SJ: How did you get started designing and building squareneck resonator guitars? Was there a master plan or was your path an evolutionary process?
TS: Well to start out, I was a player and I wanted to build a guitar I couldn’t buy. I played really nice old Regal guitars – just like Mike Auldridge’s vintage Regal’s – and they got buried in a jam session. I couldn’t get them to cut through the mix, but they sounded great. I wanted to come up with a design that would project a fuller sound out of the guitar. So I started out with that thought process in mind – as a player – never dreaming that I would build them for a living, but it certainly evolved into that later on. I knew there was a lot more going on the inside of a resonator guitar than most people had an inkling of. Early on there were a few builders – Rudy Jones, Bobby Wolfe, Dick DeNeve – that did some internal things that hinted that there was more going on inside a resonator guitar than the Dopyera’s ever thought. So mechanically I knew there were some things I could do which would improve projection. So that was the first motive. Certainly not wanting to change the way the guitars sounded like. Once I built the first guitar it evolved into the baffle. The baffle design really told me a lot.
SJ: In what way?
TS: Well, initially I had nothing but a skirt baffle similar to a RQ Jones resonator guitar. Then I opened it up on the top and the bottom, realizing that the upper bout contributed a tremendous amount, especially in the bass and midrange. And then evolutionary design tipped it forward to the parabolic baffle that I use today. Non baffle guitars have a certain overtone that not everybody hears. But that overtone is annoying to me. It’s like an oscilloscope – (makes whooshing sounds) – that’s out of sync.
SJ: So this was part of the process that went into designing and building your first guitar?
TS: Correct, that’s the guitar (points to wall). My first guitar wound up being the same dimensions as a Regal – same physical size and depth.
SJ: So, when you finally put that guitar together, did the final set up and played it for the first time – what did you think? What was your reaction?
TS: I thought it kicked ass! (laughs)
I built that first guitar in 1989 and that July I took it with me to Winterhawk (bluegrass festival) where Mike Auldridge and the Seldom Scene were playing. I had taken it to some jam sessions around Michigan and had gotten a lot of good feedback from everyone that had played it. But at that point in time Mike was a God to me and was up on a pedestal so high. There was an intimidation factor which I overcame and I introduced myself as he walked offstage and asked him if he had a few minutes to look at a guitar that I had built. I told him “people back home in Michigan think it sounds pretty good but I sure would like your opinion.” He said “sure, I’ve got a few minutes.” So he sat on the fender of his car for the better part of an hour playing my guitar. We got to know each other; exchanged addresses and phone numbers and I told him I was so appreciative of him test driving my guitar and giving me his honest feedback. Two weeks later I got this letter in the mail (points to framed letter on wall near workbench).
SJ: What role did his feedback and/or the feedback from other players in the evolution of the design of your guitars from the original smaller body guitars to what became the L body guitars?
TS: Cosmetically I did some things differently on my very first guitar. So I wanted to refine a few things. I wanted to come up a little more unique way of putting a signature on the guitar vs. writing it on the headstock. So I got thinking about the end of the fingerboard. I had put the “S” on the peghead of the original guitar and I thought “man that was a pain” (laughs).
SJ: So it was a pain to do the inlay work – the “S” on the peghead?
TS: Correct. It was a pain to do it and then I got to thinking that most people put a strap on it and you can’t see it anyway. And so I got thinking about the Gibson Mastertone banjo which has the logo at the end of the fingerboard and I though that would look kind of cool. So I inlaid the next 4 guitars like that and it’s been that way ever since. When I first met Jerry Douglas he played two of those guitars and wound up ordering what became guitar #6. I met him backstage during the Master of the Steel String Guitars tour. They were playing in Lansing, Michigan. I had no idea how to get ahold of him, but I called information and got him on the phone (laughs). He said, “call me the day before the show and I’ll let you know what time we can meet.” So I drove to Lansing. We met about 3 hours before the show in the green room and he played #3 and #5.
SJ: What was the path from building your own guitars in Michigan to become a well-known builder? Was it a long process?
