November 1, 1996

New City

New City features Specimen Products Guitar ShopStrum & Twang
by Gil Kaufman

At Specimen Products, a Division Avenue storefront tucked between a Mexican bakery and a smattering of dimly lit neighborhood watering holes, Schneller creates the guitars played by members of a half-dozen Chicago rock bands, including Tar, the Coctails, Red Red Meat, even Buddy Guy.

Various sculptural objects pack the front window: a round, metallic ziggurat that gleams in the sun; a cartoony, clear plastic tube with a white base and a red ball on top that resembles an opaque rocket ship; and a flying-V, aluminum-body guitar to catch the eye of the musicians strolling by. Everything here was crafted by Schneller, a member of the band Falstaff who holds a BFA in sculpture from the Memphis Academy of Art and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute. The high-ceilinged, dusty one-room shop houses dozens of unconventional works in progress.

“One of the reasons I became interested in building guitars,” says Schneller as he drags on the umpteenth cigarette of a recent morning, “is that while I was in the bans Shrimp Boat, I had natural desire to service my own guitars. Because things always invariably go wrong with guitars, I wanted to enhance and perfect the ones I was playing.” Schneller places part of the blame on factory-issued guitars. He charges that mass producers don’t have time to truly perfect the sound of their products before shipping. He says they fail to properly adjust the “nut,” the piece of bone at the head of the guitar that elevates the strings to the proper height, or work on the intonation of the saddle and the right adjustment of the neck. As far as Schneller’s concerned, many factory guitars leave the line in “unplayable” condition. “Half the work I do here is what’s called ‘set-ups,’ which is the initial adjustment of the guitar that gets it to the point where it is at least playable,” he says. Because so many artists buy guitars right off the rack, Schneller says they’re used to playing poorly set-up instruments. “Some geezers have been playing these things for years, and if somebody put a perfect instrument in their hands, they would flip out.”

One of Schneller’s signature guitars is the aluminum-body model he originally assembled for John Moore of tar, who requested an indestructible instrument. Schneller, cradling a flying-V version in his hands, explains that the thicker aluminum body creates extra “sustain” and an expanded frequency response well-suited to rock ‘n’ roll. Archer Prewitt, illustrator/artist and a member of the recently defunct Coctails, has nothing but praise for his custom aluminum model. “Ian sprayed a silver flake on the neck which is absolutely beautiful,” Prewitt says. “The aluminum guitars he makes have an almost acoustic property to them; the metal gives them a certain subtle iciness; and, in general, his guitars have an amazing attack to them. I can really appreciate the craftsmanship and the artistry that he weaves into his work.” While a precedent exists for using aluminum in guitar bodies (Silvertone comes to mind), Schneller has taken the art to a higher level by bolting the entire aluminum body together, a process that makes it not only indestructible but also indescribable. “You really have to feel it,” says Schneller, “but these guitars have a certain visceral biofeedback, an ergonomic sensation where you can actually feel the vibration in your guts in a totally different way.”

Dressed in green jeans, a black shirt and Lennon glasses, his hair branching up and out in curly tribute to the early-eighties-Lou Reed-white-afro look, Schneller positively looks the part of a home-grown tinkerer. The eastern wall of his shop sports ceiling-high bookshelves overflowing with old jazz albums, a smattering of CDs and dog-eared books with titles like “Metalworking,” “Machine Age,” “Physics,” “Glazing” and “General Chemistry.” Underneath lies a pump organ, a drum set and various guts of instruments in states of disrepair, all covered with a fine mist of dust. Schneller is self-taught, his knowledge gleaned from years of research, hands-on sculptural fusion and a passion born of an almost reactionary belief that they really did do it better in the old days. “There’s really nobody else in town who does what I do,” he says, grabbing another cup of coffee and yet another smoke. “I have a type of romance for the history of instrument making. I couldn’t make it work and I wouldn’t be here if it was all about profit systems.” He says he doesn’t mind taking a financial hit, or living in downwardly mobile digs, if it means he can continue to build and restore the building blocks of music that he calls “the last vestiges of what made this country great.” Schneller harks back to a time when the Midwest was the world’s largest producer of guitars, with such companies as Harmony, Valco, National and Kay, upholders of a tradition that he sees being swept under the rug by cheap transistor-based instruments devoid of the “romance” factor.

While trying to uphold a construction ethic that seems to have fallen by the wayside, Schneller has set out a mini-crusade, creating the Petimor tube amp, the aural equivalent of a Tucker automobile, wrapped in a polished wooden box. Schneller explains why tube amps, which hardly anyone makes anymore and even fewer people service, are preferable to transistor-based models. “Until the late sixties, all there was was tube amps,” he says. “When transistors came in, they quickly took over. It was a nice idea, but certain elements were missing, above and beyond the fact that they were cheaper, lighter and instantaneous.” Schneller then dives into ratchet-head speak about the even-order harmonics of tube amps, which he describes as “warm and beautiful,” versus the odd-order harmonics of transistor amps, which, he says, “sound like crap.” As he strums a few chords on one of his guitars, switching back and forth between his Petimor and a small commercial amp, a more discerning ear could probably hear the tonal anomalies that to the untrained ear sound like the difference between a $400 stereo and a $600 set-up.

The Petimor is six years in the making, not only because Schneller is a perfectionist, but because it was difficult to even track down companies that could make the special-order circuit boards he specified. In trying to emulate old-style manufacturing, Schneller insisted the motherboards of his amp be serviceable, not disposable, and that the guts would be encased in a sturdy birch cabinet instead of the standard, flimsy particle board. The end result, which resembles a tube radio the Waltons might gather around, will probably sell for a hefty $600, about $400 more than its mass-produced equivalent. Six years to build thirty amps, up to a year for a guitar, and a “rush” job in a month—hardly the prescription for worldwide domination. As Schneller strums away at one of his creations with his vampire-long thumbnail, you notice the signature headstock (the portion at the top of the guitar that contains the tuning pegs), which resembles an oversized scalpel, and the subtle curve to the body. But most of all you begin to hear a warm, rich tone, the difference between the clean, mechanical sound of CDs and the deeper, more resonant grooves of vinyl. Or at least he thinks you do.

Mid-morning, a musician from a local band comes in to check on the Petimor tube amp Schneller was supposed to fix for him. The contraption looks like something you might find in the back of a thrift store, collecting dust because the owner has no idea what it’s for. As the guitarist sits down to take a road test, all he hears is static. As Schneller frantically flips the flat, off-white switches on the face of the machine, again, only static emerges. Schneller lays down his cigarette, apologizes, asks for a minute to assess the situation, then starts dismantling the cabinet in search of an elusive bum tube. As the door closes behind me, the meaty tones the guitarist was hoping for finally float out of the creaky box, and Schneller lights another smoke to celebrate his success at re-animating another old warhorse.