From the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By E.E. Bradman
Dan Erlewine just might be the most famous guitar repairperson on earth. His books—including Guitar Player’s Repair Guide, How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great, Guitar Finishing Step by Step, Fret Work Step by Step, and Trade Secrets—are definitive reference works that have stood the test of time. His classic columns for Guitar Player and Bass Player magazines (as well as his decade-plus relationship with Vintage Guitar) have helped introduce the vocabulary of guitar setup to the masses, and his instruments have found their way into the hands of icons such as Jerry Garcia, Albert King, and Otis Rush. But it’s Erlewine’s pioneering instructional content—a slew of VHS tapes, DVDs, and YouTube videos, mostly for guitar-tool juggernaut StewMac—that have made the Athens, Ohio, resident a mentor to three generations of guitar maintenance and repair geeks.
Today, at 76, Erlewine remains the company’s most recognizable face on social media and YouTube, and he still gets animated talking about necks, nuts, frets, and other crucial components of a great guitar setup. In his videos, he’s surrounded by tools of his own invention—most of which are available at StewMac—and his calm demeanor imparts a sense of methodical zen that inspired one YouTube commenter to dub him “the Bob Ross of guitar.” He’s unflappable and no-nonsense but warm, grandfatherly, and even funny sometimes. When he picks up a guitar, however, it’s clear that he’s more than just a very good repairman.
It’s hard to believe that after all these years, there’s still uncharted territory for Erlewine, but the new Iris Guitars DE-11 proves otherwise. His first signature guitar, based on a beloved 1937 Kalamazoo KG-11, features a 1930s V-shaped neck, Rickard rear-mount banjo tuning machines, an Adirondack spruce top, a satin finish, as well as Honduran mahogany back, sides, and neck. Most intriguing, its neck extends past the nut before transitioning into the ears of the peghead, and threaded brass inserts in the fingerboard accept screw-down capos. “It’s the most musical new guitar I’ve ever owned,” says Erlewine.
The Domino Effect
Erlewine’s roots as a player and repair nerd go back to his childhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His mother, an artist, and his father, a businessman by day and woodworker at home, encouraged Dan and his brothers to use tools, paint, and wood. When Erlewine got his first six-string, a Stella-like Domino, he stripped, sanded, and refinished it. Soon, he was putting inlays in friends’ instruments, and it wasn’t long before he found his way into the Herb David Guitar Studio (“a true acoustic music store”), where he swiftly moved from selling guitars and giving lessons to working in repairs.
Erlewine’s parents’ record collection—especially albums by Lead Belly, Marais & Miranda, and Josh White—primed him for the late-’50s folk craze. “My earliest influence was folk music; Bob Dylan with Michael Bloomfield was the reason I strayed into electric guitars and played in electric bands,” he says. “But for the last 20 years, I’ve focused on playing the roots music I started with.” In the ’50s and ’60s, Ann Arbor was a folk music hotspot, and working at the Herb David Guitar Studio gave Erlewine the opportunity to meet and hear artists like Bob Dylan, Andrés Segovia, Sabicas, Carlos Montoya, Julian Bream, Jesse Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, the New Lost City Ramblers, and Doc Watson, as well as Clarence and Roland White with the Kentucky Colonels.
“Bob Dylan’s first record, with ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ led me down the folk music rabbit hole,” he says. “In 1960, I bought Pete Seeger’s Folksinger’s Guitar Guide, which came with a book and a record. I bought my Herco thumbpicks and fingerpicks, learned ‘Railroad Bill’ from that record, and was fingerpicking away.” The arrival of the Kentucky Colonels was another seminal event. “They came to Ann Arbor in ’63 or ’64 to do a two-week stint at the Golden Vanity, a coffeehouse I managed at night, and Clarence White became my new hero,” Erlewine remembers. “Clarence taught me to play ‘Wildwood Flower,’ a song I already knew, but he crosspicked it. He called his technique McReynolds picking [after bluegrass mandolinist Jesse McReynolds], and he told me to get Doc Watson’s new record. That’s when I got my first flatpick.”
