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Eric Schulte Custom Guitars

 
of Eric Schulte

1960 Schulte Custom Doubleneck, courtesy of Eric Schulte.

You know the experience. You stop at your favorite music store, scan the axes hanging on the rack, and get a little whiplash as your eyes snap back toward a handsome beast you’ve not seen before. When this happens to me, more often than not it’s because I’ve just located another guitar made by Philadelphia-area luthier Eric Schulte.

Schulte’s forte, not unlike larger manufacturers (including Hamer, Dean, and most Japanese manufacturers active in the ’70s and ’80s), has been making very high-quality “interpretations” of classic American guitars. And since he’s made quite a few through the years, it’s entirely possible you’ll one day encounter a guitar with the Schulte logo. And when you do, you’ll know where it came from.

Malvern Roots
C. Eric Schulte was born August 28, 1923, in Malvern, Pennsylvania, just a hop, skip, and jump from where he lives today in a modest farmhouse in Frazer, Pennsylvania. Malvern was then a sleepy little town sitting atop a high hill above Great Valley, a fertile swath of farmland west of Valley Forge, on the far western fringe of Philadelphia. Malvern is best known as the site of the Paoli Massacre, a galvanizing Revolutionary War battle named for a nearby town – when British troops came up the hill out of Great Valley at night and killed several hundred sleeping American soldiers serving under General Anthony Wayne. This led to the failed attempt to recapture Philadelphia at the battle of Germantown, and Washington’s retreat into Valley Forge, the darkest days of the revolution. Malvern is still a sleepy little town, but much of the farmland has sprouted housing developments and Great Valley now is the site of Philly’s high-tech corridor.

Schulte became interested in guitars during the Great Depression. He recalls a new family moved in across the street, and two brothers and a nephew who used to play country music on the front porch. The brothers played guitar and harmonica, the nephew did mandolin and fiddle. Eric’s sister had a Stella guitar he borrowed, learned some chords on, and took over to front porch jam sessions across the street.

Schulte saw action during World War II in an engineering unit that participated in the invasion on D-Day on Omaha Beach. His unit was one of the first to cross the Rhine and enter Germany. He likes to reminisce about those experiences. It was during the war that Schulte first encountered motorcyles, which he, like many other guitarmakers (think Paul Bigsby), enjoyed working on.

Following the war, Schulte returned to Pennsylvania, got married, and took up a trade as an auto mechanic – ironically a “fender” man whose responsibility included painting the fenders he was repairing.

Decorating Guitars
Around 1950, Schulte became interested in doing more than just playing guitars. He recalls buying a couple Silvertone acoustic archtops from the Sears catalog. His first modification of an instrument was to add some binding to the sides and f-holes, using (what else?) paint.

A few of his friends saw the “improvements” and before long were bringing their guitars to be spruced up. From there, his involvement began to snowball, and it wasn’t long before strangers were coming to get the Schulte treatment.

From painted trim, it wasn’t a big step to try building guitars in the early ’50s. His very first was a pear-shaped solidbody. Schulte made the body and bought a neck from Carvin. He used Carvin necks for most of his early guitars.

As Schulte explains, when you make a guitar, you see how to improve what you’ve just done. So he’d begin another one, and the canon began to grow.

Fender Teles and Franchises
The majority of Schulte’s instruments are “copies” of popular American designs, a tradition he began in the mid ’50s. This was before Fender had really begun to penetrate the East Coast – there were probably half a dozen Telecasters in the region at the time. A buddy of his got one and Eric proceeded to make a copy. He showed his copy around and one fellow liked it so much he swapped Eric for a real one! Schulte kept that Tele for awhile and eventually traded it in to a dealer for a Gibson thinline. It was the first of many guitars he wishes he’d never gotten rid of!

Schulte soon began to get deeper into the guitar business. In the ’50s he began to acquire a number of musical instrument franchises, including Martin and Guild.

