Remember the images of John Paul Jones wielding an acoustic curiosity fused from parts of a mandolin and six- and 12-string guitars? Andy Manson made that.
The legendary luthier conceived of the triple-necked beast after watching Led Zeppelin's multi-instrumentalist switch between pieces in concert. It's an iconic instrument, one that Manson remade in recent years and had displayed in his small booth inside NAMM's Boutique Guitar Showcase. But that chimera-like instrument isn't the biggest eye-catcher at Manson's table this year. Instead, heads turn toward another whimsical creation: a six-string mermaid guitar with an arched back, a beautifully carved face pointed skywards and a fish-scaled tail keeps kept her upright and stable.
When Manson picks up the mermaid, fins laid against his leg and hand ready to strum, the surrounding crowd prepares to take photos. It's a sight to behold.
"I wanted to make a piece of sculpture, or art if you like, but using guitar-making as the medium," Manson says. He was inspired by how the guitar is quite frequently referenced as female. The initial idea was to make one that was also a life-sized statue of a woman. Manson, who is based in Portugal, says he improvised as he carved and, after completing the torso, opted to make her a mermaid to give the strummable statue a better sense of balance.
At the NAMM Show, an annual gathering of music gear-heads at Anaheim Convention Center, guitars rule. Yes, there is just about every type of instrument and piece of sound equipment here, from acoustic pieces with hundreds of years of history to the latest in digital DJ technology. But the guitar still dominates, its presence infiltrating every level of the convention center.
Beyond the brands recognizable to anyone who has ever worshipped at the altar of a rock god, there's the Boutique Guitar Showcase, where an international group of craftspeople shows off their best work. Even at their most simple, these guitars are akin to haute couture; they're handmade and can be customized to the specifics of the player. At their most elaborate, they blur the line between instrument and art piece.
"A guitar is a guitar. Craft is craft. Just because something is shiny and pretty and perfectly crafted doesn't make it art," says Peter Malinoski, a guitar maker from Maryland. After enough people compared his work to art, though, Malinoski decided to make some pieces fit for a gallery. One, with a blond fretboard, a blue piece that looks like a surfboard and a leopard-print, fabric-upholstered body is his "midcentury modern" guitar. Its style is ’60s by way of ’80s new wave, looking as though it's ready for a player to bust out a cover of "Misirlou" or maybe "Rock Lobster."
Malinoski says guitars like this are good for display at a show like NAMM, but typically, his work is more visually sedate and fits with clients' needs. "I'll go back home and pick up the traditional styles, and that will carry me through to the next time," he says, "but maybe there's somebody nutty enough to buy one."
For the custom guitar maker, clients can range from rock stars to business bigwigs. Randy Parsons, of Ventura-based Parsons Guitars, has been at work on a custom line called Wonderland. One guitar, called the White Mare, sold to Jimmy Page. Another, the Red King, now belongs to Hawaii Five-0 star Alex O’Loughlin.
Parsons’ latest, called the Red Rabbit, is his most elaborate yet. "Each neck has 20,000 pieces that go together to make one neck, and that's not counting the inlay that has another 500 pieces," he says. Only 10 will be made and they will be sold at $50,000 a pop. He's already sold three. These kinds of guitars, he says, are largely for collectors; people who want to play onstage tend to go for his Bat guitar, which isn't quite so over-the-top.
Not all the attention-grabbers at NAMM were so elaborate. A small company from Barcelona called Pons Guitars has been making waves on Instagram with its unusual guitars. Pons makes guitars with interchangeable bodies and also has made one out of an old PlayStation. Inside the Boutique Guitar Showcase, Pons showed off a guitar made from skateboards.
"We were all skaters when we were younger, so we decided to mix our two hobbies," say Jordi Espelt of the instrument's origins. These guitars are actually made of three layered skateboards and can come with customized paint jobs.
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Guitars help musicians tell stories, but the ones made by Michael Spalt are stories in and of themselves. Formerly based in Los Angeles, Spalt now lives in Vienna, where he uses old dolls found at European flea markets to adorn his Spalt Instruments. His NAMM showpiece, called "Frankenstein's Music Machine," is an exquisite horror story collage, in which two dolls depict an encounter between Dr. Frankenstein and a victim. "He milks her brain to feed his music machine," Spalt explains.
"They're not for everybody," Spalt admits of his unusual guitars. "Some people have an instant connection to a specific guitar and they just love it. They may not be interested in any of the others, but they'll go crazy about that one. And, usually, when they buy one, they buy more."