Building a Legacy
As much as he loved playing, Erlewine decided to devote less time to “making it big in the music scene,” and in 1969, he opened Erlewine Instruments in Ann Arbor. A couple years later, he began building electric guitars; two of his most famous creations are Albert King’s famed “Lucy,” a Flying V, and Jerry Garcia’s “Stratishcaster,” a Strat with a Gibson stop tailpiece, a rosewood pickguard, and rosewood numbers inlaid in the fretboard (“so Jerry would never doubt what fret he was at,” he jokes). By 1975, Erlewine had moved to Big Rapids and opened a new shop, Dan Erlewine’s Guitar Hospital. But his biggest innovations were yet to come.
In late 1983, his older brother, Michael, loaned him a video camera: “‘Make videos of what you do, and you’ll always be first in line,’ Michael told me. ‘They’ll credit you as their teacher and it’ll make you famous.’ He was right.” Erlewine went to a NAMM show a few months later, demoing his fret technique at the Dunlop booth, and he arranged to have his Guitar Hospital videotapes, the first of their kind, play on a monitor throughout the day. A few months later, Kix Stewart of StewMac called to say that he’d seen the videos, and he invited Erlewine to join StewMac in Athens, Ohio. Dan’s been there for 37 years.
Six decades after he first began working with guitars, Erlewine says the internet has changed repair tutorials exponentially. He’s hopeful about the future, too.
ACOUSTIC GUITAR: There are so many more resources for aspiring luthiers than there used to be.
Dan Erlewine: That’s for sure! With the many books, DVDs, guitar kits, and building/repair schools, it’s much easier to learn the trade. When I started, there weren’t many luthiers around, and those I found wouldn’t share what they knew. I had to learn on my own.
Some folks might call you the godfather of guitar repair.
I’m not the godfather. In my generation, the godfathers were Hideo Kamimoto, who wrote Complete Guitar Repair; Don Teeter and his two-volume The Acoustic Guitar: Adjustment, Care, Maintenance and Repair; as well as Irving Sloane’s Classical Guitar Construction and Guitar Repair: A Manual of Repair for Guitars and Fretted Instruments, which he researched, wrote, and then photographed in Martin’s repair shop. Those guys are my godfathers.
What you think of guitar-building schools?
I tried college twice, and never lasted a whole semester, but I’d have jumped at the chance to go to a guitar-building school. If one can afford it, and spend time away from work or home, it’s a wonderful substitute for going to college.
What advice do you have for a luthier who’s considering going to school?
Learn all you can before attending a school—it will give you a head start, and you’ll be more ready to learn from the outset. The internet is a good place to start. Though I’m sure there are many helpful websites out there, there are two veteran repairmen whose sites I frequent because I learn so much: Frank Ford’s frets.com and ianhatesguitars.com, hosted by Ian Davlin.
Some people say the guitar in contemporary culture is passé. What are your feelings on the future of the guitar and guitar repair?
Guitar, passé? No way! I see more guitars being made, sold, played, set up, and repaired today than ever. The world needs guitar makers and repairers, and new generations will go far beyond what came before them. I meet young luthiers who are already raising the bar, and many of them are graduates of luthier schools.
You still play regularly. Do you have a practice routine?
Sixteen or 17 years ago, I started playing every day, and with purpose. I play guitar for at least an hour before dinner. It’s not practice—just playing. I pick a key, play a chord, wait until something starts to form, and then go with the flow as unconsciously as possible. Soon, it turns into a melody and the basis for a song.
How did you first get into the Kalamazoo KG-11 that inspired your new collaboration with Adam Buchwald of Iris Guitars?
I repaired one for a special friend around 16 years ago, and I couldn’t stop remembering how it felt and sounded. I found one, did the necessary repair and setup, and it was just as good as I’d remembered! I also love the size. I’m not a tall guy, but I’ve been playing big guitars all my life, and reaching over a jumbo guitar wasn’t good for my right shoulder. Hey, short people—play small guitars and you’ll last longer.
When did you decide to make your own version of the KG-11?
I’d wanted to for years, and I even cut up some special mahogany to make them. When one of my apprentices, Steve Miller, got a job with Iris Guitars last year, I said, “Hey, why don’t you ask if Iris would be interested in making a Dan Erlewine model like the Kalamazoo, with the built-in capos?” His boss, Adam Buchwald, said, “Yeah, man!” I sent out my Kalamazoo, they spec’d it out, made one, sent it back to me, and bingo—we had it.
