“I’m reading this book, Principles: Life and Work, by Ray Dalio, which is awesome, just fantastic,” Matt Eich says. “One of the things he asks is, ‘What do you want, what is the reality, and what are you going to do about it?’ If you can answer those questions, you’re on the right track. But if you don’t actually figure out what you want, and you don’t know what the reality is, you could really be wasting your time.”
Eich certainly knows about time spent in limbo, but he also knows about changing his reality and going for the gold. In the six years he and his team (his brother Phil Eich, their friend Adam Smith, and recent hire Will Shea) have been building instruments in Saginaw, Michigan, under the Mule Resophonic Guitars name, Eich’s steel- and brass-bodied resonator guitars have become known for their full-bodied and complex tone, impressive volume, natural reverb, gorgeous vintage looks, and easy playability. Mule’s popularity has led to a 14-month wait time with a wait list close to 120 names long. But Eich’s journey getting to this point has been anything but straightforward.
After making a couple guitars in high school and learning the basics at Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona, Eich spent three years in Virginia working for acclaimed guitar and banjo makers Huss & Dalton, where carving necks, binding bodies, and doing millwork on hundreds of instruments gave him the confidence to think of himself as a pro. (“I needed to carve 400 necks to feel like I knew what I was doing,” he says.) Eich subsequently worked in manufacturing and built guitars on the side, but when he lost his Chicago factory job in 2010, he returned to central Michigan. Seeing Kelly Joe Phelps play a resonator guitar at a show in Traverse City, three hours from Saginaw, was just the inspiration he needed. Initially based in a small garage closet, Mule opened for business in 2012.
“I made four the first year, ran out of money, and spent some time at a temp job,” says Eich. “Two weeks later, I had 12 orders, and a month later, I had 25. A year later, I had 60 on the wait list, then 80.”
These days, the Mule team builds about 120 instruments a year in a 1,600-square-foot shop they’ve enjoyed since 2016, and the list of high-profile players who swear by their Mules includes Charlie Parr, Jeffrey Foucault, Charlie Hicks, Joey Landreth, Dan Auerbach, and of course, Phelps. When he looks back on the years he spent in factories wondering how he’d ever make guitars for a living, Eich laughs. “I was standing in coolant puddles in the middle of the night, sticking my arms into ovens, rubber presses—industrial supply stuff. I mean, it was a haul,” he says, sighing. “Now I can walk into a shop with a high ceiling, the tools are there, I put on a podcast, and carve a neck. It’s gravy. I’ll take these troubles any day.”
What niche did you want to fill when you started Mule?
I wanted to make a resonator guitar that was closer to an acoustic instrument, with traditional resonators that sounded and looked different, and were warmer. No one was offering that sound.
How do you get the sound you were aiming for?
By treating the back more like an acoustic guitar. To get a warmer sound, you need more low end—low-end waves are large, and to get large waves, you need a large thing moving. Traditionally, builders want the cones to do most of the vibrating, but I wanted to get the back vibrating, because that’s a large piece. If there was going to be more warmth, it couldn’t come from the small cones—it had to come from the back. I brace the inside differently so that I don’t have to put the dowels in between the back and the soundwell. I let the back do the warm, low stuff, and I let the cones do the high stuff.
What do you love about the tone of a steel-bodied resonator?
The warmth, the reverb, the sustain, the clarity—a steel resonator ends up kind of being like a complex coffee. It’s steel, but it’s also warm and it’s clear, plus it has reverb. That constant juxtaposition of sounds is what makes it intriguing.
Your tricones look like single-cones.
I like the traditional look of the f-hole with the single-cone coverplate, so I wanted to put three cones in a body instead of having the grates that you normally see on a tricone. Turns out that the first prototype National was a single-cone coverplate with three cones inside, but it didn’t go into production. They started making tricones, and then single-cones came later.
How much difference does the soundhole make?
They have a huge impact on the sound. If you play a National Reso Rocket, which is a single-cone with a tricone soundhole, it sounds more like a tricone. And holes in a tricone body make it sound more like a single-cone than you’d expect; it’s a little sweeter on the high end, it has a bit more compression, and it’s just a little bit more balanced.
How do you help customers choose between a single-cone and a tricone?
