michael spalt

Of the numerous careers I've had, this one has probably been the most satisfying.  I'm always looking forward to the moment when I can play the first few notes on a newly built instrument  - to find out what it sounds like, how it plays and to welcome it to the family.  Over the years I've learned something about what to expect from a given combination of woods, pickups etc., but every new instrument still holds a surprise, promises new discoveries.  

 

Like many others I started working on guitars as a teenager, playing in bands, customizing and modifying.  It was still a time where a custom guitar was way cooler than a stock model.   At the time stock instruments were also rather lacking in quality.  A few early 70's SG's, Strats and Les Pauls received added pickups, stereo wiring, new finishes and similar treatments, which would make today's vintage-crazed guitar lover shudder.  But we relished the individuality of our guitars and obsessed about improving them and obtaining optimum playability.  From this I took a basic understanding of guitar craft and a view towards designing guitars that don't necessarily follow the conventional mold.

 

After studying film, photography and painting in San Francisco, I graduated from SFAI in 1981.  Later I studied painting at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria, while working as photographer, shooting record covers, magazine stories, fashion, etc..  But my main interest was film.  This eventually led to a move to Los Angeles in 1986.  I went to work in the film business in various capacities.  Work in special effects and set construction provided me with exposure to techniques and materials which would later find use in my work as a guitar maker.

 

restored '64 '6120' and custom Spalt solidbody
restored '64 '6120' and custom Spalt solidbody

I had not touched a guitar for years, when, sometime around 1990, I finally decided to restore my old '64 Gretsch Tenessean, which had been badly modified by the previous owner - the top had been cut to fit three full-size humbuckers, among other things.  I rebuilt the top, added a flame Maple veneer, bound f-holes and restored the original wiring and pickups, turning it into a faux 6120.  Over the next few years I dabbled in making bodies, assembling parts, and restoring broken or modified instruments.  My work in film now centered mainly around screenwriting and working on guitars was a good counterbalance to the cerebral task of writing.  I started to tackle more ambitious projects, making my first few set-neck solid body guitars.  It was way more fun to work on guitars in my garage rather than sitting at the computer and in meetings.  I thought I might even make a living at it.  I'm glad today that I didn't know then what was in store for me, or I would have never attempted this.  The vintage-craze was starting up and any new design or newly built guitar had the chips stacked against it.  It would be ten years before I was able to "make a living" at this.

 

zebrawood tele
zebrawood tele

Most of my early work actually followed a fairly conventional path.  I made the guitars I had always wanted as a teenager, improving the designs where I felt the originals were lacking.  It was a practical way of learning the craft, along with doing a lot of repairs.  There are a lot of vintage and classic guitars in L.A., and I was able to examine them and learn from/about them first-hand as a good number passed through my shop.  I also read everything related to luthierie I could lay my hands on.

 

Eventually I started developing new concepts.  My background in the arts led me to develop the 'resinTop' line of guitars:  Totemguitars.  A more sculptural and materials-oriented approach resulted in the development of the hybrid line, combining metalwork with woodworking.  Exploring new venues and concepts while striking a balance between functionality and aesthetics proved to be a fertile field.

 

'about me' text from my first website
'about me' text from my first website

The guitar certainly has iconic qualities which go well beyond its role as a simple musical instrument.  More than any other instrument it has a distinctly visual impact.  As stage tool and identifier it contributes to the image of the musician and his persona in a way that goes far beyond the purely tonal aspects of the music.  The guitar has become a cultural signpost and the sheer variety of its myriad embodiments is testament to the central role it plays in our imagination.

 

To me the shape of a guitar body is archetypical, a dynamic canvas with erotic overtones.  The influences manifested in the Totemguitar line, to date close to 400 instruments, go back to Dada, Surrealism, collage and assemblage art, Pop art and sometimes a more conceptual approach, along with the occasional dose of pure kitsch.  The hybrid line in turn celebrates the organic shapes and textures of the wood, the fluid reflections on the polished aluminum surfaces, the interplay between hard and soft, warm and cold. 

 

The aesthetic process has its own rules and necessities, but as I work on an instrument, I do keep in mind certain parameters, which will allow me to eventually turn it into an instrument.  In regards to their quality as musical instruments I try to follow a three-legged approach:  reliability, playability and tone.

 

unfinished ResinTop bodies
unfinished ResinTop bodies

Reliability and playability are fairly objective criteria, and my experience with building, repairing and modifying numerous instruments has allowed me to achieve a high standard in this regard.  The question of tone of course is one which often comes up in regards to the unconventional materials I use on a lot of my instruments.  Mildly put, there is a lot of resistance to the idea that anything but the conventional mix of materials can sound good.  What is often forgotten today is that the guitars we now regard as embodying the holy grail of tone were received in a very similar fashion at the time of their introduction.  One could posit that their sound was an accidental creation, determined by the circumstances and technical possibilities of the time.  I would even say that the real credit should go to the musicians who used these instruments to create the music which in time has defined our perception of what good "tone" is. 

 

As much as I enjoy making a "traditional" instrument out of the finest "tonewoods", I also love making instruments which push the boundaries and open new possibilities to musicians willing to explore and expand the scope of their music.  To me the prime quality of "tone" is not its more or less successful replication of some previous tonal fingerprint.  It is the richness, definition, liveliness, transparency and balance present in the sound of the instrument.  And even though each of my instruments has its own tonal identity, they all share these qualities and will offer them to the musician willing to listen.

 

 

 

Joshua Tree rock
Joshua Tree rock