Local luthier sees guitars he builds as opportunities to create
One of an occasional series.
In an industrial building on Pittsburgh's North Shore, Jack Needham is holding a beautiful guitar to a polishing wheel.
It's the last step in finishing one of his handmade guitars as part of his business Square Deal Guitars. The figured wood shines under the fluorescent lights of a shop he shares with another woodworker.
His workbench is filled with templates that look like acoustic guitars. There's a guitar case covered in tan tweed, which is for the next guitar he sells. It looks like something from the 1950s, but said Mr. Needham, 56, that's the look that many buyers prefer.
As a college student he became obsessed with guitars, especially the older, vintage models. His roommate was a woodworker, and that inspired Mr. Needham to modify some of his own guitars. "Probably I shouldn't have been doing that, he said laughing. When you're young a foolish, you do things like that."
In the early 1980s, he built his first guitar from scratch, a copy of an 1890s Martin parlor guitar he saw in a music store. He took all the outside measurements and began construction.
In hindsight, he realized that what was inside that guitar was as important as the exterior. The wooden braces and how they are glued in place are important aspects of how the guitar will sound. Back then, his one-bedroom apartment acted as a shop; one corner of the kitchen was the place for the band saw that now occupies his current work space.
The hobby was fun, and he would sell the guitars to friends and other players around town.
His day job was in photography, where he managed a photo lab until the digital imaging boom left him jobless around 2004. That's when he decided to follow his dream and build acoustic guitars by hand. The first few builds were sold on eBay, then through a guitar dealer in New Jersey; and now they are found on his Web site and at guitargal.com.
In the beginning, he occasionally built cabinets, but over the years he has come to focus strictly on guitars.
Blues guitarist Frank Fotusky, from New Jersey, started playing one of his guitars, Mr. Needham said, which helped word-of-mouth advertising about the instruments he builds.
The blues musician was trying out 25 different custom-made guitars and fell in love with one of Mr. Needham's.
"Jack's was above and beyond the others. Right when I picked it up, I knew it was very well made, well thought out and with attention to detail," Mr. Fotusky said.
He ordered one with everything the way he wanted it and enjoyed the process of working with the builder, describing it as "a very intimate relationship in respect to getting the model I wanted."
He said he was looking for a close replica of a 1930s Cromwell guitar and found his new guitar to match perfectly.
Mr. Needham was pleased with the guitar and sees each one as a way to pass on his craft.
"It's very gratifying to look at something you built with your own hands that other people will be inspired to use to carry on their music," Mr. Needham said. "It's more than a beautiful object; it's something that can be used to create."
He builds four different models, and each one takes around three weeks to construct. They start at a little over $3,000 and gradually get more expensive as options are added, he said.
Robin Weber, owner of Guitar Gallery since 1997, thinks they're a bargain. She represents more than 50 of the best luthiers, or guitar builders, in the country, including Mr. Needham, and specializes in selling high-end acoustic guitars.
"Jack's prices are still below the market, and they are great guitars; they have kind of an old-timey sound, which a lot of people want," Ms. Weber said.
His guitars have been sent all over the world, and there's even a YouTube video from an owner playing one of his creations in an Italian piazza.
Mr. Needham said he had plans to build new models soon, emulating guitars that old blues players used.
He believes that his holistic approach makes his handmade guitars special. "There's not one magic thing that makes it great. It's 50 little details that interact together."
For more information about Square Deal Guitars, go to www.squaredealguitar.com
Listen and watch a video of Frank Fotusky playing one of Mr. Needham's guitars at www.myspace.com/frankfotusky.
For more information about Guitar Gallery, go to www.guitargal.com or call 1-615-672-7733.