Thursday, September 3, 2015

A replica of Willie McTell's Tonk Brothers 12 String.

Willie McTell with his Tonk 12, late 1920s.

One of the sources I draw on for inspiration for new projects is old photographs of musicians with their guitars.  I have been especially interested in trying to recreate the instruments of some of America's most iconic musicians.  I have made copies of Leadbelly's 12 string, Ernest Stoneman's Galiano, Lydia Mendoza's Acosta 12 string and Daddy Stovepipe's 9 string guitar.  When I can locate an example of one of these instruments, I use it as reference.  If I unable to find an example, I make scale drawings from photos, interview relatives of the player or maker, and use my (and friends') knowledge of old instruments and makers.  My latest project, a copy of Willie McTell's Tonk Brothers 12 string was a perfect example.  I was able to find an example, I used clues from the photo, and worked with friends, chiefly Paul Geremia.

Willie McTell was one of the most incredible of all the blues players.  One of the remarkable things is that his recording career spanned 29 years, from 1927 to 1956.  At two of his recording sessions (in 1940 with John Lomax, and in 1956 with Ed Rhodes) extensive interviews were conducted with McTell regarding his life and career.  He left a very diverse body of work including blues, rags, ballads, old popular tunes and a few country numbers.  Another incredible thing about McTell is the number of cool guitars which he was photographed with.  During that time McTell had a few Stella 12 strings, and one Tonk Brothers 12 string.

The Tonk Brothers were not a manufacturer of guitars, but a Chicago based music house and distributor of a variety of musical instruments.  They ordered guitars from companies like Lyon and Healy, J.R. Stewart and Regal, and sold them in their store and through catalogs.  I'm fairly confident that this guitar was made in Chicago.  By whom, I'm not so sure.  Judging from the purfling and bracing, I would guess Regal.  I have seen other Regal 12 strings from this era, but they typically have a shorter 25 1/2" scale.

Paul Geremia with his Tonk 12, 1990s.

When I first saw the photo of McTell playing his Tonk 12, I didn't really give the guitar much thought.  I assumed that it was a Stella, and much like the 12 strings I was familiar with.  It was through conversations with Paul Geremia, where Paul told me the guitar was a Tonk, that I finally took a closer look.  On closer inspection of the photo, I realized the guitar had a different shape than the Stellas, different purfling, different label, different bridge and tailpiece, and a logo on the headstock.  Paul had played a Tonk 12 for a number of years.  At a certain point he offered to sell it to me.  Once I had the guitar in hand and inspected it further, I realized a few more differences, chiefly that it had a 27" scale as opposed to 26 1/2", and the bracing was a variation of ladder bracing different from the typical pattern seen in Stella 12s.  I have since searched for other Tonk Bros. 12 strings, but this is the only one which I have ever seen, or even heard of.  There certainly weren't many of them made.

Replica purfling on a well worn Tonk 12.

Paul and I had discussed making a copy of the guitar on several occasions, but I was slow to move. There were a few hurdles which needed to be overcome, First I needed to make some matching purfling, Second I needed to make drawings of the guitar and get detailed specs.  Finally, I needed to make a template for a 27" scale length fingerboard. All things that take time.  I also needed to find some nice birch for the back and sides, which sadly isn't something you can order up from a luthier supply company.  At a certain point things started coming together.  A friend sent me an unedited cut of Willie McTell's last session with Ed Rhodes, and I started listening to him after a long hiatus.  Then a customer inquired about a 27" scale on one of my regular 12 strings.  Next, a buddy stopped by and told me he had a line on some nice old birch.  We hopped in my truck and picked up some boards.   I then got the old guitar out and tuned it up and the wheels started churning.  The next day, I was resawing the birch for the back and sides and started making some purfling.

New and 90 year old 12 strings.

I was fortunate on this project to have an original example to work off of.  Paul's old 12 was played hard in it's life time.  It was likely in good shape when he got it, but he toured with it for several years and it took a few beatings during that time.  There were also some repairs done on the guitar, some of them better than others.  At a certain point, the fingerboard was replaced with a bound ebony board, the bridge was replaced, and the neck was reset..  The neck set and new taller bridge were done to put more of a break angle to the strings, with the thinking that more downward pressure on the top would improve the tone.  I decided to defer to the photo for these details, which shows an unbound fingerboard and a bridge with flattened pyramids.  I was unsure about the wood to use for the fingerboard and bridge, realizing that the originals were likely stained maple.  I asked Paul what he thought and he suggested maple.  So, maple it is.

After I had gotten all the specs of the guitar, made a new mold etc. the construction went very smoothly.  I used hide glue for everything, same as the original, and I used a varnish which is as close to the old stuff as I can tell.  the new guitar is lighter in color, but after 90 years of oxidation, it should be pretty close to the old one.  In weight they are identical at 4lbs 8oz.  I guess the weight lost from switching ebony to maple was gained with the addition of a truss rod.

