Mr. Sandman Build Me A Dream— A Celebration of Custom Guitar Builders Collings Guitars

In Guitars by admin

(Singing the circle of 5ths) Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bumbum-bum… Mr. Sandman, something to hold… Would be so peachy before we’re too old… So please turn on your magic beam, Mr Sandman, bring me, please, please, please… Mr Sandman, bring me a dream.  — The Chordettes, 1954

Do young mothers sing their children to sleep with “Mr. Sandman” anymore? Probably not, but they should. Afterall, it has been recorded by Chet Atkins, Jim Campilongo (and you really need to hear it), Marvin Gaye, The Chipmunks, The Supremes, The Andrews Sisters, and Emmy Lou sang it real nice with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. Too soft for ya? Well, cue up the heavy metal version by Germany’s Blind Guardian on youtube (also highly recommended.)

Back to young mothers for a minute… Do they sing dreamy songs to their children at all in 2011, and if so, what? Let’s see, our theme song for this edition of the Quest originally reached Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1954… What might be holding down that spot today? Why, it’s “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5 with Christina Aguilera, and for any moms out there looking for a contemporary ditty for the kiddies, the chorus goes, “Take me by the tongue And I’ll know you. Kiss me ‘til you’re drunk And I’ll show you all the moves like Jagger… I’ve got the moves like Jagger… I’ve got the moves like Jagger…” Now, what could be more horrifying to a drowsy babe than the sight of Mommy Dearest grinding over the crib snarling such hideous leericks? Well, please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste packing a Beretta 40 cal. semi-automatic Compact. Number One with a bullet? Yes, please, one right between the eyes for all six of them, figuratively speaking, of course. There are no dreamy lullabies to be found in the Hot 100 today, people. Aside from Adele’s #2 wrist-slitting anthem to angst “Someone Like You,” the Top 20 are all about getting wasted and screwed. What happened? Where did all the dreamy songs go, and when did merely dreaming about getting screwed in song become so uncool?

Changing any of this, of course, would require a miracle, and if we had one to give we’d just ask for Gram Parsons and Clarence White back, but we don’t and we can’t, so let’s all spin the Chordettes’ original “Mr. Sandman” 45 on the Cadence label and acknowledge in close harmony that today, more than ever, everybody deserves a dream that goes a little deeper than the deepest thoughts of Katy Perry. Dreams give us hope and provide a precious distraction from the stuff that can otherwise make us feel sour and glum. Marooned, even.

We guitarists are fortunate in this regard. For relatively low dough we can indulge in a dream now and then that will brighten our mood while gifting us with another new voice to express ourselves through music. No matter how badly you may want one, a new Mini Cooper can’t do this. Sooner than later the new smell fades and it’s just your car. A nice expensive dinner won’t do it, and we don’t need to explain what happens to that… By now we can also pretty much agree that neither weed, ecstasy, meth, blow, booze or Propofol can do it for the long haul, either. Even a good dog can’t get you through dark days quite like a guitar. Guitars have staying power. Even in those times when you don’t feel like playing them they provide comfort and reassurance merely hanging on a wall or sitting in a stand in suspense, always ready and willin’ to be picked up again and played. Willin.’ What could possibly be better in life than anything that’s willin’? The people who build such guitars are indeed our Mr. Sandman. The practical utilitarian may find inexpensive ‘production’ instruments best suited for steady gigging, and we have acquired just such a guitar to be featured in December. But for this edition of the Quest we have lingered longer on instruments that appeal to those with higher aspirations. The brave risk-takers that build exceptional guitars deserve to be celebrated, and so we begin with another informative conversation with Bill Collings on the new I35 LC maple-ply electric lovingly crafted in Austin, Texas. But first, a potent pause for reflection…

