The cliffhanger is on as to whether Dan’s Chelsea Guitar Shop will remain at The Chelsea Hotel. We shall have an update shortly.
Everyone is hoping the store stays because it is a vital presence for many and serves as a destination spot for guitar enthusiasts the world over.
At one point during my visit, a small squadron of young teen boys burst into the shop, lead by a 14-year-old named Theo.
“Hey guys, how ya doin’?” Dan greeted them.
“They followed me in here,” Theo said, sheepishly, of his rag-tag entourage. “Oh, I’m doing great! Would you happen to have a neck I could use to make a mini-guitar?”
“What do you mean by a mini-guitar?” Dan asked, crossing his arms. I felt curious, too. The term “mini-guitar” required some clarification.
“Awright, sorry, um, well, you know how I was planning on building a guitar?” Theo asked swiftly.
“Right,” Dan nodded.
“So I thought instead of actually building a full-scale type thing, I would first build maybe a ukulele.” Picking up on our confused silence, as ukes and guitars are two completely different animals, Theo added meekly, “Bad idea?”
“C’mon, you should do your homework. Why is that a bad idea?” Dan asked him. “You haven’t looked it through yet, have you?”
“I know it won’t be tuned like a guitar,” Theo said assuredly.
“You can tune it to an A or something,” Dan proposed. “What happens with a shorter scale length—and when you’re learning to play, as you are now, as you’re really just kind of getting started with this stuff—it is almost impossible to keep the guitar in pitch. The shorter the scale, the easier it is to go out of tune. Just pressing on the fret is enough to put it out by a quarter tone,” he explained.
“I’m telling you, Theo, if you insist on making a guitar, rather than practice and learn to play guitar, which is fine–make a full-size guitar. You can make a body shape any way you want.” Dan pointed out the span of a nearby guitar from nut to the bridge, “From here to here, you’ve got to get those numbers right. You’ve got a lot of homework. Practice on something simple.”
“I was thinking of something like a mandolin,” Theo said.
Dan shook his head. “A mandolin is an extremely difficult instrument to make. The frets on a mandolin are close together. The scale, the way the strings are set–how are you doing to do that? How are you going to get those doubled? It’s two strings, four times. You know what you’re doing, honestly? You’re a young kid and instead of building yourself a soapbox racer, you want to build a Ferrari. Theo, if there’s anyone I know who can do it, it’s you, but why would you want to take the time and effort to build a Ferrari first? My suggestion is to make something simple to start with and then the next one can be harder.”
“Pickups I’ll get you cheap. You can get pickups that will work, like for an electric guitar for $20. I’ll help you with that, no worries.”
“Okay, so I guess. Ummmm,” Theo ruminated.
“And I’m not telling you what to do, man. I’m just telling you what I think. You know me, I’m always going to what I think.”
“Yeah, I think you’re probably right,” Theo agreed. “You said I should probably start by getting a neck and then–”
“Yup. Do you want me to look for one for you?”
“Sure, how much?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll make you work for it by cleaning up. I might need your help, by the way.
“Okay!” Theo said brightly.
“Here’s the deal,” Dan told him. “There’s a possibility we’re moving the store. It’s a very good possibility. We’re going to need hands to help.”
“You can work off the neck. I’ll charge you $6,000 so you’ll have to work for me for the next twenty or thirty years.”
“That sounds fair,” Theo kidded right back. “You have my phone number, right?”
“Yup. And definitely, first time, make a full-scale guitar. It will be easier and more fun for you because you can play it. Hey look, Jeff Beck, who I still think is the greatest guitar player in the world–his first guitar? He made it! Jeff Beck used to ride around with his guitar slung over his back. He did not want put it inside a case because he was so proud of it. It looked terrible, but it worked. And look at Jeff Beck! I think you should do this, Theo, and I’ll help you any way I can. I keep telling you, stay away from mandolin or bass or a short scale instrument. Build a full-scale guitar. But stay away from an acoustic guitar, trying to build one of those.”
“Oh yeah, I know better!”
