Detroit guitar maker Gabriel Currie can do what only a few people in the world have mastered: create a one-of-a-kind magical sound.
Just ask a professional musician who’s played Currie’s handmade guitars, such as Charlie Starr, the singer for rock band Blackberry Smoke: “The Golden Era of the electric guitar was in the 1950s and 1960s. The magic that electric guitar builders did then is so hard to achieve now. Most guitar builders around the world can’t figure it out. Gabe has harnessed it.”
Currie, 52, has been crafting electric guitars by hand since his youth. It gave him an escape from the east Los Angeles ghetto he’d grown up in. He turned his hobby into a business, Echopark, and moved it to Detroit three years ago.
That’s when he found, buried deep in Michigan’s lakes and rivers, the rarest and best wood on earth to create a sound like no other.
“Ancient white pine from Michigan is the platinum standard,” Currie said. “It really has this tonal quality to it that doesn’t exist in any other species of wood, and I’ve heard a lot of guitars.”
So far Currie has only made four guitars with Michigan’s Sinker Pine. Starr has one, Richards has one, Jeff Bass — who produced Eminem’s first seven albums and wrote many of his songs — has one and Currie has donated another to WDET-FM (101.9) to raffle on Friday to raise money for the public radio station.
Here’s how Currie went from a rough LA street kid peddling pot to the guitar-maker for the gods of rock and discovered Michigan’s buried treasure along the way.
Pot and play guitar
Currie’s tattoos and artsy look belie his soft-spoken, articulate personality and business acumen. He is married with a 15-year-old daughter. He owns a historic 1923 house in Old Redford and a car — all the responsible things an “adult” does. But it’s a long way from where he started life in east LA.
“I grew up in a pretty violent neighborhood with a lot of gangs, drugs and violence,” Currie said. “I found an escape in music.”
It was the late 1970s and early 1980s and there was a burgeoning rock scene in LA including a new group called Van Halen. Currie was listening to all of it, including the classics by the Doors and the Rolling Stones. He got his first electric guitar, a 1957 Fender Musicmaster, when he was 12 as a gift from a family friend.
“A lot of the kids I grew up with were a lot more talented than me, so I found my interest leaning toward the mechanical part of the instruments and how things work,” Currie said. “I started getting into repairing stuff, tinkering after school and hanging out at guitar shops.”
He started building instruments in junior high school woodshop. But by age 16, Currie dropped out of high school and left home. He fled the gangs and “the scene at home wasn’t that great. I got into trouble a lot and I wanted to be a lot more independent. Being a musician interested me more than school.”
He moved in with his girlfriend and “sold pot and smoked pot and played guitar. I got into repairing guitars for guys in the punk rock scene.”
That alternative lifestyle worked for a couple of years as he studied under a guitar maker in east LA. This guy saw potential in his young apprentice. In 1987, he told Currie he’d set up an appointment for Currie with “a guy” at G&L Guitars, Leo Fender’s guitar company, for a job.
When Currie showed up for the meeting, that “guy,” was none other than legendary guitar builder Leo Fender himself. Fender hired Currie to do remedial work in the woodshop. But within two months, the 18-year-old Currie was in charge of manufacturing all the guitar bodies.
When Leo Fender died in 1991, so did Currie’s desire to work at G&L. New management was changing the dynamic in how the instruments were built and it looked like that would erode the craftsmanship, he said.
“I am kind of nostalgic and I felt that if I am going to learn anything new, it’s time to jump ship,” Currie said.
He went to work for Takashi Hosono who had a small guitar shop in Glendale, California, and a mail-order catalogue called Hosono Guitar Works. Hosono made custom guitars for a variety of session musicians and well-known ones such as Frank Zappa.
There, Currie learned how to hand-shape necks, shred guitars, do inlay work, laminate, dry wood correctly and use various glue methods and finishing techniques. He also learned the different species of wood that produce the best sounds.
“That’s where I learned how to approach it as an alchemist,” Currie said. “That was the beginning of the idea of taking old woods and crafting guitars that sounded a particular way.”
Failed rock star
But by 1993, Currie decided he was tired of being a “shop rat.” He wanted to be a rock star and so he quit his job with Hosono.
“I wanted a taste of the other side of the tracks,” Currie said.
He joined three different bands and started playing around LA, spending the next eight years “on the fringe of a bunch of bands that never went anywhere.”
He started collecting old guitars, growing increasingly interested in why the old guitars sounded so much better than new guitars did. It turns out that in modern forests, the pine trees are grown fast, which creates fat growth rings and soft wood, Currie said.
But the old wood grew slow creating hundreds of tiny growth rings, each representing one summer and one winter. The tight growth, he said, makes harder wood that produces a totally different performance from the pine that comes out of a modern lumber operation.
