Of all the many guitar projects guitarist/luthier Buzz Feiten has embarked on, perhaps the most significant from an artistic standpoint is an instrument that he was commissioned to create as a tribute to Bo Diddley. A close friend of Bo’s named Frank Davenport was the idea’s originator. “I was Bo Diddley’s partner and friend for 30 years,” Davenport told GP, explaining the project’s personal significance. “We lived together in New Mexico and three different places in Florida. He considered my kids his godchildren. I took care of his ranches when he was gone, and he would occasionally sneak away and stay with us in a trailer park when there was too much attention on him. He worked on his Cadillac out front, which would draw a huge crowd to our door. He would tell me things no one could believe. We had a perfect relationship, and this guitar is an act of love by Buzz Feiten and myself to be a monument to my beloved old friend.”
For Feiten, the challenge was to create a one-of a-kind design that would embody the spirit of the artist and be a flagship for Feiten’s new SuperNova/Future Vintage guitar brands (buzzfeitenofficial.com). “Frank said he wanted me to design and build a tribute guitar as if Bo were alive and could say what he had in mind for himself,” Feiten explains. “He did not want a square guitar or anything like any of the other previous Bo Diddley models. I took it very seriously, because I’m a Bo Diddley fan and I wanted to do something that would pay homage to his contribution to music, which was huge. Bo really was an innovator. He was one of the first guys to use stereo amps, and he really was kind of outside the box and in left field. I can relate to people that are out in left field, so the project was intriguing for me.”
Taking cues from ’30’s-era architecture, Feiten created a very original instrument of great beauty that could also stand up as a playable and toneful machine Bo likely would have been proud to sling onstage. However, that honor may actually fall to Joe Walsh, who owns one of the two Bo Tribute guitars Feiten made.
And to bring yet another extraordinary guitarist into the picture, this happened because Vince Gill — a friend of Feiten’s and a current member of the Eagles — put a bug in Walsh’s ear about its existence. “I didn’t know that Joe had a history with Bo,” Gill says. “We were out on tour and I just asked him, ‘Hey, would you have any interest in a Bo Diddley guitar that Buzz Feiten is making?’ Joe said, ‘I want it.’”
Asked how he developed the shape, Feiten replied, “I wanted to base it around something that was kind of timeless, and since I loved the art deco movement of the ’20s and ’30s, I thought it might make a really interesting design element. So I started looking at some period architecture, like the buildings at Rockefeller Center, and things like that to try and get some ideas. There was one particular shape that I decided to turn upside down and try to make a body out of it. I had no idea if it would make a viable musical instrument, but I knew that it could look cool. Obviously, I had to modify some of the aspects — like the treble side had to be asymmetrical so that there would be access above the 12th fret.
“So I screwed around with it and came up with something I felt might work. And, lo and behold, it was pretty cool. The only thing was, you couldn’t hold it easily on your lap because it kept sliding down, so I added a knee notch so it would rest balanced on your leg. As it turned out, it was a fantastic guitar to play. The ledges and steps on the top also provide the perfect place to rest your forearm.”
Did you use the same woods for both of these guitars?
No. The first one has a swamp ash core, a sapele back and a Sitka spruce top. That’s the one Joe Walsh has. Both necks are mahogany, however. The second guitar uses piece of 40-year-old mahogany that I found in a wood shop in Burbank [California] that had been sitting there drying all those years. My landlord’s father owned the building and was a woodworker, and he did a project in the ’60s using this material. It turned out to be just fantastic. It’s light as a feather and really resonant. For the top on that guitar I used AAAA quilted maple. I designed the art deco inlays and the hat-and-glasses logo, and all of that was in consultation with Frank to make sure that this was going to be something that would honor Bo’s original idea.
What can you tell us about the neck?
I like a variety of neck shapes, and this one is very middle of the road. However, I do prefer necks that are fatter at the headstock and thinner at the body, because they sound better. I also made it bolt-on, because they have better bass response than set necks. It has a 24 3/4–inch scale, like all of Bo’s guitars, and the fingerboards and headstocks are ebony. I also designed a five-degree headstock angle, which does a couple of things: It softens the playability at the first few frets quite bit. Also, as a result of years of trying to fix the intonation on Gibson-scale guitars, I discovered that the nut has to be 70 thousandths [of an inch] closer to the first fret. That’s based on a simple test of getting the open G string to agree with the third-fret G on the high E string, and the second-fret A on the G string against the open E. So I designed that into the Bo’s neck. Mike Byle at Pearlworks called me and said, “Are you sure? We’re getting ready to cut the fingerboards.” But sure enough, when I strung up the guitars those intervals were perfectly in tune.
