Rick Turner is a man who has been involved in the music industry for decades. Starting as a musician and music enthusiast on the East Coast, and eventually moving out West to build guitars, Rick’s story is one where a (as he describes it) “espresso sipping, beret wearing, poetry reading, bongo playing pre-hippie” East Coast musician became an iconic West Coast Guitar builder.
East Coast Origins
Originally from Massachusetts, Rick decided in the mid 1960’s that it was time to move to the Mecca of music at that time on the East coast. So, armed with a Martin D-28 he moved to New York in 1966. He immersed himself in the Greenwich Village culture. Rick was playing small-time gigs with Jerry Corbitt and Lowell Levinger, playing what he describes as “Punk bluegrass, old timey music with a really bad attitude.”
He was also working with many other musicians on the East Coast music scene at the time, including Felix Pappalardi.
The end of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s was a dramatic transition in musical trends. By this time Rick was in a band known as AutoSalvage. The band, however was short lived. The irony of the situation though, was that shortly after they had broken up, Rolling Stone published an article giving them spectacular reviews. You can get an excerpt of that article here.
The Peanut Guitar: The Origins of the Model 1
It was at this time that a piece of the Rick Turner Legend came about. A fan of AutoSalvage who managed an apartment building brought Rick a wreck of an SG that had been smashed by a junkie and asked him if he wanted it. Rick bought it and used the pieces and a custom body that he designed and something entirely new was created. That guitar was later bought by Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. Garcia would go on to use that guitar on the band’s Skull and Roses album. This story has gone down as a cult legend considering the “Peanut Guitar” is now missing.
Rick had this to say, “This guitar shown was mostly designed by me, and Frank Fuller helped to build it at the Alembic shop on Judah St. in the Sunset District of San Francisco. The so called “Peanut” guitar was one I put together in New York circa 1967 and ’68. It had a Les Paul SG custom neck and three humbuckers plus the rather horrible Gibson “sidewinder” vibrato bar.”
“I got the neck, pickups, wiring harness, and hardware from a friend who managed an apartment building. Some junkie had smashed the guitar, I got the parts and made a mahogany body with back and sides veneered in walnut with a wide marquetry stripe down the back. I put it together on my kitchen table at 13 Bleeker St. and used it wired stereo through a pedal board in my band AutoSalvage….who recorded an album for RCA released in ’68, I modded the guitar for Garcia in ’71. I have no idea where that guitar is, though I’d love to have it back.”
Work with Ron Wickersham
Turner would eventually move out to the West Coast initially settling in Marin County, which is located north of the bay area. His experience with the broken SG lighting a fire of curiosity and a drive to build guitars. It also cemented a relationship with the Grateful Dead, who he would work with closely while living in the Bay Area. The most notable body of work that came out of this time was Rick’s work hand-winding pick ups, which was essentially groundbreaking at the time. If you listen to Rick tell the story though, it sounds like it almost happened by accident. In his words:
“I moved to Point Reyes, in Marin County, in the summer of ’68. The Youngbloods were living there, too. They had an office in town, and their secretary was the girlfriend of Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead’s bass player. She saw what I was doing and thought I ought to meet the Dead, and Owsley, and Ron Wickersham. So by ’69 I had met the Grateful Dead crowd through this woman, and I had started making pickups. I didn’t know where I could buy pickups, so I figured I’d just make them. Nobody was doing it in those days. There was no Seymour Duncan company. You had DeArmond, and Gibson, and Fender, but I don’t think they were selling their pickups separately. I just started doing it out of desperation, almost accidentally, I started hand winding pickups…
“I would be counting the windings, ‘822, 823, 824…’, and my wife would walk in and say something, and I would go, ‘What dear? Oh no! How many turns was that?'”
