Rick Turner’s résumé in the music business, as a player, luthier, and electronics designer, was almost impossibly diverse.
Coming out of the Boston folk scene of the early 1960s, he toured as a sideman with folk duo Ian and Sylvia, and plugged in as lead guitarist for the psychedelic rock band Autosalvage.
Relocated to the West Coast, Turner co-founded the instrument/sound company Alembic, building and customizing guitars and basses for Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Jack Casady, David Crosby, and many more, and helping to create the Grateful Dead’s legendary Wall of Sound.
Striking out on his own, Turner designed the groundbreaking Model 1 acoustic-electric, Lindsey Buckingham’s go-to stage guitar since the ’70s. Working at Los Angeles’ Westwood Music and in his own shop, Turner maintained and modified sundry instruments for the likes of Ry Cooder, David Lindley, and Jackson Browne.
Turner applied his deep knowledge of acoustic amplification to designing Highlander pickups and DTAR (Duncan Turner Acoustic Research) preamps and digital modeling systems. Based in Santa Cruz, California, in recent decades, he continued to build and refine his coveted guitars, basses, and Compass Rose ukuleles.
Turner was such a fount of ideas and projects that it’s hard to process the news broke that he passed away on Easter at age 78, from complications after a stroke and heart failure. His huge circle of friends and followers flooded social media with accounts of his boundless creativity, unforgettable stories (read some here), and generosity in sharing his insights and advice.
Along with his prodigious contributions to the guitar world, Turner played a major role in Acoustic Guitar magazine during my tenure as founding editor. His byline first appeared in issue 3 with a feature titled “The Acoustic Guitarist’s Guide to Amplification,” packed with info that holds up amazingly well more than 30 years later. He become one of AG’s original contributing editors, writing extensively on repairs, vintage guitar history, recording techniques, acoustic amps, pickup technology, the mechanics of how a guitar produces sound, and much more.
In 1993, he heralded the profound changes afoot in how guitars were made. “Hang on, acoustic guitar players, the world of computer-aided and computer-controlled manufacturing is here, and it’s popping up in some surprising and controversial places,” he wrote. “At a time when ‘handmade’ guitars are achieving popular success on an unprecedented scale, computers are finding their way past the offices and onto the workshop floors of many guitar makers.”
Reflecting on Turner’s history with the magazine, one thing that stands out in my mind is his answers to reader questions in the department we called Dear A.G. I dug back into the archive from the ’90s and pulled out the selection of his writings below. I can so clearly hear Turner’s voice in these helpful, witty replies. Like so many in the music world, I will miss that voice. —JPR
Can you recommend an acoustic guitar that sounds mellow, has built-in amplification, plays like an electric, and can take either steel or nylon strings?
Basically, no. You have listed a set of characteristics that have not been put together into any one guitar I know of; some of these characteristics would even be considered mutually exclusive by most guitar designers. Steel-string and nylon-string bridges are quite different in their design; nylon-string necks are generally made much wider and thicker than electric steel-string necks, and the tuning gear post diameter is larger for nylon strings than for steel.
It’s really the “plays like an electric” and “can take either steel or nylon strings” part that stumps me. The Takamine Natural series of steel-string cutaways might be the closest. But while they have slotted classical pegheads and large roller tuners, good for nylon strings or steel, these guitars have quite wide necks, revealing their classical guitar heritage. I have recently modified two of these for Jackson Browne, reshaping the necks and filling in the peghead slots to make them more like electric guitars. However, the bridge pickup system is very much a steel-string design, and now Browne has Schaller steel-string tuners. I’d suggest that you get two guitars, each designed properly to do its own unique job.
How often should I change strings?
There is no definitive answer. Many of my customers change strings every other gig to get full brightness; some change every day, particularly if they are in the studio. The answer is subjective with regard to tone; if you like that new string sound, you had better get a string company endorsement or be prepared to spend all your lunch money on strings. I generally change strings after about 15 playing hours or at the point at which intonation starts getting weird.
In order for a string to be in tune with itself, it has to have the same mass and flexibility along its entire vibrating length. As strings age, they get loaded up unevenly with dirt, hand oils, and acids; strings also suffer from metal fatigue. These factors make the strings vibrate unevenly, making tuning a nightmare. So, you should pay attention to the tunability of your instrument; when it gets hard to tune, it may be time to change strings.
Note too that some people have “string-death sweat”—they can take a brand new set of strings and make them sound three years old in five minutes of playing time. I have repaired instruments on which hand sweat has acted so strongly it has stripped lacquer from the neck in a year’s time. Body chemistry? Bad diet? I don’t know, but do not lend such people your instrument!
I recently saw Ry Cooder perform, and he was using a slide on a mandolin! Could you offer some insight into the technique and setup on appropriate slide instruments other than guitar?
Yes, Cooder will use a slide on anything! He regards the slide not just as a way to stop the string to define a note, but also as a way to drive the string, much as a bow drives a violin string. Since Congress hasn’t chosen to regulate slide playing yet, there is no reason not to slip and slide on any kind of string. Check out Martin Mull’s slide ukulele—played with a baby bottle.
