July 2004

Vintage Guitar

Builder Profile

CHICAGO’S SPECIMEN PRODUCTS was created in 1981, while founder Ian Schneller was pursuing an undergraduate degree in, of all things, sculpture.

“I began calling my electro-mechanical kinetic sculptures ‘Specimen Products,'” he says. “Six years later after finishing my graduate work at the Art Institute of Chicago, I made my first stringed instrument, an electric upright bass, followed by a hand-carved peanut-shaped electric guitar and an enormous 30″ x 32″ kick drum!”

Though the original intent of his artistic musical endeavors was to make instruments that his band, Shrimp Boat, could play at gigs around Chicago, he was surprised to find that they attracted interest (and questions) from fellow musicians. So it was that Schneller started building instruments for other people. We recently talked with him to get the details.

Was instrument building something you initially did to make a living, or was it more of a side job?
It was pretty much full time right from the beginning. Of course there was, and still is, the inevitable sprinkling of other bizarre one-off jobs, ranging from custom rocking horses to antique waffle iron repair to taxidermy restoration – which I know nothing about, but the customer insisted!

How large was your initial product line?
Initially, it was comprised of a wide variety of one-of-a-kind instruments. It’s still much this way to a large extent. But early on, I established the Pippin model, followed by the Maxwell, which is named after the historic Maxwell Street Market in Chicago. I also started building custom aluminum guitars and basses, many of which are styled after Fenders. But I also have several of my own designs and an electric model styled after a Maccaferri guitar.

At what point did the product line begin to expand, and how did it happen?
In 1993, I added tube amplifiers. Like my guitars, my amps are mostly one-of-a-kind, although I do have a standard 10-watt and 50-watt circuit I use in different enclosures. In 2000, I started experimenting with horn-loaded speaker systems for musical instrument amplification – small speakers, low watts, huge sound. We now have an 18″ and 24″ model available as a stand-alone speaker cabinet or with our tube circuit built-in. A few years ago, I added the Royale Archtop model. These are fully- carved inside and out, with integrated internal bracing and no sides. My clientele continues to grow largely due to word-of-mouth referrals. We do advertise, and our website has been very good to us. It puts us in touch with people in a way never before possible. We now have clients all over the world.

What is it that sets your product apart?
I take a sculptural approach to the design and construction of my work. While I revere and utilize the luthier’s tradition, I keep my mind open to all manner of possibility both in design and function. My original inspiration came from studying pre-Stradivarius violins with their extraordinary variation and, by today’s standards, almost obscene forms and structures. I feel like there is still so much left to discover. Ultimately, I endeavor to take my mind to the pre-Strat or L-5 era so my Specimens are not restricted by the conventions of the current trends. To that end, I have a new solidbody electric in the works. I call it the Luddite. Our marketing slogan will be “Get the Ludd Out.”

When did you hire your first employees?
I have had various helpers, apprentices, and employees over the years. I usually have one or two. In 2000, I married my love and business partner, Nadine. She handles the website, accounting, advertising, product development, and now, breastfeeding and daycare for our little girl.

What are your hopes for the future of the industry?
My hope is that hand craftsmanship can endure and prosper. I anticipate the gap in price and quality will widen between independent and factory-made instruments. This might not be such a bad thing since they both have their application. As far as high-end, top-quality guitars go, I do feel the industry is pushing the limits of what is possible in a high-production setting. This is particularly evident from a repair/service vantage point. Since we still set up and service many instruments every day, I see various new top-of-the-line models that suffer from hasty finishing and detail work. No doubt it must be a bear for the larger companies to meet their daily output quota. For them, it all comes down to the numbers.

What are your goals for your own products?
We plan to step up amp production as soon as our daughter is old enough to use the soldering iron (laughs)! Seriously, I’d like to bring more of my ideas to fruition. The quest for new and different sounds is what drives me and keeps many of my clients coming back as their needs change. We have several models in the works, including the Soprano-caster, which is a mandolin-scale neck that retrofits on a Telecaster, an electric tiple and some solidbody electric ukuleles. While we want to grow our company, we’re loyal to the small business ethic and will maintain a keen level of craftsmanship. Small is good.