Meet Your Maker

Meet Your Maker: Rick Turner

The guitar world lost a legend on April 17, 2022, when iconic luthier Rick Turner, creator of the Model 1 electric that Lindsey Buckingham made famous, passed away at 78.

In honor of Rick and his legacy, we want to share in full his "Meet Your Maker" interview from Connoisseur V1E4, written by Dan Epstein, with photos by Sandor Nagyszalanczy.

“Even when I was six years old, my heroes were inventors and engineers,” says Rick Turner. “My aunt was an educator, and she always fed me books for Christmas and my birthday, and a lot of them were about invention and engineering. So I got encouragement early on to be an inventor. 

The passion for invention has served Turner well. For over 55 years, the renowned luthier—now a youthful 78—has been crafting guitars and basses that are as ingenious as they are gorgeous. Though probably best known for his Model 1 guitar (originally built for and made famous by Lindsey Buckingham) Turner’s creative fingerprints can be found on everything from Alembic’s groundbreaking guitars and basses of the 1970s to game-changing innovations in instrument construction and pickup electronics. And as proprietor of Rick Turner Guitars, a boutique operation based in Santa Cruz, California, he’s still seeking out new ways to refine, improve and beautify both his instruments and the experience of playing them. “My head is full of little half-baked ideas just waiting for the right technology to come along,” he laughs. 

Turner’s odyssey as a luthier began over 3,000 miles from Santa Cruz, in the quaint New England coastal town of Marblehead, Massachusetts where he grew up. “I was probably 16 at the time,” he recalls. “I’d found this 1890s Fairbanks & Cole banjo in an antique store, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just take it apart and refinish it and fix it up.’ And that was the start!” 

In 1963, Turner began working as an apprentice for small Boston guitar repair shop run by jazz guitarist Don Gadbois and cabinet maker Stan Stansky, and was soon doing his own repairs on the side. But while he clearly had a knack for it, a career in guitar repair temporarily took a backseat to Turner’s musical ambitions. After cutting his teeth on the local coffeehouse scene with the Holy Modal Rounders-esque ‘punk bluegrass’ combo Banana and the Bunch (which also featured future members of The Youngbloods), Turner landed a touring gig in 1965 with popular Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia. “And when that was over, I went to ‘the dark side’ and started playing electric,” Turner recalls. “I moved over from playing a Martin D-28 to a Gibson ES-335, and then to a Fender Duo-Sonic.” 

Upon moving to New York City in 1966, the electrically-armed Turner formed Autosalvage, a weird noise band whose self-titled 1968 album remains highly esteemed by aficionados of freaky fuzz. “We had a good time, what can I say?” laughs Turner, who bolstered his meagre musician’s income with occasional side work at Dan Armstrong’s repair shop in midtown Manhattan. Though Autosalvage broke up several months before RCA got around to issuing their lone album, the band’s lasting legacy is that it served as the testing ground for a salvage project of a different sort: Turner’s first electric guitar build. 

The Peanut  

“A friend of mine sold me a smashed SG,” Turner explains. “All that was left was the neck, the hardware and the humbuckers. I designed a little symmetrical body for it, had a local cabinet maker cut it out in mahogany for me; I veneered the back and sides in walnut, bound the top and back in maple, put the neck on it and wired up the pickups in stereo. That became my main guitar in Autosalvage, and from then on I was hooked on the idea of building electrics.”  

The satisfying experience of bringing ‘The Peanut’—as the guitar became known for its goober-like shape—to screaming life changed the course of Turner’s life. “After the band broke up, I moved to the West Coast in the summer of ’68, and I decided I wanted to be an electric luthier,” he recalls. “There really wasn’t anybody doing it at the time, but I thought there was a place to apply the sort of aesthetic that I loved in vintage banjos and guitars—the beautiful woods and inlays—to the electric realm.” 

