15 Jun 2016

Ant Hill Luthiery


I was listening to the radio a while back and they had a scientist on to talk. She studied ants. First I was stunned that there was such a thing, second that she most likely was not the only ant researcher. She spent all her time watching ants and this is what she said.

Ants are incredibly dumb. That’s what she said. She said it appears that they are smart- they find that one M&M that fell under the counter. They build complex houses. For having the tiniest brains it really looks like they know what they are doing. But they really have no idea. She said the reason why ants are successful is because they are thousands of them randomly walking everywhere. Eventually one finds something and lays down the pheromone trail.  Then the cavalry arrives and instead of one ant trying to bring home the M&M there’s 1,000.

I was talking to a friend last week about teaching myself to make these resonator guitars and I told him “I just kept stacking up piles of work until I could climb over the closest wall, then started at the next one.” When you don’t know what to do try everything….a lot. That’s been my experience in guitar making and I’m willing to say, now that I’m supported by ant science,  that it’s the most effective plan of action we are never taught anything about.  We spend 18-25 years of life trying to be ‘right’-find the right answer, use the right words. If you are wrong you get the red marker. If advanced math is to ‘teach you how to think logically’ and is not the end in itself, then the way we are educated as has side effects as well. If you are relentlessly stacking up work you can solve all the problems. If you are waiting for the right answer you’re still just waiting. When you graduate life is not about being right, it’s about winning. My definition of winning means solving problems. If you need money you need work that pays- it doesn’t matter if its the ‘right’ work. If your friend is mad you need to resolve it- it doesn’t matter who’s fault it is. You must accept that fact that not everything you think is an earned opinion. Many times its just something you think. The mistake is made when we latch onto the idea and follow it as truth without doing a massive amount of work to provide proof. We want to know now and guess what if I just sit a think a little bit….oh! There it is. I thought something. That’s the solution. That’s ridiculous. “They would never hire me.” “I should be getting paid more.” “I’m going back to school.”  ….really? Why? If you havn’t tried things you thought were wrong you havn’t tried everything. And one of those ways might just lead you to the M&M under the counter. The only way you can prove something is a massive pile of work. Relentless Forward Progress. Ants don’t stop moving. They are constantly attempting, constantly redirecting, constantly hauling. A colony of ants can move 50 tons of soil a year.   If you need to figure something out for yourself- there is no right way there are only the wrong ways and you must try them all. Like ants.

13 Jun 2016

The MuleCaster Lives

electric guitar steel IMG_6956 (Copy) IMG_6984 (Copy) Steel TelecasterIMG_7304 (Copy)IMG_7297 (Copy)IMG_7308 (Copy)

The MuleCaster Lives.

Neck through design because simple is awesome. Hipshot bender for pedal steel dreamy goodness. McNelly Pickups. It sounds alive, it looks so damn good.

I want to make one for you. One of the greatest joys, one there is no word for, is seeing someone pick up something I’ve made and seeing that moment where we as musicians are drawn somewhere else by sound. A sound we haven’t heard in a chord we have always played.  What’s that feeling? I’ll spend my life trying to figure it out. It’s not about a pursuit of perfection for me. I want to constantly improve but I know that’s always on a spectrum. It’s not about me. It’s about you, and what you do with it when you get it.  What’s songs will you play that I never would think of? Where will it go with you? Maybe like guys like Charley t becomes an integral part of your sound. WHY ME? It’s so big and wonderful and I feel completely undeserving. Let’s do this together. That’s the story.

Buy A Mule



08 Jun 2016

Resonator Guitar Parts 101

resonator guitar the inside

A bit of a primer on the pieces of these resonator guitars. If you are new to the world of resonators, this will help you get acquainted.

The body of a resonator guitar is typically either steel or brass.  My guitars are no different.  German silver is also used but is much more rare.   It’s hard to find in a wide enough piece for guitars as its made for wind instruments.  This doesn’t make it better, it’s like chocolate or vanilla ice cream- it’s just different. I heard a rumor that in the early days german silver sheets were actually easier to find than steel sheets.

Steel is a bit louder and has more attack, brass is warmer in sound and smoother.  The difference between the material is definitely noticeable but they are not worlds away from either.  I have some sample videos on the “Hear a Mule” page so you can see for yourself.  Because these guitars are made from metal they are heavier than normal acoustic guitars.  This is unavoidable.    Picking the thickness of steel is not a race to ‘lightest’.  Eventually you get to a spot where it stops ringing as it should. Think of the difference between hitting a xylophone key and an aluminum can.  Using a strap even while seated can help keep things more comfortable.

