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Eureka!

Ronin is a Guitar Company Among Giants ... Literally

 

by Gearphoria (adapted by Team HC)

 

A HULKING, yet relatively unassuming building, backs up to North Channel Bay off Highway 101 in Eureka, California. Back in the 1970s, it was the home to shipbuilders who painted ship hulls and did other maritime construction tasks. Today, it's the unlikely home of Ronin Guitars — one of the world’s only guitar makers to use reclaimed old-growth redwood for electric and acoustic guitars.

 

Ronin's roots also trace back as far as the ‘70s, when Jack Reed dabbled in recording and band management. But it was his son John who got him building guitars. The younger Reed was in New York at the time playing bass for a gigging band and turned to his father, who had been a hobbyist woodworker for several years, to build him an acoustic guitar on which he could compose music.

ACOUSTICS TOO: John's father Jack spends most of his time building acoustics, including the recently-released Georgia Lee parlor plus pickup guitar.

 

“I went and took my chainsaw…and what limited the size of the guitar is that the chainsaw didn’t have a very big bar on it… and went out to a redwood stump,” recalls the elder Reed. “We had 13 acres of redwoods on our property there (Humboldt County). I cut a block of wood and made this funny looking little guitar.  All redwood. That’s how it started… nine years ago.”

 

            BIG TREES: 1,500-year old Redwoods in California - photo courtesy Redwoodhikes.com 

 

Not long after John received the guitar his father made, he met Izzy Lugo, known throughout the New York region as an ace guitar tech. The pair really hit it off. Later, John told Izzy that he was toying with the idea of building guitars out of old growth redwood, and handed him the redwood acoustic Jack had made. “He had no idea what it was… and later on said it wouldn’t work,” jokes the younger Reed. “You just don’t start building electric guitars out of something that no one has ever used, especially in such a fickle business. Then he played it… and he was like “Oh! What’s the deal here?!” So we flew him out to California and showed him this stump half the size of this room and told him that’s where this came from.”

 

Soon, John and Izzy moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Midtown East in New York City and turned it into a guitar showroom and repair shop. They slept on the floor for about five years. The pair would fly back and forth from the Big Apple to the little Northern California shop, which at the time was on the Reed’s property. They would build in Humboldt County and bring the new guitars back to East Coast. “The back and forth just got too insane,” recalls John. “It was a secret shop. We knew a ton of musicians who would come over at all hours of the night. You could come by, have a beer, get your guitar worked on and play Street Fighter II on Nintendo. It was a musician’s dream! That’s the kind of shop it turned into after a while. It just got to the point where we had too many orders. New York itself was on a downward spiral. Studios were shutting down. Venues were shutting down. It got bad.”

 

John and Izzy returned to California for good and continued to grow the brand, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. The guitar business can be particular, as can many who play and collect guitars. There are familiar models — Les Pauls, Strats and Teles — and specific tone woods people gravitate towards. Plus the idea of a redwood guitar was off-putting  to some simply due to the sheer majesty of the trees in question. “We got in so much trouble when we first came out and said we were making old growth redwood guitars because no one would finish reading the paragraph and realize that we weren’t cutting down these trees,” explains Lugo. “Do you realize that if you cut down an old growth redwood and want to dry it out organically so you can turn it into a guitar you have to wait 70 years to get it to that point?!”

 

The Ronin crew freely admits they have pigeonholed their business. It is finite. Once the salvaged redwood runs out, so does Ronin’s run. This point was hammered home back in New York, when the company did build mahogany, swamp ash, alder and maple guitars… and couldn’t sell them after each stood against the all-redwood models. “We still have them all,” says John Reed regarding the non-redwood Ronins. “The are just carcasses. We disassembled them because nobody would buy them. We cannot sell a mahogany Ronin. It’s impossible now.” Redwood also is notoriously difficult to work with. It chips, splinters and is wholly unforgiving when mistakes are made.

 

WOOD STORAGE: Ronan has an envious allotment of old growth redwood harvested from such unique places as a 20,000 gallon wine storage barrel.

 

“The one thing about the redwood is that every process compared to any other wood takes twice as long when working with it. If you wick any Super Glue anywhere near redwood it soaks it up instantly,” says John Reed. “You do that with swamp ash, mahogany or maple and you can just sand it right off. That alone… it’ll take me a week straight  just to prep of a finished guitar to go to paint, to make it look perfect. It is all quarter-sawn, so every time you sand over grain like this. When you switch to end grain, all of these little ripples do not want to flatten out. So if the customer wants the guitar to be perfectly flat with a thin nitro lacquer, it ain’t happening. We have to tell people that they are getting something that is not designed to sand perfectly. We get it 95% close, but if run your finger over thin nitro lacquer over end grain you are going to feel it.”