TS: Well, it happened really fast. But it was directly a result of meeting Jerry and Mike. The reason Jerry was willing to meet with me was because Mike had told him about me. During my meeting with Jerry I mentioned that I thought Sally Van Meter might be interested in a guitar like this and he said “she needs a guitar like this.” And I said “you wouldn’t happen to have her phone number”and he said “yes I do.” Back then no one had cell phones. So he got me her phone number and I didn’t have the guts to call her. It took me a couple of weeks to work up the courage. I mean these players were my idols. These were the people that I wish I could play like. So I called Sally and said “ hi this is Tim Scheerhorn” She said “ I know you. How much?” She got guitar #3. She got it mid-week and went to Strawberry Festival the following weekend. Two people ordered guitars shortly after. One call I got was from a guy named Randy Cole who has since then become a good friend. The other call was from Rob Ickes. Now this was 1990. So technically, those were spec guitars. The first ordered guitar was from Jerry Douglas. The second was Randy Cole. The third was Rob Ickes.
SJ: So if we shift a little bit from the players themselves. What happened between those first days to creating the L body guitar?
TS: There was a period of time where every guitar was curly maple. It was kind of like Henry Ford – you could have any color as long as it was black. I always figured if curly maple was good enough for Lloyd Loar it was good enough for me. But Jerry asked me to build a mahogany guitar for him with a spruce top and that’s when I ventured into something different. He ended up playing that guitar on the Great Dobro Sessions record. Through the years that guitar wound up being Sasha Ostrowski’s guitar (with Bering Straits, now plays with Darius Rucker). Anyway, the evolution into different woods, from mahogany to Brazilian rosewood which Rob wound getting. I had taken a trip to Nashviile where Rob played that guitar and he really liked it. Several people had seen that guitar – Brazilian rosewood/spruce top with herringbone trim and mentioned that it needed some tortoise on it. So I came home and designed the tortoise pickguard and then Rob called and wanted that guitar. Awhile later I got a call from Jerry Douglas. We got to talking and he asked me if I would consider experimenting with building a larger guitar to produce a fuller sound which led to a lot of experimenting on my part to develop what later became the L body design.
SJ: Interesting! When I got my first guitar from you in 1994 – a maple guitar – I took it to a jam session and let a couple of other players give it a test drive. The first person that played it made the comment to me “wow, this guitar plays fast.” A couple of years later when I sold that guitar and bought one of your mahogany/spruce guitars I spent a few days going back and forth between those two guitars and thinking I had made a mistake because the mahogany guitar did not project like the maple guitar. A few years later when I got my L body maple guitar I was really astonished by the differences. When I went back and compared all three guitars (I had sold the small body maple guitar to a friend of mine) the maple small body guitar had a very strong projection but didn’t have near the depth and fullness of sound of the L body maple. Whereas the small body mahogany/spruce guitar had an incredibly warm presence to it which I liked much more than the small body maple guitar. In other words, my opinion of each guitar was affected by comparing it to the other.
TS: You’re expressing it exactly how it happens. The voice is in the wood. And truthfully, we’re not talking volume. We’re talking physics and we’re talking voice. The physics of maple – it’s punchy and bright. Then you get into mahogany which is a darker voice. By comparison when you bring the L body design into the picture you have a depth and fullness of tone which wasn’t there with the smaller guitars. It’s a fuller sound, but the voice just carries with the design of the guitar itself. Curly maple is going to be a brighter and punchier sound. Comparing a standard body mahogany and now L Body mahogany – are two different worlds – but the same voice characteristics of the wood in a different way. But the voice is still in the wood.
SJ: One way I’ve thought about this is that the standard body guitars had a more focused sound.
TS: Let’s back up a little bit. The other reason for wanting to design my own guitar was that I wanted to create an acoustic guitar out of a dobro, whereas the Dopyeras wanted to button it up by gluing the back to the top with a soundwell. No movement at all in the guitar except for the mechanical parts moving in the resonator. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted an acoustic guitar as much as I could. So the voice characteristics of these species of tonewoods really came out.
