Every working guitarists knows that if he doesn't have a good guitar doctor, his dreams of being a master shredder who destroys the crowd with rakes from his pick as he slides it up the string are dead. From a broken headstock to a cracked neck, a guitar technician is a master of skills. He's an electrician, a plumber, a physician and a surgeon. But if a guitarist wants to shoot fireballs out of his guitar, he'll need more than just a technician; he'll need a guitar master.
But how do you find a guitar master? It's not like he's listed in the phone book under "Guitar Master," although you can buy a Guitar Master Certificate for $10,080 from the Berklee College of Music. (Let me know how that goes.) And when you do find one, how do you know he can handle the job, making the right repair in the shortest amount of time? A guitar master must know how to diagnosis the problem when the only explanation he's offered involves slurring through a mouthful of tears, or an, "Oh, my bad, man, do you think you can fix her by tomorrow?"
The trust you place in a guitar master's steady hand, keen mind and eye for detail when you hand him your baby is almost too much to bear. It's more hope than faith. For you need someone who's knowledgeable, but not just book smart. A guitar master needs to know more than just how to solder the yellow and green wires together, glue a new bridge and replace a few strings. He must know its rhythm, that steady beat pulsing through the wood.
But who are we to judge a guitar master? We're just writers just trying to make a living. What we needed was to consult working musicians, the guys touring the country like pariahs of the Muse, the guys of metal from Drowning Pool to Warbeast, the guys of blues from Hash Brown to Smokin' Joe Kubrick. I needed to ask the guitarslingers who make their guitars bleed on stage night after night.
After an overwhelming response from a great group of musicians, we've finally complied a list of local guitar masters who deserve our respect, our gratitude and our love for making our guitar heroes sound so damn good.
Working with Dimebag Darrell Abbot, Rex Brown, Mike Scaccia, Scott Shelby and others, this guitar master has had to work overtime to keep up with these guitarslingers' abuse. These guys make their guitars scream on stage, and it's King's job to make them sing again. "Everbody knows -- other than Scott -- that they're at my mercy when it comes to working on their guitar," he says. "That's why I'm not out on the circuit. I'm pretty picky about which guitar players I work with." (Although Darrel and Mike are no longer with us - may they ignite heaven with their notes - Scott is still tearing it up with Warbeast.) Rabid Flesh Eater, Warbeast, Rigor Mortis, Pantera, this guy has worked on some brutal guitars. "If you're going to buy a Cadillac, put the right parts on it" is one of his mottoes.
Dimebag Darrell first discovered this guitar master while he was working in a club in Colleen, Texas. King was 17 and Darrell was 15. "They played and blew me away," King says. So he asked if the aspiring guitar legend needed help breaking down his guitar. It was the beginning of a working friendship that lasted until Dime's untimely death in 2004. Learning from another guitar master, Walt Treichler of Rotting Corpse, is what put this guy at the top of the extended family's list for repair answers. He also studied with Floyd Rose at a guitar show, learning everything there is to know about the Floyd Rose tremolo. "There's nothing better than the original thing Floyd came up with," he says. King is the kind of guitar doctor who makes house calls; but he's not accepting any new clients unless you're part of his extended family of musicians. "If I know 'em, and they need work on their guitar, I'll help 'em out."
Russell is not only one of the hardest working technicians in Dallas but also a classically trained guitarist with a degree in classical guitar performance from SMU. To supplement his income playing classical guitar, he joined the Brook Mays team before finding a home at Charley's Guitar Shop. "Having a background as a player helps with cutting through the issue," he says. "I think the real part of guitar repair is being able to observe what's going on with the guitar but also understanding what the player is going through."
