Luthier from Alabama passes on his know-how to new builders

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Danny Davis guitars are on display in Huntsville, Alabama.  Tall, blond and amiable, Danny is a luthier turned luthier.  His exquisite acoustic instruments are played by Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes and Dave Anderson of the Atlanta Rhythm Section.  (Matt Wake / The Huntsville Times via AP)

Danny Davis guitars are on display in Huntsville, Alabama. Tall, blond and amiable, Danny is a luthier turned luthier. His exquisite acoustic instruments are played by Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes and Dave Anderson of the Atlanta Rhythm Section. (Matt Wake / The Huntsville Times via AP)

PA

They didn’t really have a choice. After Huntsville couple Danny and Susan Davis decided to shut down the concert hall component at Tangled String Studios in July 2020 amid the devastating first phase of the pandemic, they had to expand the guitar-making side. of their multi-faceted business. Or go bankrupt completely.

“Susan and I were going to lose that space,” Danny says, “which means we sell everything and go home, so we said, ‘Well, let’s go. “

Tall, blond and amiable, Danny is a luthier turned luthier. His exquisite acoustic instruments are played by Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes and Dave Anderson of the Atlanta Rhythm Section.

After Tangled String Studios began hosting shows in 2013, it quickly gained a reputation as an intimate, ‘listening room’ style music venue. The Black Crowes’ Robinson, Drive-By Truckers singer-songwriter Patterson Hood and award-winning bluegrass band SteelDrivers performed there. America’s headliners like Amanda Shires, John Paul White and Secret Sisters too, as well as top local talent including Kelvin Wooten, Ingrid Marie and Microwave Dave.

The place has become a deep passion for Susan. She often prepared home-cooked meals, including her lasagna, to meet the demands of artist-riders. She has strived to make the experience special for musicians and fans. Todd Haller, Tangled String partner and Jason Isbell’s former roadie, booked artists and made sound a lot. The background to the scene was a reclaimed, backlit barn wood wall. On the right, Davis’s guitar-making equipment in full view. Seating started at 60, then increased to 100 and finally around 150. It was a unique place to see artisan music played up close.

After the days of Tangled String were over, a striking, silvery-haired, sweet Susan was heartbroken. The concert industry was only months away from a shutdown that would last much of 2020. At that point, Susan told AL.com: “We realize that it is unlikely that small venues like ours can responsibly reopen anytime soon. We love our local community and do not want to contribute to the spread of this current health crisis. “

Susan was in tears as she canceled shows scheduled for later in 2020, featuring Drive-By Truckers guitarist Mike Cooley, Huntsville alt-pop singer DeQn Sue and jam group Tuscaloosa CBDB. During the 2020 shutdown, Tangled String hosted streaming performances by local artists such as Rob Aldridge & The Proponents and Ingrid Marie, to help raise funds for the artists. But live streaming was not a lasting solution, for musicians or Tangled String. Over the years, Tangled String has also had music festival and recording studio components, but amid the ongoing pandemic these were also not answers to making the overall business viable. .

Until then, Danny had made every piece of every Danny Davis guitar himself. Roughly 200 guitars in total over the decades he made them, dating back to before the opening of Tangled String in 2012. But increasing production to the level Tangled String needed now meant he would need to hire some. aid. And teach new builders his violin-making magic.

First, Danny built new workstations for different phases of guitar making. He then brought in Susan’s brother Jake Wambsganss, a valve company supply chain manager, to help set up the store as efficiently as possible. “We figured out the flow of the instrument,” Danny says, “and structured the piece in such a way that it kind of had a vibe. You make necks here, bodies there, sides there and all that.

He found his two technicians, Anna Ruth Bennett and Shawn Webster, to be totally organic. Webster had previously done carpentry for Tangled String. Bennett had worked at Happy Tummy, a sandwich shop turned pizzeria located in Lowe Mill, the sprawling Huntsville Tangled String arts center, also in his home. Bennett’s father, Doug Bennett, a former roadie for the progressive rock band Kansas who went on to work in industrial lighting and sound construction, had attended Tangled String shows frequently. When Doug learned that Danny was looking to hire staff to build guitars, he stopped to suggest Anna Ruth for the job.

Both hires clicked. Anna Ruth had a natural talent for detailed mother of pearl work for guitar inlays, flourishes that can make a guitar look very special and personalized. A ordered Danny Davis guitar may have rose-shaped inlays, crown of thorns, etc. Anna Ruth also helps secure the 12 or more braces inside a guitar essential for optimum sound. His tools include scissors, a jeweler’s saw, and glue.

