It all started in 1991 when my friend and fellow instrument enthusiast Steve Endsley (and builder of excellent mountain dulcimers) interrupted me in the middle of a performance to give me a paper bag containing the pieces of an strange old parlor guitar as a prank. It was a old birch 9 string parlor, possibly a Kay Kraft or Stromberg- Voisinet, with the top three strings doubled and the lower three strings single. He then demanded the $1.79 he’d paid for it in cash! It was a great joke but the guitar was clearly a hopeless cause; the top was in pieces, the back and the neck were both off. All in all it was a disaster!
Figuring that it was a cheap guitar of no collectible value in it’s sorry condition, I decided to experiment with it. Being younger and bolder, I figured “How much trouble could it be?” I replaced the loose poplar ladder braces with X bracing, added an oversize maple bridge plate, and swapped out the cheap floating bridge for a fixed rosewood pin bridge with a bone saddle.
When I got it all together, the new sound was striking. I’d set it up for bottle neck slide and the doubled first three strings added volume and shimmer to the top end while the single three lower strings kept the bass runs clear. It was a great combination.
Now I love to actually use these strange old guitars. The quirks each instrument possesses lend themselves to unique musical expressions that I find quite appealing. I was booked to perform at the 1995 Music in the Wild Festival along the Illinois River Valley (think hardwood forests on the bluffs above the river bottoms, bald eagle nests in the tree’s, restored prairie), so I decided to take the 9 string along for it’s first gig. I had just finished performing the Peter Rowen song Rainmaker bottleneck style on the 9 string guitar when all hell broke loose. Unbeknown to me a massive storm had been building up behind the stage as I started my set. Just as I put down the 9 string guitar, we were hit with violent winds and driving rain that immediately shut down the festival. Needless to say, the blame was placed on squarely me, the Rainmaker song and the 9 string guitar!
The guitar itself got caught in the deluge, the top came loose and the braces all popped off. Then it sat for about 10 years, the subject of more than one good storytelling session.
Then in early 2000 I came across an old demo I had recorded with the 9 string and was amazed at it’s unique sound. I got the bug again. I re-braced it with new, laminated scalloped braces, then put it into a guitar body clamp to re-shape the body. After about 2 years in the clamp making small adjustments every month or so, I glued it up and put top back on. It sounded even better than before so I took it to Rick Cremer (Cremer Custom Guitars, Aurora, IL) for a pro set up. I was enchanted by the sparkling highs of the doubled first three strings, but also liked the clear bass notes of the single lower strings. It made for a sweet, unique slide sound that I featured on the Shawneetown track of my Abraham Lincoln in Song CD.
THE NEW ERA GUITAR
The sound this guitar made was unlike anything I’d ever heard but playing it was like wrestling a bear! The un-reenforced neck had serious issues but even so, the tone was astonishing and I began to suspect that there were things I could do on this guitar that I couldn’t do on any other instrument. Ultimately it came down to a question of pulling off the walnut fingerboard and installing a truss rod in a very cheap guitar or simply building a new guitar based on this example.
In the summer of 2010, after a year of telephone tag and mis-matched schedules, I managed to catch Master Luthier Tony Klassen at his workshop in Chesterton, IN. I’d heard about Tony for several years and had seen pictures of his gorgeous Larson guitar re-creations. I was very interested in meeting him and trying out his guitars and frankly, I wanted him to see the 9 string guitar.
I finally got together with Tony in July and got to see his work and hear his guitars. I was immediately struck by the outstanding quality of his craftsmanship. As mutual admirers of old guitars we found a lot of common ground but it went over the top when I showed him the 9 string. He was as infatuated with the guitar as I had been and before long, we had made plans to have Tony re-create the guitar based on this old instrument’s specs but built to Tony’s high standards. It was a tremendous opportunity, to work with an outstanding craftsman and bring this hybrid instrument to life.
While the original guitar was flat sawn birch, we decided to go with high quality wood for the best possible sound. I’m a fool for highly figured woods and tend to appreciate dense tonewoods with a full, deep, yet clear sound so after a bit of research, I chose Ziricote, a Mexican hardwood with dramatic figuring and serious density. Tony loves Adirondack spruce so that was our choice for the top and we decided to keep the scalloped braces but laminate them Larson style (spruce, ziricote,spruce). He suggested going with a coco-burst top, a Larson style finish he is renowned for. We went with Larson style 6 details for the binding and fingerboard inlays and decided to keep the original unique headstock shape and body measurements (which, by coincidence were almost identical to the Maurer Concert size). I wanted to add a truss rod and go with a more modern neck profile rather than the original V for a more comfortable fit to my hands. Since I planned on using this for slide work, I also wanted a flat fingerboard and a slightly higher nut than standard. I’ve found that this makes for a cleaner slide sound and works better for the behind the bottle fingering which I have a tendency to do.
I was invited to join Tony for the initial stages of the build. In early December 2010 I arrived at Tony’s shop to begin assembling the new guitar. Now I consider myself a dedicated amateur when it comes to guitar repairs but Tony’s level of craftsmanship was simply stunning! I spent the next 2 days working with Tony bending sides, building braces and generally assisting in any way I could. By the end of the second day, we had the sides bent and assembled, the kerfing added and the top and back glued up and braced, and the body ready for assembly. It was an truly inspiring experience and Ihave to say, I would have loved to have stayed for the remainder of the build.
The next three months dragged slowly by as I was no longer involved in the build. I received the occasional teaser photo as the body came together, the neck was shaped and the finish work begun and was able to stop by while I was on the road and see the progress. Still, it felt like things were going tantalizingly slow while I kept holding off recording a new CD in hopes of getting this guitar on the project.
I’m happy to report that it’s everything I had hoped for; beautiful to look at, but awesome to hear, and I mean that in the original sense of the word. It has a full deep rich low end but with clarity, very clear and articulate mids and highs with sparkling overtones. Tremendous volume with the potential to play a large dynamic range very well.
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I broke it in with a new instrumental I wrote on the old 9 string specifically to play on this new one (The Last Day of Winter). And yes… there are definitely things I can do on this guitar.