Having landed in the hippie haven of Northern California’s Marin County, it wasn’t long before Turner crossed paths with The Grateful Dead and their circle, including the band’s resident chemist and sonic visionary Augustus Owsley Stanley III. “I turned out to be sort of the ‘missing link’ in technology for them,” Turner says. “Owsley had already pulled together Ron Wickersham as an electronics engineer and Bob Matthews as a recording engineer, and then I came on the scene and fit right in. I was the electric luthier, but I also had recording experience and PA experience; I’d mixed for the Youngbloods, and by that time I had done a bunch of studio work. So it all made sense.” 

After ‘The Peanut,’ which Turner eventually sold to Jerry Garcia (who used it during the recording of The Grateful Dead’s self-titled 1971 live album, a.k.a. Skull and Roses), Turner’s other notable early electric build was a guitar whose intricately carved mahogany body earned it the nickname ‘The Pretzel’.  

“There were two ‘Pretzels,’ actually,” he explains. “The first one, which was my first neck-through-body guitar, I started in 1969; that was a year before we formed Alembic Incorporated, but it has Alembic’s earliest pre-amps in it. I still have that guitar; the second one, which was a set-neck instrument, went first to Jerry Garcia, and Jerry gave it to Sam Cutler, who was The Grateful Dead’s tour manager.” 

With their rich tonewoods, ebony fretboards, handmade brass hardware, abalone inlays and advanced-for-the-time electronics (their pre-amps employed passive hum-canceling), Turner’s ‘Pretzel’ guitars were essentially precursors of the ornate and experimental axes that he would help create for Alembic, the company the formed in 1970 with Wickersham, Matthews and Stanley. While the raw materials needed to build such musical works of art were easily sourced in those days, guitar pickups were another story; the trapezoidal pickups on the ‘Pretzels’ were the result of painstaking experiments done by Turner and Wickersham. 

“Back in ’69, there was no Seymour Duncan,” Turner says. “You couldn't just buy pickups. I mean, you could get DeArmonds, but Fender wasn't selling their pickups, Gibson wasn't selling pickups. But from knowing Dan Armstrong, I realized that a pickup is just a coil of wire and a magnet structure. So I got some wire and I got some magnets, and I started literally hand-winding pickups and counting and counting,” he laughs. “It didn't take me too long to get smart and move on from that, but my earliest pickups were very literally handmade.”  

“When I met the folks from the Dead, Ron Wickersham told me he had figured out a way to measure the frequency response of magnetic pickups—this was before there was any published knowledge of this stuff—and it turned out that mine beat all of the commercial pickups on the market. And so we started experimenting, trying to figure out why; it was quite literally, ‘Well, here's a pickup with 2000 turns of 40-gauge wire. What’s the frequency response? Now let's go to 3000. Now let's go to 4,000,’ etc…”  

“Bit by bit, we learned about things like the aperture of the pickup: how much of the string is being sensed the pickup. I did some trapezoidal pickups, where you could have a narrow aperture for the treble strings and a wider aperture for the bass strings. And we learned about different ways of hum canceling and all that kind of thing, and I developed this system for winding the pickups and casting them directly in urethane, where we didn't have to have a pickup shell. And that’s how we came up with what are the Alembic pickups.” 

Alembic and 70s rock royalty  

Alembic was a multi-pronged operation that built PA systems and recording equipment, and even had its own recording studio and retail store for a time. But the company made its biggest mark with the custom instruments it built for the rock royalty of the 1970s, beginning with “Alembic #1,” a bass created for Jack Casady of The Jefferson Airplane. “That was where I settled in on what has become known as the ‘hippie sandwich’—a laminated neck running on through the body,” Turner laughs. “Jack’s bass had a hollowed-out zebrawood body, but ultimately the classic Alembic construction had a quarter-inch thick top, a quarter-inch thick back, and an inch-and-a-quarter core.” 

Casady’s bass—which boasted elaborate abalone-and-silver wire fingerboard inlays, Maori-inspired patterns carved into the body, elaborate electronics, and pickups that could be slid back and forth to refine the instrument’s tone—was featured in Guitar Player magazine, and soon some of the biggest names of the era were beating a path to Alembic’s door, requesting high-concept, high-performance boutique instruments of their own.  