 

The good news for Ronin is that while there is an end game, it remains years away. The partners have been diligent about sourcing reclaimed redwood, including harvesting useable wood from a dismantled 20,000 gallon wine storage barrel. Most of that wood resides in the dry room in the rear of the current Ronin shop. The front part of the ground floor is dominated by workbenches, saws and other tools of the trade… and space — lots and lots of space. The guitar builder actually shares the building with a nearby restauranteur. There is a large walled-off area to the right side of the room that the crew says was used in the past as a spray booth for automobiles. They plan to transform it into a spray booth for Ronins in the future. Upstairs is another workshop/jam room as well as the shop space Jack utilizes to build Ronin’s acoustics.

 

This year marks one of change for Ronin. They have closed in on a complete revamp of the brand’s guitar range, eschewing many of the conventional guitar ‘shapes’ in favor of its own models. According to John Reed, “People want Teles, Les Paul style guitars, Firebirds, Juniors, all kinds of stuff… so we would make them, however we had a pretty great twist on those classics to the point where we never got a letter from a manufacturer, but I know a lot of folks who have because they got way too close. Ours were just far enough out, different head stocks and the like.

 

"We decided to actually discontinue all of those as of about a month ago because we’re coming out with three new models this year plus this really cool electrified parlor acoustic with a pickup in it. So that will be nine completely unique designs by the end of this year. Right now there are five. And we make a ‘50s-style top-loading Tele-style. That’s not an original design, but we keep it because it’s popular.” Included in the revamp is a small hollow body dubbed Bad Moon and the aforementioned parlor plus pickup called the Georgia Lee. Pickups are a whole other side of Ronin, but it’s one you don’t get to experience unless you buy one of their guitars.

 

FOIL BUCKERS: Ronin's new Foil Bucker pickups are coming soon. Partner Izzy Lugo graced us with a tasty demo.

Earlier in the company’s life, they populated some of their guitars with original ’67 DeArmond Gold Foil pickups. These were acquired from a source that was able to obtain them after the DeArmond factory was shuttered, but that supply dried up quickly. “Back in 2008, the whole Gold Foil thing… Jack White had just started to do some stuff with it,” recalls John Reed. “We started putting these original ’67 DeArmonds in our Songbird model, which is like a two-pickup hardtail. It was our best selling guitar. We ran out of them within a year. Our supplier decided to keep the rest he had, so he told us we had better redesign it, because we weren’t getting any more.” So Ronin started the task of reengineering the classic pickup.

 

In the process, they were urged by guitarist David Torn to create a hum-bucking version. A year and a life savings later, Ronin had their Foil Bucker. “In the process of creating that version, we re-did the single foil,” recalls John Reed. “The Foil Bucker… the reason why it's so big is because inside there are two completely uncompromised versions of this… the only difference is you have lower output when you tap the coil, but it’s not like trying to tap a humbucker and get a great Tele bridge pickup… that’s never going to happen. But we engineered it to where if you go into ‘single foil’ mode with this, it sounds like an old Gold Foil. Once these started to get out there, the sales went through the roof. The sales for the other… people were like why would I get a Kingbird (model) with three singles, when I can get the best of both worlds with the Foil Bucker? Sales for the Kingbird and the Songbird started to go way down, and we were like ‘What did we do!? We totally shot ourselves in the foot with this pickup.’”

 

                           BAD MOON RISIN': John Reed shows off a pair of in-progress Bad Moons.

 

It's unclear if Ronin will ever sell its new pickups without them being wrapped in a new Ronin guitar, but for now they are content to keep them exclusive to the brand. As for the future, that’s anybody’s guess, but the younger Reed does offer some insight on what could be in store — and it likely won’t include outside investors. “In five years, hopefully we’re in a shop that we own that is smaller… and not out of wood,” he says. “By next year we might start building an arch top. We have some people asking about it. We did have a couple of people trying to throw a bunch of money at us when we started. It was some real Crossroads crap. It was the Wayne’s World contract.”

 

 

Republished with the expressed permission  - www.gearphoria.com

               

 

____________________________________________

 

Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.

 

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