We know from experience that some people feel that a $4,000 guitar is a rip off. Not you, perhaps, but it remains fashionable in certain circles to hold the opinion that corporate  profits are an evil extracted through exploitation — exploitation of consumers, employees and the environment. In some cases, this is true, and while you might could get us to agree that a $12,000 bolt-on-neck limited edition anything is a big stretch, we suggest you consider just how committed and slightly nutty someone needs to be to think that they can start a guitar company these days and survive, let alone thrive. It’s gonna take years for your idea to catch on in a meaningful way, and while you’re trying to create a following you’ll be paying top dollar for materials because your purchasing volume is low. You will work 18 hour days, 7 days a week because you can’t afford to hire qualified help even if you could find it. You’ll endeavor to develop a few relationships with prominent players and emerging bands that can front your guitars on stage, and unless you are independently wealthy, seed capital will only be provided by ‘angel investors” who often mutate into Lucifer (the fallen angel as you recall) who will at the very least expect a return on their investment that far exceeds the cost of interest on the loan you couldn’t get. Or, your investors will steal your company from you over some petty disagreement gone south… Then, should you manage to survive the first few years and build a following for your guitars, at some point you will need to invest every penny you have saved or take out a big loan to expand and meet the increased demand you have created. This is the most dangerous stage of development for any company, and the exact point where Matchless went under. The yen tanked just as Matchless had invested heavily in a new production facility, and when their Japanese distributor withdrew a huge order for amplifiers, the company went under in a matter of weeks. Our point is, it seems shortsighted to resent people who take the risk and shoulder the work that is required to follow their dream when they finally earn a profit from having done so. It takes huge balls to start a guitar company, and a laser beam focus on every detail to make it work. Let’s celebrate the same American ingenuity and craftsmanship embodied in over-priced vintage instruments from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, grateful that modern guitars of comparable and often better quality are still being built today right here in the USA. And now with no further ranting, it is our pleasure to introduce you to Bill Collings:

TQR: Thanks for your time today, Bill. We have been very impressed with the new I35.

What did you like about it?

TQR: It’s a Collings, and it embodies all the things we seem to like so much in all of your guitars, acoustics included. Obviously the attention to detail and craftsmanship, we like the smaller body size, the fingerboard and fretwork are often the first things we notice in any guitar and they are exceptional in this instrument… Of course we are very familiar with the sound of Lollar humbuckers since we first became familiar with Jason when he was primarily a guitar builder who also wound his own pickups…  Lollar pickups have always seemed to complement a wide variety of instruments. And the shape and feel of the neck on this guitar and all the other Collings we have played and reviewed just seems perfect. 

Well, I really appreciate that. We try to put more meat in the neck, and with electrics in particular you need more wood in the neck, but it can’t be in the wrong spot. We’ve worked really hard on that. What I like about that guitar is what it does acoustically, and every one of these plywood guitars are consistent in what they do acoustically. They have a real strong middle without being muted on either end, and there is something special about them.

TQR: It’s been a while since we spoke when you first began building electric guitars… What have you learned from the experience in general?

In general… Well, you need wood, you need enough of it, and it needs to sound good. You can’t change the character of wood, so you have to use wood that is the right stuff for building an instrument. The more you can use without it sounding too hard or too bright the better. You see some guitars that are made with no wood at all and they may sound OK, but for what we want to do, you have to put the wood into the guitar rather than taking it out.

TQR: When we first spoke I can recall you talking about how you had to pay a great deal of attention to the weight of the wood you buy…

And we still really do. Weight, and what that wood sounds like at the same time. You can have two boards of the exact same weight that sound totally different from one another. When your buy wood you take a leap of faith that hopefully you’ll get a range that can be used across different models. That’s an important thing, because every time you get a pile it may range from 2 3/4 to 3 pounds per board foot and you might be thinking that you really needed 2 1/4 to 2 1/2, but then the next pile you buy might come in at that weight. Hopefully you’re under 3 pounds no matter what.        