“Alembic grew out of the whole technical end of the Grateful Dead,” says Turner, “but we had a dream list of clients that included The Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Santana, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Stanley Clarke, and Fleetwood Mac. It was an interesting time in the music industry, because the suits hadn't quite taken over yet, and our clients were willing to spend a lot of money on research and development. We were very fortunate to have very generous clients, I'll put it that way!” 

The most extravagant and iconic instrument to come out of Turner’s Alembic tenure was ‘Osiris’ (also known as ‘Mission Control’) that was built specifically for Phil Lesh’s use with The Grateful Dead’s notoriously massive ‘Wall of Sound’ PA system. Turner carved the bass’s top and back from Hawaiian koa, then added mahogany-core wings with maple and walnut veeners; the body, headstock and ebony fingerboard featured Turner’s elaborate inlays in a variety of materials, including abalone, brass, lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl. The bass, which took two years to complete at an estimated cost of $30,000 (and finally made its stage debut on June 16, 1974), also featured immensely complex electronics courtesy of Wickersham and Alembic engineer George Mundy.  

“It was an astounding instrument,” says Turner, “probably the most sophisticated I’ve ever been involved with. It had a quadrophonic pickup so that Phil could have each string going into a different stack of nine 15-inch JBL speakers! It’s actually going through a re-restoration now, with my daughter Juniper taking the lead on the work. I’m so proud of my kid; she’s doing a great job on it!” 

While at Alembic, Turner also came up with the idea of constructing guitar necks out of graphite. “A guy named Geoff Gould was working as a technician for Ford Aeronutronic, who were using graphite to make satellite antennas, and he though Alembic would be interested in using the stuff for speaker cones. It was very lightweight but very rigid, and I thought it would be cool for an instrument neck. I put the first one together in three days with five-minute epoxy, and it worked great!” 

While Turner and Gould teamed up to build Alembic basses with graphite neck-through-body necks for Fleetwood Mac’s John McVie and Return to Forever co-founder Stanley Clarke. Unfortunately, the partnership didn’t last. “One of the problems with the necks in all carbon fiber is if you don't have a trust rod in them, you can't adjust the relief in the neck at all,” Turner explains. “I had wanted to move on to a carbon fiber neck with a truss rod, and Geoff was like, ‘Oh, no, no, it doesn't need it.’ He was thinking like an engineer, not a luthier, and you have to think both ways in this business. So I got away from the whole graphite neck thing, though I still use carbon fiber re-enforcement in wood necks for our 12-strings and our basses.” 

The beginnings of the Model 1 

Still, McVie’s love for Alembic basses led to Turner’s next career milestone—the development of the Model 1 guitar. “When Fleetwood Mac were just starting to record Rumours in Sausalito, I got a call from John, inviting me to come down to the studio and do a set-up on his bass and a few other things,” Turner recalls. “And I wound up really getting along with the band and starting to do work on Lindsay Buckingham’s guitars, and I sold him a couple of Alembics. Lindsay and I would talk about guitars and what would be his ideal electric guitar—something that would have the sustain and warmth of the Les Paul, but the clarity of a Strat.” 

The conversations got Turner’s wheels turning, but he quickly concluded that Buckingham’s ideal could not be achieved with a typical Alembic build. “While the Alembic bass was a very successful design, the Alembic guitar was not so successful,” he explains. “Most people thought it was because of the electronics; but when I really started examining it from that point of view, I thought it was more the way it was made—the construction of the instrument. I realized that I had to get off of the Alembic design tree and go find another tree in the forest to climb up and examine…” 

“I had thought pretty deeply about what electric guitars I liked, and what it was about them that appealed to me. I liked the warmth of the Les Paul Custom—the all-mahogany ones — and I just loved SGs within their middle range, though I thought that they fell off at the very low in end and the very high end. But, like Lindsey, I also liked that clarity of the Strat.”  

