February 2007

Music, Inc.

Specimen’s Ian Schneller boosted his custom guitar and repair business by teaching others

Ian Schneller carving an upright bass at Specimen Products Guitar Shop

Some might call Ian Schneller resistant to change. Others might call him a visionary. Whatever the label, people buy his custom-built guitars and line up to have him work on their own instruments.

Schneller is the owner of Specimen Products custom guitar and repair shop. Not surprisingly, when he launched the Chicago School of Guitar Making in August 2005, response was immediate. He even added additional sessions to the roster, including a fretting workshop, to accommodate the interest (the first session was a course on guitar setup and maintenance).

He now has more than 100 students, as well as booming repair orders and foot traffic, all attributable to word-of-mouth and local press generated by the program. “It’s invigorated the repair agenda to the extent that I need to train these students quickly in order to hire them as my workforce to repair the instruments that the publicity has brought in,” Schneller said. “I’ve never had so many repairs in the shop.”

A Dying Art
Schneller said that he believes custom guitar building and repair are disappearing due to the rise in overseas production. “Chicago used to be the guitar-making capital of the world,” Schneller said. “Even as late as the mid-’80s, there were at least a dozen immigrant-owned, mom-and-pop music shops on Wabash Avenue alone. But stores are very different now. It’s more like being at the mall.”

“The bottom line doesn’t take into account serviceability and longevity. Much of my repair work is cleaning up the mess importers make of economically priced instruments.”

In Schneller’s opinion, the apogee of mass production occurred in the 1960s with Fender’s and Gibson’s guitars. “I still get a little pitter-pat or goose bumps when I get to work on a ’60s Gibson or Fender because the quality is so remarkably consistent,” he said. “The traditional [guitar] models I make, like the Pippin, are essentially subtle twists on traditional themes, so when I reference things like old Silvertones crossbred with Fender Telecasters, it strikes a deep nerve with the vintage clientele.”

Training the Next Generation
Specimen builds instruments and tube amps for recognized musicians, such as Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Archer Prewitt of The Sea & Cake, Veruca Salt and Andrew Bird. Many of its guitars are based on the look, sound and feel of the early Fenders and Gibsons, while others are more artistic and fanciful.

Schneller, who holds a Master’s degree in sculpture from the Art Institute of Chicago, began building his own instruments in the mid-’80s. Many of his earliest sculptures had sonic components, so it was a natural gravitation toward guitar repair and custom work. He’s since become more efficient in the craft, and more popular among Chicago’s aspiring luthiers.

“It’s heartening to see this new, young generation get interested in something that’s on the verge of becoming extinct, and that’s the hand work, the one-at-a-time building and learning how to use tools and understanding materials,” he said. “You can’t repair something if you don’t know how it works. You can follow a manual, but if you don’t know why you’re doing something, it’s for naught and you will never have a chance of applying it in any other field.”