TQR: And you were also paying attention to the weight of the wood used for necks versus bodies…

Absolutely, and in acoustics especially. That started us off in acoustics years ago. When they started going into Peru for mahogany it got heavy and at first we didn’t really catch it. Some of the mahogany from Peru could weigh up to 4 1/4 pounds per board foot versus what we wanted, which was 2 3/4 up to 3 3/4. So some necks could get a little heavier by 4, 5 or 6 ounces, and the blocks were huge, and all of a sudden your guitars begin to creep up and get heavier. Where the wood comes from is important, how much you buy and how it’s handled…  We’ve been really lucky with it, but we also had some wood that we didn’t use for a while until we found a use for it. We’re getting better at it than when we first started because we know what we want, or at least we think we do.

TQR: You’ve learned what the parameters need to be.

Sure, and they may be pretty loose, or looser with some other builders, but you know… there is also a different customer for all of those guitars. In ours, we want to keep them within a certain range so that different guitars among the same model will hopefully sound similar and we can maintain that tone. A larger company has a wider range of customers so they could have a Les Paul that sounded more like a Fender, or make it really light or heavier, whatever they wanted.

TQR: Or hold out heavier mahogany for an SG, for example.

Yes, and I think they do. They need to on that guitar. That’s a harder guitar, so if it was the right weight you could have a magical guitar, but you may miss that envelope because you’re trying to ditch wood. It wouldn’t necessarily be a light or heavy piece of wood, but it has the right meat and you would wind up with a 7 pound guitar that will sound good.

TQR: We constantly run across the persistent impression among guitarists that ‘lighter is always better.’ 

Absolutely not. The more scooped it might be, the hotter it might be in some spots, but it will have less middle and less of the fundamental that can make it a truly great guitar.  

TQR: What inspired you to build a plywood I35?

That’s a great question. I thought about it for a long time, and when we started out building the I35 we loved it and we heard the different range of tones you could get from the variations in the type of wood we use. We wanted to nail the tone of a 335 style guitar, but we heard more variation in tone produced by the wood, and I wanted to see if we could build a guitar without worrying about the variation in tone from different batches of wood and do so reliably (but with a lot more labor). What we found when we made guitars with maple laminate was that we could control the tone better. It produced a certain compression to the notes, and the laminate acts as kind of a filter for the pickup that produces a more even tone without so much extraneous highs and lows.

TQR: Would you say that the maple ply I35 possesses a more acoustic sound?

In some ways it may, because it is a more even sound. I would say that the notes are more consistent from edge to edge and the peaks are more controlled, and that makes the overall sound more musical. It’s a really hard thing to describe, but the best way to do it is to take the best known examples of the guitar we’re trying to mimic somewhat and have great players play it, then play our smaller version of the same guitar, then the 16” SoCo size, and the I35 and talk about which ones you like. Well, the people who have done that really liked their $35,000 personal version of a 335 best, but they really liked our I35 better in some ways because they loved the tone and they didn’t have to buy a $35,000 guitar to get it. Then the bigger 16” SoCo version seemed to double the low and high end response. Many people don’t know it, but the original early 335s had an unbelievable high end treble voice. After playing all of these guitars, if they would pick up one of our I35s with an eastern maple top they would choose them in this order – our maple top, our 16”, the vintage 335 and the I35. It would be in that order and that was the answer we got from our personal tester here in Austin. To me, that meant that we had arrived. We learned so much when we were designing and building the solid body I35 style that when we began building the laminate versions we only had to build maybe 10 guitars. If we had built the plywood version first I don’t think we could have gotten there. We had to realize that we couldn’t quite get where we wanted to go until we tried the plywood. That was a whole new route, and to me now, you’re not a woodworker unless you can make something out of plywood. It is awesome to take this hunk of crap wood that somebody peeled off a dead tree and then make this beautiful guitar using molds and presses and gluing it up and creating something so special.       

TQR: We spent some time in a recent issue discussing the composition of the plywood used by Gibson in 335s, which varied from 3 plies of maple/poplar/ maple to 4 plies of maple. To what extent did you experiment with the laminate you developed and what did you learn?