Turner decided to combine all of the aforementioned attributes by taking a mahogany body comprised of two ‘clam shell’ halves with arched surfaces, installing a laminated maple-and-purpleheart (“for more snap,” he explains) set neck, and outfitting it with a rotating single pickup with semi-parametric EQ. “I designed it at Alembic and took a blueprint of it to Lindsey, and he said, ‘Whenever you get one done, I’m really interested.’”

Alembic exit 

Before Turner could really get the new project underway, however, a dispute with his Alembic partners caused him to leave the company in 1978. He took his plans for the Model 1 with him, and promptly got to work. “When I strung the first Model 1 up and plugged it in, it sounded exactly like the sound that was in my head when I was designing it,” he laughs. “It was absolute confirmation to me that I knew what I was doing.”  

In the fall of 1979, Turner was ready to show the guitar to Buckingham. “They were in rehearsal in Hollywood for the Tusk tour,” he remembers. “My friend Ray Lindsey, who was Lindsey's guitar tech at the time, met me at this huge rehearsal space which was at one time a soundstage with a gigantic swimming pool for Esther Williams movies. I got there on the early side, and Ray put the guitar up on the stage and plugged it in. Eventually Lindsay came in, saw the guitar, picked it up… and he didn't put it down for three hours. At one point he yelled back to Ray, ‘Hey, Ray, leave the Les Paul, the Strat and the Ovation at home—this is all I need!’” 

Buckingham used the Model 1 throughout the marathon Tusk world tour, and the guitar’s versatile sound and unusual look brought new attention to Turner’s work. But in 1981, Turner walked away from the guitar business.  

“I ran outta money,” he laughs, “but the early 80s was a weird time in the music industry anyway. I moved into carpentry and cabinet-making for about seven years—and I have to say, it was ultimately good for my guitar making. I got into the whole thing of bidding jobs and drawing up the plans and the cut sheets, and all that kind of stuff. And it was very valuable experience, just the production aspect of it. Because you can’t stand around staring at your navel when you’re a cabinet maker; you’ve got to get it done.” 

Still, Turner occasionally consulted in the guitar world, designing pickups for Bernie Rico and Gary Kahler, among others, and a visit to the January 1988 NAMM Show wound up leading to a five-year contract with Gibson as an independent designer, which in turn led to a stint as President of the Gibson Labs West Coast Research & Development Division.  

“It was a very frustrating experience,” Turner recalls, “I had this great electronics engineer, Cliff Elian, and we came up with several things that were really promising—including a pickup that would essentially double the frequency of what the string was doing—but which all got shot down without any explanation. After a couple of years of the corporate life, I’d had it, and I went and took over the repair department at Westwood Music in LA.” 

While Turner was working at Westwood Music, a customer recognized him and made a fateful request. “A Japanese guy came in and said, ‘Would you be willing to make any more Model 1s?’ I said, ‘Well, I've got parts and tooling in a storage locker in Petaluma. Let me see what I got.’ I pulled out the parts and, sure enough, I was able to put a couple of guitars together. And then he came back and wanted four more; I was like, ‘Ah, maybe I'm back in the guitar business!’ I wound up renting space in this old funky furniture factory in Topanga Canyon, and basically started building Model 1s again.” 

Rick Turner Guitars 

According to Turner, Rick Turner Guitars currently produces about 240 handcrafted guitars and basses a year. “I’ve got five luthiers in the shop and we’re just about to add a sixth, because we just cannot keep up with the orders. One of my jobs is constantly looking for the bottlenecks in our production process—figuring out what’s slowing us down.” 

Like everyone else, Turner has lately been dealing with supply-chain slowdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Oh, it’s absolutely horrible,” he says. “Right now, I’ve got seven Model 1s that are just waiting for our EQ circuits to come in. That’s like 20-25 grand worth of instruments that I can’t ship because I don’t have one electronics part. And I’m constantly having to look for new suppliers for stuff.” 

