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If you’ve never thought of guitar making as an art form, you’ve likely never met Terry McInturff and talked with him about the artful process of making a guitar. This humble yet venerated artist in the music industry has been making custom guitars for decades, with a client roster that includes Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Marshall Crenshaw. We got a chance to talk with Terry recently about his career, his famous guitars, the changing landscape of Siler City’s art scene, and what the future holds for him. We invite you to learn more about this multifaceted artist.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m 63 years old and I’m just about to start my 43rd year as a full time guitar maker. I live in Sanford, but my shop is part of the NC Arts Incubator in Siler City. I also have an 18 year old son who is about to graduate high school and then join the Marine Corps in October.
I grew up in a Chicago suburb. I did not have a musical family but certainly had a musical environment. Rock and roll was a phenomenally powerful social force when I was coming of age in the late 60s and early 70s. Every kid had a radio, but it struck home with some of us a little heavier than with others, I suppose. It was a time of great societal change, and rock music was the music we marched to, so to speak.
How did you get into the guitar making business?
When it came time to graduate high school, I really had no idea what I wanted to do until I read an article in Guitar Player magazine about a guitar building school. A huge light bulb went off in my head. With a lot of help from my mom and dad, I attended a four month guitar making course at a school in Phoenix, Arizona. You can’t really learn how to build guitars in four months, but it was a start. Guitars have paid my bills ever since.
My first job was at a music store on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill called Oxbow Music, which is no longer there. I was hired as a guitar repairman, barely qualified. But that’s when my real education began. I graduated from the little course in December of 1977 and January 9th, 1978 was my first day on the job.
How did you segue from repairing guitars to making custom guitars?
I constantly had guitar builds going on while I was doing repair work. I started being able to sell my early works to UNC and Duke students, as well as other local people. I do miss the repair days. Every guitar, bass, banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, was different. Each had a different story, and of course the people did too. I’m a people person so I miss that amount of personal contact. The vast majority of the clients who buy my work now are from out of town so I never get to meet them in person.
Have you ever had a famous client?
I’ve been doing this for almost 43 years, so that was bound to happen. I’ve worked with Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, Brad Woodford from Aerosmith, Dave Hidalgo from Los Lobos, Marshall Crenshaw, Brad Delson from Linkin Park . . . those are the ones who stand out in my mind. It was pretty wild; as my reputation started to spread, word got around. The guitar industry is actually a smaller community than a lot of people would think. I worked with a lot of people doing high end touring, playing the big places like Walnut Creek. Word gets around amongst the guitar techs.
What makes your guitars unique?
I’m somewhat known for being able to take inspiration from some of the best design elements of the groundbreaking guitar designs of the 1950s and early 1960s and inject what I see as improvements. I also have some proprietary electronic circuits that I use. It’s hard for me to talk about myself without sounding boastful, but it’s like building on a Ferrari level, I suppose. Not that everybody needs to drive a Ferrari — a good old Ford or Chevy is also fine. You can buy a factory made, mass produced guitar and it will be a perfectly usable guitar for sure. But some people just want to drive a Ferrari. So I build those kinds of guitars, one at a time for clients. It’s like a custom made suit.
What’s the process like when you’re designing a custom guitar?
The main objective is to identify the sound that the client wants. Sometimes they need a little bit of guidance to narrow down what they’re looking for because talking about sound is difficult. I think it was Frank Zappa who said, “talking about sound is like dancing about architecture.”
To start, I assign them a little homework to help me hear their musical imagination. Once I determine what sounds they are hearing in their musical imagination, I can then choose the materials and get to work on building the sound for them. It’s a little different today than it used to be. 20 years ago I had a team of 10 people and we were selling and building up to 10 guitars a week. I like it better now that I can work totally on my own and build everything from raw lumber, from scratch. It’s very rewarding.
What difference does the type of wood make?
The wood that’s used really does determine how the string can or cannot vibrate. There are other design elements too, but the wood has a vital role in determining what the acoustical resonant response of the guitar will be. Even though it’s an electric guitar, it really does all start with the wood because the electronics cannot invent any frequencies; they can only interpret what they are given. My job is to build a guitar that has the right resonant characteristics before it’s ever plugged in because those built in resonant characteristics dictate what the guitar can or cannot do.
Does the design process change for different musical genres? For example, would the design process be different for a folk singer like Joni Mitchell than it would be for a hard rocker like Jimmy Page?
Not necessarily. It’s really about what the musician wants to achieve and what role this new instrument will play in the lineup of his or her other guitars. How are they going to use it? What are they hearing in their head in terms of the sound they’re looking for?
People will surprise you sometimes, too. Sometimes an artist will call me up and I will mentally pigeonhole them as being associated with a certain type of guitar. But then they’ll surprise me by asking for something I wouldn’t have guessed. Brilliant musicians tend to be a lot more versatile than we sometimes believe.
Any interesting client stories?