Playing David (Grissom’s) original ‘59 335, I went in that room with this wonderful I35 that I thought would just crush his ‘59. I strummed David’s guitar just one time and I thought, “Oh, my god. What is going on here?” It had a sound like ripping cardboard, and the tone was just falling apart. That day I thought that the wood might have been a maple and poplar combination, but that guitar is all maple. Over time, with that block, the sound is just coming alive.  You strum it and it’s just falling apart – it’s vibrating where it shouldn’t, if that makes sense. If you use something like basswood in the middle, you’re not going to hear it falling apart as much as you would if it’s crisper wood. Basswood is a really soft and dull wood. We want that wood to be working, not absorbing vibration. We’re trying to produce tone, because the wood we use is a filter, but by the same token you don’t want to filter the filter with something that’s too soft. We did a lot of experimenting and what becomes a bigger issue is what’s in the middle ply –  the outer plies just go along for the ride. We can run a range of different wood through there in making the laminate and you would not believe the difference in those guitars. We would try this, try that, weigh this, weigh that, and we eventually found what we liked acoustically, and it sounds like David’s guitar. You play it just right and it sounds loose – it’s new, but it sounds loose, and it’s audibly giving up more than you’d expect. It doesn’t sound stiff, muted or ‘new.’            

TQR: And I suppose you were set up internally to make your own tooling and gear up for producing your own laminate.

We make everything here. We have to, because we wanted to make it look like we cared a little bit more. We didn’t want to jam it together with the glue and presses. The guitar is loosely put together, really well-glued, but not being forced or jammed into shape. Any production plywood guitar that is jammed into shape rather than molded into the shape isn’t going to give you the same tone and you’re not going to get the same kind of vibration. We had a lot of fun working on getting the laminate together and it was a great learning experience. As I said before, you’re not a woodworker unless you can make something out of plywood.

TQR:  Let’s talk about the center block. We suspect it contributes to the variation in weight among 335s a great deal, and the variation is extreme – from 7.5 to 10 pounds or more.

It’s the main part of the guitar, the thing that holds it all together. You can hear more changes testing blocks than you do changing the plies in the laminate. I have an Epiphone Casino here that weighs 11 pounds. It’s amazing how much wood like maple and mahogany can vary in weight.

TQR: So I assume you weigh the maple you use for blocks as well…

You have to, and there will be some variation but we don’t allow that much.

TQR: How did you come up with the body dimensions for the I35? 

We wanted a smaller guitar that would be a little easier to play. It’s not really about how much air is in that guitar. We just wanted to make it proportional so that it would feel good and be comfortable to play.         

TQR: Another thing we often notice in some production guitars is a steep neck pitch, which seems to just suck the tone right out of them. You don’t do that. 

It’s all about not putting a big pinch over the guitar with a steep angle. We want the angle to be relaxed so it’s not really biting in at a steep angle. That seems to choke guitars off big time. To make something bloom and blossom you have to relax all that stuff. You still have down pressure, but you can’t choke the angle of the string to the guitar. It sets up a strange harmonic, does all kinds of stuff, and you can’t set the bridge too high, either. An acoustic guitar works the same way. A lot of people set the pitch too high and choke the neck and it cancels out the top resonance. It almost stops the guitar. You want to make it sing, you know? The neck pitch is the main dynamic of the guitar. Even flamenco guitars… man, they lay that thing down so low that it’s only good for three years, but boy does it sound great. Classical guitars too are reverse pitch so that the strings are really level with the top. This goes way back and they did that for a reason. Put the angle up high and it cancels everything out. You can hear it.

TQR: Fingerboards are also very important, and it’s the first thing we pay close attention to when playing a guitar for the first time, yet it often seems to get very little attention from manufacturers. We sometimes find guitars with dry rosewood fingerboards and an odd grain structure that doesn’t allow them to darken and grease up. 

