By David Hamburger
Ask Frank Helsley, Jr. to describe the moment his father, Frank Helsley, Sr., conceived of Republic Guitars, and his goal of providing “a quality guitar that’s not going to break the bank for your everyman,” and the sandy-haired Texan doesn’t miss a beat. “My dad saw that there was this gap between a $400 piece of junk and a $2,500 guitar that the working musician might not necessarily be able to afford,” he offers, during my visit to the company’s shop.
From the start, Republic—located just outside of Austin—carved out that middle ground by cultivating a relationship with one Asian manufacturer to improve both the materials and build quality of that maker’s resophonic guitars. The company grew to develop and import original designs, like the Highway 61, a single-cone, metal-bodied parlor-sized resonator that is ideal for the traveling musician.
Republic Guitars has caught the attention of the late Texas blues legend Johnny Winter, as well as members of the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers.
Today, the company is run by Frank Jr., who was drawn to the resophonic sound as a teen after hearing Winter perform. But it was the elder Helsley, the founder of Republic Guitars, who laid the foundation of the company. He had spent the 1970s and ’80s working as a carpenter in Dallas, Texas. But he also played countless country and blues bar gigs as a Fender Tele-and-Twin man for hire, and he picked a 1932 Style O National as well. Along the way, he began doing a few repairs, and wound up buying and selling guitars on eBay. Repairing older Nationals and Dobros gave him an up-close look at traditional resophonic design. But, just as importantly, he saw plenty of $300 and $400 imports and took note of what could have been done to make them better instruments.
When, in the mid-2000s, he got the idea to provide musicians with an affordable, yet well-playing, resophonic guitar, he started buying guitars to check them out, taking note of what he thought were weak construction practices. “He just got on the internet and started finding suppliers and builders and ordering samples,” his son recalls. “He went through a good handful of just crap. He went through probably a couple dozen Asian suppliers.”
Eventually, he came across a builder he thought he could work with.
“Resophonic guitars are a weird thing, with a history that goes all the way back to the ’20s,” Frank, Jr. says. “The construction methods haven’t really changed all that much. When my dad finally stumbled upon somebody that he could work with, he started instructing them as to how they could do it better, asking for improvements that would make their instruments more accurate as far as the traditional construction of the guitars. Clearly, for something like the cover plate you need to have threaded holes that are properly tapped, and then the screws that you use need to not be cheap screws that strip out after you’ve used them a couple of times with a Phillips head. Obviously, you’ve got to have a bone nut and you can’t use plastic on these guitars. A lot of it was materials: rosewood biscuit, rosewood fingerboard, maple on the saddle, no cheap stuff. Next, the neck’s got to be straight. You’ve got to have a two-way adjustable truss rod.”
By offering to buy in bulk, Helsley Sr. was able to strike a deal in which his ideas were worth implementing for the manufacturer. “One of the first batches he bought was 25 guitars that he took with him to either the Dallas or the Arlington Guitar Show in the spring of 2007,” Frank Jr. says. “He was biting his nails because the shipment arrived at the port in LA a week or so before the show, but it takes time. It comes from Asia; it gets to the port in LA, it gets on a railroad to Dallas where the customs brokers are. I think he actually got the pallet delivered the morning of the guitar show. So he had 25 guitars he had bought on the premise that, ‘Hey, if this works out and you guys can come through for me, there’s going to be a lot more where this came from.’”
In 2013, with Republic Guitars well underway, Frank Sr. suffered a significant injury that took him out of the picture for several months. Frank Jr., a guitarist himself with his own IT business to run, already was working in the small, family-run operation. With his father recovering in Dallas, the younger Helsley found himself taking a much bigger hand in the company’s operation. After a good deal of commuting from his home in Austin up to Dallas, juggling his own business with that of his father’s, Frank Jr. located warehouse space along Highway 290 just west of Austin, and by the fall of 2013, Republic Guitars had officially relocated to the land of SXSW and Austin City Limits.
Republic is a modest enterprise, with only about a half-dozen people involved, most of them family. Walk into their unassuming building and you’re greeted by a wall full of more than two dozen metal-body resonators in an assortment of styles and finishes.
Off to the left, guitars are being prepped to go out the door, while more guitars take up rows of shelving in a back room, including classic biscuits, single cones, and tricones; and a red-copper rust cutaway model, as well as polished nickel, antiqued brass, and orange-burst resolians.
Quality control is a major concern: Though the company is importing instruments from overseas, Frank Jr. takes pride in how Republic handles each instrument. “You can’t produce a metal-bodied resonator in the United States for under $1,800—it just can’t be done. But not a single guitar goes out without me or Paul playing on it,” he says, referring to one of his few employees. “It comes out on the bench. If I need to file some frets, that’s what I’ll do. If the nut or the action isn’t good, I’ll make a new nut. Adjust the truss rod, things like that. We try to take our time, too, and jam for a good 15 minutes on any guitar just to make sure it has got a decent mojo. They’re not just going in a box on a truck to the nearest Guitar Center.
“If it doesn’t have a good setup, a good feel and sound, we just strip it for parts.”
Republic ships between 40 and 100 instruments each month in this manner. Most of the instruments sell for $679-$699—the exceptions are a few of the parlors and a maple Triolian that sells for $549. “We’re a small niche,” Frank Jr. says. “At this point, I’m more nervous that there’ll be a spike in business that we can’t keep up with.”
In the meantime, he has his eye on a few new designs he’d like to bring to fruition. Chief among those are a wooden version of their Highway 61 design, and a metal body baritone. As for how his instruments stack up in the marketplace, he says, “Nationals are great guitars, and you can’t beat the quality. Theirs is a nicer guitar, no doubt. At the same time, I’ve had just as many pros tell me that they play the Republic just as much as they play their National or that they like their Republic just as much as they like their National.
“I mean, to each his own.”