“The way we make our guitars, the top of the guitar isn’t flat,” says Davis. “It has a very slight curve. Well, this curve has to be perfectly tuned. Any gap between the brace and the top of the guitar, says Davis, “would be places where you can lose sonic energy.” Regardless of the seamless construction, “you get your resonance and fullness from the guitar,” he says.

Indeed, a Danny Davis guitar, when played, rings like a bell. The tone is crystalline but warm. Derived from the streamlined sound of classic Martin guitars, but with their own character. In 2019, Robinson, the guitarist of the Black Crowes, described to me the guitars of Davis thus: “They play so well, they sound so good. The design is perfect and beautiful. It seems that everything he has done has been done with so much care and consideration.

Prior to launching Tangled String, Davis spent about 30 years as a NASA engineer, working on projects ranging from propulsion systems to a space telescope. With rockets, it is imperative to know which frequencies vibrate so that they can be eliminated / reduced to prevent a rocket from separating during launch. When we make guitars, it’s the other way around. You want to use frequencies for optimal sound.

The spacious interior of Tangled String Studios is a handyman’s daydream. There are all kinds of woodworking machines, tools and multiple workbenches with guitars in different stages at the top. Wooden blanks are stacked against a weathered brick wall. Danny Davis guitars are made from a variety of woods, including mahogany, maple, rosewood, and katalox. The day I stopped by Tangled String this summer, they played some funky jazz on the store’s stereo. And there is a slight smell of sawdust in the air.

At a workstation equipped with a green vise, Webster sands a guitar neck. He uses scissors and rasps to get the overall shape, then moves on to finer rasps and sandpaper for smoothing and final unraveling. While Webster has relevant experience in carpentry and carpentry, guitar making is a whole different beast.

“It’s the challenge that makes it really satisfying,” Webster tells me. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail. “And it’s a pretty exciting feeling to think that this is going to end up in the world in the hands of someone who makes music.”

On another workbench a few yards away, Bennett sets up the rear braces for a guitar. Its aim is like a laser. “It’s really satisfying when everything fits together perfectly,” says Bennett, who wears circular glasses. She adds, “I’ve always been interested in art and music, and so I guess this (guitar making) is just that, converged.”

Since Bennett and Webster started at Tangled String, they’ve been making about three guitars a month. They’re working on the “Player’s Series” guitars, which cost around $ 2,850. These guitars have the same high quality chassis but are less ornate than the guitars ordered by Davis, which are typically completely built by Davis and cost around $ 5,500. It takes about 80-85 working hours for each guitar. Before a player’s series guitar is ready to be sold, Davis does a quality check and if anything needs to be tightened, it is tightened. “The joy for me,” says Davis, “is building the instrument, and I love seeing them go to a client, especially after working with someone on the design of the guitar with someone. , and it means something to them. “

Currently, there are about 20 Danny Davis guitars, including dreadnought, grand auditorium, and living room models, in stock at Tangled String, address 2211 Seminole Drive, and local independent retailer Fret Shop, at 309 Jordan Lane NW (More info at dannydavisguitars .com.) Susan went from live room operations to focusing on Tangled String’s social media, posting well-produced videos and photos. “Susan has been a great support,” says Danny. “She’s good at revealing (on social media) what’s coming.”

Webster, who grew up playing the drums and has started learning guitar in recent years, says Davis is a patient teacher. One of the first things he taught them was how to fix a guitar top. “Danny gives a lot of instruction, but he also leaves a lot of room for interpretation,” says Webster. “And he’s also open to new ideas in the process. So it’s not like this whole process is set in stone and you have to do it that way. “

Indeed, Davis says Webster and Bennett made some suggestions on how to make things better at Tangled String. These ideas even inspired new tools and practices for their guitar making. “Now we can do it better and faster,” says Davis. In the past, David had always loved building guitars and enjoyed doing it on his own. But he became very fond of having Webster and Bennet around, sharing the work, listening to music together while they worked, and enjoying each other’s company.

“You really don’t know something until you teach it,” Davis says. “And by working with Anna Ruth and Shawn, I’m learning a lot about this process and trying to make it easy and repeatable. Fortunately, these great people have come and have fitted in perfectly. The first step was to make sure we can deliver the product and we feel good about it. We are getting good at making guitars. Now we are trying to get good at selling. This is the next big step.

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