Playing guitars as a youngster leads to building them

Tony Leicht and his custom shop come to Savage Mill

Businessman hits right chords

Business profile October Guitars

February 28, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Tony Leicht started playing bass guitar when he was 6, then switched to electric guitar a couple of years later after being inspired by the 1976 album Frampton Comes Alive!

He started performing with bands at age 12. "I did the whole music thing with bands and record deals and everything," he said.

Before long, he was building guitars. "Throughout the '80s, there was a time when everyone was making their own guitars because Eddie Van Halen did it," Leicht said.

He would get wood from a lumber yard and cut out the shapes with jigsaws, he said.

Friends began asking if they could borrow his guitars or if he would build one for them.

That is how his business was born.

These days, Leicht, 39, heads a custom shop called October Guitars, a small workshop in Savage Mill. The store creates electric guitars to the specifications of clients all over the country. It also does repairs.

Leicht, who lives in Elkridge, opened a shop in Ellicott City two years ago, then moved the business to Savage Mill in October. The small workshop is crowded with guitars and with tools for building them. A mixed tape of two guitar greats -- Jimmy Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn -- plays in the background.

Leicht said he gets more business now because people see the shop when they are browsing or eating lunch at the retail center.

One such customer is Jim Szczepkowski, who had seen the store recently while shopping with his wife. He was returning to order a custom guitar. Szczepkowski, 65, has been playing guitar for about two years, but he has arthritis in his hands and has a hard time finding a guitar that will give him the greatest ability to press the strings to form his notes.

He had looked into custom guitars with other companies but learned that most start at $4,500, he said. October Guitars charges $1,500 for a basic model.

Szczepkowski, who lives in Pasadena, also said he liked that Leicht did not try to sell him extras that he did not need. "He's not trying to talk me into getting anything that I haven't asked about," he said. "There's no high pressure."

Leicht said Szczepkowski is an unusual customer because he is relatively new to the world of guitars. Most of Leicht's clients have been playing for decades, he said, and many are professionals.

Most of his customers find him through word of mouth or on the Internet, he said. When designing a guitar for a client far away, he sends sketches back and forth and keeps in close contact during the six- to eight-week process.

When creating a guitar, Leicht starts with the design. Some are built with necks that are bolted on, while others are crafted so that the neck and body are carved from a single piece of wood. The choice of wood is important, too, Leicht said; mahagony, maple and alder are among the most popular.

Another issue is the electronics that create the guitar's sound. "I match certain wood with certain electronics," Leicht said.

Though the sound of the instrument is the top consideration, musicians are also eager to make a statement with the look of their guitars.

Leicht works with Rich Aldworth, who does custom finishes on guitars. These can range from simple designs such as stripes to intricate details like an air brushed bald eagle. The store also can create mother-of-pearl inlays on the fretboards. These are created to customer specifications and can include skulls, mountain scenes or deer tracks, all designs on half-finished guitars in the workspace.

These days, Leicht still performs, but more for fun than as a serious career, he said. He has been playing lately as part of a three-person 1960s-style surf band called the Gremmies.

The name refers to someone who is obsessed with surfing but is not necessarily good at it. Leicht likes the name because he does not know much about surfing music. What he does know is guitars.

October Guitars is in Historic Savage Mill, 8600 Foundry St., Savage. 301-362-0004.

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