By Adam Perlmutter
Jol Dantzig had designed guitars for Hamer and other makers for four decades when he decided that he’d had enough. “I’d gone from being an art-school student and rock guitarist to sitting across the table from big-box-store buyers and trying to figure out the best way to pump out 1,200 guitars per day,” the luthier says. “I had to figure out who the heck I was.”
In order to find himself, Dantzig checked out, spending his days traveling throughout Europe and restoring old sports cars in the driveway of his Connecticut home. But his absence from the guitar design scene did not go unnoticed. One hardcore Hamer collector mailed Dantzig a large (and unsolicited) check in an effort to encourage him to build a custom instrument. That request became the first of several from fans seeking handmade guitars from Dantzig. Although initially reluctant, he finally reentered the market—on his own terms. “I don’t have to deal with any corporate schmucks,” he says. “I can build exactly what I want at my own pace and smear my own DNA all over everything.”
Dantzig currently builds two to three guitars a year. His most recent creation is the Crow, a ravishing 15-inch semi-hollowbody with a mahogany neck and body, flamed maple back, and spruce top. The guitar’s birdlike cosmetics were inspired by Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation novel, On the Road. “Like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, crows are scavengers and hobos who traverse the landscape, living on their instincts,” he says. “I went with the crow theme to represent not just those characters but the whole spirit of the Beat Generation.”
To create a feathery look on the Crow’s top and rims, Dantzig simulated the Duco finish seen on Thirties-era metal-bodied National resonators, using nitrocellulose lacquer. “I was hell-bound and determined to recreate that finish, and it took me three months to figure out how to formulize it for use on wood,” he says. When it came to the hardware, off-the-shelf parts just wouldn’t do. The TonePros bridge, tailpiece, and tuners received a unique variegated nickel finish, giving them an old-fashioned appearance. Dantzig himself hand-aged the tuner buttons for a marbleized effect. For the controls, he used a pristine 1947 lapsteel knob to fashion a mold, from which he cast a set of four clear acrylic parts. He even hand-turned the switch tip and strap buttons, which are made from Asian buffalo horn. “I wanted the guitar to include things that a crow might nibble on,” he says, referring as well to the instrument’s ivory nut.
Dantzig’s keen attention to period detail extends to the Crow’s innards. Twin Charlie Christian pickups—exact reproductions of the kind Gibson first used on the ES -150 in 1936—are connected with cloth-covered wire of the same era. “I bought some Old Western Electric telephone equipment at an auction,” Dantzig says, “just to cannibalize it for the wire.” Even the Crow’s tweed case—similar to the suitcases that On the Road’s travelers would have carried—has received a custom treatment. The vintage-style tweed cloth that Dantzig ordered looked pale and dry, so he tinted and lacquered it up himself for a convincingly weathered appearance. “When you’re paying this kind of money for an instrument, every detail should be thoroughly considered,” he says.
By “this kind of money,” Dantzig means $38,000 for the Crow package, which includes a hand-bound journal containing his original sketches and photographs of the instrument as well as samples of the cloth wire and other materials. “Unlike a mass-produced instrument,” Dantzig says, “this guitar has a history all its own that I’ve documented for the owner to cherish.