As for instrument setup, this is highly personal, and perhaps is less dependent on the instrument than on the player. If you are to play strictly slide on a particular instrument, you should get the action quite high at both bridge and nut. If you need to use both fingers and slide, the setup should be more moderate so intonation stays reasonable and your fingers don’t bleed too much. Setup will depend very much on how aggressive your playing style is; as with standard playing techniques, your instrument setup will evolve as you develop and define your style.
For Cooder’s instruments, I work to get the tops of the strings at the same height, particularly for the higher strings. This way, less slide pressure is required to cleanly play several strings at once. Some of his instruments are set up with a high nut for strictly slide, and some have a compromise nut—higher than normal, but set so he can still fret notes with his fingers. Cooder plays hard, and his slide bashes the strings against the frets often enough that I have to dress the frets frequently. Listen for clacks and bumps on his Paris, Texas soundtrack; these extraneous sounds add a wonderfully spooky quality to the sound of slide guitar.
Is there any harm in using wall racks, i.e., holding the guitar by the base of the head, as in most music stores?
I hang instruments at home and in my shop, and I’ve never noticed any problems. I have heard people rant and rail against the procedure, but they probably have all their socks and underwear neatly folded and color coded, their books sorted by subject and size, and their car engines steam-cleaned every three months. Let’s be real about this; if you can see your guitar, you will probably play it more, and that’s a good thing.
I have a mic and saddle pickup installed in my Gibson Advanced Jumbo. The mic is on a clamp gooseneck-type holder inside the guitar. Does it matter what brace the clamp is on?
I sometimes shock-mount mike capsules in a block of acoustically transparent foam rubber (open cell) and use double-stick foam tape to mount that to either the top or back of the guitar. This keeps weight to a minimum as well as reducing noise mechanically transmitted to the mike. Mic placement inside a guitar is voodoo weird science; there are no rules other than “Try it. Like it? Do it!”
Yes, clamping any weight to a top brace will affect the sound of the guitar, but if it gives you the results you are looking for, who cares? As far as I’m concerned, anything goes with the guitar you are going to use for performance, especially if it isn’t a precious collectible. Drill holes in it, put gaffer’s tape over the soundhole, paint it silver, do whatever it takes to make it work for you. Keep the vintage guitars vintage; go Star Wars with a modern performance guitar as long as you are getting the results.
What is the optimum temperature and humidity for wooden instruments?
The optimum climate for wooden instruments is temperate and moderately dry. Rapid, extreme changes, especially in humidity, are what do the most damage.
A couple of years ago, I did an “Instrument Maintenance for Musicians” workshop at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. A fellow brought me a couple of very nice, relatively new Martins that he was having trouble with. I inspected them and found that the strings were lying on the fretboards and the tops had gone concave! I’ve done Martin warranty work and worked in the repair department of a major Martin dealer; I used to work on about 250 Martins per year. But I had never seen anything like this happen to another Martin or any other acoustic.
It turned out that this guitarist lived in east Texas—swamp country—where the relative humidity was normally in the 90s; that’s like living in a very wet rain forest. His guitars had gotten used to that climate and were working fine for him at home. When he got to Telluride, at 9,000 feet, with less than 20 percent humidity and some very hot days, his poor guitars went through the shock of their existence. Because guitars are generally lacquered on the outside but not the inside, the wood loses some of its inherent moisture content unevenly, thus causing warpage. The Texan’s guitars were the most extreme I’ve ever seen. I recommended putting a wet paper towel in a Ziploc bag, punching holes in the bag to let some moisture out, and dropping the impromptu humidifier inside the guitar. It worked.
With reasonable care, an instrument will get used to just about anything humans can regularly tolerate without life-support clothing, but take care of those rapid changes. Wet to dry seems to be the most problematic. If you are going to take your guitar from a swamp to a desert, get a humidifier and use it.
I’ve often heard that as a guitar ages it starts to sound better. What actually causes this?
It is true that guitars get better with age, at least those with solid wood tops. No one really knows for sure why that is, but there are some plausible theories.
One is that vibrations loosen up the wood fibers of the top, particularly at the vibration nodes and anti-nodes where flexure is greatest. A structural engineer might refer to such loosening as material fatigue, but musicians seem to like it.
Another theory is that it takes several years for all the different wood parts to settle in and get used to being bent, braced, glued, and turned into something other than a tree; when they do settle in, the parts work better together.
There’s also the finish theory, which postulates that it takes quite some time for the finish to harden up and work with the wood.
Then we get into the esoteric stuff about how wood cells align and how the lignin elasticity is affected by vibration, and that’s when the scientists start fighting about the whole subject. I think the real explanation probably involves all of these factors.
I have known guitar makers who put their brand-new instruments in closets with hi-fi speakers blasting music at them 24 hours a day for several weeks. It actually seems to help break in the guitars.
Perhaps you could answer this age-old question: What is the proper method for retrieving a pick that has been dropped into the guitar through the soundhole?
Well, we pick-recovery professionals just turn the guitar upside-down and shake it vigorously while constantly changing the angle of the instrument. I haven’t tried the old stick-and-chewing-gum trick. Perhaps some computer simulations would show us the most efficient way to do this. Until then, do the pick shake, baby. Rock it now! —Rick Turner