February 1, 2002


Specimen Products: Preserving a tradition
With the art of guitar design falling to mass production, this guitar shop stays true to Chicago’s manufacturing history.
by Leah Pietrusiak and David Caddell

When Ian and Nadine Schneller heard about the show, they couldn’t believe they didn’t know about it sooner. Perhaps Ian could have contributed a piece or two…

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “Dangerous Curves: Art of the Guitar.” Through February 25, showcasing guitars that represent more than “four hundred years of design excellence in a sector of the art world…”

A sector of the art world.

“It’s ironic that guitar making has become so much of a specialty to warrant a major museum to feature an exhibit on it,” said Ian.

The fact is that, the art of guitar making is fading. “Guitar production is really a rich tradition, unique to America, that matured and grew into what it is in this very region,” he said. “Chicago used to be the guitar-making capital of the world.”

And now all over the world the skill is being copied and emulated – the industry having moved to other places like Korea, Indonesia, China. And not so much is happening in America.

“The factories are making lesser quality instruments, which is ironic – but people forget that this is where it really happened – and maintaining this heritage is very important to us,” he said. “It would be nice to at least have the musicians realize that history before it’s forgotten, and everything’s cloned and there’s a huge factory overseas.”

And since 1986, he’s been trying his best to keep that history alive – as well as trying to mend the effects of some of the newer modes of production.

For the past 16 years, Ian Schneller has been designing, creating, renovating, and maintaining guitars in Chicago as part of his business Specimen Products. He started out in a loft on Archer, then moved to Madison Street, and has been at 1728 West Division since 1994.

And Ian and Nadine, co-owners of Specimen for the past four years, have plans to fully move the store to a large industrial space at Homan and Division by May at the earliest, in order to really focus on repair work and custom building.

“Here we’re trying to be all things – we’re retail, we’re custom building, we’re repair. And in doing so, we can’t really focus and give everything we want to give to it, Nadine said. The space will more service-friendly with a loading dock for repair drop-offs. “It will be better than parking 1-1/2 blocks away. And we can always come and meet you with a dolly,” Ian said. The space will also provide a great opportunity for people to come learn more about guitar crafting. “It will be easier to investigate the prospect of having a custom instrument built – and I think it will be much more illuminating for our clientele to see this process and all the tooling. It’s really fascinating,” said Ian.

Over the past 16 years he has built about 108 guitars and has developed an intuition for adjusting, or setting up, a guitar – the most common ailment the store sees, with an estimated 60 jobs a week.

“I am endlessly telling people, ‘Oh, you just bought a new guitar, it needs a set-up.’ And they usually do need to be adjusted right out of the box because they don’t get set up perfectly at some place.”

Actually, with the emergence of the Internet, Ian thought, “This is gonna be the end of it for the little entrepreneur.” But the Internet has actually invigorated the business. A lot of people who are buying things on eBay or by mail-order are finding that their instruments need to be serviced.

“You can learn how to do it – but it’s kind of a Zen thing. I can safely say that I didn’t get a handle on it for a good six years,” Ian said. “There’s only one place for everything to be adjusted to – and it’s not always intuitive how to get it to that one place. The balance of that place is different – height of the bridge, height of the tail piece, the tuners, the neck pitch – there are a lot of variables, and they all relate to the other adjustments very specifically.”

Like custom guitar design, custom repair is a specialty as well.

But while he has been playing guitar “since he was a tyke,” he didn’t set out with custom guitar building and repair in mind as a trade. He studied sculpture. Another sector of the art world. And graduated from the Memphis Academy of Art with a BFA, and the School of the Art Institute with an MFA. His work had always been “mechanical – kinetic – electromechanical – very sonic in nature.” Like his rocket that “makes quite a bit of noise when it’s flying” and also creates foaming broth underneath (yes, vinegar and baking soda). The two interests eventually fused easily.

Ian was in a band and saw the need for routine maintenance. And he had studied sculpt form and 3-D form. “It’s easy to understand these as 3-D forms. They have moving parts…all the information transposes.”

Well, it wasn’t that easy. Ian read a lot. From guitar history to manufacture. And refining his set-up technique took a lot of trial-and-error. As for mentors: “Only history itself – the history of guitar-making has been my mentor.”

And so he ended up with his own gallery of sorts.

Ian says that he never makes the same guitar twice (except for the requested replica). There are four variations of the Maxwell model, inspired by a friend who asked for an “indestructible” guitar. The Maxwell’s original inspiration came from a very odd rustic-looking electric guitar Ian spotted in 1986 lying face down in the mud at the old Maxwell Street Market in Chicago. He bought the guitar for $5 and studied it. After contemplating this curious instrument for nearly four years, he decided to take it and make a viable instrument of his own that he could play up to Specimen standards, but still retain the original charm of the Maxwell guitar.

Played through a Specimen 50-watt tube amplifier, the aluminum Maxwell rings with an incredibly bright and round tone sounding like no other guitar/amp combination.

Variations of the Maxwell all share the same silhouette, but body shapes differ from very slender to chubby. The colors and materials used differ. And the tone of each variation model differs depending on the handiwork inside.

Professional musicians using Specimen guitars such as Alan Sparhawk from Low and Jeff Tweedy from Wilco definitely attest to the quality of the instruments. And one of their favorite bands, Need New Body, just stopped in on their way through town.

“It’s like a watering hole, people pick up provisions – straps and cords. That’s the cool part of retail – having the stuff that they need – the weird left-handed thumb picks – the stuff you can’t get at you regular guitar shop,” Ian said.

Depending on workload, a guitar will take him from one to four months to finish.

For Ian, focusing on just one form of sculpture has been a “strange and humbling thing.”

“It was a brave investigation into discipline…so you go through two degrees and you’re building sculpture and it can be anything you want – it’s a shocking concept to say, ‘It’s just this,” he said. But I’ve never felt constrained in any capacity – because there’s so much within the microcosm.”

Specimen Products is open year-round from noon to 7pm, closed Wednesdays, Sundays and holidays. It is currently located at 1728 West Division, but will be moving shop over to Homan and Division sometime in May at the earliest. Call (773) 489-4830.