Since joining Charley's team, Russell has worked on hundreds of guitars. Music shops across Dallas and Fort Worth call him with questions. He's even corrected other guitar masters' mistakes, and he's also repaired some of the music industry's finest guitarslingers, including the guitarist from Cold Play and countless prominent local musicians. "It's part of the joy is knowing that I'm helping put players in a position where they can get on stage and feel confident knowing their guitar is working at its peak." He's also probably the only guitar master on this list asked to restore a broken guitar back to its original broken state. But it wasn't just any broken guitar. It was Elvis Presley's Martin D-28. "Elvis had broken it." This guy is truly more than a guitar master; he's a magician performing musical magic at Charley's five days a week.
One master's name that kept being repeated by the guitar experts was Roger Crisler of Crisler Guitar Repair in Carrollton. He's been in the business of repairing guitars for almost 40 years. Some of the best guitarists in the DFW area turn to him when their guitar is sick: Chris Watson, Bnois King, Zach Weeks, Drew Adkins, Smokin' Joe Kubek, the list just continues to grow. He's trusted, and his work is respected. "When you love what you do, it doesn't feel like a job," he says.
In high school wood shop class, while other kids were building bookshelves that tilted, coffee tables that bowed, and paddles to smack each other with, Crisler was building a guitar. He later attended the Roberto-Venn school of Luthiery in Arizona and became a guitar researcher at Schecter Guitar Research and continued to enhance his knowledge of the guitar. Later, working for places like Guitar Center and Mars Music, which has since closed its doors, Crisler learned the ins and outs of the guitar, how to quick fix problems, and create solutions for unfixable problems. In the '80s, when Van Halen was touring in support of their album 1984, he had the opportunity to go back stage and repair Eddie Van Halen's guitar. "I thought I was so cool," he says. But he'd finally obtain the right to call himself a "guitar master."
This guitar master is actually a custom guitar builder. He started building guitars in 1993. "I've been doing this a long time," Paul says. "It's just really natural to me. I'm weird. I just look at stuff and know how to fix it." When he younger, Paul was good at woodworking, and besides picking up the guitar at 14, he needed another hobby. But learning the craft of guitar repair didn't require a master, simply a book. "Imagine that, great book." He then converted his garage into a shop, and in two years, his custom guitars became commercially viable. "It's the real deal, all high-end neck set stuff." Today, Brian Paul's Guitars are some of the finest guitars on the market. Some of his clients include Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Jim Suhler, Warren Haynes and Texas Slim. Even Dallas blues legend Bugs Henderson owned one of his guitars.
Besides his restoration of vintage guitars, one of the most important contributions Paul has made to the guitar world is passing the torch to a new generation of guitar masters by offering Luthier classes that teaches how to build your own electric guitar at his shop. People from all walks of life have attended his seminars, including Mark Colombo, a former offensive tackle of the Dallas Cowboys. Paul is not only sharing his love of building great guitars but also teaching the science of how the magic works. "I have what's known as the 'no-fail policy,'" he says and laughs. "If you can't do the work, I'll do it for you."
This guitar master started building guitars when he was 12 in the early '80s when Eddie Van Halen's Frankenstein guitar inspired him to create his own beautiful monstrosities. Since then, McCarthy worked at several music shops, doing repair work on the side, and learned from master luthiers working in their dungeons before finding a home at Dallas Repair Shop. Paul also does warranty work for Fender in its custom shop, which led to repairing Buddy Guy's guitar and Ted Nugent's. "Selling guitars at a guitar shop, you really have nothing to show for it," McCarthy says. "But here at the end of the day, I can see what I've done. Work with my hands, fix problems, and it pays pretty good, too."
McCarthy's probably one of the toughest guitar masters on this list. His craftsman's hands know not only how to help your instrument make magic again but also (we assume) how to put you in an arm or leg lock and make you scream "Uncle" if you mouth off too much about your guitar's condition. It's probably why guitar tough guys like Zakk Wylde of Ozzy Osborne and Black Label Society, Izzy Stradlin of Guns 'n' Roses and Jason Newsted of Metallica gravitate toward his repair shop. (Not to mention the guys of Motorhead). They know they're dealing with a true master.
