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Steve Spalding enjoys a reputation of successfully working on fretted instruments since the 1980s, running a one-man shop from a relatively rural area on the west coast. Located in Ashland, Oregon, Steve works out of a small second-story shop full of various electric and acoustic instruments, each awaiting his undivided attention. He manages a steady flow of instruments that come through his door. On a recent crisp September morning Harmony Central dropped in on Steve to get his perspective on the world of guitar repair and modification.
Harmony Central: What is your background, and how did you get into the musical instrument repair and modification business?

Steve Spalding: I have been working with musicians in some capacity since I was 18, when I began repairing out of my bedroom(!) in high school. In the beginning, I was a pre-teen of the mid '70s in Southern California, with so many musical influences surrounding me—good times. I was soon captured by the allure of "rocking the nation" with a guitar newly in hand! I have always been a builder, tinkerer and somewhat artistic sort of guy, so it was a very early impulse that I wanted to build my own guitar. Specifically, as a new, die-hard "KISS ARMY" disciple, I longed for Ace Frehley's Sunburst Les Paul!

It was around 1978, when I met the guy who was the real catalyst in my life for what I do now, and his name was John Spearman. John was a wacky, eclectic, highly talented dude that did repair from our local music shop. I became his sole apprentice, having a 3+year mentorship. I learned so much! John moved away in '81, and I began to take his place locally. Hence the "bedroom" shop arrangement until after high school. In 1983, I set up a tiny (closet-size) shop in a Medford music store. Repairing on the side, I also played onstage, and did live sound. I began developing faithful repair customers back then, one of which had a major impact on my career path—his name is Al Dinardi. He was (and still is) a dedicated guitar player who really pays attention to great gear, great tone, and he always appreciated my work. As it turned out, he was soon to become the co-founder and vice president of a little upstart called Musician's Friend in Medford, Oregon. In late '89 I was asked by Al and MF president Rob Eastman to open a large shop in their new flagship Medford, OR retail store. A handshake created a 15-year relationship, and amazing opportunities to hone and expose my craft in the industry! They gave me ample space to build my shop and I got it set up the way I wanted. That was such a game changer, just a great opportunity to have access to some bigger name artists who were involved with MF-sponsored sweepstakes, promotions, and other A&R stuff. I got to meet these folks and do work on their instruments. Along with repair, I also pursued building ground-up custom electrics, and was able to put some of my guitars in the "right" hands, which further helped to get the word out about my work. In '04, I chose to downsize, and optimize my workload to allow my very best work. I returned to Ashland, OR, to my present location. 2014 brings 33 rewarding years "under the hood" of countless guitars!

HC: Who are some of the high-profile clients that you've had, and what kind of projects did you do for them?

SS: It's been an interesting journey, and early on I contemplated an urban location for more pro-level exposure, client-wise. Again, thanks to the MF gig as well as our local summer concert series, the Britt Festival. These venues have been a great inroad to exposing myself to all levels of pro players. I'm a bit reluctant to drop names, and do want to consider the artists involved. That said, I reckon its fair to say I had an opportunity to do some work for Prince on a couple of his guitars back in the mid-'90s. I didn't ever meet him directly, the instruments were flown here  to me. Here's a fun tidbit: Paisley Park bought seats for both guitars (in for real flight cases!) so they wouldn't be jostled around in the cargo bins. This pair was the iconic gold "symbol" guitar, and also a black one too. They both had similar "appendage" damage that needed to be addressed. It was honestly a bit of a pressure cooker, shall we say. A rite-of-passage type thing.... because they needed them back ASAP (36 hours!), and in a perfect world I would have wanted them longer and worked a little slower than I did. But everything ended up great. I was able to turn them around and get them back on time.

Back to the question: a few guys I particularly like working with are Craig Chaquico, Paige Hamilton (founder of Helmet, who grew up in Medford), Scott Kelly (Neurosis) and Jeff Pevar.  Generally speaking, I've been around long enough to have the privilege of meeting and working with many interesting artists along the way.

HC: What kind of work do clients bring to you on a typical day?

SS: In a shop such as mine, it's very typical to handle many different things. Take, for example, structural issues with acoustic instruments: there's such a plethora of issues that can occur. I see outright damage from a slip or fall, or an impact: airline/travel/shipping mishaps. And then there can be climate-related things like cracks from under-humidification, the list goes on and on. But I'd say consistently for all types of instruments, it's going to come back to the fingerboard, frets and set-up. A "set-up" generally refers to all function points that affect the playability of the guitar. There's far more to that than most people are aware of, and if it's done well, with a "global" sense of approaching an instrument, that's the basis of what I do. Launching outward from there, I will encounter and implement re-frets, new nuts, new saddles, tuner change outs, and so on. Beyond that, whether it's a broken peg head, a refinish job, or restoration of a vintage guitar, each job can have the the potential to be very unique. 