One element that Turner thankfully doesn’t have any trouble sourcing is mahogany, a wood which has been a constant in his guitar builds ever since ‘The Peanut’. “It’s just a pleasure to work with,” he enthuses. “Mahogany machines very well, so its workability is great. It glues well, it holds detail well, it finishes beautifully, it takes stain beautifully, and then it sounds good. It's also quite stable, so you don't have to worry too much about shrinkage and expansion. And it’s also available in large, pretty clear pieces. We typically buy it rough at about an inch and a half thick; we specify 13 inches and wider, and sometimes it'll come in 24 inches wide and, and 16 feet long!” 

Turner Guitars did make a major materials shift about five years ago, when new regulations prevented the company from shipping any of their guitars with rosewood fingerboards overseas. “It was like, ‘We can’t ship rosewood internationally—what are we going to do?’ I did some research, but when I went into our local Habitat for Humanity Restore, I noticed that they had a bunch of recycled ipe flooring. I looked at the stuff and went, ‘Man, this stuff is dense; it appears stable, and it’s very acceptable looking. Let’s try it!’” 

“We switched over to the ipe and it's worked out beautifully. It’s denser than most rosewoods; in fact, it's very close to Ebony. It’s stable, it machines well, it's got all the qualities that you need in a good fingerboard wood. When we switched over to it, I thought, ‘I wonder if anybody's gonna complain,’ but we got no complaints whatsoever.” 

Since the 1990s, Turner has been including piezo pickups in the majority of his electrics—a concept he’d long been interested in pursuing, and which has also been crucial to the development of Turner’s Renaissance series. Designed for use on the stage and in the studio, Renaissance guitars feature a thinline body that’s constructed like an acoustic guitar with bent sides and a braced back; but unlike acoustics, the guitars use a Western Red Cedar center block to prevent feedback and provide “an acoustically live foundation” for a D-TAR Wavelength pre-amp and Turner Timberline pickup system. 

“I had wanted to explore piezo technology in my Almebic days,” Turner says. “The Alembic bridge I designed in ‘75 or ‘76, I had originally designed with the idea of it being easy to have piezo wires coming out of it, but I didn't get into the design of the pickups at that time. I finally got into piezo design when I was working for Gibson, working with piezo ceramic, piezo crystals, and also piezo polymers…” 

“I developed the piezo technology to a point where I was modifying Gibson Chet Atkins nylon string guitars, putting in the hexophonic piezo pickup of my design with beautiful electronics designed by Bob Wolstein, who had done some consulting for me when I was at Gibson. So then I go to a Fleetwood Mac gig, and there's Lindsey playing the hell out of a Chet Atkins, and I'm realizing that everybody's seeing a Gibson Chet Atkins but they're hearing me. And, well, that doesn't work!” he laughs. 

“So I designed the first of the Renaissance line; I realized that we could do a semi-hollow thing and do our electronics and really have it be right. I took the first prototype to Lindsey, just to see what he thought, and it was basically, ‘Rick, you're not getting this guitar back.’” 

Turner estimates that Buckingham has “gotten 26 or 27 instruments” from him over the years. “I seem to be able to tap into what guitar is gonna work next for Lindsey,” he says. “And I think a lot of is because we both come out of the same musical background; we were both s influenced early on by The Kingston Trio and then other more ‘authentic’ folk musicians, and the whole thing of playing with the fingers… so I know where he's coming from, and vice versa.”  

Ultimately, Turner sees this kind of symbiotic relationship between his guitars and the musicians who employ them—“Musical tools made by musicians for musicians” is how he puts it—as his legacy. “I’m a toolmaker,” he says. “There are echoes of the history of guitar making in practically everything I do. I think that I'm in solidly in the tradition of a Christian Frederick Martin or an Orville Gibson or a Lloyd Loar—those are my role models in this whole thing.”  

“I appreciate the tradition and the aesthetics,” he continues, “but I also want to make instruments that feel good, that fit the body well, and that allow the musician to express himself or herself to the best of their ability. I want the tone of the musician's finger to be coming through in what I do. I want people to hear the player.” 

Originally featured in TNAG's Connoisseur V1E4 released in January 2022. Written by Dan Epstein, with photos by Sandor Nagyszalanczy.


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