Luthiers John Ingram and Eric Johnson take the time to get all the details right

Guitar makers are building a `rare breed'

August 22, 2007|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,Special to The Sun

Annapolis guitar maker John Ingram was dozing in front of the TV one night when he was startled by music as familiar as his own voice.

On the screen was guitarist Scott Patton, performing with the country/pop band Sugarland. And the sound that Ingram knew so intimately was coming from Patton's electric guitar , custom designed and built by Ingram and his creative partner, Eric Johnson of Bowie.

While Ingram hadn't expected to see Sugarland on television that evening, it wasn't a surprise that Patton was playing the guitar that the partners call the Seneca, named for Seneca Lake in New York state, where Johnson's grandfather had a summer place. In May, Ingram, 55, and Johnson, 47, had sent their prototype to the Atlanta-based guitarist through a mutual friend for a test run.

"John's guitars are a rare breed in today's fast-food, mass-produced world of instruments," says Patton, who immediately added the Seneca to the eight or so guitars he takes on stage. "Taking the time to get all the details right is what John brings to the boutique guitar market. The bottom line is that John is crafting his instruments in a way that most guitar companies have long abandoned. You won't find these kinds of instruments just anywhere, and you probably never will."

"In short," he says, "these are 250 GTO Ferraris with strings."

Ingram and Johnson, who first teamed up in 2005 on a project to build granite-topped guitars, couldn't have hoped for better exposure.

"We don't have an advertising budget," says Ingram, who recently met Patton at a Sugarland concert in Philadelphia. "Having Patton play our instrument has put us ahead of the (marketing) curve."

Ingram learned his trade in the 1980s, interning with PRS Guitars when founder Paul Reed Smith ran a one-room shop in Annapolis. Today, PRS is based on Kent Island and is one of the world's top producers of quality guitars.

Ingram ventured out on his own in 2004, having established himself as a master of fret work and the final "tweaking," he says, that results in a perfectly tuned instrument.

Now Ingram and Johnson earn their livings accepting a limited number of guitar repairs. So far, they've completed two Seneca prototypes and have four more in various stages.

They sell for between $3,000 and $4,000 apiece, compared to the $10,000 to $40,000 that their better-known competitors can charge for custom guitars.

"Because we're making a limited number of guitars," says Ingram, strumming a beautiful melody on his Seneca prototype as he talks. "I expect they could become collectibles someday."

The body is cut from a 16- by 24-inch slab of wood that is about 2 1/2 inches thick. Ingram and Johnson take the thickness of the wood down to 1 3/4 inches, a meticulous process that requires patience and experience.

Johnson is part engineer, part wood finisher. A carpenter until he turned from woodworking to building electric guitars, he applies eight to 10 coats of a stringed instrument lacquer to a guitar's body to produce a finish like "the paint on an automobile." To accent the neck and body, he adds veneers of exotic woods such as curly maple or Brazilian rosewood.

Ingram specializes in the painstaking application of thin wire frets precisely placed along a guitar's neck, millimeter by millimeter. "If they're off" when the guitar is finished, he says, "the instrument will never play in tune, and you have to trash it."

The partners work separately. "John likes his bench (in his Cape St. Claire home)," says Johnson. "My workshop has so many tools there's only room for one person. I do all the initial carving because I have all the cutting tools."

Among Johnson's most cherished possessions, those he uses every day in his shop, are tools his great-grandfather used as a carpenter. His hobby was building violins, and some of his chisels and gouges date back to 1899.

Enamored by all precision instruments, Ingram collects antique guitars, brass musical instruments and "almost every type of early film projector." He shows his collection of 16 mm films using a sound projector from the early 1930s that he keeps in working order.

His collections are scattered around his living room, "like people sitting on furniture," says a friend.

"I like to be able to get to them," says Ingram, who began his love affair with musical instruments as a 9-year old playing the trumpet and cornet. He took up the guitar as a teenager and became, what he calls, "an amateur/semi pro guitarist."

"This (guitar business) isn't destined to become a minor General Motors," says Ingram. "It's an expensive hobby, but we're hoping to turn it into something." That may be an understatement.

Sugarland, along with Patton and his Ingram/Johnson Seneca guitar, will perform tomorrow at the Nissan Pavilion and Friday at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The StoneTone baritone guitar, designed and built by a team that included Ingram and Johnson, is featured in a book to be published this fall by Lark Books, The Art & Craft of Contemporary Guitar, by Robert Shaw.

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