“Theo, I wouldn’t be surprised if you pull together a great, solid body guitar, for real,” Dan insisted. “Design it. Do a lot of sketches. Your father knows all this stuff!”
“Yeah, I was, um, actually sketching designs inside my math notebook. Just the body. Does the shape of the body matter?” Theo asked.
“Shape I don’t think matters so much. What matters is the type of wood, whether it’s glued or bolted in. It’s basically the density and size of the wood,” Dan advised.
“I was thinking of doing something crazy!” The look on Theo’s face suggested the possibilities were now swarming.
“That’s fine. That’s cool,” Dan said. “And you might come up with something really cool. Maybe you’ll find some weird shape that really does affect the sound, who knows? I personally would use a cheap wood, like ash or alder with a maple neck.”
“Okay! I’m just going to go to something like a junkyard and find some older wood because that’s better, right?” Theo asked.
“That could be great but it depends on the wood. What’s important is that it be dry wood. You don’t need older wood. You can have new wood and, if it is dried properly, it can be extremely light and sound as good as anything. Pine is good, too, brother.”
“Show me the wood before you cut into it. You know the guy from the band Queen, Brian May? His guitar was made from a fireplace mantel,” Dan said.
“Really? And he built it himself?” Theo asked, surprised.
“With his dad. He made it when he was your age and he is still using it.”
“Is he still alive?”
“Brian May? Yes he is! He’s not that old. He’s like 70, screw you!”
“Well, Freddie Mercury is dead,” Theo reasoned.
“Freddie died of AIDS. He didn’t die of old age. Just look up Brian May’s guitar. I think it’s called Big Red or something. It’s a pretty cool design and has a unique tone.”
“Thanks a lot, Dan!”
“Any time, man.”
“And so you don’t think I should try to make a 12-string or anything?” Theo asked.
“You’re outta your mind. I’m not telling you to not do anything. I’m telling you that I tried all this stuff when I was your age. The way to go is to practice the guitar and learn the instrument. And if you want to construct an instrument, build a full-scale guitar and do it right. There’s no short-cut. Going right to a 12-string doesn’t make any sense. Awright, buddy?”
“When I make some designs, I’ll come by again and show you.”
“I’d love to see them. Any time. I know you’ll do fine, Theo.”
“’kay. See you, Dan!”
“I know you’re going to pull it off. I’m not even questioning that.”
“Well, I’ll show ya!” Theo said, exuberantly.
“Trust me, it’s a process. You’ll do fine.”
“See you later!”
After Theo and his friends departed the store, Dan turned toward me and said, “I used to run camps for parks in Queens years ago, and I learn more from the kids than they do from me. Most kids are out there are into video games so it is rare to find a kid with a real passion for guitars and music. Theo is the smartest. He has learned so quickly and he has been playing for only two years. His mother’s a professor and his dad is the world authority on vintage fountain pens.
“A friend of his father told him, ‘Look, I have a couple musician friends who’ve got some pens and they want you to take a look at them. They’ll take you out to dinner to discuss it.’ He’s like, ‘Ah, all right.’ He goes out to dinner and spends the whole night talking to them. Then he asks, ‘So, what do you do?’
“‘Well, I’m a drummer,’ one of them says.”
“’That’s nice,’” he says. He was having dinner with Charlie Watts and Jeff Beck.
“When you’re on the road, you tend to have hobbies. Fountain pens just happen to be their thing. But Theo’s dad didn’t know who Charlie Watts and Jeff Beck were! You’ve gotta love a guy like that. His son is smart as hell and if he makes this guitar, it could be good. If you get a kid like this, you’ve gotta grab him and push him toward something he has a passion for. He just started playing the guitar, he’s like, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ As a little kid, he used to come in here but now his interest has locked in,” Dan says.
Theo has started to make his first guitar with his father out of some pine wood and Dan’s shop assistant, Dean, has been advising them.
Stay tuned for a progress update on Theo’s burgeoning 6-stringed project plus news on the shop’s address status…
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