Electric Guitars

“Swan” Headstock Detail

Mother of Pearl, maple,

rosewood, 1978.

Swans and Stripes

“Swan” Electric Guitar

Cedar, mahogany, maple, ebony, rosewood, pearl, 1978.

    Though my woodworking skills were reasonably well developed, I was really too young and inexperienced to tackle the development of a new line of electric guitars for Martin. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that and neither did Frank Martin. So I forged ahead in the investigation of many designs on paper. Frank was flanked with his board cronies and VPs. They would review my drawings and offer their feedback. Clearly, they wanted to come up with a product that would give Fender and Gibson a run for their money.

    When a tentative design was agreed upon, there was discussion about having samples made at one of the Japanese factories from which the Sigmas were imported, but this would have been a tedious process. I had made it quite clear that I was eager and capable of creating prototypes at the plant. 

      The Swan was the first guitar to emerge. The somewhat graceful inlay in the headstock drove my desire to have the entire instrument be swan-like in color, but Carl Miksch had a convenient one-piece slab of Spanish cedar in the machine room that gave the body a more leathery look. The finished instrument was tiny, lightweight and too dissimilar from traditional Telecaster and Les Paul designs to satisfy the higher-ups, but it sounded great.

      I was incredibly fortunate to be allowed to bring my drawings to life at work, but more often than not, I desired to experiment beyond the limits of what Martin tradition might allow. Fascinated by the premise of blending artistic form with practical function, I built bolder variations of my Martin prototypes at home in my basement. After the neck and body blanks were laminated and resurfaced, I would sketch out cerebral shapes directly onto the wood. After the excess was trimmed on the bandsaw, I sculpted the hard edges with a rasp, paying particular attention to  how the contours nested into a player’s arms. These early efforts would have been quite ergonomic if I hadn’t felt the personal need to use such dense hardwood. The extra weight lends stability and sustain, but the reality is that softer wood allows for greater absorption of string vibration resulting in warmer, less harsh tone, and the lighter weight is certainly easier on the musicians who have to lug these beasts around on stage.

Parabola Ergonomic Electric Guitar

Maple, mahogany, rosewood. 

1978

Early Martin Electric Guitar Prototyping

 

        After the Swan prototype was reviewed, I was given my own room plus Carl Miksch’s help in the machine room. First, I drafted dozens of separate headstock, body, and neck designs. Some of these were outrageous. Others were quite traditional. Frank liked one particular headstock that looked remotely like the Martin/Stauffer shape that Leo Fender had incorporated for his headstocks. I started a short scale prototype with a maple fingerboard and headplate. I dubbed it The Swan for its purity, color, and graceful inlay that seemed to nest well in the otherwise awkward top area of the headstock. 

        The Directors liked it too, but wanted to see some more traditional body shapes in a long scale format. The second batch of four prototype bodies were laminated from rejected rosewood bridge blank stock and guitar side scraps. When combined with white maple wings, the bodies were unusually striking. My idea was to laminate the center section of the body, perform all of the machining operations to that section, then apply the wings of the body and the neck. It was a sensible and efficient plan and the Board liked the new body design. I had consulted with Roger Sadowsky about what he considered to be the optimum hardware for electric guitars. We chose the best of everything for the prototypes. It was a challenging project, even though production needed me to assist John Arndt with bridge gluing for several hours a day. 

        I started a third batch of twelve prototypes that were all identical in configuration. I had efficiently completed the machining and body lamination when I saw the plant engineer holding one of the twelve bodies. He was taking to Carl Miksch near the spindle-shaping machine. After they finished, I asked Carl what was up. The engineer had had an idea for a shaping fixture to cut out the electric bodies. Carl was very skeptical and so was I, but this fellow was awfully bullheaded. He returned with a poorly-crafted half-inch slab of heavy steel, cut to the rough contour of our electric guitar shape. There was a plastic handle sticking straight up out of the fixture. 

        Carl was so appalled and protective of his equipment that he flatly refused to do the operation. The engineer stubbornly decided to do it himself. He mounted my best body blank onto his contraption, tightened the plastic handle and pushed it hard into the cutter. There was a loud crack. It happened so quickly. Carl and I watched from a distance in amazement. The whole fixture, all fifty-five pounds of it with the body attached, went flying through the air at jet propulsion speed and embedded itself in a sheetrock wall thirty feet away. Had anyone been in its path, they would have surely been laid to a quick rest. Carl walked over to Eugene and physically removed him from the department.

        The next day, I found the test body in the garbage. The shaper blade had taken a nice chunk out of it, but with a little creativity and inlay, it was salvageable. I retrieved it and took it home. It became a lovely fretless bass that for obvious reasons, I called “The Maverick.”

Pinstripe Electric Guitar (1 of 2)

Walnut, maple, mahogany, rosewood,  ebony, Haz Labs active electronics. 1979

Salvaged "Maverick" Bass

1978

Pinstripe Electric Guitar (2 of 2)

Mahogany, maple, rosewood, ebony, Haz Labs active electronics. 1979

Collaborations with Ken Dieterly

     Martin’s Purchasing Manager Bill Minnich had previously worked in the furniture industry. When Martin sought a woodworking shop to outsource the lamination and machining of E-18 electric guitar bodies and necks, Bill remembered his old friend Ken Dieterly of Milford Furniture Company. Ken was the perfect choice. He was an old school woodworker with a particular expertise in jury-rigged efficiency. He loved the challenge of a difficult project and tackled everything with a “can do” enthusiasm.

     I developed a great respect for Ken and we became friends. His machining and finishing capabilities enabled us to collaborate and complete several personal guitar projects that were intended to extend the designs that Martin had settled upon. Our mutual obsession with lamination combined with his abundance of native hardwood cutoffs yielded the two neck-thru-body prototypes shown on this page. He also produced a popular line of Martin-branded butcher block cutting boards made with similar contrasting wood patterns.

     Ken knew many great woodworkers. Through him, I became friends with a local woodturner named Mike Mode whose passion for lathe turning inspired me. Mike went on to become one of America’s most respected turners. 

     When the Church of Art started to take shape, I enlisted Ken’s talents to fabricate the beautiful maple and walnut kitchen cabinets in the church and Mike made special ebony and boxwood drawer pulls. This was all in keeping with my desire to construct my entire reality out of wood.

Business Card for Ken Dieterly (circa 1980, information not current)

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