Chicago Magazine grows their own Sonic Arboretum

Chicago Magazine features Andrew Bird & Ian Schneller's Sonic ArboretumChicago Magazine features the Sonic Arboretum in their December 2011 issue.

What a day! The photo shoot for this feature began at 8:00 am when Saverio Truglia and his crew loaded in an intriguing assortment of equipment, props, and even a smoke machine!

Shot back in September on location in the building where Specimen Products is located, Saverio pulled out all the stops creating a moody garden scene using our horn speakers, astro-turf, fake rocks, and mysterious lighting techniques. We wrapped up around 3:00 pm – just about the time when Ian’s feet were going numb.

This was perhaps the first time Ian has ever worn makeup. Oh, wait! There was that one time he painted himself green for a Shrimp Boat show.

You can see the Chicago Magazine article here.


At Work on the Sonic Arboretum

[W]ith little less than one month before we setup the exhibit at the MCA Chicago, work on the Sonic Arboretum is in high gear. We have a great group of people working away at assembling, seaming, dyeing, french polishing, sanding, carving, wiring and just about every other “-ing” you can think of.

With the help of photographer Shane Welch, we are creating a photo journal. Here is a little slideshow for you.


Welcome to our Glorious New Web Site

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.


Electric Guitar Building Workshop

The main objective of the Electric Guitar Building Workshop is to provide a set of sequential tutorials that will guide the student through the guitar building process. During the course of these workshops, students will build their own electric guitar completely from scratch using raw materials and the time-tested techniques of the instructor. Students will learn how to shape their guitar’s neck and body, install the truss rod, and install all hardware.

NOTE: For this session of the Workshop, students can signup for one or more of the classes during the workshop period. Sessions meet Saturdays, 12:00 – 3:30 pm and are $140 each.


Once students have completed the Guitar Design & Theory Workshop and have finished their instrument’s blueprint, they are now ready to begin building their instrument. The length of time required to build an instrument depends on the complexity of the design and the student’s abilities. These workshops will be offered several times throughout the year and students can enroll in as many as they need in order to complete their instrument. Formatted to be an “open shop time”, these workshops enable students to progress through the building process at a pace that is comfortable and allows for individual attention from the instructor.

During the workshops students will observe numerous demonstrations on various aspects of the building process. The timing of these demonstrations will be depended upon the needs of the students so that workshops can be personalized to match where each student is within the building process. Following is a list of some of the procedures that will be demonstrated:

  • transferring patterns
  • making templates
  • preparing body blanks
  • preparing neck blanks
  • carving
  • sculpting wood using rasps and hand planes
  • neck shaping
  • binding
  • truss rod installation
  • fretboard preparation
  • neck setting (making mortise and tenon)
  • routing for neck and hardware
  • pickguard making
  • proper gluing techniques
  • tool sharpening
  • correctly locating bridge and other hardware
  • bridge making
  • special hardware fabrication (e.g., knobs, pickup rings, tailpieces)
  • finishing

This is a not a kit assembly workshop; students really build their own instrument. This workshop gives students creative control over the guitar’s design, shape, finish, and performing quality. Whatever color or type of finish the student selects will be executed in nitrocellulose lacquer under the watchful eye of the instructor. At the end of the process students will have a wonderful creation that fulfills their own unique vision.

Our goal is to provide an enriching environment for the burgeoning student with many opportunities for exposure to various techniques and skills.

Whether the student chooses to build a reproduction of a traditional/classic design or chart new territory into an unknown realm, the emphasis will be on making a supremely-functional and long-lasting instrument of beauty. This workshop welcomes both the traditionalist and the experimentalist.


See photos from previous sessions of our guitar building workshop and our Student Gallery showcasing students with their finished masterpieces.

Workshop Materials and Supplies

The school provides each student with custom workbenches and all tools needed to build their instrument. All building materials such as body and neck blanks, fretboards, truss rods, pickups, nuts, bridges, and any hardware can be ordered through the school or the student can elect to source these materials for themselves. The instructor is available to guide students through the selection of any of needed materials and can order parts at a discount when possible. However, for those wanting boutique parts, many of these items are only available as custom orders and best left for the student to order directly from the maker.

Mandatory Pre-requisite

Students must complete the Guitar Design & Theory Workshop and have a finished blueprint before they can enroll in this workshop.

Recommended Pre-requisites

We strongly recommended that students have completed our Setup & Maintenance Course and the Fretting Workshop prior to enrollment in this workshop.

While prior knowledge of woodworking and shop tools is helpful, the instructor will be on-hand at all times for assistance or to carry-out machining procedures for those students with less experience.


Silvertone Archtop Guitar – Brace Repair

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.

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Photos from the Sonic Arboretum Guggenheim Show

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.


Building the first Sonic Arboretum

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.


Ibanez Roadstar Repair

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.


Repairing a Bowl Back Mandolin

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.


Gibson Bass Guitar Repair

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.

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