From the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Martin Keith
The late luthier Rick Turner, who died last April at 78, had such an illustrious career that to fully describe it, one would need to write a medium-size book. When Turner began modifying and rebuilding electric guitars around 1965, the very notion of handmade electrics was a novelty. Although the acoustic world already had some noted individual makers, such as John D’Angelico, the Hauser family, and others, electric guitars were by and large a commodity item, designed for mass production and not taken very seriously by “real” instrument makers.
Turner’s early experiments modifying factory guitars (exemplified by his early Peanut and Pretzel guitars) led him to co-found Alembic, one of the first and most iconic makers of truly custom, handmade electric guitars and basses. During Turner’s tenure at Alembic, he designed and built instruments for the Grateful Dead, David Crosby, Jefferson Airplane, Stanley Clarke, and many other legendary players. He also collaborated with Owsley “Bear” Stanley to rewire and enhance classic Fender amps, design and implement the Grateful Dead’s famous “Wall of Sound” PA system, develop new techniques for live recording, and explore new technologies in the recording studio. This would have been enough to constitute a full career—but Turner was barely getting started.
Following his departure from Alembic, Turner spent time as a cabinetmaker, repair and restoration luthier, and head of R&D for Gibson’s product development, before founding what would become his final venture, Turner Guitars. Best known for the Model 1 guitar, a compact electric that has been the longtime favorite of Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, the company also produces acoustic guitars, solidbody basses, ukuleles, and the very popular Renaissance thinline acoustic-electric instruments.
Turner Guitars represented the perfect synthesis of the luthier’s varied experiences—a marriage of big-factory efficiency and handmade attention to detail. He regularly rolled his eyes about the cork-sniffing world of high-end lutherie, preferring instead to keep his focus on how to make the player happier, make the instrument better, and keep the bills and the employees paid. Turner saw the value of modern manufacturing techniques like CNC, particularly when combined with his brilliant talent for jigs, fixturing, and process design. However, he was also as careful and obsessive about details and quality as any one-person boutique builder—more so, in some cases, because he knew all too well how quickly problems can scale up when producing dozens of instruments a month.
Any builder of electric and acoustic guitars who is sufficiently schooled in their history can see Turner’s influence in countless places. Features that are now commonplace in both handmade and factory guitars began as experiments, spurred by Turner’s playful curiosity—onboard active electronics, carbon-fiber neck reinforcements (and even solid carbon-fiber necks), brass hardware, low-impedance magnetic pickups, piezo pickups, modern finishes—the list goes on and on.
Turner’s work in the realm of electronics led to a collaboration with Seymour Duncan called D-TAR, or Duncan-Turner Acoustic Research, resulting in a line of very high-performing acoustic pickup systems. When digital modeling was just beginning to become a marketable idea in amplification, Turner decided to apply the technology to acoustic instruments, creating the short-lived but decidedly impressive D-TAR Mama Bear—a box that created convincing sonic replicas of about a dozen classic acoustic guitars. As with so many of his projects, he plowed the knowledge gained from this effort back into his understanding of the mechanics of acoustic tone production, pushing his acoustic designs even further forward.
Few luthiers would be willing to take on the challenge of building an acoustic guitar for an Antarctic voyage, but Turner did so with glee, making an instrument for Henry Kaiser that could not only survive the most extreme conditions but would still sound good. The features Turner developed for this somewhat extreme project (internal carbon flying buttress bracing and a three-point adjustable neck) became standard on his acoustics thereafter, because, as he said, “If it’s better, it’s better.”
Alongside Turner’s relentless desire to innovate, he had a deep understanding and appreciation for vintage instruments and their particular magic. His decades spent as a repair and restoration luthier granted him deep knowledge and experience with the finest Martins and Gibsons, and he was a trove of knowledge about their quirks and qualities. However, Turner also looked further afield to lesser-known vintage brands—he was a particular champion of the incredible Howe-Orme instruments, whose adjustable neck joints and barrel-shaped tops clearly influenced his own designs.
Turner was a fixture in the online lutherie community, always there to share information, and often more than willing to suggest a different approach. His contributions were occasionally a little blunt, but the information he shared was invariably backed up with years of real-world trial, error, and development. Despite his advanced lutherie pedigree, he was a regular fixture at acoustic music festivals, where many a young picker was lucky enough to wander into his booth and get a quick repair or adjustment from one of the very best. Reglue a bridge on a ten-year-old’s uke? No problem—and often no charge.
