January 5 - 12, 2006

Time Out Chicago

Built to thrill
Want to create your own custom?
The Chicago School of Guitar Making shows you how.
by Antonia Simigis

There are tangles of wires everywhere and guitar bodies in various stages of evolution and repair. There’s something surgical about the bits and pieces that make up the grand sprawl of equipment at Specimen—owner and luthier Ian Schneller even wears a blue lab coat when examining each subject.

But look up, and you’ll see rows of stunningly crafted instruments that put the cheap laminates at Guitar Center to shame.

There’s a certain breed of guitarist who is as equally fascinated with his instrument as he is with the sounds that come out of it. For gear-heads in the Chicago area, Schneller is one of the revered ones—a master of all things musically mechanical. Over the years, dozens have asked to apprentice with him; the demand has been so great that in 2005 he finally decided to share his secrets with the public by starting the Chicago School of Guitar Making.

Schneller first came to Chicago to complete a master’s degree in sculpture at the Art Institute. “To me there was never any real transgression moving from sculpture to musical instruments, he says as we chat with him at Specimen’s Humboldt Park loft space. “I have never apprenticed, I read everything I could get my hands on and learned through trial and error.” His tinkering began in the ’80s when he was in local post-rock group Shrimp Boat. “I built this enormous bass drum,” he recalls. “That was always an eye-opener, and it had a huge sound, as well. Then I started building some guitars and working with the band’s equipment, and sort of got entrenched in it. By the time the band broke up in the early ’90s, I was pretty much living off doing repairs. It’s just been a passion ever since.”

Some of Schneller’s initial designs weren’t guitar-centric at all, his first stringed instruments were a solid-body electric upright bass and a one-string violin-like instrument. “Shortly after that, John Mohr from Tar asked me to make him an indestructible guitar,” he says. “So I made the body out of aluminum. He put it on an album cover, and his fans started requesting them right away.” Other celebs have commissioned Specimen instruments as well: Andrew Bird’s often-photographed gramophone amp was designed by Schneller, and Jeff Tweedy plays one of his Schnellercasters. “I don’t need superstar endorsements, but there are a lot of people you’ll see around playing my stuff,” he explains. “Alan Sparhawk from Low plays one of my aluminum Telecasters, and Buddy Guy recorded an album with one of my aluminums.”

While most of Schneller’s instruments, which run between $2000 and $8000, are done by commission, he still builds on a whim when the inspiration strikes. He’s earmarked Neko Case for his new electric tiple (a small stringed instrument similar to a ukulele). “Why? Because she’s a tiple freak. But she may or may not want it. Time will tell. And while flexible with customer requests, he has turned down a few of the tackier commissions he’s been offered. “One guy wanted a hand flipping the bird, and I wasn’t interested in that,” he says. “Then there was a cop who wanted a flying pickle. You know, I would have done that one, but he never came up with a downpayment.”

As the demand for instruments and repairs at Specimen increased, “it just seemed like the perfect idea to start offering classes,” Schneller says. Last fall he launched the school with courses in guitar setup and maintenance, and this winter he’s expanding the school to include two classes on fretting guitars, and those who continue on will have a shot at building custom guitars and tube amps, as well.

Beginners are welcome in the setup class, but many of Schneller’s students want to go further. “My idea is that we’ll be training our own workforce little by little, he says. “The best-case scenario is if some of the students blossom into able luthiers. Then maybe somebody else can do some of the shop’s repair work, and I would have more of my free time to build. But right now, I like teaching. It’s like being back on-stage again.”