There is an awful lot there. When we’re putting a guitar together Aaron is going to go back in that room and see how heavy the top is, see what’s going on with the guitar, and if it’s bright, we’re going to use the oiliest, softest board that we can to balance that out. Indian rosewood is relatively cheap, but you gotta pick through it and you can’t use it all. A really good board will cost three times what the other stuff costs.  With other wood you might be able to use one of every three you buy. How do you specify that you want a ‘good’ board? They don’t know what a good board is. You have to look through it and know what’s right. And the lighter stuff you’re talking about you don’t want to use unless you hate the tone of the guitar you’re building, because that board will suck the tone right out. With the plywood I35, that’s more of an engineered guitar and you don’t have to do quite so much work with it, but with the other all-wood guitars, you definitely have to. The fingerboard is the icing on the cake.

TQR: How do you manage the consistency in your neck shapes?

We have standards, and within those standards we learn, and everybody that sands here learns not to take off the good spot, we hope. We all know what we like with the roundness of the neck, so the measurements are there and we rough it in with the machines. A good hand could ruin it, but a good hand can also enhance it. It’s just a balancing act with the guy doing the sanding.  

TQR: Sanding the neck is not where you would start a new employee…

You know, a new employee maybe starts with the finish so they can see the results of what we did and then work backwards from there, but no, that wouldn’t be the place to start.

TQR: Your fret work is also phenomenal…

It all begins when you start leveling the fingerboard. When the guitar passes through finish and goes into that room to be set up, it shouldn’t be a surprise when they’re in there working on it. They go through all the gauging, all the measuring and all the heartache to do the job before the guy is going to do the fret mill. So when it comes to putting that guitar together and doing a fret mill, he has to adjust the truss rod, look at the relief, zero out the relief, and lightly touch all the frets. That’s the goal. If he has to touch a few and mill it down, then somebody before him didn’t do their job. So the fret job is a constant communication between the front and the back of the shop. Sometimes there is more communication than others, but right now it is really good. We have had to move people around in the past to make sure one guy isn’t complaining about what another guy hammered in. It would be great if the same guy that hammered in the frets actually milled it, but we don’t have that luxury.

TQR: And when you refer to ‘mill’ you’re describing fret dressing?

Yes, you take a file and you level with your file and work it from there. You want to keep all your height. We put the neck in a jig and kiss all the tops, look at, sand it and do the fret ends. It’s really not a file that we use, but a long bar with sandpaper on it. If you actually have to use a file, you’ve probably gone to far.

TQR:  Well, we just want to stress that when we first opened the case on the I35 we picked the guitar up by the neck, and our first impression was formed by the perfect shape of the neck, the quality of the fingerboard and the fretwork. I mean, that’s where your eyes and hands go first – to the place where the guitar is actually played, and the I35 is just exceptional in that regard.

Thank you. We’ve had a lot of fun working on it and the feedback has been very positive. Like I say, you’re not a woodworker unless you can build something out of plywood.      

Review – Collings I35 LC

Having just devoted our attention to the Gibson thinline 3-series guitars in the July-August issue of TQR, we were particularly anxious to get our hands on the new Collings I35 LC – the maple plywood version of the original semi-hollow carved I35. Generally speaking, all of the Collings electrics have been enthusiastically embraced since their introduction, and you need only play one for a few minutes to understand why. Like his acoustic guitars, Bill Collings’ electrics reveal the same craftsmanship and attention to detail that have always set them apart from typical production instruments. As prospective owners, we are helpless to avoid first evaluating guitars on style points alone. Certain styles of design simply appeal to different players, and all guitars make a visual statement of some kind. The question is, is this guitar ‘you’? Choosing a guitar is no less personal a decision than buying a new pair of shoes, but with far more significant financial and emotional implications hanging in the balance. There are lots of products created with no greater aspiration than to be sold to a consumer, but as consumers of expensive musical instruments, many of us value the subtle signs that tell us the builder cared more than he had to –  that careful thought, superior materials and skilled hands have all contrived to create an instrument that transcends the ordinary and defines the extraordinary. This is the best reason, in our opinion, to consider buying a superior instrument like the I35 LC in the first place. If you simply need a guitar, you can buy one that is reasonably playable and creates a reasonably good sound these days for $150.00, but you won’t be buying an instrument that has been artfully crafted from the best materials, or one that is capable of producing an extraordinary playing experience and tone.

