I worked as a guitarmaker starting as an unskilled assistant to luthier Roger Borys around 1978. Guitarist and author Allen Johnson arranged for Borys Guitars to employ the pre-eminent luthier of the 20th Century, Jimmy D'Aquisto, as a consultant. Learning my trade directly under Jimmy was a fantastic honor. Certainly, the D'Angelico and D'Aquisto influences are apparent, to my eye, anyway, in my archtops; in fact, I restored a 1949 D'Angelico Style A which I kept for years and is now in the hands of a US congressman who is a fine player. I did not directly copy any details from any vintage instruments, but tried to interpret my mentors' work to establish my own identity.
I also got a guitar education in countless conversations with players like Bill Leavitt, Allen Hanlon, Larry Coryell, Emily Remler, John Collins, Jimmy Wyble, Mundell Lowe, Charlie Byrd, Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel.
Shown here are two archtops I built, with the help of Steve Gentile, now of Burlington Guitar and Amps, and Sean Harkness, currently a New York-based musician of enormous talent…maybe the finest guitarist I know personally. The blonde is a Nouvelle, and the tinted finish is a Nouvelle Oval. Both guitars are made of Vermont maple, German spruce, with ebony fingerboards, bridges and pickguards. The blonde has a DeArmond 1100 pickup obtained about 30 years ago from Bob Benedetto, and the cutaway features a clunky but great sounding 1960s Kent pickup.
I have always loved archtop guitars since I first used to go to NYC to walk along 48th Street to check out the Gibson L-5s and even D'Angelicos and D'Aquistos for sale. But most of my work these days is with flattop guitars. Here are my current favorites: a Running Dog Mini Jumbo, a recent Gibson J-45, and a 00-12 made by Louisiana luthiers Manuel & Patterson.
The J-45 has a classic sound, and the 00-12 fills the small-bodied Martin niche for me. The Mini Jumbo occupies its own sonic territory, designed and built for me by Seattle-based luthier Rick Davis, who has been a friend for years. In fact, back in the day, I used to repair his guitars!
The Mini Jumbo has a wide neck, a wedge shaped body profile inspired by the work of Linda Manzer, Adirondack spruce top, and koa back and sides. Rick designed this combination of options for me after lengthy conversations about my playing style and techniques, the kind of response I needed, and the physical demands of playing four hour gigs. The Mini Jumbo remains my go-to guitar for the most part. It records especially well, and for live situations, it has K&K pickups and a Fishman Rare Earth pickup. Most of the time, I use a blend of the two pickups. I also really like the LR Baggs Element in the J-45, and hope to try a new LR Baggs system in the 00-12 sometime soon.
I have my first flattop, pretty well played out by now, and I recently bought a Trinity College TG-20 12 fret, laminated-back-and-sides guitar for travel and the beach, as if I ever go to the beach.
For electric playing, I play a Wilson Style T solidbody that I built a couple of decades ago; it has many thousands of gig miles on it. The body is made of poplar, with a set neck and a carved top, with Kent Armstrong humbucking pickups wired with series and parallel options. I am also partial to my Babicz Octane Blue Flame guitar, with an LR Baggs Element in the bridge. I recently retrofitted the Babicz with two Duncan PH-90 pickups. I also installed an anti-feedback/sustain block and some foam under the soundhole to be able to use the Element pickup at high volume. I often perform with a small Behringer mixer for the acoustic guitars through a house PA. For electric guitar, I have a late 1950s Ampeg Jet, but mostly perform through my Roland 60 watt Cube, which is dependable, loud, and has a good variety of sounds. I mostly use the "Tweed" and clean channels, with a footswitch. For both electric and acoustic, I will often use a reissue Ibanez Tube Screamer, and I like the Fishman Delay pedal. Occasionally, a Boss octave divider will get kicked in, and a Vox Wah. For vocal performance purposes, I like the Shure SM 57 (with a windscreen) or an SM 58. I rarely use an instrument mic onstage, as I move around too much, even if I am sitting down. For recording, I keep a variety of instruments available, including an old tiple, remade to play as a six string, a Regal tricone resonator, a Gold Tone six string banjo and mandolin, an L. Benito Chip Wilson Model parlor guitar, and a fiddle. I really should get rid of the violin, I am a wretched fiddle player.