Building a rare 4005 Rickenbacker takes the hands of a master. And this master has not only built one but also created the "Jazzblaster" line of custom guitars with bodies that resemble Rickenbacker and necks inspired by Leo Fender. He also builds custom basses. "I like building beautiful things," he says. A few of his custom guitars were recently picked up to be shown to rock star royalty like Tom Petty, Lindsay Buckingham and Joe Walsh. He's played and repaired guitars. Steve Stevens, Green River Ordinance, Rocky Athans and Eric Clapton have sought out his services. He's even touched one of Jimi Hendrix's legendary axes.
Bell's journey to become a guitar master began with a car running over him as a child. He was an aspiring baseball player just shy of his 13 birthday and left with a fractured skull that ended his future career. So he picked up the guitar and fell in love. He's been building and repairing guitars since 1975. Today, he's running Bell's Custom Guitars on the side and repairing guitars at Murphy's Music in Irving.
"It's a labor of love," says Youngman, a guitar master who's been handling guitars since the '50s and '60s when rock 'n' roll was still in its infancy. But he's not just a surgeon; he's a neck specialist. "If the neck doesn't feel right, you're not going to play." He's always been good at setting guitars up, and today he works mostly from home, although he also does repair work at Guitarasaur in Watuga. "It's always nice to make someone happy. It makes me feel like I'm doing something right."
Youngman is also known for creating some of the best Frankenstein guitars in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. One of his favorites to build is his custom built Indian Esqu-wire Custom, a monstrous guitar with an SG body, a Telecaster neck and Fender pickups. "It's taking shit and making something playable," he says. And his touch must be golden because guitarslingers like Smokin' Joe Kubek, Bnois King and Rocky Athas each own one of his Frankenstein babies.
This guitar master knows wood. He understands its rhythm. He's a master woodworker and began building acoustic guitars when he was a child. "I couldn't afford the ones I wanted," he says, "so I built them." Perretta Guitars is the result of his experiments. But it wasn't until he toured with the guitars that he'd receive some of the best advice of his life from George Gruhan, a guitar master in Music City, whose customers included Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and George Harrison: "If you want to work in this business, do repair work."
Since then Fitzgerald has been repairing guitars for guitarslingers across the Dallas/Fort Worth area, restoring vintage guitars and selling his handcrafted guitars. "I try to get the instrument back to its original vintage condition. It's what I strive for."
Every generation there's one guitar master whose touch can make a guitar purr; whose grasp of his skill is so complete that just by looking at the guitar, he knows her problem; and whose ears can pinpoint what your tone is lacking. They are legends. And the mystique that surrounds these guys is hard to penetrate. Swank is one of those guitar masters. "I think part of my mystique now is that I'm just flaky and don't return phone calls," he says. "It's not that I'm some kind of badass." Swank was first introduced to the business of guitar repairing when he saw another master's work. "I just thought it was a pretty noble pursuit."
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And while he'd heard its calling, Swank didn't move into the field until death arrived at the music shop where he was working. The resident guitar repairman suffered an aortic aneurysm and died. "It was terrible," Swank says. "He was a good friend of mine, but he still had a bunch of stuff in his shop." But Swank was able to step in and finish some of those jobs, and then more jobs began pouring in. The next thing he knew he had built a reputation for himself. "I'm a [guitar] player. I know how I like things to work, how instruments should play."
Swank spent more than 25 years perfecting his skills at various guitar shops across the DFW area, including Charley's Guitar Shop in Dallas, before striking out on his own. He's repaired Andy Timmons' guitar, Ray Wylie Hubbard's and Eric Clapton's. But Clapton's repair made a significant impact. "It's kind of funny story," he says. "His technician wanted to go shoot guns -- they're English and don't get to shoot guns in their country -- so they dumped these two guitars off on me." It didn't take him long, and he soon found himself carrying them back to Clapton's rehearsal. "It was kind of weird seeing all of these pale English guys sitting around eating barbecue and passing around Colt .45s." But Clapton allowed him to stay and watch him rehearse. It's a blessing few guitar masters receive.