SJ: What about the contribution of the top of the guitar – the soundboard – in one of your guitars? How much does it contribute to the overall sound or tone of the guitar vs. the back and sides? Having played a bunch of your guitars I find that in certain combinations it can be huge, in other cases not so much.
TS: It can be huge. Now we’re talking a much smaller percentage compared to an acoustic guitar, but yes the top does influences the voice. For example, cedar or spruce – woods with completely different densities – will change the voice, although with a small percentage number of influence, maybe 5%. But again, stop and think about listening. The hard part for most players to understand is that there are two ways of listening: listening as a player and listening to someone else play a guitar. The same guitar is going to respond totally different in those two different environments. The important thing is to satisfy both. Sit and play the guitar and feel it vibrate, feel what it’s doing, understand the complete vocal range and where you can get certain things out of it. But then have someone else play it and stand back 10 or 15 feet and then judge it, because it’s a combination of both of those things. Sitting and playing it is a completely different experience than standing back and listening to someone else play that same guitar.
SJ: That’s a great description. I love that! I find that trying to describe the way a guitar plays or the way it sounds, for that matter, is like trying to describe a glass of wine or the nuance of a one color vs. another. I can’t always articulate why I feel the way I do about a certain guitar, there’s more information there than I can express in just a few words.
TS: Well, you’re right. First of all listening is a huge factor. But secondly, feeling is another one. There are some guitars that feel like rubber and there are some guitars which almost play themselves. I’ve had lots of my customers tell me that about my guitars.
SJ: Back to my earlier comment about the guy who played my original standard body maple guitar – “this plays fast.” I knew what he meant. Speaking from my own experience, all things being equal I find that playability and responsiveness are probably the most important features of a guitar. I’ve never played a guitar that was hard to play that produced a sound I liked. I’ve always gravitated toward instruments which were easy to play.
TS: I think it would be extremely difficult for someone to build an instrument if they don’t play that instrument. You do hear occasionally about people building violins who can’t play a lick on them. I know guys that have tried to build dobro’s who don’t play much. Part of that playability and feel is neck angle, string height, scale length – all these things combined. I can’t put my finger on why guitars play so easily. I know exactly what you are saying but I can’t reduce that to one magic ingredient.
SJ: This is a perfect segue into my next question: what came first for you, learning to do a good set up or designing and building your own resonator guitars?
TS: I played banjo for 13 years before I got interested in resonator guitars. So set up of banjos was in my blood. A friend of mine had a dobro which sounded and played really bad. I asked her if I could take it home and see if I could make it sound better. And that was before I even started playing the dobro. And I did make it sound better.
SJ: What did you do to it?
TS: I didn’t have a Quarterman cone available, but I started by straightening out the cone. I was just looking at the mechanics; how the thing worked. The spider wasn’t level, so I leveled it. I didn’t read any manuals or anything like that; I was just looking at points of contact to make it as best I could. So, to answer your question I did a lot of set up work that carried over into how I designed and built my own guitars.
SJ: In the past you’ve said something which really intrigued me. You said something to the effect that a good set up is not just a matter of quality parts; that it’s “in the hands.” This is something that I experienced when you did the set up on my OMI 60D. I called Elderly Instruments in Lansing, MI to see if they could help me with some suggestions to amplify my dobro and they mentioned that you were building your own resonator guitars and might be able to help. When I called you we discussed the amplification stuff for a little while and you said “I’ll bet I can make your guitar sound 100% better.” Frankly, I didn’t know what to make out of that, but you certainly got my attention! What you didn’t know was that guitar never did play right from the day I bought it – it always played a little out of tune at the 12th fret, with a sort of dead spot. You did your set up – replaced the cheap plastic nut with a genuine bone nut, replaced the maple saddle inserts with ebony capped maple inserts, new #14 spider and Quarterman cone, assembled the guitar with maximum break angles to load the cone and – viola – not only did the dead spot go away, but the guitar projected better and played better than it ever had before. A few weeks later I took a lesson from a great dobro player in Chicago named Tom Boyd. When he heard my guitar – I’ll never forget the look on his face – his immediate reaction was “wow, what did you do to that guitar?” He definitely noticed the difference. Later on a student of mine purchased a OMI 60D – same guitar as mine – which was advertised as having been professionally set up. When he got the guitar it had all the same upgrades in materials but it played and sounded like crap with poorly cut string slots at the nut and the saddle and who knows what else. The difference was like night and day!