Fraulini, Geremia 12 string
Fraulini Geremia 12 string

The only changes I made to the guitar were in the neck.  The old one was a little over 2" at the nut, and from experience I realized it would be more appealing if that were a little narrower.  I made the neck 1 15/16" at the nut.  I also added a truss rod to the poplar neck, which is adjustable from inside the guitar.  The woods for this guitar are 100% domestic US tonewoods, the same as the original.

Birch back with purfling!

Birch back, with purfling!

Rosette with Replica purfling.

I'm very happy with the way the guitar turned out.  With the extra length on the scale, it's possible to tune down to A, which is where McTell tuned on his later recordings.  It has a great tone and is a looker to boot.

Here's my friend Joshua Jacobson, who was up visiting from Georgia, throwing down some Willie McTell on the guitar:

Note:  In June of 2014, Paul Geremia, a friend and legendary bluesman, suffered a stroke which left him unable to keep performing.  Paul had toured the US and Europe for 50 years, usually driving from gig to gig, playing classic and original blues on his Gibson J-35 and a variety of low tuned 12 strings.  During that time, Paul played with and befriended some Blues greats including Skip James, Pink Anderson, Howlin Wolf, Rev. Gary Davis, Howard Armstrong, Jim Brewer, Doc Watson and many more.  He always amazed me with his many stories, which came out slowly over the years.  Paul has been a tremendous infuence on me, loaning me guitars to check out, giving advice on what he thought made a good guitar, encouraging me to keep playing, and touring with one of my 12 strings for over 10 years.  Having lost his main source of income after his stroke, I decided to build a copy of Paul's old Tonk 12 and auction it off to help cover some of the costs of his medical care.  The guitar sold for $4500.  A nice sum, but a drop in the bucket for long term care.  If you'd like to help out a guy who's been dealt a bad hand, I encourage you to go to this website to help with Paul's medical expenses.  Any amount you can contribute will be greatly appreciated.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Guitars for Sale


I recently finished some guitars for my inventory.  They are all completely handmade, with dovetail neck joints, dual action adjustable truss rods, built with hide glue and finished with varnish.  They are built in the spirit of the guitars of the 1920s and 30's, sound like old ones,comparable in feel and weight.  The truss rod,  radiused fingerboard, modern frets, compensated saddles etc, combine to make them more player friendly than the old ones.  They are all great guitars at  great prices.  Hard shell cases are included.

X braced Annunziata

#1.) X-braced Cherry Annunziata- X braced Spruce top with Cherry back and sides, poplar neck and rosewood fingerboard and bridge.  The X bracing gives it a smoother tone which a friend has described as "elegant".  The neck is 1 13/16" at the nut with a modified V profile, similar in sound and feel to a 30's Martin.  Great guitar for fingerpicking. $2750

If you are interested in this guitar, or have any questions, please contact me at

X braced Annunziata
X braced Annunziata

Cherry back of Annunziata

Walnut Annunziata

#2.) Walnut Annunziata- This guitar is made 100% from domestic North American woods: Spruce top, black walnut back, sides, fingerboard and bridge.  The neck is made of poplar and it is 1 13/16" at the nut, with a modified V profile.  The checkered binding is made of maple and black walnut.  It measures 13 1/2" in the lower bout, with a 24.9" scale. This guitar is ladder braced and it has good volume and tone. SOLD

If you are interested in this guitar or have any questions, please contact me at

Walnut Annunziata
Walnut Annunziata

Walnut Annunziata

Mahogany Erma

#3.) Mahogany Erma- A concert sized Stella copy.  Ladder braced with a spruce top, mahogany back and sides, Mahogany neck, rosewood fingerboard and pyramid bridge.  1 13/16" at the nut with a soft V profile, 24.9" scale.  This guitar has a nice warm sound with plenty of punch.  Nice tone for playing blues.  SOLD

If you are interested in this guitar or have any questions, contact me at

Mahogany Erma
Mahogany Erma

Golden Age Tuners

Mahogany Erma

Black Erma

#4.) Black Erma-  Another concert sized Stella copy, made from 100% domestic woods, ladder braced spruce top with white oak back and sides. poplar neck, maple fingerboard and bridge.  The top has a black finish, the fingerboard and bridge are natural.  1 3/4" at the nut with a slightly deeper, rounded neck profile.  Faux mother of pearl pickguard. Plenty of volume and tone, great for playing blues. SOLD

If you are interested in this guitar or have questions, please contact me at

Black Erma

Black Erma

White oak back of Black Erma

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The All Americans

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is a Wisconsin farmer.  He works his tail off from early Spring to late Fall, then spends his winters in Honduras. He has been working for several years on a project, planting trees, mainly mahogany, on mountainsides in order to restore forests which have been clear cut.  Because the mountainsides are free of trees, erosion and mudslides have become big problems as there is no structure to hold the soil together during the rainy season.  The clear cutting is largely the result of the demand for Honduran mahogany.  The guitar industry uses lots of mahogany and the conversation has once again brought my mind around to thinking about domestic alternative tonewoods.