Is there anything special about the pickups?
They are my design, and they’re made by G&B in Korea, who has been making my pickups for a long time. I used narrow-space Alnico 5 magnets in a PAF-style configuration, with brass base plates. The narrow space sounds better to me than the wider F-spaced humbuckers, and they sound sweet on the top and are real punchy. They’re not overly wound — around 10k ohms — but they’re just hot enough. The other thing I do is adjust the capacitance of the pickup by turning the low-E pole piece in just a little. It affects the whole pickup, not just the low E, and it’s ridiculous how much it affects the sound. I can’t explain it, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t started messing around with it. I also use Alpha pots and Sprague caps. The volume pots are 500k, and the tone pots are 250k. The Alpha mini pots sound warmer and more compressed to me, and I like their taper a lot too.
What amps do you use for testing?
I don’t get a guitar anywhere near an amp until it’s hard to put down when played acoustically. George Gruhn once said to me, “Whenever a great player comes into the shop, they don’t plug in. They’ll sit there and play a guitar for hours, and then at the end they might plug it in.” I thought that was interesting because I’m the same way. The guitar has to be an acoustic instrument, first of all, and once I do plug it in, I don’t use a great amp. It’s just a solid-state bench-test amp. But I do that on purpose, because I know that when I plug it into something good, it’s going to be spectacular. I try to avoid getting fooled. It’s like listening to mixes. When mixing a record you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t listen to it quietly. That’s because everything sounds good loud.
Did the Bo guitar’s design dictate a certain type of bridge?
That’s a real saga. I built a guitar some years ago for Jorge Santana that had a Schaller 455 wraparound bridge, and that guitar had some real magic going on with it. So I designed the Bo guitar with that bridge in mind and went on a mission to find some. I couldn’t find any in the usual places, however, so I ended up ordering two from Germany, which DHL lost. Then I got two from another source in Germany, but they were the wrong color, so I had to have them stripped and replated. It was an enormous amount of effort and money to get those bridges built and working, but when I strung up the first Bo, I was so glad I went to the effort because the sustain was just incredible. That bridge has a very shallow string angle, and the saddles are these big pieces of cast brass with radiused slots that are sized for the strings and have a curved bottom. I’ve been working on a prototype bridge that is similar in that it’s an adjustable wraparound with brass saddles and curved slots. I’m using it on this new guitar called the Blues Mini.
Is the Blues Mini going to be first official production-line model for SuperNova?
Yes. It’s a hybrid between a Tele and Les Paul, with a swamp-ash body and a 25 1/2–inch-scale bolt-on neck that has a three-per-side headstock with no angle. I wanted to build the ultimate blues monster that would do the mini-humbucking thing we know and love, and it’s very straightforward, except that it has a four-position switch, with the fourth position being the pickups in series, which is just wonderful. Something just worked about this guitar, and it’s so fun to play. I tried to put all the cool stuff that I’ve developed into this guitar, and when I put it together, it was exactly what I wanted it to be.
Will you be making more Bo Diddley Tribute guitars?
There will only be these two. They were intended to be unique works of art and an expression of Frank’s love and loyalty to Bo. The world needs more people like Frank. This project has been incredibly rewarding, and I’m proud of what we’ve done. But there will be more original SuperNova designs built for passionate, driven people in search of inspiration. At this point in my life, I want to build guitars that are art pieces first of all, because what goes into the instruments I make is 50-plus years of playing experience and a lot of experience in designing and building guitars. I want to know who I’m building a guitar for, and I want to have a satisfying relationship with that person so they’re getting something special that’s really designed for them. I’m always in pursuit of the mojo. That’s the thing that excites me.
Any introduction to guitarist and luthier Buzz Feiten has to touch on his extensive history as a player. It began at age 19 when, following a jam with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix in New York City, he was asked to join the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Feiten blazed with Butterfield at Woodstock and went on to have a storied career recording and/or playing with many other greats, including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Bette Midler, the Rascals, James Taylor, Gregg Allman, Rickie Lee Jones, Chaka Khan, Al Jarreau, Bob Dylan, the Brecker Bothers, David Sanborn, Michael Franks, Mr. Mister, Dave Koz and Olivia Newton-John. Through it all, Feiten has continually sought to improve the performance of guitars by making them play better and sound more in tune. In talking about his obsessive pursuit of “fixing” guitars, Feiten boils it down to a simple philosophy: “I’ve always felt that if something could be improved, I had to try to make it better.”