Look at the picture above.   The large open circle in the middle is comprised of three thicker pieces of metal soldered together called the sound well.  Inside the sound well is where the cone(s) are seated.  This area is flat so that the pressure on the cones is even all the way around so that it vibrates as well as it can.  The depth of the soundwell is also a factor in determining the height of the saddle, along with the neck pitch.  This relationship between the neck angle, sound well depth and saddle height affects the tone of the resonator guitar a great deal.  This is because it affects how much pressure is put on the cone.  Too little and it’s quiet and nondescript, too much and it’s tinny and thin because it’s squeezing the cone too much.

Underneath the sound well is the neck tenon.  The tenon is the backbone of the guitar.   This is glued into a mortise in the neck heel and also attached to the body of the guitar.  It forms a ‘spine’ of sorts that takes the pressure of the strings and lets the body vibrate.  The sound producing element of the guitar, the body, is free to do its thing while the neck holds down the fort.

Underneath the neck tenon are wedges that are fit between the tenon and the back.  This adds in support of the back of the guitar and it also allows me to tune the back slightly.  If it’s too warm and bassy I can tighten the wedge much like a drummer would tighten a drum head.

The other hole in the top is for a p90 pickup which is an option.  I think the best way to replicate acoustic sound is with a mic, and in situations where you need more RAWK the best way to do that is with a genuine electric guitar pickup.  Having this cavity in the top allows me to do that.

You cant see it but inside the body underneath the fingerboard extension there is a wedge that is fit between the neck tenon and the top of the guitar.   I put screws through the fingerboard into this wedge and that helps attach the neck to the body.  I cover these screws with ebony plugs to keep things simple looking.

Other than the neck tenon neck construction is the same as a standard acoustic guitar. I use a 12 fret neck joint, with a cutaway as an option if necessary.

Then there is the cone.  I’ve written previously on my quest to spin my own cones.  There is no voodoo here- 3031 aluminum, .010 thick. Spun, not stamped.  They break in pretty quick. There is a noticeable improvement in the first week or so after its strung up.

07 Jun 2016

Talent is an Excuse

“You are so talented!”

This is probably the number one comment given to makers-of-things, and probably players-of-instruments as well. Talent.  I think talent is used like ‘miracle’ is used.  There is talent and there are miracles, but things that impress you or amaze you are not automatically either.

Ten year olds playing Chopin are talented. I’ll get into the work side of things in a bit, and a 10 year playing Chopin has put in a great deal of work, but they havn’t been around that long.  They are able to learn and progress faster than most of the thousands of other kids putting in the same amount of time over the same amount of years.   16 year old Olympic weightlifters clean and jerking 400 lbs: talent.  There is a time constraint there and out of the hundreds of teenage olympic weightlifters given the same amount of time and training, there are only a couple who can do it.

But talent is also an illusion.  Anytime someone is proficient at their chosen path they are labeled ‘talented’.  It’s a way of identifying people who can do things we can’t do.  I can look through my life and see different experiences teaching me things that have allowed me to get to making these guitars for people.   It didn’t just happen because I progressed faster than other people.  I don’t need to go into my 14 years of struggle so far trying to make guitars, but I need to tell you it was a struggle and continues to be.  Some days I am ok,  some days I can mark things within a 1/64th of an inch by eye- but most days I need to keep at it until it’s right.  It’s important for me to say that to you because I think talent can be a lie we tell ourselves as an excuse.  “They  are so talented!” turns into “I wish I was talented at something” and nothing can hamstring ambition like a feeling like the starting gun went off and you were in the concession line.  A large quantity of work done every day regardless of attitude done over years- that is the ‘secret’.

I’m not here to say ‘make your dream your career’. I think all work can be good work. And there is a lot more in play with a career change than just doing the production work.   I think our life experiences and who we are set us up to be proficient at certain things.  Find that thing.  I’m not naturally proficient at this but my life experience has made me stubbornly persistent and enjoy the struggle. I’ve had experiences that proved that to myself, it wasn’t a self-opinion. I’m bad at just about everything, but I’m persistent and that is my badge of honor.

The next time you see someone ‘talented’, think of the hours put in. The decisions made, the sacrifices of the people around them that helped them along the way.  Think of the piles of junk they made or bad songs they put out.  That’s far more impressive, important, and inspirational than talent.