March 24, 2002

Chicago Tribune Magazine

Sidewalks / Chicago – Sculptor of Sound
by Rick Kogan

Ian Schneller is a luthier, he will proudly tell you. He could just as easily call himself a musician or a sculptor, for he has been and remains both. But “luthier” (one who makes stringed instruments) seems to suit him best at the moment. It is an old word and Schneller is thinking about old guitars, guitars made during the Renaissance that feature inlays of hunting scenes. But he is also thinking about the future, the six Renaissance-style guitars he will soon begin to make, and wondering: “Where will they be in 100 years? Will they be preserved? Still played?”

Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine features Ian Schneller and Specimen ProductsThere are all sorts of creative people, but few of them have been able to merge two creative impulses into a successful and satisfying career.

Schneller’s company, Specimen Products, currently moving from its Division Street location to new digs on Homan Avenue, is revered by those in the music business. It repairs, restores and services guitars and tube amplifiers, and has a large stock of vintage and used guitars and other instruments, as well as cords, strings and other musical necessities. But what makes it a musical mecca are the custom instruments built by Schneller.

When he came to Chicago from Memphis, to attend graduate school at the School of the Art Institute, he was a sculptor of playful constructions that included toys. He also played music. A member of the band Shrimp Boat (and later Falstaff), he began making instruments in 1987, first for himself and later for friends, and discovered that for “the first time there was a need, a desire for what I was making.”

Schneller’s creations take a long time. In 15 years, he estimates that he has handcrafted only a few more than 100.

“It has been a learning process,” he says. “It was humbling and I had to discipline myself, to learn. The service end of the business has been critical to my development as a luthier.”

In Osgood’s picture above, Schneller is holding the model for what will be a larger tube amp, based on the shape of old phonograph horns. He has a number of commissions he must finish before beginning “physical work” on his Renaissance guitars. He wants to perform on stages again, to play. And he is very eager to see the band Low perform, for its Alan Sparhawk is now playing an aluminum guitar made by Schneller.

When he does get that opportunity, he will feel, he says, “like a nervous parent.” But he will also feel a warmth. Long ago, when he would show his sculpture in galleries, he felt that there was something “icy, static to it.” When he sees and hears one of his instruments played, he feels they are “active parts of our society.”