The first several guitars I built were made of all North American woods;  White oak back and sides, maple necks, fingerboards and bridges.  I wasn't approaching them with any kind of ecological consciousness, mainly I was just copying the old instruments I was collecting and repairing.  At that time, I was making guitars for myself and for friends.  As I began to make them for folks farther afield, I started using more exotic woods as that is what people seemed to want.  Ten to fifteen years ago, the guitar world wasn't very receptive to the idea of using domestic woods, despite the fact that they were used extensively in the early 1900's, and played by many iconic musicians.  It was quite difficult to market and sell instruments with woods like white oak or birch (not to mention poplar necks or stained maple fingerboards). I'm not sure if people have become more receptive to it, but over the years I've come to feel stronger about it, and I have greater urges to make domestic wood instruments that have the integrity of the old stuff, and are tastefully executed. I recently finished two guitars made completely from domestic woods which I've dubbed "The All Americans".

The first is an Erma with a spruce top  and white oak back and sides.  The spruce came from the Northwestern US  The white oak came from a Wisconsin tree that grew three miles from my house.  The neck is made of poplar, which grows in abundance in the Northeastern US, big beautiful trees which yield a strong and stable wood. The fingerboard and bridge are maple from Wisconsin which I stained black.  This combination of wood is in keeping with what Oscar Schmidt used on many of their Stellas.  The guitar was patterned after an old Stella that I've played for the last 15 years.  It was made in the 1920's  and has a poplar neck, and an "ebonized" maple fingerboard and bridge.  The neck could stand to be reset. but it has remained straight for 90 plus years.  The fingerboard has also held up over time and is free of wear, despite the fact that the guitar has been played extensively and has had at least two fret jobs.

This guitar has a fairly reserved aesthetic.  It looks like a plain old Stella, and sounds like one as well.  I'm very happy with the way it turned out.  I especially like the look of the flames on the back.  A few coats of varnish really bring the white oak to life.

The second guitar is an Annunziata and was made in the spirit of the great Mexican American luthiers, Guadalupe Acosta and his sons Miguel, Luis and Jesus, and his apprentice Martin Macias.  The Acosta's made guitars for luminaries like Lydia Mendoza and Lonnie Johnson. The bajo sextos of Martin Macias are highly prized, but he also made some great six string guitars.  The back and sides, fingerboard and bridge are made from black walnut, which they all used extensively (Mike Acosta, the son of Miguel, told me that while they used mahogany on most of their instruments, they used walnut for all of the best ones).  This particular wood came from a tree in a friends back yard. The top is spruce from the Northwest.  The neck is poplar, which the Mexican American builders called "magnolia" as it comes from tulip poplar trees.  The rope binding is made from Wisconsin walnut and maple.  This is an exceptionally resonant guitar.

Both of these guitars are made like old instruments.  I built them in the same manner that I build them for friends.  I refer to this approach as "building it like an old guy",  they are well made, but I didn't sweat the details.  I left what I call "the mark of the hand",  tool marks, steam marks from bending the sides (on the inside of the guitar), an exposed pore or two,  things you see all the time on vintage instruments, but not in the modern world of perfect shiny instruments.  The difference from these two and older instruments is that these have two way adjustable truss rods, compensated saddles, medium frets which are  dressed and in their proper place.  They sound every bit as good as an old instrument but are more playable.  As always the guitars completely hand made, are assembled with hide glue, dovetail neck joints and varnish finishes.  They both sound and play great and should be available shortly.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Whole Bunch of Geetars.

I've been keeping my nose to the grindstone, working in the shop and haven't taken the time to update the blog.  I have a backlog of pictures that I've been meaning to get up.  So here are 11 guitars that closed out 2014 and brought in 2015.

1.  A customer asked me to build a very plain Erma, in the style of some of the early Antonio Cerrito built Galiano guitars.  These guitars usually had top binding only, a very simple black and white rosette and two dots on the fingerboard.  This guitar has a red spruce top, mahogany back and sides, maple binding, Brazilian rosewood fingerboard and bridge.  It is ladder braced with a 24.9" scale.  While the Galiano's were usually grand concert sized, this guitar's shape comes from a smaller, concert sized Oscar Schmidt guitar.

