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It is with great pleasure (and a healthy dose of relief) that we are sending out into the world this brand new web site. A lot has changed at Specimen since the old site went up back in 1999(!):

  • We moved
  • We now build lots and lots of horn speakers and hi fi tube amps
  • We started the Chicago School of Guitar Making
  • The old site was formatted for a Commodore 64
  • We have more grey hair

For the past few months we have been pouring over gigabytes of images, dusting off old photographs, and ironing wrinkly magazines. We had fun reminiscing about the old Division Street shop , those early days of guitar making, and the amount of work that our little shop has produced over the years. It was an especially poignant process given that it will soon be Specimen’s 25th Anniversary!

BEHOLD the new Specimen site. Have a walk through a quarter century of guitar making, amp experimentation, and horn speaker evolution and let us know what you think.

This old Silvertone archtop guitar was purchased for the owner by his mother when he was a boy. A while ago one of the long internal top braces popped loose, rendering the instrument prone to collapse. Luckily, the strings were loosened and no serious damage was incurred. The brace was still bouncing around inside.

Normally, a repair of this nature would supersede the value of the instrument, but the sentimental attachment and the fact that it is such an early Silvertone (and a beautiful round shouldered jumbo cutaway) prompted the owner to have me proceed with the repair. This meant that the back had to come off so that the brace could be glued back on. The neck also needed a reset. Someone had attempted to repair the neck with a drywall screw and putty at one point. I gouged out the putty and managed to remove the screw. The neck was then steamed out and the real work could now continue.

First a body mold needed to be made to keep the body from potato chipping when the back was off. I really like the shape of this instrument so I didn’t really mind making a body mold for later use. I used two single edge razor blades as sharp little wedges to coax the binding off. One was oriented vertically and the other horizontally. This slow and painful process took an entire day.

Now the seam of the back joint could be separated and the back removal complete. Inside I found a veritable Tut’s Tomb of various hair balls and insect specimens from an era gone by. I felt like I was trespassing into a hidden place.

I used my bow clamp fixture to glue the brace back on. While I was inside I took the opportunity to fortify a variety of other somewhat dubious looking joints.

I realized when it was time to reassemble the guitar there was no way I would be able to register the back and binding separately. This meant the binding had to be glued to the back BEFORE the back was glued onto the guitar. Fair enough, this could be done. Then, to my horror, I realized that far from potato chipping, the body had corseted! It was too narrow at the waist. I would need to put a spreader bar inside if I was to get the back to register properly with the sides.

With plastic wrap around the ends of the spreader bar to prevent potential glue drips from making it permanent, I tied a length of string to it and fed it through an f-hole, hoping I would be able to remove the bar after gluing the back on. I was lucky and everything went back together well and the spreader bar came out easily enough. From this point it was just a straightforward neck set.

The instrument sounds and plays wonderfully. Another old war horse brought back from the grave.

This new Super Luddite model has a book-matched, flame maple, carved top with a chambered body and glued-in neck. It also features three P90 pickups and a unique circuit.

You can images of the finished custom instrument here.

The Sonic Arboretum event began at 8 am on Thursday, August 4, 2010, and ended at 2:00 am the following morning. During this time the entire Sonic Arboretum was loaded into the Guggenheim, setup, tested, re-tested, and then Andrew and his road crew ran soundcheck, fine tuning the setup to coax every possible enchantment from the horns.

The museum was closed that day, giving all of us a very private and privileged view of the Guggenheim’s revered collection. David Byrne also stopped in to check things out. Needless to say, meeting him was an unexpected thrill!

By 4 pm, a line of fans snaked around the museum on 5TH Avenue. Some had been there since morning, many without tickets, hoping for some luck.

When the doors opened at 7:30 pm, the Bird Devotees took their place stage side (where they did not move for nearly 5 hours), while the rest of them (2000+) mingled among the horns, took in the Dark Sounds exhibit, and found their ideal vantage point for the show.

At 8 pm promptly, Andrew took the stage and the crowd fell silent – instantly. For the next couple hours Andrew bewitched them. Sounds rose up from the horns and floated unimpeded to the atrium five floors up. The crowd watched the show from the museum’s ramps, looking like rings on a tree. The museum, bathed in purple light, was ancient old growth, the hornlings and hornlets young saplings. It was a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Without a tremendous amount of notice, an opportunity arose for Andrew Bird and me to launch a concept we had spoken about for quite a while. I had been wanting to create a system of horns that could be used as a creative tool, both for composing in new spatial ways and also for making unique recordings of spatial sonic phenomenon. At any rate, work commenced immediately to produce 48 horns for the Guggenheim show.