That’s a long way of getting to my question: what does it mean that it’s “in the hands?”
TS: I kind of equate it similarly to being a player. I could study Rob Ickes and do my best to play his music note for note. You could play his songs note for note, but you are not going to play it like Rob. You could study Jerry Douglas and play his stuff note for note, but you’re not going to play it like Jerry. All of the top players have signature sounds and signature things they do which distinguish them. Earlier I mentioned listening: I can listen to records and usually I can tell you who is playing. There are clones out there today, so I can get a little confused. Some of the young guns that are out there now may sound similar to Rob, in their approach, tonally, note selection, things like that. But it’s signature stuff that takes place and I equate setting up a guitar to that same dynamic.
SJ: What does that mean in practical terms?
TS: I’ve done set up workshops for a long time. I can show anyone what I do. It’s hard to describe other than to say that I have techniques that I’ve developed, little things that I look for. From that experience I pretty much know what the end result is going to be. I still may have to tweak it after I put strings on it, but usually that’s not the case.
SJ: So, it’s 1000 little details?
SJ: In the past you’ve mentioned that it’s what’s inside the guitar that counts.
SJ: I think it’s hard for most people to understand that just because a guitar looks good doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to sound or play good. You really can’t judge a book by its cover. When you say it’s what’s inside that counts are you referring to the design of the guitar, the skill of the builder in putting the guitar together, the attention to detail, etc.?
TS: It’s all of those things. You have to look at the whole package. As I mentioned earlier, my objective in designing and building a guitar was projection – I wanted the sound to come out of the guitar; acoustics – I wanted to have the instrument contribute to the overall sound acoustically. So it’s a combination of things. During a setup workshop I sometimes describe this as layers of stuff. If one thing is missing it’s not going to be a finished product. Something is going to be missing.
SJ: Has your approach to building and setting up your guitars changed over the years or has it remained pretty consistent?
TS: Once I started making the L body guitars I haven’t changed a thing. I’ve honed in on my techniques a little bit, but as far as the physical construction of the guitars, I really haven’t changed a thing.
SJ: Any changes in how you approach setting up your guitar or set ups in general?
TS: There are a few details in materials, mainly in materials for bridge inserts. And certainly when I made the switch from Quarterman cones to making my own cones my goal was to come up with a cone that was the equivalent to a Quarterman, since it was the benchmark. To my surprise I feel that my cones were an improvement, especially in the bass and midrange clarity and sustain. Those key elements were better. I can tell you a story about that if you’d like.
TS: When I first started making cones I was really excited. I had a conversation with Rob Ickes about them. Even though we lived just 40 miles apart we couldn’t find time to meet up other than at an event in Nashville that happened to be an overnighter for me. So I was staying in a hotel room. We met and I mentioned the cones to Rob and he said “let’s do it.” So I wound up taking his guitar apart 4 times in my hotel room – Quarterman out Scheerhorn in, back and forth. If you’ve ever had to gut a resonator guitar on a hotel bed it’s not a lot of fun (laughs). His initial reaction was “I think I’ve lost high-end.” I said “Rob, no you haven’t – your ear is fooling you.” Now here I am telling Rob Ickes what to listen for. I told him “you’ve gained bass and midrange which has changed your perception about high-end.” He finally agreed with me. At that point I was his ears standing far away from the guitar. But I will say this – after doing this for so long – I hear things that some people might miss, but I know what to listen for. So the move to using my own cones was a huge change for me. Not business wise, for a huge element in the overall result as I far as I was concerned.
