When Gabriel Currie decided to move Echopark Guitars out of Los Angeles, he discovered a new home in Detroit that surpassed his dreams.
By Joe Bosso | Photo: Marvin Shaouni
A little less than a decade ago, Gabriel Currie accomplished the next-to-impossible: Using nothing more than some tools he purchased with his credit card and a small amount of wood he had left over from working construction jobs, the Los Angeles–based guitar repairman and luthier (who had apprenticed with the legendary Leo Fender and later worked for Tak Hosono of Ibanez) founded his own boutique guitar company with an eye toward making “real guitars that sounded good because they were good.”
Taking the name of an artist-friendly neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles that helped give birth to the film industry during the early 20th century, Currie called the company Echopark Guitars. Within a few years, his hand-built electric beauties, made from a carefully selected variety of kiln- and air-dried old-stock woods, were the favorites of players such as Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen of Queens of the Stone Age, Jackson Browne, Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, among others. Even actor Johnny Depp is often seen hammering out rock and roll on an Echopark during his side gig with the Hollywood Vampires.
“People appreciate true quality and craftsmanship,” says Currie. “I wasn’t trying to do anything crazy or retro. I learned from some of the best people how to build a great guitar, and with Echopark I wanted to create new guitars that sounded and reacted like old guitars. The only way that I could really see doing that was to use old wood. I was lucky to have a stash of great old wood from construction jobs, and that served me well. There’s a certain feel and a sound you get from authentic materials. People can tell the difference right away.”
Working out of a small, Fifties-era commercial building in El Monte, California, about 20 miles east of Echo Park, Currie managed to crank out 200 to 300 guitars a year, making models like the Clarence, the Model “J,” the Downtowner and the Bakersfield extremely hard to come by. He was soon joined by noted amp technician Eric Bernstorff, who designed “modern vintage” all-tube amplifiers for Echopark like the Clarence and the Vibramatic 13, along with acoustic expert Jim Dugan, who helped Echopark introduce painstakingly crafted flattop models like the Traditional American Acoustic (an exact replica of Jackson Browne’s vintage 0-15 Martin).
Echopark was selling instruments as fast as Currie and company could make them, and sales were approaching half a million dollars a year. Then one day in early 2016, Currie had an epiphany: It was time to get out of Dodge—or Los Angeles, as it were. “It was just getting too hard to try and keep doing what I do in L.A.,” he explains. “Southern California was always expensive, but it was becoming prohibitively pricey. The town is designed for money-making corporations; it’s not really built for boutique companies like mine. I didn’t want to do anything like partner up with anybody—that would have changed everything—so one day I just decided, ‘That’s it. I should think about doing this elsewhere.’”
Fortunately, Bernstorff and Dugan were both on board with the decision, as was Currie’s family (his wife, Dawn, and their 11-year-old daughter Petra). The only problem was, where to go? “I wanted a place that was fairly secluded,” Currie says. “I’d had enough of the congestion in L.A. But I had to go somewhere that was accessible for shipping materials. Plus, I wanted to be close to an artistic society. I didn't want to be in Arizona or Idaho or anyplace that was too hot or too cold. I had to put some real thought into the matter.” He took trips to Washington State and all along the West Coast, and then fanned out to Colorado and even Tennessee. Nothing felt quite right.
“And then somebody said, ‘What about Detroit?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, what about Detroit?’ ” Currie remembers. “It was a little scary at first. I didn’t know anything about dealing with snow. But then I thought, Well, they do make things there, and it’s got a rich musical and artistic history, so it made sense to check the place out.”
Currie made a few trips during spring of 2016 to the Motor City and spoke with some of his local clients, all of whom expressed encouragement about the possible move. On two additional trips last August and October, he and his wife toured suburban Detroit neighborhoods with a real estate agent, looking at close to 50 different homes before ultimately heading back to Los Angeles empty-handed. “It was kind of discouraging,” he says. “Moving isn’t a small matter—all the pieces have to be in place. Detroit seemed right, but you just have to see yourself there, and I just wasn’t yet.”
Soon after they returned home, Dawn was up doing some late-night web browsing, and a property appeared on her screen: a beautiful two-story stone Tudor, built in 1926, situated in Detroit’s Old Redford neighborhood on the city’s west side. She clicked through pictures, marveling at the house’s hand-hewn woodwork and leaded glass doors, its two full baths with original tiling, the stately stone fireplace and a yard that seemed endless. The house had everything—three bedrooms, a parlor and solarium. There was even a butler pantry and a sewing room. Looking at the photos himself, Currie blinked in disbelief at the asking price of $175,000. “It didn’t seem real,” he says with a laugh. “You can’t even get an apartment in L.A. for that kind of money.”