such themes in African folk and popular music, but the theme of people whose lives are torn apart by the simple need to move to where the work is tends to be a rather unique one in North America. People write plenty of songs about the economy, and maybe even upheaval due to things like Katrina, but they rarely write about economic conditions pulling people apart geographically. Maybe that's just a Canadian thing. Sylvia is still performing, and for a 70 year-old, she's still a damn handsome woman.
I gather your (Rick) tenure in the band preceded that of guitarist David Wilcox by a number of years.
In the line of guitar players, I came after Monte Dunn and before David Rea...way before David Wilcox who is not the same David Wilcox who is well known on folkie circuits here in the US now. I worked with them from early Spring of 1965 through into early Winter when Sylvia gave birth to their son. I recorded "Play one More" with them for Vanguard in the studio, and I'm on "Ian and Sylvia Live at Newport" on a bunch of cuts. Felix Pappalardi joined us as bass player in late summer of '65 and continued on until the break. The next step for them was the move in to country music and a larger band. I'm off and on in touch with Sylvia, but I've missed Ian a couple of times here. Did see him at McCabes about 15 years ago...
I had talked to Rick several times on the phone long before I ever actually met him and its funny when I did meet him at the namm show we were talking about building guitars and I told him early on in the 70s one of my inspirations was a photo of this really way out looking carved electric guitar on the cover or inside cover of a warehouse sound catalog. I cut it out and hung it on my wall- it was like my guru photo I looked at all the time. Turns out it was a guitar Rick built for -I think it was - Johnny Winter. So all that time unknown to me Rick Turner was a big reason I wanted to build electric guitars.
Nice to see a big article I had no idea you played so much. Hopefully easier times ahead next year!
Very nice , Congrats
Great article! being a big Zappa fan I wonder if you have any memories to share, he was known for having heavily modified equipment, even on the early days he added active electronics and EQ to his guitars, did you have the chance to talk about that sort of stuff with him?
I never really talked gear with him. It was kind of a crazy time...he was practicing the Mothers of Invention at the Garrick Theater upstairs and a couple of doors down Bleeker from where we played a fair bit...the Cafe Au Go Go. He was going to produce our first album, but wound up getting an offer for his first European tour, and we got antsy and did the album at RCA with Bob Cullen. We should have held out...but...
I got to meet him and do an interview the weekend of Woodstock. My dad wouldn't let me thumb to Woodstock from Montreal when he saw the news footage that Friday, so I had to stay in town. Frank and the Uncle Meat-era band (the Underwoods, the Gardners, Preston, the late Jimmy Carl, Motorhead Sherwood) played five free shows in Montreal that weekend and I went to every one. I presented myself as a "freelance writer" and ended up backstage, exchanging pleasantries with the band before a bunch of us were ushered in to meet Frank. Gotta say, of all the interviews I did in my previous life, he was the second most intimidating (#1 was Van Morrison....I can never tell when people with thick Irish accents are being sarcastic). Probably just as well that the guy I loaned the tape to skipped town. I'm sure if I ever listened to it, I'd be embarrassed.
The tour had been a discouraging one for them. Bunk Gardner said that they had shown up to one show they were booked for at some sort of stadium, and the "PA" they were promised turned out to be a 35W Bogen paging amplifier or something equally ridiculous.
It's funny, in a way, but consoling in another, that the impression you have of somebody right away is precisely how others describe that person decades later, after they're gone. Yeah, he could rip your head off (and I probably deserved it), but if you discussed something that piqued his interest, Frank just came across as this diligent dedicated guy with a phenomenal work ethic. He told me he worked on arrangements constantly, and that whether on the bus, in the hotel or on a plane, he always brought a pad of music paper, a box of HB pencils, and a portable electric pencil sharpener. And of course, following his passing, one of the things that constantly came out in comments from those close to him was his work ethic. Of course, I can't think of any other way to have a body of work as large as his unless you worked that hard and tirelessly.
While he told me that if only one person in the audience "got" what he was trying to do, then it was worth it, the Monday after the shows, he broke the band up, declaring that "people wouldn't know good music if it bit them on the ass". Like I say, it appeared to be the tail end of a frustrating tour. A couple months went by, and then "Hot Rats showed up in stores.
My mom ran into him in 1966 or so. The Mothers were in Montreal, playing a wonderful and legendary (to us, anyways) little club called the New Penelope, and somehow ended up at the recording studios of the National Film Board (also in Montreal), ostensibly to record a soundtrack for something. My mom was working there as a secretary at the time, and one of the other secretaries said "You gotta see these weirdos in the cafeteria", so they went. To her, of course, he was just a weirdo, but I was one of those nerds who had memorized every line and riff of "Freak Out". When she told me that she had run into him, my jaw just about hit the floor.
If you ever have a chance, give a listen to the wonderful radio documentary "I am All Day and Night". Ruth Underwood gives some fascinating insights, not to mention some astounding mallet work. PRX » Piece » I am all day and night: The Music of Frank Zappa Part 1 of 3. She was really the underappreciated star of the band.
Hey Rick, in your picture from that article, is the matting that the guitar is sitting on the silicone rubber type mat?
The reason I ask is because I have used some material that looks just like that in your picture for several years on my bench and now the pieces are getting old and I want to get some more but cannot find it anywhere. All I can seem to find these days is a foam-rubber type of mat that looks similar (meant for use as drawer linings) but it doesn't work very well on the bench and certainy doesn't hold the work still like the silicone rubber type of this matting.
Looks to me like carpet underlay.
Am I close?
Not that it is necessarily what I'm thinking, but if you do a simple Google image search with "carpet underlay", you'll see an awful lot of lattice-pattern foam rubber things just like in the picture.
I got some of the stuff with my router, pitched as "non-slip pad". It melted into a rattle can project I had resting on it for a week or so. I'm sure the drawer liners are of the lower cost and probably gassing off eternally.
Silicon is sold at uppercrust baking supply places for cookie sheets but you would have to perforate it yourself if that's what you want. These are the thin ones:
There are thicker ones sold individually.
Just out of curiosity, why are you so interested in "this stuff"? I'm looking at it simply from the perspective of a nice soft bench surface that will let a guitar sit still and not get scratched. Presumably there is some other application or context that you have in mind which hasn't occurred to me at all.
Can I ask what it is?
I also use the matt in assembling my Rick bridge pickup base brackets which are finished then assembled and the silicone stuff helps hold them still and unscathed.
In crystalline fashion, my friend.
Makes perfect sense.
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