2.  Here's a nice Angelina 12 string, red spruce top, ribbon mahogany back and sides, mosaic purfling, headstock inlay, handmade tuning machines and a six pin pyramid bridge.  This is probably my favorite type of 12 string.  Very lively sound, light in weight. Pretty too!

3.I made this Angelina six string for Jerron Paxton, a great young player who will be a household name before long.  Jerron wanted something with some volume and punch.  We worked together on the design.  The pickguard is inlaid into the top, inspired by a Lyon and Healy six string he had.  I made the rope purflings.  Spruce top, mahogany back and sides, rosewood fingerboard and whale tail bridge.  I look forward to hearing him play it.

4. My friend John Miller, who is a fantastic guitar player, was interested in getting a baritone six string.  We had talked about it for many years and I was happy to get the opportunity to build one for him last year.  We decided to use an Angelina as the template.  The guitar has a hemlock top which was salvaged from an 1890s warehouse beam.  The back and sides are cherry, provided by John's brother.  The guitar has a 26 1/2" scale and is X braced.  A fairly understated aesthetic, green/white/black rosette and purfling, maple binding.  I look forward to hearing what John comes up with on it.

5.  I'm constantly thinking about guitars and this one had been on my mind for a while and was dying to get out.  I was able to fit it into the schedule last fall.  I call it the Midnight Special.  It's an X braced Fenezia with a short 24.9" scale,  The top is ebonized spruce with an inlaid pickguard.  the back and sides are mahogany, rosewood fingerboard and bridge.  This guitar was incredibly light in weight, only 3lbs 6 oz.  It sounded fantastic and was a blast too play. So much fun that I had to get it out of the shop because I wasn't getting enough work done, all I wanted to do was play it!  It found a happy home with a great customer.

6.  I probably get more requests to build Leadbelly 12 string than any other model.  I always love to do them and never get tired of it.  This one was headed to Germany.  It had an old German spruce top, mahogany back and sides, ebony fingerboard and bridge, handmade German tuning machines.  I was really happy with the way it turned out.

7.  My friend Todd Albright asked me to build him a 12 string.  The only input he had was that he wanted a big one and he wanted it to have a tailpiece.  He told me that he didn't want to see any pictures and wanted to see it for the first time when he opened the case.  I decided on a Fenezia with walnut back and sides.  When I spoke to Mike Acosta (grandson of Guadalupe Acosta, son to Miguel Acosta, who built Lydia Mendoza's 12), I asked Mike what kind of wood they used for the back and sides.  He said, "Most of the time they used mahogany, but for the good stuff, they used walnut."  A buddy had just given me some nice walnut boards and I was looking forward to making another walnut guitar.  The guitar really sounds exceptional.  Nice hollow, old time tone.

8.  A customer in Nashville asked me to build an Angelina six for fingerpicking country blues.  This one is ladder braced, has red spruce top, mahogany back and sides, ebony fingerboard and pyramid bridge.  While all my guitars have a varnish finish, this varnish seemed to have an especially warm tone.  I wish I remembered what it was!

9. I made this 14 fret Angelina for my buddy Catfish Stephenson.  I played with Catfish for eight years or so.  He was instrumental in my development as a musician and in my understanding of music and life.  I hope to write some more about him and this guitar, but here's the skinny;  It's an X braced 14 fret Angelina, similar to an L-00, but it's own thing.  Spruce top, walnut back and sides, from the same board as the above 12 string, rosewood fingerboard and whale tail bridge.  It's a great guitar, very responsive and fun to play.  A fingerpicking machine.

10.  I brought the Midnight Special (black Fenezia listed above) to a party where some friends were playing music.  I left it with my buddy Arne while I went out for a walk.  When I came back Arne asked me, "What do I gotta do to get a guitar like that?"  I told him to save his pennies.  He called me a month later and told me he had saved some dough and asked if I'd make him something.  He said he wanted the same guitar, maybe with a sunburst.  I came up with this.  Spruce top, mahogany back and sides, rosewood fingerboard and bridge.  X braced 24.9" scale.  Very lightweight at 3lbs, 7oz, 1 oz heavier than the black one.  It sounds great, nice bass which should continue to develop.

11. My friend Jan in Norway asked me to build him a Loretta parlor guitar for playing Blind Blake.  He pointed out a couple sunbursts that he liked.  I came up with this guitar.  It is inspired by the sunbursts that Gibson did in the 1910's an 20's on their guitars and mandolins, which were hand rubbed and had a varnish finish over the top.  For me, those are the most beautiful finishes.  I'm very happy with the way that this one turned out, especially the birch back and sides.  With a 24 1/4" scale this guitar is a lot of fun to play.  The perfect thing for Blind Blake and Lemon Jefferson.