How does the DE-11 compare to a KG-11?
The DE-11 sounds like a KG-11 made in the same batch on the same day. It has all the punch, warmth, and power I’ll ever need. The DE-11 is beautifully made, and the sunburst is perfect; it’s done by Dale Fairbanks, a renowned maker of 1930s Gibson-style guitars who joined the Iris team. The finish doesn’t use coats of sealer or wood filler, so it’s a very thin, hard, beautiful finish that lets a guitar sound “old” or played-in, right out of the case.
The screw-in capo is one of the most distinctive elements of this guitar. How’d you come up with that idea?
Capos have always gotten in the way of my fretting hand. They’re clumsy, but necessary for the music I play. After I’d experimented a lot with a clamp-style Hamilton capo and an extension, my longtime shop-mate Elliot John-Conry asked, “Why don’t you just screw a capo onto the ’board?” I told him we couldn’t do that, and he asked, “Why not?” So, that weekend, we built screw-in capos and put them in an old guitar. I spent a couple years improving the capos until I settled on what I have now.
How do you use them?
Well, it’s really a capo that holds down the middle four strings. If I put it at the second fret, I’ve capoed up a whole step, but the outside E strings aren’t capoed—which means I have a D tuning on the bottom (D, A, and D) plus G, B, and D on the top. It’s great for playing the blues, folk, country, and rock styles I love. It’s kind of like playing with an open tuning, but whenever I play chords I already know, I’m closing the strings, and I’m back in standard tuning—but with open-string options that wouldn’t be available otherwise.
If I want to capo up the neck with the same dropped-string effect, I use a second capo a whole step below. We also make a capo that covers all six strings which doesn’t get in the way of your fretting hand. There’s no comparison between that and any other mechanical capo; our capo makes it easier to execute anything you’re playing in the first position.
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How do you attach them?
With a mini Torx screwdriver, which puts the mounting screw flush with the top of the capo, or with a thumbscrew that tightens on top of the capo, which is less awkward and faster.
Have you begun putting them in all your instruments?
All my guitars have my capos. I have a 1939 Gibson J-35, and I put capos in that. I sent wood to Gibson to make a 2001 Les Paul that looked like Bloomfield’s, and I put capos in that. I also have two other electric guitars with capos for the blues and country bands that I play in.
Tell me about the elongated neck.
I’ve always felt cramped playing certain chords in the first position—E, B7, and certain F chords, for example—because the neck transition to the ears of the peghead is so close. I wanted a bit more room, so we let the neck shape keep on going a little farther. Chords that were uncomfortable to the bones of my hand are no longer a problem. You’d have to play one to know.
Do you go back and forth to guitars with and without capos?
Not often, but what I’ve learned with the drop-capo thing causes me to play new music without a capo, and sometimes I’m curious to see what comes out.
Do you consider your screw-in capo a replacement for standard capos?
No, because it’s not a capo you move around fast, although it’s not super slow to change positions, either. It’s the unscrewing and re-screwing that might concern live performers. But once they discover the new melodies, chords, and sounds offered by these capos, I think they’ll want people to hear it, and I believe they’ll develop the necessary “patter” to keep audiences occupied while changing capo positions.
What else would you like to mention about the DE-11?
It comes with my favorite strings, D’Addario Flat Tops Phosphor Bronze light gauge EFT16s, which have a warm, semi-bright sound and hardly any finger/string noise. The Rickard tuners are the finest, most accurate, and easy-to-tune machines I have ever used, and I think they’re beautiful. These tuners, first designed by Frank Ford, have cycloidal gears, something that’s never been used on a guitar before. The DE-11 is also available left-handed, or with a narrower neck for small hands.
Where do you go from here?
I have the perfect guitar, and I make the best music of my life with it. Along with Adam—Iris, that is—I’m working on an electric guitar with capos, the longer neck, as well as bolt-on replacement necks so players can have an easy way to try the system out. These capos aren’t just for acoustic guitars. I bet Keith Richards would have a blast with this neck-mounted on a Tele!
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.