For those of you with some prior experience playing semihollow body guitars, we can tell you that our review instrument possesses a whole lot more enthusiastic ‘zing’ in its natural voice than most of the heavier semi-hollow guitars we have owned and played. The sound of the guitar “falling apart” as Bill Collings mentioned can otherwise be described  as the manner in which the I35 LC responds to pick attack. The notes spill out of it with a brilliant harmonic transparency that seems quite unique. Response to pick attack is very fast with an immediate percussive character followed by sustaining qualities and rich harmonics that linger far longer than a solidbody guitar that is soaking up string vibration. Hit a big E chord on the I35 with a great amp like our ‘66 Deluxe Reverb on ‘4’ and you can waggle the sustaining harmonic overtones or even coax harmonic feedback out of  the A, D  and G strings if you wish. And if you think about it, the concept of a guitar with such a fast, percussive attack that also possesses the sustaining qualities of a semi-hollowbody is uncommon, to say the least. By comparison, many semi-hollowbodies respond with a softer attack and sag in the notes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all – but the Collings is different in the way that you can sense the combined effect of the rosewood fingerboard, mahogany neck, maple center block and the maple ply body all actively influencing the dynamic response and tone of the guitar. You can really hear the influence of the wood. 

The Lollar Imperial humbucking pickups further complement the woody character of the I35 LC with a bright and jangly bridge pickup tone that imparts depth and loads of harmonic overtones to chords, and a rich penetrating character to single notes. The neck pickup alone is warm and jazzy played clean, powerfully imposing with a great blues tone through an edgy amp, and both pickups offer a versatile mix of treble presence and warmer mids and bass when combined. The tones available from the Lollars mounted in the I35 LC will please just about any fan of humbucking pickups, and their overall clarity is outstanding, which makes them all the more versatile with a wide range of amplifiers and effects.

Setting aside matters of tone for a moment, only those of you  with a fetish for ‘slim taper’ necks will fail to immediately connect with the artfully rounded neck shape on the I35, the rich, high-dollar east Indian rosewood fingerboard and perfect frets. As we emphasized with Bill Collings, the neck, fingerboard and frets on guitars are the business end where music is made, and the first to get our critical attention. This isn’t lost on Collings, and the appearance, feel and playability of the I35 is faultless, further enhanced by the 24 7/8” scale. Additional features include a TonePros nickel tailpiece and ABR-1 style bridge, bone nut, engraved Gotoh tuners and ebony peghead veneer.

You should also know that the 7.2 pound I35 just feels right, small enough to be comfortably accommodating, yet well balanced with its ample mahogany neck. Unlike some other comparably-priced $4,000 guitars, the tuners and pots on the I35 are exceptionally smooth, precise and easy-turning.  What’s left? How about the finish… Our review guitar was finished in Faded Cherry, and additional options include Tobacco Sunburst, Dark Cherry, Blonde and Full Body Sunburst. Based on our experience with Collings acoustics and electrics you can count on an impeccable finish and a flawlessly assembled guitar. We looked hard for telltale flaws in the finish and fretboard from top to bottom and found nothing but perfection.

The art of building exceptional guitars is one thing… Bill Collings started out solo 35 years ago with a vision and a talent for building hard tooling, but the real trick in producing guitars at this level is in figuring out how to find and train another 80 employees who can share and consistently maintain the builder’s vision. It seems to us that when you buy a Collings, you’re not just acquiring an exceptional instrument, but an enduring example of Bill Collings’ stubborn refusal to compromise. List $4400.00

www.collingsguitars.com