Currie said the older pine gives the sound greater resonance. The tonal qualities come from the dirt, the minerals and the oxygen it’s grown in and, in the case of Michigan’s Sinker Pine, the lake and river waters in which it was submerged for hundreds of years.
So Currie found himself tinkering with the new guitars to improve the sound by using old wood where he could.
In 1997, he finally realized the rock ‘n’ roll life was no life at all. Time for a real job.
“I got tired of living on the edge and not having a decent ride, or a decent pad or enough money to take my girlfriend out to dinner,” Currie said. “I wasn’t interested in being on the road. So I got into construction like 30 million other guys do who can’t make it in music.”
A fork in the road
While doing construction, Currie would once again find himself working with old wood. He specialized in the restoration of historic properties around LA. In 2006, he met his wife and they started a family. All was going well, until June 2008.
“I fell off of a scaffold when it gave way and I broke my back in a couple of places,” Currie said. “I didn’t go to the hospital. I laid in bed for a couple of days and muscled my way back to work because I was afraid of losing my job.”
But six weeks later the pain was unbearable and he lost his job anyway. That loss gave him time for self-reflection.
“I was reminded of the thing that I was passionate about and realized if there’s ever a fork in the road, this is it,” Currie said. “I didn’t want to do office work, and I thought, ‘Well I’ve got this one thing I can do.’ I talked to my wife. We had one credit card that had a $1,200 limit on it and I said, ‘I should pursue this.’ ”
He maxed out the credit card to buy the materials needed to make a guitar by hand in his garage. He used mahogany from a 100-year-old building in LA for the instrument’s body. He made the neck from mahogany he pulled from a Victorian piece of furniture.
He made just one guitar that he showed to a friend who was experienced with guitars and who was pals with musicians, including renowned guitarist Eddie Van Halen. Currie didn’t tell his friend that he made the guitar in his garage.
“I hadn’t seen him in 15 years — it was a test. I wanted to see if, blindly, this guy would give me an honest answer,” Currie said. “I wanted to see if I was on the right path.”
The answer was: “He loved it.”
First customer: Aerosmith
Currie was in his 40s with little education, but he had a lot of experience dealing with musicians and knew “the nomenclature.”
His business plan was to build new guitars that played and sounded like old guitars by using old wood. He composed a bucket list of musicians that he strived to one day build guitars for: Jackson Brown, Joe Perry, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and of course, Keith Richards.
“I felt like those particular bands and artists had a big impact on my musical leanings,” Currie said. “Eddie Van Halen is one of, if not the most, iconic guitar player ever, but I felt I couldn’t do anything for him that he hadn’t already done for himself.”
So in 2010 Currie started Echopark in a small studio in LA with the help of a friend who owned the studio and loaned him “a couple thousand bucks to start the company.”
He had made five guitars when another friend introduced him to Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham of the band Social Distortion. Wickersham was known to play old, used Gibson and Fender guitars from the 1950s. So Currie showed him his guitars.
“He played the second one (I made) and he took it on the road immediately,” Currie said of the model he called The Downtowner. “I kind of loaned it to him for a few years. He eventually got his own model. But this was very early in the experimental stage.”
Wickersham helped promote the guitar because after he started playing it, Currie attracted interest from Homme, the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan and Jackson Browne.
“The second guys I worked with were Brad Whitford and Joe Perry,” both of rock band Aerosmith, Currie said.
Currie had four models then: The Downtowner, the Clarence, the Ghettobird and the Elcabillo. Perry was his first customer who bought seven guitars immediately costing $2,400 to $6,000 each at the time.
“I think they’re still priced reasonable for what they are,” Currie said. “Some today stretch into $10,000 or $12,000, but there’s a lot more going into them today.”
Michigan’s mysterious wood
By 2017, Currie had clientele, but he wanted to escape LA and find a place that was less congested, but offered art and culture. He and his wife eyed several cities across the United States, then selected the Motor City.
“We thought the culture of America started here and there’s still plenty of room to grow,” Currie said.
There was another reason, too. He knew Michigan was a big logging state in the late 1800s.
“I wanted to find a place where there was viable natural wood and get off of using rainforest wood,” Currie said. “Not because I’m a tree hugger, but because there are a group of people losing their homes because of the destruction of the rainforest and in good conscious I could not continue to support that as an artist.”
He struck gold. Within months of arriving in Michigan a local builder read an article about Echopark and contacted Currie about some old logs he’d found deep beneath Michigan’s waters.
“They have been submerged under pressure and it’s pure wood,” Currie said, who has helped to excavate the logs from various waterways.
Currie has about 300 logs to make 5,000 guitars, a hefty supply given he and his assistant make only 125 to 150 guitars a year. Echopark also makes amplifiers using old wood at Currie’s shop in Old Redford. In January, he will move it downtown near the Fisher Building.
Born with it
Currie admits his assembly process is “a little nuts.” He usually builds 15-20 guitars at a time all in various states of completion. Over the years, he’s had six or seven apprentices to help him, but none of them lasted.
