There is an art in building guitars. It is the maker who selects the wood, frets the neck, applies the varnish, and gives an instrument tone and heart. Roger Fritz and James Floyd are two luthiers building guitars on the Gulf Coast. Their instruments are very different, but their passion for music is the same.
Roger Fritz was 10 years old when he built his first guitar. He was obsessed with music and the sounds of guitars, but his father refused to buy him a guitar, so he built his own. Now, Fritz builds guitars from his workshop off a county road in Fairhope, Ala., under his own respected brand, Fritz Brothers Guitars, and sells them to musicians around the world, including George Harrison, Keith Richards, T Bone Burnett, and Randy Jackson.
In his hippy days, James Floyd from Pensacola, Florida started making dulcimers that didn't look like dulcimers. Today he adds strings to bring music out of any object from cookie tins and chafing dishes to boogie boards and sleds for his New Depression Guitars (like the one pictured here, photo by Michelle Stancil).
Roger Fritz, Fritz Brothers Guitars
Fritz grew up in Mobile, Alaa., moved to California for almost fifteen years, and recently moved back to the coast of Alabama. "The Gulf Coast is a hard place to build guitars because of the humidity," says Frtiz. "You have to do a little extra to make it work, but I grew up here and this is where I want to live."
It is the maker who selects the wood, frets the neck, applies the varnish, and gives an instrument tone and heart.
He also plays guitar with his wife Christy in the band ROGERWOOD. He was a studio musician on I am Shelby Lynne (she won the 2001 Grammy Award for best new artist after that album) as well as albums by Sheryl Crow and Kim Richey. He co-engineered "Surrender" on Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's Greatest Hits (1993).
Fritz was always drawn to the sound of guitars and describes himself as "possessed by music." "My parents were conservative, and my dad was into J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI," says Fritz. "He was big band, not rock and roll, and he thought guitars were bad and would not buy one for me. I built my first two guitars in our basement and then my dad tried to direct me into classic guitar and get me to take lessons from a priest. The first thing I did was electrify my classical guitar, but I damaged it and had to learn how repair it. Everything that I do now is because of my dad."
Fritz kept building guitars from parts, experimenting to find the best performance. If friends left equipment at his house, he took it apart just to see what was inside. Today his style is making guitars that don't wear out, using stainless steel instead of chrome-plating to survive the humidity. "Some of my guitars are based on vintage styles that I try to duplicate."
He lived in Nashville for 20 years and made guitars for Gibson. Fritz and his brother John started Fritz Brother guitars in 1988.
Fritz builds guitars with different woods, bodies, shapes, and sizes and he can hear the tone in the wood before he builds the guitar. It takes about three weeks to build solid-body guitars like a Fender Strat -- the easiest to make. Hollow-bodied guitars are more difficult with the arched back and inlays up the neck.
"My guitars have been played by famous musicians around the world, but I just want my guitars to look good and sound good," says Fritz. "I like the way a guitar feels and how you can make it sound, and I want anyone to have one. I will do this until I die, or my fingers stop working. "
James Floyd, New Depression Guitars
James Floyd rediscovered making instruments after he was laid off as a construction manager at a solar tree house project because they ran out of money.
"I have always been a musician, always loved wood, and always wanted to build instruments," says Floyd. "I once made dulcimers, but I grew up and stopped making them. I was depressed after losing the best job I ever had, and my wife encouraged me to go back to instruments."
His first guitars were made out of cigar boxes, which were used to make instruments during the Depression because people couldn't afford to buy the real thing. "Cigar makers use good wood in their boxes and I love the graphics," says Floyd. "I played my fist cigar box guitar with a slide and it sold immediately," says Floyd. "I won an award for these at my first art festival and realized there are art festivals everywhere. I now travel to festivals from Miami to Michigan. People can't believe that they can play the Beatles or the Stones on these things."
Building begins with the neck and matching the fret board, then connecting the neck to the box. "I tune three strings to D, A, D," says Floyd. "You can make a good power chord with that and it lets you play slide."
Floyd has almost 800 instruments in three years and finishes about five a week. He also makes guitars out of chaffing dishes, spring form cake pans, cookie tins, sleds, bed warmers, salad bowls, antique car horn and bold bugles, and bongo drums. "I look at the world as what would make a good guitar," says Floyd. "Nothing is safe around my house. I go to yard sales, estate, sales and junk places. People now put things aside for me. Anything made out of brass is going to sound good. My workshop at home is a disaster with pieces I can use. I have always been a hoarder and collected strange and bizarre things, but I was stumped when someone sent me a bedpan. I stop at bodily fluids and toilet seats."
The strangest guitar he built was out of an antique seed spreader, and it plays itself when cranked. "It sounds like the world is falling apart," says Floyd. "It has its own rhythm and clicks as it goes. I mounted four picks on the little thing that swirls around. It is Hurdy Gurdy thing and I have made three of them."
These odd objects provide different tones, but Floyd has an ear for sound and how to make them work. "You can play the guitars on stage and the pickups are perfect for the resonance."
Each instrument contains details that are personal to Floyd such as the lyrics to "Slough Foot" by Johnny Horton, a hit song in the 1950's. "My earliest musical memories were driving around in an old car with my dad and uncle and that song was on the radio," says Floyd. "Most everything on those guitars means something to me. I have used Bob Dylan lyrics as fret markers and the Mexican sugar skulls are from a trip when we landed there during the day of the dead and I didn't know what it was."
His guitars are owned by Steve Earle, Dan Baird of the Georgia Satellites, Richard Thompson, Jim White, and Eric Taylor. "It is good to finally make money in the music business," says Floyd. "As a songwriter I couldn't catch a cold, but I have met so many people through making guitars that it has given me a chance to play more. Now people stay and listen."