I've found one of the qualities that brings better success in guitar repair, is the ability to innovate on the fly: see a situation- wrap your mind around the logistics of each and every project, find what's the best option given many criteria for playability, for longevity, for cost effectiveness. Cost is often an issue that must be addressed - not everyone has the resources to do a no-expenses-spared repair. So, sometimes my creativity angle is: how do I fix something in a way that somebody can afford? Another dynamic: a vintage instrument often has notable value,  and it's typically a better quality instrument. Sometimes you have to just say, "I'm sorry, I just can't cut corners on the correct repair for that guitar because it's gonna do more harm than good"- sometimes on several levels. Each project has its own criteria for the extemnt of recommended work, or to pause and say, "Your 1950-something Martin D-28 has dings and wear and tear, but it's a really honest, original vintage guitar with its factory finish and if you alter that finish you're severely risking the value of the guitar (not to mention the tone!!)." There's often a considerable amount of consultation involved with the approach to working on older, collectible guitars.

Guitar tech Steve Spalding at work in his Ashland, Oregon shop

Guitar tech Steve Spalding at work in his Ashland, Oregon shop

HC: What kind of work do most guitars require to give them optimum playability?

SS: As mentioned before, great setups are paramount. Each instrument will have strong points and limitations depending on the particulars of the guitar, but there's always a goal of reaching an optimal geometry. That's a relationship between relative neck straightness; neck "set"(refers to offset angle for best bridge height); fret trueness; nut height; saddle height; and also ancillary stuff. Issues like tuner function, making sure all frets are seated solidly, ends correctly "dressed", etc. It's an alchemy of these points - and it always comes back to the geometry of the guitar in relationship to the strings, and what a player is seeking to experience from that instrument. All factors are thrown into the ring, so-to-speak,  and hopefully you come out with all these points addressed in such a way that the player is getting what they desire from the instrument. My job as a repair guy is to try to remove as many logistic obstacles as possible for an artist to express themselves.

The most common quote a guitar repairman will hear from clients is "Action (string height above frets) as low as possible without frets buzzing." There are so many caveats to that statement regarding the instrument itself, as well as the interpretation of a particular set-up for a particular player. The human impact on the instrument is hugely variable - as variable as guitars are, the players are by far the biggest variable there is! If I don't really embrace that and have that in mind as part of the work being done, I'm missing an important aspect of a good set-up! It's all about what the artist wants, within reason. And sometimes people want what's not possible - I try to address players by saying: "I want to set your guitar up as best I can, and depending on your playing style, it has the potential to strongly determine the ultimate playability".

Again, it's optimizing the instruments physical aspects, and aligning that with the understanding of what the player is looking for and how they're going to approach their instrument.

 HC: What are the most difficult parts of your job, and the most enjoyable?

SS: Probably the most difficult would be (and anybody in most any business already knows the answer to this), there is the rare customer with a disposition that can be inflexible or their expectations are high enough (or unrealistic) that it's likely not possible to meet their needs. It's not at all common, but anybody that does work like this long enough is going to encounter this type of individual. That said, adverse situations I've seen  tend to pertain more to amateurs than professionals. The pros often understand the limitations of the instrument and won't have the same degree of expectation. They're usually more clear that the best tone is not usually commensurate with the absolute lowest action (string height above the frets). Some good players actually want to "fight" that guitar a little bit, and it'll kind of push back at them. Established players, almost without exception, want a good pro set-up, but understand that it's up to them at a certain point to take the instrument and craft what they are conveying musically with that instrument.

On the other end, the more enjoyable part of my work includes completing an extensive modification, or challenging repair. I really am stoked when I take an instrument that's had some pretty adverse circumstances bestowed upon it, and rectify the set-backs in a way that rejuvenates the tone and/or appearance. Creating the opportunity for the owner to re-connect with their guitar is one of the definite strong points for me. And last but not least, I thoroughly love connecting with many customers I meet! I can be a conversationalist, and as much as I enjoy conversations, sometimes I have to remind myself that, hey, I need to hunker down and get some work done - I'd say anytime you hand over an instrument and you've done your job well and it's been a difficult one, that's a high level of gratification for me.




Mike Fitch has been a professional drummer and percussionist in the Pacific Northwest for over 40 years, and also worked as a copywriter and graphic designer for Musician's Friend.

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