“You have to be born with it. It’s got to be something that you just have to do,” Currie said.
Many guys see his “rolodex and portfolio” and think they’re going to hang out with rock stars at concerts if they do this job, he said.
“They don’t realize they’re covered in sawdust most of the time and their hands are going to hurt and they have to drink a lot of coffee to get up early and work hard with their hands all day,” Currie said.
Rocker Troy Van Leeuwen, 52, of Queens of the Stone Age owns three Echopark guitars with three more that are “on the way,” he said. Van Leeuwen said he and Currie usually have several conversations during Currie’s building process to get a guitar to have the feel and sound he wants.
“I’ve watched him carve necks and he puts his sweat and blood into every instrument,” Van Leeuwen said. “He’ll often say, ‘I made this guitar for you, but if you don’t like it, I’ll take it back because it’s my baby.’ But the guitar takes on a life when you take it on the road and the more you play it.”
Van Leeuwen said he and Josh Homme, lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age, are each playing Echopark guitars on the recorded version of the song, “Feet Don’t Fail Me.”
Charlie Starr, 47, who owns four Echopark guitars including one made of the Michigan Sinker Pine, said he’s watched Currie pick up a piece of wood and “thump it and the tone that resonates, there’s a smile on his face that indicates, ‘This is a good one,’ ” he said.
The rock concerts are the payoffs for Currie but even those are work.
“He will come watch Blackberry Smoke play and I’ll see him and he’s watching me intently at what I am doing and how I play,” Starr said.
“It’s so that I can figure out how I can help them sound more like them,” Currie said. “My job is to serve the musician.”
‘A guitar for God’
Detroit musician and Eminem’s former producer/songwriter Jeff Bass, 59, owns one of the Echopark guitars made from Michigan’s Sinker Pine. He said he “fell in love” with it the first time he played it.
“The tone was unbelievable,” Bass said. “The wood gave me tones of a Fender Stratocaster when I wanted it and a Gibson Les Paul when I wanted it. When I have one guitar that serves the purpose of all the different genres, it’s incredible. It’s my go-to guitar now.”
Bass, who met Currie about two years ago, has bought three other Echopark guitars, too, which cost between $3,000 to $10,000 each. Bass has been a musician since 1979, yet he said Echopark’s guitars are like no other.
“When I touched his guitars and played them it was amazing, all the hardware he uses and pickups on them; it’s far superior to anything else you can find in a Gibson or a Fender,” Bass said.
Currie is usually hard-pressed to say how long it takes him to make each guitar except for one: The Clarence limited edition sinker model guitar he made for Keith Richards took him six months of painstaking perfection.
Richards didn’t know Currie was making a custom guitar for him, intensifying the challenge for Currie.
“I’ve had intimate discussions with other artists. I’ve never done this before where it’s sight unseen,” Currie said. “But it’s Keith, so to me it’s like building a guitar for God. In my view, it’s like building a guitar for Jimi Hendrix.”
‘Climbed the mountain’
A friend commissioned Currie to build the guitar for Richards as a gift from the friend to Richards. Currie was thrilled and immediately thought of the Michigan Sinker Pine.
“Keith is a legend that has everything and there’s no sound he hasn’t created yet,” Currie said. “So what can I build to turn him on?”
The guitar was hand-delivered to Richards in October. A week later, Currie received a handwritten thank you note from Richards.
“I told my wife, ‘I can quit now. I’ve climbed the mountain. I’ve done what I’m supposed to do and if I die today, I’m good,’ ” Currie said. “I’ve never heard of anyone getting an accolade ever from Keith and I’ve been a fan of his forever.”
‘Turn the volume up’
In the meantime, Currie decided to pay it back to Michigan. Every day in his shop he listens to public radio station WDET and wanted to help it raise money to stay operational.
“In another life, whether it’s past or future, I envision myself as a philanthropist. But I don’t have the $10,000 that this guitar is worth,” Currie said. “So why don’t I make one and make an impact that way.”
He wanted the guitar, which he called The Salt of Detroit, to represent the musicians who came through Detroit. Detroit multimedia artist Sabrina Nelson drew the images of various rock legends such as Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt … to name a few.
The instrument is a “functional piece of art.” A ticket to win it costs $101.90, WDET is 101.9-FM. People can buy the tickets on WDET’s website. So far 400 tickets have been sold, but Currie’s goal is 1,000.
Currie said part of his success isn’t measured in the money he makes building guitars. It is hearing his creation, create something else.
“In 2016, I was on The 101 in Los Angeles in a Dodge Challenger listening to KCRW and the new Iggy Pop record, ‘Post Pop Depression,’ had just been released. The song ‘Gardenia’ came on and immediately I knew it was one of my guitars and our amplifiers,” Currie said. “That was a good feeling. You turn the volume up.”
Source: Detroit free press