SJ: It must have been kind of a wild ride going from building that first guitar to having a 4 year backlog and being in a position of – as I’ve heard it said – chasing the market – where you were taking orders at a certain price, but because the waiting time to get a new guitar was so long used Scheerhorn guitars were selling for more than new guitars.
TS: There was a long period of time when it was going that way.
SJ: In addition, I think there were a few folks that were ordering guitars strictly as investments, correct?
TS: People were ordering multiple guitars and in some cases would order 3 guitars, flip 2 of them and get a guitar for free.
SJ: I imagine that must have been frustrating for you
TS: First of all, to clarify my motive and reasoning behind my policy – I figured a deposit would lock in a price. My intention was to treat people the way I would want to be treated. For example if I ordered a custom guitar and the wait time was 4 years the last thing I would want would be for the builder to call me, tell me my guitar was ready, and “by the way, your price is 40% higher than what we originally discussed.” But the market said I was under priced. So raising my prices was difficult for me. I enjoyed making guitars, I wanted to make a living at it and I didn’t want to price myself out of the market. For years the people in NYC that I knew – some friends at Mandolin Brothers – kept telling me that my prices were too low. It started snowballing and I couldn’t stop it. It was an eye-opening thing when people were getting $2000 more for one of my guitars than I was charging for them. So I had a long heart to heart conversation with my wife and said “who is the dummy here?” The only control I had – and at that time I was swamped with a 4 year backlog and there was no way that was going to change – was to pull the plug and quit taking orders. As soon as that word got out the phone was ringing off the hook. Consequently, that’s how the Wish List got started. So the Wish List is nothing more than a phone number and a name, with no obligation on my part of their part. I was not obliged to build them a guitar. When I made that decision I still had 4 years of guitars to build.
SJ: That was around?
TR: 2005 or 2006
SJ: It seemed to me that there was a lot of confusion about the dynamics at play in that situation. It certainly was a popular topic on the forums.
TS: First of all, it’s economics 101 – supply and demand – with speculation about the future.
SJ: Sort of the guitar version of Flip this House?
TS: Yes, but unfortunately I was caught in the middle of it. I had no control over those prices. I reacted to it in the only business like way I could
SJ: $500 down to order a custom-made guitar is not out of reach for most people
TS: What that did is it allowed me to buy materials, prepare for those orders. However, I also had an unwritten policy that if you wanted to cancel the order – for whatever reason – I would take $50 and return the rest to the buyer. Most builders would keep the entire $500.
SJ: What have been some of the most satisfying aspects in your career as a builder?
TS: The high point for me has been getting up every day and doing what I love to do. Not having to punch a time clock. Although every customer was a boss I didn’t have to put up with the typical corporate BS. That eliminated a lot of stress for me and enabled me to do what I love to do.
SJ: I imagine it must have been pretty exciting to have some of the greatest players on the music scene playing your guitars as well.
TS: Well, I do remember the first time seeing Jerry Douglas on television, on the American Music Shop. He was playing #6 and the camera went to a close up and on him playing my guitar and I looked at my wife and said “that was pretty cool.”
SJ: That reminds me of that Steven Seagal movie with Rob Ickes playing your guitar in that one scene.
TS: Oh yeah, Fire Down Below.
SJ: I don’t know who directed that movie but they must’ve been big fans of the resonator guitar. I do recall there was one scene with a close up of Rob Ickes playing his Scheerhorn.
TS: There’s actually a story behind that movie. Three days before he was supposed to fly out to L.A. to shoot that scene Rob Ickes was at a photo shoot for his first record and wound up dropping his guitar. Rob called me and said “Jennifer and I are flying up to visit you – I dropped my guitar and I need to have you fix it so I can make it out to L.A. to shoot a scene in a movie.” At that point he only had one guitar so he really needed to get it fixed. So they flew into Detroit late at night and wound up hitting a deer just a few miles away from my house. Couldn’t open the passenger door, it was really a messed up day! When they got to my house they were a little frazzled so we talked for a little while and I told him let’s deal with this in the morning. Now I’m an early riser, so I had the guitar repaired and ready to go by the time he woke up.
