Guitars, My Brothers & Sisters!

I made a trio of Stratocasters for my brothers and sister in the summer of 2009. Here’s a 2010 article I wrote about it .

A Strat rainbow and a happy family moment.

A Stratocaster rainbow and a happy family moment.

Last year I built three guitars, one for each of my brothers and one for my sister.

Of my three siblings, only my brother Mike can play guitar. But my brother Tony’s sons can play – so can his wife. Mary’s son is a good player, too, and I have a feeling there may be future players among the younger members of our family. You won’t fall far in our family tree without hitting a branch with a guitar player on it.

The guitars are all knock-offs of Fender Stratocasters, but each is a little different; Tony’s has an ash body, Mary’s is alder, and Mike’s is basswood. I wanted to further personalize these instruments, so I gathered signatures from my siblings and their children and transferred them to the guitar bodies. After trying a couple of different methods I decided to size the signatures up on a photocopy machine. Once they were all approximately the same size, I cut them out and taped the names to the guitars. Then I used an old ice pick (maybe it was an awl) from my father’s toolbox to poke holes in the signatures and make a connect-the-dots style outline for each letter. This way Dad, who passed away in 1995, had a hand in building these guitars, too.

Ash body, Alnico IV pickups in a classic tortoise pick guard.

I used a woodburning tool to etch the names into the guitars. The names will never wear, chip, or fall off like the decal logos used on most instruments. Plus, etching the names into the wood subtly alters the tone of the instruments themselves. Burnt-in names not only make each instrument look unique, it makes them sound unique, too.

I stained the guitars different colors. Mary’s is red. Mike’s is blue. Tony’s was supposed to be butterscotch but it turned out more electric banana.

Aside from the basic shape, there is another unifying element among the three instruments. On the heel of the each guitar is the inscription “T & K 11/6/54.” My parents are Tony and Kay and they were married on November 6, 1954. I consider these three instruments part of the “Tony and Kay Series,” the same way my siblings and I are part of the Tony and Kay series. There’s also significance to burning “T&K” into the heel of the guitar, where the neck joins the body. This is a crucial point, the place where two parts — the neck and the body — join to become a greater whole; an electric guitar. It’s the same way two people, like Tony and Kay, join together to become a family. Weird, yes, but it felt right.

red start marty

Alder body, red stain, red pickup cover and knobs.

I presented the Errera-casters / Low-caster during our annual family gathering at the Jersey shore. I’d never been happier to give something away before. When my daughter helps my wife and I in the kitchen, she always makes sure we add “extra love” into anything we make, be it cookies, meatballs, or hot dogs on the grill. I made sure to add some extra love to these instruments, too.

Why did I go to all this trouble? For starters, it really wasn’t trouble. Spending a little time each day working on these instruments was a pleasure, relaxing and rewarding, a kind of meditation. Plus, I owe my siblings a lot; they have each helped me in ways too numerous to list.

But here’s one: In the fall of 2008 the four of us took my mother on a cruise for her 75th birthday. I was a total deadbeat. I couldn’t afford a thing and had no business on a cruise ship where everything costs a fortune. But my brothers and sister all pitched in, covered the cost of the rental car, the plane, and the cruise, and made it seem like I contributed equally to Mom’s gift when, in fact, I had nothing to give.

Blue Mike start

Basswood body, blue stain, with blue pearled pick guard.

The instruments I made don’t even come close to repaying my cruise ship debt. (In fact, the guitar parts cost about the same as a couple of bottles of Royal Caribbean wine.) And, while they’re not exactly heirlooms, they are a unique family gift. If you look at them from a distance, the guitars look like they are autographed by rock stars.

TK final

The final build hangs tough. Additional artwork by Francesca.

“If anybody asks, you can tell them this guitar is signed by the world’s greatest band,” I said as I handed each instrument over.

And that’s the truth.

TK drying

Watching paint dry…well, wood stain anyway.

3 hanging

Three (no)bodies, hanging out.


Reprinted courtesy of TODAY Newspapers, March 2010.