The city of Chicago has been a corner stone throughout my life. It has been my home and has even helped define who I am as a person and as an instrument maker. The client who commissioned this instrument shares a deep appreciation for Chicago with me. I was lucky to create a guitar that reflected the client’s voice while also symbolically representing some of the important aspects of his life. As a result, the roots I have with the city provided me a deeper connection to this instrument.
The idea of this guitar was conceived before my wife and I moved to California. Many ideas had been discussed and changed over the course of a couple years. This was the second archtop I made for this client, the first being a short scaled Chicagoan Oval hole. This gave me the opportunity to think of these two instruments as siblings or male/female counterparts. We talked about how they could be different, representing opposites. My client told me all about his Chicago connection and how he wanted to symbolically represent this on the instrument. To me, this was an opportunity of a life time. How could I connect my favorite city, my sweet home Chicago, with the instrument that I already call the Chicagoan?
For his first Chicagoan Oval hole, all of our specifications had been determined. I knew what wood I was using. We kept it simple and clean with an Engelmann spruce top and Carpathian maple back and sides. That guitar I remembered rang like a bell. As soon as it was strung up it’s immediate bass response and overall clarity confused me because it already sounded so opened up. It’s x-bracing gave it power too, which made finger-style playing very fun.
For this new Chicagoan, I chose a Romanian spruce top; a spruce that I love to use because of its sound complexity and color. I also chose a Carpathian maple back, but this set had a drastically different appearance to the set we used on the oval hole. The Oval hole back had a wide flame to it and was a little softer, this maple has a very tight flame to it. I knew that this guitar was going to be parallel braced, a bracing pattern that tends to employ a looser sound that is very much centered in the mid-range, very different than the wide-voiced oval hole. The specifications became defined and the vision of this instrument was growing.
My client and I went back and forth on the best way to symbolically represent one of the greatest cities in the world through an inlay. We passed ideas back and forth, looking for a solution that would be tasteful and powerful. We talked about animals, city flags, symbols, lots of things, trying to find a unified solution. One morning I was lying in bed (where the best ideas happen!) and had an idea that trumped all others. The one thing that Chicago is most known for and identified with around the world, it’s skyline. I knew right away that this was the direction and that my client would be excited about it. The skyline holds a place in my heart because it is where my dad, an architect, worked and where his visions came to life. I spent the next week searching for images and inspiration. I talked to my client and he was just as excited as I was. The idea was to incorporate the famous buildings in the skyline as position markers on the fingerboard.
As an experiment I started piecing together photographs of the skyline, all taken from the vantage point far out in Lake Michigan, looking back at the city. The inlay began to define itself. The skyline has a natural and visual flow about it to begin with. The Shed Aquarium is a natural bookend on the south side, growing into the height of the Sears Tower, (Yes, I know it is no longer the Sears Tower, but you will never hear me call it another name!), and then it naturally steps down as it goes North. I always thought Chicago would be even greater with some mountains, but I think the skyline is Chicago’s mountain, it has the same earthly power.
All along I knew that this was a bigger inlay project that I wanted to take on and that someone like Larry Robinson would knock it out of the park and put his own unique stamp on it. After getting the buildings laid out in perspective and in an accurate fashion, I outlined every building so that Larry could have something to work with. I spoke with Larry about it and he was also very excited for the project as he had done various city skylines but never Chicago and the design I sent him was certainly a challenge. I had high expectations just because I knew what Larry was capable of producing but I was just speechless when I received the finished inlay. I had sent Larry a rough neck with the fingerboard and when it came back the last thing I wanted to do was to put frets over it. It took a lot of extra time installing the frets than normal. Such care had to be taken not to break any of the inlay and to not scratch any of the delicate materials Larry had chosen to use.
I always add a personal inlay on the back of the headstock for every client. Wrigley field was special to my client (another wonderful thing for me since I grew up four blocks from the ballpark) and so I had Larry inlay the world famous Wrigley Field marquee with the best words possible lit up in gold dust, “Cubs Win!”. This is also my attempt at breaking the cubs curse, you never know… 😉
Lastly, my client wanted a four leaf clover somewhere. Funny enough, this little guy was probably the hardest thing for me. I kept fighting with myself about where to put it. I was almost going to leave it off when I thought of the perfect place to put it, the volume knob. This was the only inlay I cut for this guitar and was one of the last things I did to complete it.
The 17″ outline reflects my old patterns and incorporates a soft cutaway. The materials are spruce, maple, and ebony. Nothing else unless you count the nickel Waverly tuners, the Kent Armstrong pickup, and the inlay. I have grown attached to making my own purfling strips on the top and back which reflect the simple and elegant purfling lines of a violin or cello. I also like making my own binding because I can control the contrast of the woods. On this guitar, I chose a maple for the binding that was naturally darker than the body maple so it creates a nice visual frame for the instrument (on a side note, that maple was such a pain in the ass to bend and I’m glad that was the last of that stuff!). The fholes are bound with this maple as well. The neck is laminated with three pieces of flame maple which features ebony accents at both the heel and the headstock. The black ebony is a great backdrop for Larry’s incredible inlay work. The bridge and tailpiece are both carved out of solid ebony and done in such a way to achieve the best strength and energy transfer while being strong enough for the strings tension throughout the instrument’s life.
I hope you enjoy the instrument as much as I have.
(Sorry about the guitar playing, I won’t quit my day job. I just wanted to give you an idea of what this guitar sounds like)