October 19, 2019
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Musical Dreams

Local companies hoping to hit big in the music biz
Todd Hubbard of Hubbard Guitars holds the body of a guitar he made by hand.

There's a lot of mythology in American culture surrounding garage startups. A television commercial running these days compares the origins of the likes of Amazon, Disney, and the Ramones — all of which began in garages. This story has more to do with the Ramones.

The Ramones are a rock band that toured nonstop for 22 years, driving hundreds of miles to play in front of crowds of all sizes. And while not everybody in the music business steps onstage, the prospects for stardom may be just as daunting for three Tri-State entrepreneurs.

Instead of going up against the icons of rock like the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and The Who, they face equally tough competition from the likes of Fender, Marshall, and Gibson. Three small companies burn the midnight oil and build custom pieces to break into the very tight instrument/music equipment industry. The operative phrase here is “custom.” As a guitarist I couldn’t wait to meet each of them.

Meet Todd Hubbard of Hubbard Guitars and you’ll know he’s an artist. He could be a painter or a sculptor, but he makes guitars. He does it by hand, almost adamantly. Each instrument is crafted and molded with beautiful resolve. Heavy with exotic woods and gorgeous inlays, his acoustic or electric guitars can fetch upward of $7,500, but you can find certain models for about $3,000.  

He’s a man who comes from a very pure line of luthiers, studying with master guitar builder Paul Gudelsky and at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix. In the business since 1992, Hubbard is almost mystical about his upbringing in the craft. He says he wants to keep the tradition he’s been taught from fading away.

“The line must continue to help keep the art alive,” he says. “It should never
be lost.”

How does it feel to be up against the giants, Fender, Gibson, and others, with their sophisticated marketing and organization?

“I can bring more variety, more function and better sound and playability,” says Hubbard. “I knew there had to be more people out there who felt like I did. So there had to be a market. You determine who your clientele is by what you offer. If I have to narrow it down, it is usually someone who has at least 10 years experience. They’ve grounded themselves. They’ve paid their dues and now they want something that says this is me I can really create on this.”

Hubbard knows his is a niche market, and he operates as a one-man band.

“It’s all subjective. I am just a custom builder, I’m going to stick with that for a while,” he says.

His guitars fit into a musician’s hand like they were made for that person alone; they feel substantial. In the details, it’s plain to see how easy it is for him to fit individuals even more with different hardware or finishing touches that reflect the player. He produces seven or eight acoustic or electric instruments each year.

I descended into Volition Amps’ Evansville headquarters (a basement) and entered a wonderland. I was greeted by the affable, but focused, Tony Dorris and his fiancée Amy (just Amy, like Madonna or Cher, she jokes). Neatly scattered about his workshop are classic guitar amps and pedals that had obviously been gutted, remanufactured, or modified into something better, something custom. Where Hubbard is an artisan, Dorris is a mad electrical engineer with the heart of a mechanic and inventor. He speaks like a man who knows what he likes and wears his values on his sleeve.

“Volition basically means freedom of choice, the ability to choose things, freewill,” says Dorris. “I want people to know that we can give them what they want. I found the easiest way to get started was in pedal mods (modification) by changing components to make them better. I’m into old things, antiques, etc. I find something that has tubes in it and I think there’s something I can do with it, make it better or create something new.”

Dorris makes boutique guitar and bass amps that sell for as much as $5,000 apiece.

“I offer such variety and can build things the way a customer wants it, by voicing it how they like, adding tremolo, reverb, whatever,” he says.

“People also bring me the amps they have and I take out the cheap components and make
them better.”

Tony let me plug into his amps and once I found the one that suited me (an 18 watt with a 10-inch speaker), I was hooked. The amp was like milk: creamy and rich. Then I stepped on his “Can” boost pedal and suddenly it was like milk with diamonds popping in and out. Luxurious and touch sensitive. The pedals are beautiful to look at as well. Amy etches amazing creations onto the case and the undercarriage lights up to give a floating appearance. Moore Music in Evansville has all the pedals in stock.

This brings us to Boonville, Ind., and the two-story garage that is Harper Guitars. Jacob Harper is a man on the verge of success, which he may already have. He and his partner Scott Hamrick — who handles the marketing and finances — have clear plans.  Their aim to jump from the 20 guitars they made last year to 50 this year seems plausible when you visit their shop. Everything is in the right place. Brilliantly finished guitars are hanging from the wall and first tries are neatly stacked in a corner.

The guitars have a distinctive yet classic look with a beautiful 3-D headstock. They would fit into any collection. “I want them to stand out, when people see them onstage, mine are different enough people will know they are a Harper,” says Harper. “But more important than that is that they play great.”

They do play great, with the feel of a higher end Fender or G&L. Finding just the right feel hasn’t been easy, he adds.

“Six years I’ve been in the hole making guitars, this is the first year I might get back to zero.” Hamrick chimes in. “We use the same parts that are in a higher end $4,500 to $5,000 guitar and we’re not really sure what’s caused that to be a $5,000 guitar, other than that’s what the
market demands.”

You can get a Harper for $1,850 and customize yourself up to $2,500 quite easily. Harper uses CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines and computer technology. However the results are also painstakingly hand finished. The quality shines.

While each of these local entrepreneurs is still swimming upstream in a very tough and niche-laden industry, each has a distinction. But there is a common thread: all three manufacturers speak to the location of the Tri-State as crucial to their success. Hubbard says Evansville is like the center of a bicycle wheel: “You can spoke out easily to Nashville, Louisville, St. Louis, Chicago, anywhere really.”

And in some ways what they do still is like living a dream. Dorris tells stories about being with Harper in a club and seeing blues musicians Boscoe France and Alonzo Pennington playing their amps and guitars onstage.

“I poked Jacob and said, ‘Look at this, those are ours up there!’” he recalls.

One of the most telling moments during my visits was when Todd Hubbard said to me as an afterthought, “It’s honest work, Brick. Honest work.”

Indeed it is.

For more information on Hubbard Guitars, visit its Facebook page or call 812-455-5658; for Volition Amps visit its Facebook page; for Harper Guitars, visit its Facebook page or jihguitars.com or call 812-204-9371.

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