SJ: Did you replace the neck or something like that?
TS: No, he had cracked the lower bout, which left a big hole in the guitar. But, all the pieces were there so I put it all back together with epoxy. I think he was a little surprised I was able to fix it so fast. I do recall that he spent most of that morning on the phone with the insurance company from the rental car company discussing the deer accident.
SJ: Your business model defies the logic of everything I’ve been taught about marketing – no marketing materials, no website, no social media, etc. Was that on purpose on your part?
TS: in 1989 I built my first guitar and in 1994 that I made the decision to leave corporate American and starting building guitars full-time. Initially I wasn’t sure how many guitars I could build in a year or how many I would have to build to keep me employed. There were a lot of unknowns, a lot of unanswered questions. Over the years I had built a few acoustic guitars and I thought about someday expanding my offering to include acoustic guitars as well as resonator guitars so I could make a living. Initially I thought if things slow down I would advertise in Bluegrass Unlimited or other magazines. Years ago I did place an ad in Bluegrass Unlimited, I think it was in 1991, but that was the one and only time I ever did that sort of advertising. Back in your business school, I’m sure they mentioned timing and in my situation timing truly was everything. Rudy Jones guitars had run their course. Bob Reed had taken over where Rudy left off, maybe not at the same pace. Dick DeNeve and Bobby Wolfe were both making resonator guitars and Paul Beard was just getting started. I was this close to trying to find an RQ Jones. If I couldn’t find a Jones I was going to look for a Reed. I also looked at Paul Beard’s guitars. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I wound up building my own. It certainly changed my life.
SJ: How did the agreement with National Guitars to build and offer a Scheerhorn L Body come about?
TS: To answer that I need to go back to my arrangement with Wechter and Sweetwater Sound. Basically, the folks at Sweetwater had a difficult time marketing the instruments. Sweetwater’s business model is kind of unique – they have dozens of sales reps calling customers all day long – so for them to get in the business of making instruments was a step away from their core competency. The Wechter Scheehorn models involved a lot of assembly here in the United States, with the guitars being built in China and the final assembly taking place here. Sweetwater was not used to that kind of overhead and they weren’t used to selling guitars by calling all the smaller music stores all over the country. They wanted to expand the line by offering electric guitars and so on. And while the Wechter brand had some recognition, the Wechter Scheerhorn name had a very good reputation and the resonator guitars were – by far – the best-selling guitars offered by Wechter. So eventually Sweetwater made the decision to pull the plug on the Wechter brand. Fortunately, that meant that I became a free agent. I was in the process of talking with several high-profile companies about either building guitars in China and putting my name on them or something along those lines. The last thing I wanted to do was set up a warehouse somewhere here in the U.S., have containers come in and wind up rejecting guitars for poor quality. I’d known Don Young at National for many years, we were friends. So in our initial conversation I asked if he would be interested in importing guitars from China with my name on them and doing the set up work. It didn’t take him long to answer me. He said “no, but how about having us build the guitars?” Immediately the switch went on and I said “wow, that’s a no-brainer.” It’s a perfect fit for them and for me. What it did for National is give them a full spectrum of instruments – all the way from the pre-war historical National guitars to the contemporary spider style guitars. The motive for me of continuing on with something I didn’t build but designed and had influence on. It’s really about creating a legacy so that when I’m gone my grandchildren can look at say “that’s something my grandfather created.”
SJ: Where are you at this point in your career as a builder and what do you foresee for the future?
TS: I’m building very few guitars. I built 4 guitars last year. I don’t intend to build more than that this year. As far as the future, I’ll continue to do set up and repair work, on a limited basis, but technically you could say that I’m semi-retired. I still get involved with the folks at National Guitars, I still do the Reso-Summit, a few things in Michigan but I’m at a point where most 68-year-old people are – retired, or tired (laughs). I’m at a point that most people look forward to and I’m addressing it the best way I can.