We assembled a special crew of workers and trained them in the art of newsprint and dryer lint assembly. Crash courses in french polishing all around. Special traveling crates were devised at the last minute to get the horns to New York in one piece. My ultimate goal is to reach 96 horns paired with 96 single ended triode tube amps. I would like to make 96 channel recordings to play back over the system. You can see photos of the horns and from the show here.

This guitar is owned by a well-known music photographer (he took the album photo from John Hartford’s Aereoplane). I think it originally started life as an Ibanez Roadstar. Over the years, the owner has come back repeatedly to have us further lighten and amputate various appendages from the guitar body—we have drilled as many holes as can be drilled to honeycomb the body wood. It has also been set fire to several times (not by us). When this guitar is in the shop, it never fails to attract stares of disbelief and amazement.

This is from a recent Advanced Guitar Workshop. A student brought in a Venetian bowl backed mandolin with some cracks in the top. Bulbous objects are difficult to clamp, so we made a custom cradle that allowed us to flush-up the cracks in the top for clamping and gluing. This type of improvised procedure is common at Specimen.

Another perfect use for the “Wind Up Rubber” technique (as mentioned in the Dec. 17, 2009 post).

This bass had incurred a terrible stage calamity. As I understand it the concert was of a hardcore punk nature. The crowd got a little rowdy and were “body surfing” a large rolled up carpet around the room. Enough velocity was attained to actually vault the carpet up onto the stage where it collided with the bass player. This Gibson bass bore the brunt of the impact, probably saving the players life, but shattering the neck joint in the most horrible way.

I first used black epoxy to glue the neck pocket back onto the body with the emphasis on placement, not adhesion. Then two slots were cut with a razor saw to accommodate carbon fiber splines. This time thorough impregnation and complete fill were the goals. After a full cure, all was sculpted back flush for a completely fortified neck pocket repair. Note the little piece of metal window screen that came stock with these basses from the factory to help keep the neck aligned in the sloppy neck joint. A nice little Gibson/Norlin touch.

This is another intriguing project. Its body is a slab, J-style design made out of Basswood with white binding on the front and back and a two-tone, black walnut sunburst. It will also feature Specimen’s customary non-adjustable steel reinforcement in the neck to yield the finest absolute tone. The neck is made from quarter-sawn rock maple with an ebony fretboard and its dimensions are those of a Rickenbacker. Splendor in simplicity. Dignity in purpose.

You can see the finished instrument here.

Very often headstocks get broken. Very often I must fix them. I have probably repaired over a thousand and not a single one has come loose, ever.

One little trick, instrumental in closing the glue joint, is the wind up rubber technique. As a youngster I became intimate with wound up rubber strips from building model airplanes with rubber motors. I used a crank driven hand drill with a hook in the chuck to stretch and wind the motor carefully stepping forward as I monitored the tension. This would often result in magnificent flights of extreme duration. One day I was having trouble closing a particularly shattered headstock fracture when it occurred to me that I had a good-sized box of old bicycle inner tubes that could serve as a stretch clamp. Utilizing the skills obtained in my youth, I was able to close the joint perfectly and obtain a gratifying amount of glue squeeze out.

This project has been in the works for quite a while. It uses the circuit I have been dreaming about for more than a decade. Loosely speaking, the circuit is based on the 1934 Western Electric Model 91, but the front end has been modified to take a line-level input direct from an iPod if you wish. This blending of cutting edge miniature technology coupled with such antique circuitry makes me roll around on the floor with joy.

Many audiophiles maintain that this is the most linear audio circuit ever. Each monoblock puts out around 10 watts and weighs close to 60 pounds. I decided to go “all the way” with details like the engine-turned sub panels that the tube sockets mount on to. This lends a nice visual contrast and provides excellent convection ventilation for the circuit.

These amps are formidable structures and their additional expense and size (compared to my Single-ended Stereo Amp) puts them in a league of their own. However, I have never heard anything so sweet. These amps also pair beautifully with our Little Horn Speakers.

You can see images of the finished 300B Tube Amp here