Friday, October 2, 2015

Dan Auerbach launches "The Rocket"

The Arcs' Dan Auerbach tests "The Rocket" in the green room of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

You don't need to be an obsessive Black Keys fan to know that Dan Auerbach has a thing for unusual guitars. Not the sort of glitzy numbers favoured by metal casualties, nor the weirdly constructed devices that look like they could be played by aliens at Chalmun's Spaceport Cantina but rather the oddball pawn shop finds which have a sound and character all their own.  Yet even for someone like Auerbach – who can run through a rack full of vintage Supros, Harmonys and goofy-looking Guilds over the course of a single show – the strange white rocket-shaped axe he was playing for The Arcs' network television debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Friday (September 25) left many seen-it-all-before guitar geeks gobsmacked.

EKO Rokes (left) and Kawai Flying Wedge.
What first appeared to be either a late 60s Italian EKO Rokes model or Japanese Kawai Flying Wedge decked out with a nasty old Bigsby vibrato tailpiece a la Lonnie Mack turned out to be neither upon closer inspection of the headstock, neck and body shape. Although the Kawai guess may not have been too far off the mark according to Auerbach's longtime guitar tech Dan Johnson who custom built the instrument they now call "The Rocket" with some suggestions from his boss.

"This all started with the design Dan liked of an old Japanese guitar that he'd bought online," explains Johnson over the phone.  "I'm not sure if it was a Kawai because the logo was missing but it seemed like it might be in the Teisco family. From the pictures, it looked like 'wow, this could work' but when he got it, he was very disappointed.  The neck was really narrow and short-scale, the pick-ups sucked and the tremelo just wasn't right – everything about it was wrong except that it looked cool. He called me up saying, 'I just got this guitar and I don't know what to do with it because it's short-scale – really short – and I hate short-scale guitars.' So I told him maybe we could make another neck for it – I've done similar things before.

"The Rocket" in progress.
"When he forwarded me the guitar I started sizing up the project of making the body work with a new neck and new pick guard to accommodate the replacement pick-ups... and then Dan came up with the idea of a Lonnie Mack-style mounting of a Bigsby which would've exposed a big hole where the original tremelo was mounted. I thought, 'this is really gonna suck unless I do it all myself.' So I went ahead and started making my own version of it but I didn't say anything to Dan.

"After awhile he started poking around for details about how things were coming along and at first, I wasn't sure if I should tell him or surprise him with the finished guitar. Eventually we began exchanging more ideas about how we could elaborate on the original design to make it look even more 'rocket-y' without getting too blingy like a Paul Reed Smith. It needed to be the opposite of that. Not that Paul Reed Smith guitars are bad but with Dan, it's all about patina not the shine."

Building a playable vintage-looking instrument from the ground up is much more of a challenge than your average guitar tech would be willing to tackle but Johnson is not your typical stagehand with tuner and change of strings. In fact, Sigur Rós fans will be thoroughly impressed to learn that Johnson  built the axe that Jónsi bows on stage and metalheads have Johnson to thank for the six-stringed weaponry he added to the Judas Priest arsenal of K.K. Downing. But more than just being handy with wood working tools and a soldering iron, what makes Johnson so good at his job is knowing exactly what his clients want before they ask for it.  

"There's a lot of people building custom guitars these days and many of them do gorgeous work but when I look at the components it's often just like browsing a parts catalogue. Personally, I prefer using pieces that are uncommon or things that you've never seen before which is why I try to fabricate as much stuff as possible. So this guitar is a one-off. I used a few machines but it's totally made by hand. I carved the neck shape and body contours by hand after a conversation with Dan about how much he liked the look and feel of how a Gibson SG hangs off him. He asked me if I could do something similar so I gave the neck and body an SG feel. He has also been loving the Gretsch that he bought off Mike Wolfe from American Pickers with these awesome original 1958 Filter'Tron pickups. So I suggested we use some TV Jones Power'Tron pickups which have the appearance of Filter'Trons but don't look so obviously Gretsch.

"He bought a crusty old Bigsby – he loves them – so to match that I used an aluminum Bigsby bridge and I made the inlays on the fingerboard out of aluminum and then bound the ebony fingerboard with aluminum so it's all grey and black. Having metal down the sides of the neck really slowed the whole process down because the aluminum binding had to be shaved with a file and then the wood had to be addressed separately. I spent a lot of tedious time picking at it but I love the way it turned out. The finish on the body is sort of a limed mahogony or a "TV" finish – essentially black and white. After making the pickguard, I made a second, clear plexiglass layer – almost like a porthole – for no good reason other than it gives it a 'futuristic' look in a late-60s kinda way. The headstock is based on the guitar Dan got online that I overlayed with the same material I used for the pickguard. It's not totally done. He's got ideas about things he wants to add to it. He's looking at old fender emblems from cars or cool stickers from bikes that might look good on the headstock."

From start to finish, the entire project took Johnson about a month to complete. With all the meticulous work that needed to be done and various stylistic suggestions to incorporate on the fly, it's amazing that Johnson was able to deliver a fully operational version of the work-in-progress to Auerbach in time for The Arcs' scheduled appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert last Friday. According to Johnson, there wasn't much time to spare.

"Nothing about this build was easy because the design was constantly changing – typically you know from the start how everything is gonna come together. I actually finished 'The Rocket' – it doesn't officially have a name but that's what we're calling it – just in time. My flight to New York was Thursday and earlier that same afternoon I was painting it. I gave it just a few coats of laquer – not shiny or buffed – so it has a matte finish. Because it was such a beautiful sunny day, I held it outside in the sunlight to let it set. It was dry but still smelling kinda fumy when I put it in my suitcase for the flight. Then I wired it up in my hotel room and handed it to Dan with paint on my thumbnail. That was the first time he'd ever seen the guitar. The next day the Arcs had a six-hour rehearsal and Dan played it the whole time. Then it was straight onto Colbert (watch below).

"To my ear, I hear a Filter'Tron-y sound but it's coming off a solid body guitar which is a bit unusual because you normally hear it with a hollow body. It's pretty bright. He was playing a Telecaster before and this is doing much the same job only the pickups are better. It's not quite as bright as his Telecaster but it's a twangier tone than usual for Dan who has favoured darker sounds in the past. He's not the sort to settle on one thing for too long, that's just what he happens to be into now."

It seems like that sweet late 50s vintage Gretsch Chet Atkins model he picked up from Mike Wolfe of American Pickers may have had more of an influence on his current taste in tone than anyone may have anticipated – Auerbach included.

"I don't think Dan expected that Gretsch to sound the way it does," chuckles Johnson. "He's always been the kind of guy who goes against the mainstream flow of what other guitar players are doing. What's cool to Dan is a very complex thing. If everybody likes something at a given time, he generally won't. And you know, a Gretsch 6120 is a hot guitar – it's orange and badass – everyone loves it. So naturally, that's something Dan probably would avoid. He probably never even tried playing one until Mike Wolfe put that Gretsch in his hands and then he was like 'whoa, this is awesome.' Heh heh."

The Arcs rock Massey Hall on Thursday, December 10th at 7 pm and tickets are on sale now. Check out The Arcs' debut album Yours, Dreamily at their site or wherever records that don't suck are sold.

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