The first time I ever corresponded with a “real luthier,” it was with Turner. I had a question about adding carbon-fiber reinforcements to stiffen a wobbly bass neck, and it seemed obvious to try asking one of the people who introduced that technique to the field. He graciously replied to an unsolicited email from a college student and took the time to explain not just specifically how it should be done but why. That email was long ago lost to an ancient email address, but I very much wish I still had it.
The community of luthiers is marked by a uniquely collaborative and collegial atmosphere, in which would-be competitors freely share information, support, and advice. Throughout his career, Tuner helped to set this tone by taking the time to help other people understand what he already knew, to move them forward in their knowledge and ability as instrument makers, and to keep the field alive and thriving. He remained active, productive, and vividly curious until the day he left us, and echoes of his work will reverberate in the field for many, many years to come. Not many instrument makers will leave such a legacy.
What follows are remembrances by two close friends and cohorts—Flip Scipio, a luthier and repair tech based in Brooklyn, New York, and Will Bezard, the foreman at Turner Guitars in Santa Cruz, California.
A Great Conceptual Artist
While pondering the recent loss of the extraordinarily talented Rick Turner, I remember a particular conversation I had with him about an illustrious colleague’s curious form of craftsmanship. Rick chuckled and said, “Oh, you’re talking about a conceptual artist,” which struck me as a very interesting quip for somebody like him to make, since in my humble opinion Turner was one of the greatest and original conceptual artists I ever had the honor to meet.
This was the thing about Rick that always caught my attention: Whatever he was talking about, even if it sounded a bit outlandish or overcomplicated to a person of lesser artistic imagination, he had the technical and artistic chops to back it up all the way to the bank and back to one of his shops. Thinking about Rick, how much he knew about so many things and how eager he was to share his experience with anybody who was prepared to listen, I can never escape the feeling of having peered at someone planting a flag on top of Mount Knowledge, while I was still wrestling my backpack at Camp Calamity.
The very first time I met Rick was sometime in the early 1990s, during a NAMM show, which, if you’re unfamiliar with one, could be described as a cross between a four-alarm fire in a pet shop and a virtual aspirin advertisement. To avoid the pentatonic mayhem of the main exhibition hall, Rick had wisely booked a hotel where one could actually see and hear something—which in his room was a big, dark-looking Gibson that had an odd-looking contraption burrowing itself into the guitar’s rosewood bridge. It turned out to be one of Rick’s many new pickup designs and it sounded really good, as did this arcane instrument that I had never seen before. Rick explained that it was a mid-1930s Roy Smeck Hawaiian steel-string guitar that he had converted from the original lap-style playing configuration to a conventional setup. I asked him if he was worried that people might be put off by the overt modification to the bridge of a rare vintage instrument such as the Smeck. His voice changed from quite soft to acerbic and louder, and he fired off, “Do you want to play the guitar on stage and sound good or not?”
That sentence has stuck with me ever since. I instinctively understood that Rick was walking the highwire over the abyss between the perceived value of vintage instruments and common sense. After all, Rick might be known to a lot of folks as the creator of his Model 1 electric guitar with a circular pickup, or his Renaissance line of fine acoustic guitars, but he also could graft a 12-string headstock on a Roy Smeck that looked like it had been made in Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory in 1936. —Flip Scipio
The Next Big Thing
Rick was very much someone who retained a persistent curiosity and almost childlike sense of wonder about not only the guitar but engineering and invention in general. He was always most interested in the next big thing. Although he had a deep understanding and respect for the instrument-making tradition, he remained very forward-thinking and concerned with the future of the guitar.
Rick had an unrivaled sense of humor—for instance, often saying, “We gotta move these refrigerators/ We gotta move these color TVs,” using a line from the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” line in reference to our production lines. If we both came to the threshold of a door at the same time going in opposite directions, he would bow and say, “Walk this way!”—a reference to the Aerosmith song—in a silly voice.
Get stories like this in your inbox
There were always moments around the shop where Rick would engage with his musical self, and it was nice to see that depth in him as a craftsman and a musician, as well as someone who just appreciated the character of sound. His example was good affirmation that a goofy failed guitarist like me could not only succeed in lutherie but offer a particularly helpful perspective to other players by connecting with them as musicians.
All of the building lessons Rick provided me—and the guitar history he taught me—have informed and solidified my own identity as a professional in this world. His perspective on instrument making has also colored my perspective in that regard. Rick’s Renaissance line is essentially a modular design applied to a hybrid guitar that can take the form of pretty much any fretted instrument. From those unique instruments, I learned the guitar can be whatever we’d like it to be. So I hope to keep Rick’s spirit alive by pushing invention and inspiration in new directions while keeping the player’s needs at the center of these novel ideas. —Will Bezard
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.