March 26, 2006

Chicago Sun-Times

Sculptor, rocker, tinkerer, teacher: A craftsman passes on his wisdom
by Thomas Connor

Zeal and the art of guitar maintenance

The fun part is watching the guys flinch. It’s hard not to. Here they are in Ian Schneller’s warehouse workshop, watching them beat their babies, in some cases, their very livelihoods, with a mallet. He lays them on his custom-built workbench and molests them with pliers and screwdrivers and, gulp, the occasional hammer.

“Don’t worry, I’ll use my soft hammer, he deadpans as he whacks the nut back into its proper position on an angular mid-’70s Gibson electric. The guitar’s owner chews his lower lip and watches Schneller’s hands with a live-wire mixture of concentration and concern. Three other guys wince with every whack. “It’s like he’s hammering my fingers, one of them mutters.”

Tonight’s class is the mid-point of the four-week “Guitar Setup and Maintenance” course, the initial offering of the Chicago School of Guitar Making. Other classes are now available, “Guitar Electronics”, “Glue Technologies”, “Tube Amp Building”, but Schneller’s unusual (or, more accurately, rare) curriculum begins here, in a basic explanation of how guitars are made and maintained. This is where serious musicians get over watching a man take their guitars apart and put them back together. Then they learn to do it themselves.

Because as powerful an icon as the guitar is, especially the electric one, it is essentially a machine. It has moving, metallic parts, which must be cared for and eventually replaced if the machine is to continue to do its work, however aesthetic that work might be. Schneller’s sculptor first, then a rock ‘n’ roller (a founding member of the venerable, long-gone band Shrimp Boat), now a tinkerer-turned-teacher, tries to impart that practical knowledge to his students. “You have to know how to take care of your tools,” he said in an interview later. “Any master craftsman and any truly successful artist knows that.”

Schneller himself thinks bigger than that. He’s more than a serviceman. He’s a luthier, he’ll tell you matter-of-fact, a maker of stringed instruments. He’s put about 150 of them out into the world, from basic guitars to violins, from electric guitars shaped like Pac-Man to something called the Viberation Liberation Unit. His shop is littered with half-finished projects (a nearly 6-foot tall wooden instrument shaped like a summer squash) to innovative and now popular specials (his virtually indestructible aluminum-body guitars and basses). He upholds what he calls, “Chicago’s rich history of guitar making.”

That side of Schneller’s enterprises is Specimen Products, a respected guitar-building business he started on the South Side in 1984. Now just west of Humboldt Park off Division Street, the Specimen shop is also the classroom for the Chicago School of Guitar Making. It’s an outlet for his skills Schneller didn’t exactly anticipate, but it’s renewed his hope and improved his perspective on a lone man’s contribution to art.

“The first time I was here with the class and I hear the sound of eight little hammers working on frets, oh! I’m all about sound, you know, and that just blew me away,” he says. “Chicago was once the guitar-making capital of the world. That’s largely fallen by the wayside. It’s all overseas now. And I know that as a solo maker I’m not going to impact that at all, but if I can teach what I know” His voice trails off, his eyes dart around the studio and he grins ever so slightly.

The rad scientist

In his blue lab coat, small spectacles and bush of peppery hair, Schneller looks every bit the mad scientist. His laboratory is nearly Frnakensteinian. On his cluttered workbench are oddly shaped feather dusters, bottles of eel oil, special-made outlets with voltage control, boxes of cough drops, countless tiny tools. The studio features several smaller benches for students, padded work stations that look like changing tables for infants.

Schneller teaches class at a large table near the door, next to his stereo system featuring two homemade speakers with big, arching bell horns like old phonographs. Tonight he’s flying through the lesson plan, talking tremolo vs. vibrato, sine waves, whammy bars, “under-the-saddle” transducers, and a brief but fascinating tangent about making a microphone out of a tin can and some salt.

His technical lecture is liberally spiced with practical information, student’s question about string lubrication brings up the exceeding importance of a product called Big Ben’s Nut Sauce (requisite chuckles follow in this all-male student body), and occasional anecdotes. He gets unusually animated when he relates the tale of a woman who brought him “a holy grail guitar: last week, an arch-top Martin electric from a manufacturing run of less than a thousand. She bought it a rummage sale for $75. It’s worth about 10 grand.

Bigger sound, smaller machines

He tells the students most guitar technology peaked in the ’50s and ’60s.

“Since then,” he said in our conversation later, “it’s all been about market stimulation and miniaturization. Just like we went from vinyl records to cassettes to CDs to DAT tapes, computer technology hasn’t changed as much as it’s shrunk. It’s the same machine doing the same thing, it’s just doing it in a smaller space. And I’m willing to accept that the computer keypad isn’t the only way humans can interface with technology. That’s why I’m so drawn to stringed instruments.”

Which are, remember machines, just like computers. But in an era in which our instinct is to throw out and replace whatever breaks down, Schneller’s studio, and now his school, is seeing increasing demand. Classes began last fall, and 130 students are currently enrolled, many of them on their third course. The schedule is booked through June, when he hopes to start teaching the big one, Guitar Building, and a waiting list is growing. Schneller said he can’t write the curriculum fast enough.

“I’m getting people who are frustrated with the disposable nature of things,” he said. “They buy things, they break, and they bring them here. This class is called ‘Setup and Maintenance.’ It’s about teaching how to keep things going”; and I’m a sculptor first. Sculpture is more immortal than canvas. The things we make here, they will continue to contribute to society and art long after I’m gone. That’s the idea.”