I can think of one person. The band King Crimson was really popular back in the 1970s; they were credited as being one of the founding fathers of progressive rock music. The leader of King Crimson is a guy named Robert Fripp. I remember getting a fax from him–this was back about 2002 when people were still faxing. In fact, I never spoke to the man. The entire process was done by fax. He had no interest in speaking to me at all, which was very strange. He’s a very, shall we say, unique personality. The guitar that he commissioned me to build for him was something that would have been very appropriate for him earlier in his career. But he’s one of those incredibly creative people who does one style of art for a while and then gets tired of it, or figures he’s done everything he can do so he changes his art, and is amazingly just as expert at the new version.
Why do you have a recording studio as part of your shop?
I couldn’t design unique guitars the way that I do without my recording studio. It’s important for research and design on prototype McInturff guitars and I can do all kinds of electronic testing to buttress what my ears are already telling me. As I develop a prospective new model, I’ll go through a prototyping phase. Sometimes there’ll be some blind alleys that don’t work out, of course, but the recording studio allows me to keep a very accurate record of sound frequency response. I can use all sorts of things to test portions of a guitar to see what the primary resonant characteristics are and I can actually have a digital readout of the frequency response.
I also love to record music. I’m slowly working on what will eventually turn out to be an album, at which point I will be calling in the troops to help me record my songs.
Did you ever play in a band?
Oh gosh, yeah. I’ve been playing guitar since 1969. I’m not currently with anybody right now. I was really active in the alternative rock scene in the Triangle. We didn’t really know what to call it back then. The terms “punk rock” and “new wave” began to be bandied around by people. I played in a number of bands and I look forward to doing that again. If it hadn’t been for that experience, I wouldn’t be nearly as good a guitar maker as I am right now because onstage experience is pretty irreplaceable. You get to know what the music industry is about. It was an irreplaceable part of my education.
How did you end up in Chatham County?
I used to have a much larger facility in the Holly Springs industrial park. When the economy crashed in 2001, I was selling my guitars through a dealer network all over the country and in some foreign countries as well. Starting in late 2001, we started getting massive cancellations of orders because the economy was bad. No matter how wealthy somebody is, when the market’s doing very badly, they’re going to postpone paying $7,000 for another guitar. These poor music stores were only able to sell accessories like drumsticks or guitar strings and cheap guitars, but not high end guitars. So we got cancellation after cancellation, which put me in a very difficult situation. I had a high rent shop to maintain, so I was forced to lay off personnel. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
But then, just at the right time, this gentleman from Siler City, Leon Tongret, knocked at my door. He told me about the new North Carolina Arts Incubator that he was trying to open up in Siler City. The goal was to provide an affordable studio for a worthy artist, help them get into business, and grow an art community around it. They supplied me with the shop space that I’m still in. I’ve been here for 17 years, which is the longest that anybody’s been affiliated with the NC Arts Incubator. I’ve seen the whole thing grow up and it’s been amazing to watch. It’s a wonderful community, and I’ve made some great friends.
I’ve also enjoyed throwing the annual street party in Siler City called Coup D’etat. I named it that because it kind of takes over the town. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it this year because of the virus situation, but if things look safe come September, it will be my sixth annual street party. We have beer trucks, food trucks, the galleries are all open, and there are bands playing all afternoon and late into the night. It’s been a lot of fun. I would volunteer a lot more actually, but one of my life responsibilities is caring for my 93 year old mother. She’s awesome.
How do you think the art scene in Siler City has evolved since you’ve been there?
When I first opened up the shop in Siler City 17 years ago, there was very little traffic in this neighborhood. A vast majority of the storefronts were empty. Every morning I’d drive up here to the intersection and there’d be this old brown hound dog sleeping in the middle of the street. He wasn’t in any danger because there wasn’t any traffic. We’d play the same game every morning. I’d blow my horn, he’d look up with his long ears hanging down, haul himself up on his feet, and slowly wander down the road. That dog wouldn’t survive five minutes these days.
Now there’s a ton of traffic. Well, plenty of traffic by comparison. We have a number of art galleries in the area and quite a few artists in residence here in all different mediums — potters, weavers, painters, sculptors, etc. It’s just been an amazing thing, to watch it grow.
I read that one of your other hobbies is building telescopes?
Yes, one of my hobbies is amateur astronomy. I’ve been interested in amateur astronomy since I was about 12 years old, which was right around the time when we were right in the middle of all the moon landings and everything. I love getting out there under the stars and looking at things that are millions of light years away. It’s just peaceful, meditative, and interesting. I eventually got into building telescopes because I like to build things.
What do you think the future holds for you?
Gosh, I don’t know, man. There’s a whole list of things I haven’t accomplished yet. I look forward to doing more teaching and I would like to write a book. I’ve gotten a lot of requests over the years to write a book and it’s getting harder to say no. But I don’t really know anything about publishing so I don’t know if the book will ever happen. I’m also learning how to do proper online videos and looking into expanding my proprietary line of guitar accessories. I will never retire.