Ian Schneller began using Specimen Products as a name for his sculptures in 1981 while an undergraduate at the Memphis Academy of Art. It was the anonymity of the words “Specimen” and “Products” that appealed to him. It also seemed a funny little ruse — pretending to be a company instead of himself.
After he became a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1984, Specimen Products expanded into a music and instrument-making endeavor — first to fulfill Ian’s own personal needs, and then for his friends, fellow bandmates (Shrimp Boat), and other musicians (Tar, Red Red Meat, Coctails). A growing clientele quickly turned his little ruse into a real company.
Since 1986 Specimen has operated out of four different Chicago locations. At first it was housed on Archer Street on Chicago’s south side, in an old lamp factory that was a labyrinth of funny little spaces with several walk-in safes and gingerbread hutches. There was an electricity room, an aquarium room, a woodshop, a metal shop, a darkroom, a music room with adjoining recording cubicles and control room, and several bedrooms. There Ian and his roommates even operated our their radio station with a broadcasting range of only one-quarter mile — enough to reach Interstate 55 with a constant flow of their own music. It was like the rock ‘n’ roll Little Rascals. This is where Ian started to make musical instruments and began his formative study of tube amplification.
“With formal training as a sculptor, not as a luthier, it felt like I was putting one over. I read everything I could get my hands on, notably Don Teeter’s two-volume set The Acoustic Guitar and Hideo Kamimoto’s Complete Guitar Repair. I realized that my instruments were not only quite usable but were gaining favor among local musicians. I sold only one instrument on Archer Street — a Hybrid Pippin — but I had many others in tow as we packed up the caravan and moved onward.”
In 1992, Specimen moved into an old Salvation Army building on Madison Street, an immense two-floor space in the middle of what was then no man’s land. This space included a rehearsal room where his new band, Falstaff, practiced. He also rented out his rehearsal space to a little-known-band, Veruca Salt. It was on Madison Street that the business side of Specimen started to grow. Guitar and tube amp repair work became a routine demand and the ever-expanding gallery of one-of-a-kind guitars gave way to Specimen’s first standard models: the Pippin and the Maxwell. Ian also began producing versions of his standard models emulating the traditional production models of major companies. Guitars like the Flame-Top Pippin and Yellow Pippin are examples. He then inverted this concept mimicking the exact silhouettes of major companies’ standard models using radically different materials. This led to the production of the Silvertone series, where he used masonite and pine to build the first-ever Silvertone Tele.
Although Specimen was on Madison Street for only two years, many benchmarks were established there (i.e., fine-tuning of the aluminum body, finishing, neck formats, cosmetic embellishments, and various standard processes). By the end of 1994 many musicians were purchasing Specimen instruments and Ian had a backlog of orders. He also began a small production run of 10-watt Petimor amplifiers that came to fruition after Specimen’s third move into a storefront on Division Street.
This new space, located in the heart of Wicker Park, opened the door to a growing guitar repair business which in turn afforded Ian the most valuable vantage point for his own work.
“After having to correct the numerous shortcomings of my customers’ equipment and make sense of the growing number of needlessly elaborate designs on the market, I became convinced that a minimalistic approach with uncompromised structural fortitude is a much-needed credo. I directly applied this learning to my own fifty-watt tube amplifier model, the prototype of which is used as my shop’s service amp, running eight hours a day, 6 days a week. This amp became my working template, my sonic control group, and a reference for new variation.”
During this time, the Wicker Park neighborhood underwent a renaissance and became Chicago’s hipster mecca. The Division Street shop became an ideal showroom for new Specimens, with a constant stream of local and traveling musicians coming by to see the latest creations. Specimen became known for selling unusual instruments and vintage guitars like 1960s-era Japanese Teiscos, harmoniums, melodicas, primitive Indian drone machines, glockenspiels, and a plethora of instruments made by niche companies. Word got out and touring bands often made Specimen a destination when they passed through town. During this time Ian began working with Andrew Bird after he stopped in one day for a guitar repair and saw Ian’s newest creation-the horn speaker. By 1999 Ian produced and sold more than 100 custom guitars and tube amplifiers.
In the summer of 2003, due to an expanding service and custom clientele, Specimen moved the Division Street shop into a larger industrial space located in Humboldt Park on Chicago’s west side. This improved workshop is equipped with new tools and fixtures for spraying, buffing, and design. Here Ian continued creating custom guitars including new models like the Luddite, eLute, and electric mandolin, he also continued to develop his horn speakers and created the Janus Double Spinning horn speakers, XL Horn Speakers and Little Horn Speakers. Inspired by his work with horn speakers, Ian delved into the High Fidelity world with a new line of stereo amplifiers and subwoofers.
In 2005, after years of receiving resumes and inquiries from people wanting to learn how to build and repair guitars, Specimen began the Chicago School of Guitar Making. Students now come to Specimen from all over the US, Canada and Europe to learn guitar repair, guitar building and tube amp building. Since its debut in 2005, more than 1000 students have taken classes at the school.
The number of new Specimens quickly grew and now Ian has made more than 300 instruments, amps and horn speakers all by hand in his Chicago workshop. 2016 marks Specimen’s 30th Anniversary!