Work with Alembic
Rick would go on to work with Ron Wickersham, who was working with active electronics at the time. Ron had been measuring frequency ranges on pickups and he realized that the the range on Ricks hand-wound pickups were considerably wider than those on the standard production model pickups of the day. This is what they found according to Rick:
“They just happened to be low impedance, wide-band pickups, because I didn’t want to hand wind 8000 turns, I stopped at 1000, or 1500, or whatever it was. We started doing these weekly or biweekly experiments where I would wind different numbers of turns on coils or change the gauge of the wire, while maintaining the same magnet structure which was assembled from basic magnets from Radio Shack. Ron would measure the frequency response each time. Pretty quickly we discovered what everybody now knows: more turns equals less frequency response but higher output. Output wasn’t an issue for us because Ron was doing low noise preamplification, so all that we were really concerned with was this coil/frequency response thing”
This process started a business partnership that also included Bob Mathews and gave birth to Alembic Inc. Alembic would be involved in recording as well as the creation of music gear ranging from pick ups to electronics. Eventually Rick would use it as an outlet to create instruments. These instruments and gear rapidly bred excitement in the music world of the time, with people like John Paul Jones, John Entwistle, Phil Lesh, David Crosby, and Stanley Clarke.
The Making of the Model 1
Rick Leaves Ambelic
Ambelic instruments, particularly basses, were gaining widespread notice. There was a fairly common complaint among guitar players, however, about the guitars specifically; they sounded to cold. They lacked the warmness of the Gibson guitars that were all the rage at the time. Most blamed the low impedance pick ups.
Rick, who was tired of the complaint, was of a different opinion, “I felt that may have had something to do with it, but the basic construction of our instruments was not conducive to a warm Les-Paul sound. I decided to go back to the body design that I’d worked with in my New York days and adapt it to a cutaway. By the way, that guitar had been essentially copied from an 1820s Staufer that I owned.”
Rick Designs the Model 1
So Rick set out to remedy this problem. His thought process went like this:
“I liked the warm mahogany body thing of the Les Paul custom, but I wanted to avoid the problems that I’d had with my SG, which had a beautiful sound but only within about a one-octave range. I thought I could take the Les Paul concept into a guitar with a carved topped and back, but instead of doing a complex 3D carve, we’d just set up some jigs so we could run it through a planer and create a cylindrical arch. By doing that we avoided parallel surfaces in the guitar. From my loudspeaker and PA work I knew that parallel surfaces meant standing waves, and that’s true in solid wood as well as boxes…”
“Right. You get sonic reflections trapped inside the structure. By deparallelizing things you spread those resonances around, so by introducing those arched surfaces the very flexibility of the wood is going to be more complex. You’re not going to have as many predictable nodal points, and all that. I got real theoretical about it. I liked the rigid neck thing that we’d done with Alembic for clarity and definition of tone. Well, every Alembic neck had this beautiful laminated back section of the neck blank that was cut out on the bandsaw, and at least 80% of that scrap was usable. It made perfect guitar necks if you scarfed on a peghead and then stacked the heel like a Spanish classical guitar….”
Before the design could be put into production, trouble arose within Ambelic. Rick left, as he was not comfortable with the various disputes between individuals within the company. He took the new design with him.
He showed a picture of the design to Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, as he had already done a lot of business with the band. Buckingham was impressed and asked Rick to give him one when they were done. Rick says that he took him the third one he had completed. This is how he tells the story:
“This was ’79, and at this point I was on my own. They were in rehearsal for their Tusk tour. Ray, the guitar tech, is a good friend of mine, and he just put the guitar up on the stage, which was this huge sound stage at one of the big movie studios. Lindsey picked up the guitar, and he didn’t put it down for three hours. Then Lindsey said to Ray, ‘Ray, you can leave the Les Pauls, Strats, and Ovations at home. This is all I need.’ I was just sitting in the back, and I didn’t know fully what was going on until Mick Fleetwood came up to me and said, ‘Rick, how soon can we have a backup for that guitar?’ They were just about to hit the road, and you can’t go out on tour without a backup.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Heartbreaker Guitars: A Premier Rick Turner Dealer
We here at Heartbreaker love our relationship with Rick. We have a wide selection of Rick Turner Guitars that can be found here, including the Limited Edition Model 1 Redwood Series Rick made for us at Heartbreaker Guitars, which Rick Turner himself demos in the video below!