If someone strums with a pick, I recommend a single-cone; you get more headroom, and it’s a little bit warmer on the lower end. But eight out of ten people we make guitars for are going to play slide and fingerstyle, and sometimes use a pick. If that’s you, get a tricone, because it’s a little bit sweeter, the compression is balanced, and it serves both purposes pretty well.
When do you recommend a pickup?
If they don’t have an amp, I don’t recommend a pickup. We make a Mule humbucker and a P-90-style pickup we call a Wee-90. A pickup on a resonator sounds cool because it’s amplifying vibrations of a big steel body, but if you’re looking for the most accurate representation of your resonator guitar, put a mic in front of the instrument so you can get all the sonic information from the strings, the body, the cones, and the surface. It needs to have all that.
Your option list is surprisingly simple.
I’ve never had any specs on my website: No nut width, scale length, brand of tuners, cone type, or brand of steel—just roasted maple for the necks. We’ve sold 550 instruments and no one ever asked. It’s either steel or brass, there’s a pickup or there isn’t, and it’s a tricone or a single-cone. When people get into specs, they start thinking that maybe one small detail will make them happier and inspire them more than another. The customers bring their enthusiasm and I think about the details.
What do you think customers are looking for?
They’re buying a connection to you as a person, and they’re buying an instrument that, hopefully, inspires them to write songs they wouldn’t have written and meet people they wouldn’t have met. I’m trying to offer people a tool and get out of the way.
How do you do that?
By making something transparent enough that everybody can just get on with playing. My instruments are the traditional resonator shape because it’s been around nearly a hundred years; that’s what people expect. I get a lot of compliments on my neck shape, and the reason why people like it is because it’s a subtle blend of “C,” “D,” and “V” shapes. That’s part of that transparency.
Now you offer titanium-reinforced necks, too.
Titanium is super cool. It’s so light, and it wants to return to the shape that it was formed in. Unlike steel and aluminum, titanium doesn’t bend; it’s light and strong, and it’s actively trying to keep the neck in the original shape. It’s great with a torrefied maple neck that’s resistant to humidity.
What excites you about making these instruments?
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The possibility that a player will find the sound completely different from anything that they’ve ever played. I hope they’ll play things they haven’t played before because it sounds different on this guitar, and that when they go back to their dreadnought, they’ll approach it in a different way. That’s what’s inspiring. I want to get a guitar to someone and hear them go, “Wow! This is like nothing I’ve ever heard.” I want that emotional reaction.
What would you tell somebody who’s trying to get into the guitar-building business right now?
First, as Bob Taylor says in Guitar Lessons: A Life’s Journey Turning Passion into Business, quantity is just as important as quality. If you’re a new builder, don’t make three instruments a year and then try to sell them for $8,000 apiece. Carve and fret hundreds of necks and make lots of bodies to learn what you suck at. Make a ton of stuff, because some guy out there is making the same thing you are, and he has already carved 500 necks. That’s your competition, and you have to be real about it. Otherwise, it’s a hard road. Navigating the balance between “how do I make this awesome” and “how do I make more of that” is an ongoing thing.
Second, serve people by giving them something that fixes a problem. They’re looking for a particular sound—get it to them. When people first get into building guitars, they think, “Well, I want to make this new body shape, and everyone will love it.” If you do that, you’re not filling a need—you’re doing it for yourself. That’s a huge mistake.
Seems that you love the social aspect, too.
I was telling someone yesterday that this whole “making things” thing is like our little community softball league. You don’t join softball because you like softball—you join softball so you can meet other people who like being outside and are looking for friends, right? In a time of social media and lack of real connections, it’s extremely rewarding, but you have to have an open mind.
Your journey is a great case study for up-and-coming luthiers.
I’m passionate about telling people my story, because when I wanted to do this on my own, I was pretty lost. Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton are spectacular human beings, and working with them showed me what it would take to succeed. But I spent over a decade in factories wondering how the heck I was going to make it happen. I want to share the little bit that I’ve learned so far.
What’s next for Mule?
I’m going to start making some wood-body resonators, a super-limited thing so I can get my toe back in the water. I want to treat wood-body resonators like acoustic guitars and put the huge knowledge base about acoustic instruments into a resonator guitar. I want to see what I can do with that.
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.