Ca. ’57, he applied for a Gibson franchise. At the time, Gibson dealers had to be at least nine miles apart, and there were two dealers within the limit. Gibson’s representative offered Schulte an Epiphone franchise, but he declined. Eventually, Gibson did make him a second-class dealer, which meant he could get Gibson parts and actually get Gibson guitars to sell only if no other local dealers were carrying the particular model. He remained a second-class Gibson dealer until the Norlin takeover in ’68, when the system was redone and dealership classification was eliminated.

The Schulte Custom
Most of Schulte’s ’50s guitars were steps on the road of learning, but by late ’57 he was confident enough to introduce his own design, the Schulte Custom. Because they are mostly built to order, he calls all his guitars “Schulte Custom,” but early on, the term referred to a specific model. Some of his guitars have a Schulte Custom logo, some just the Schulte logo. A few also have a pearl inlaid SC.

The Schulte Custom was a single-cutaway semi-hollowbody made of two pieces of solid wood – a front and a back- hollowed out and glued together. This construction has appeared periodically – recall Kustom in the late ’60s and Micro-Frets in the early ’70s.

The upper shoulder of the Custom had a Tele curve to it. More unusual was a truncated, pointed treble cutaway horn with a little extra peak on the bottom – very reminiscent of early Carvin solidbodies, probably more than a coincidence. These had bolt-on necks with a fancy scrolled six-in-line headstock with three peaks and several French curves (although the first example had a plainer Strat-style shape), lightly colored with dark-painted trim. Inlays were mainly dots, though some had a large octave inlay. There were two f-holes, adjustable bridge, and trapeze tailpiece. Most had twin Carvin pickups with two volumes and two tones. A three-way toggle sat on a little diamond mount on the upper shoulder. The elaborate pickguard was made of sparkle plastic.

The first guitar was finished in sunburst and went to a man named Jay Webb. It had his name inlaid into it. Indeed, several Schulte Customs had their original owner’s name inlaid in the fretboard, a feature seen on numerous Schultes. Since these were custom-made, you could get any finish, and good finishes are a hallmark, given Schulte’s previous occupation. Other finishes included natural, black, blond, red, and lavender.

The second Custom was made for Earl Day, with “Earl” and double-triangle inlays on the fingerboard. This unusual model had an early Bigsby vibrato and two toggles for the Carvin pickups. It also featured alternating light and dark strips of wood for purfling, giving a kind of checkerboard effect.

Only six Schulte Customs were made between ’58 and ’60.

In late ’60, Schulte began his first electric bass, based on the Custom design. This is even rarer, since only one was made, and sold to one Dick Schultz. One other rare model in this series was a Schulte Doubleneck made for Shorty Forrester, also in ’60. This had a bass and guitar neck, otherwise following the Schulte design. This was finished in a pinkish-red color. The top neck was the guitar and sported three single-coil pickups arranged Strat-style. The bottom neck was the bass with one Carvin bass pickup.

The Schulte Guitar
Following Schulte’s forays into the bass world, he modified his original design to become a double-cutaway known as the Schulte Guitar. It was still a semi-hollowbody made of two hollowed out pieces of wood, but the shape was a little more conventional. Gone was the pointy cutaway and peak in favor of a rounded, Gibson-style horn. Gone was scrolled headstock in favor of more of a Strat-style shape, still outlined in dark painted trim. The sparkle pickguard was replaced with a more conventional stair-stepped plastic shape. Inlays consisted of the double triangles, as on the Earl Day model. One made for Walt Hughes had “Walt” on the fingerboard. Only four of these were built between 1960 and ’63. This marked the end of Schulte’s uniquely constructed designs.
Dating early Schultes should be easy. Jay Webb’s had no serial number, but has his name on it. Beginning with the second guitar, a date-coded serial number was used. This consisted of SS (semi-solid) plus five or six digits. The numbers stood for the month and year of completion, followed by a two-digit sequence number (SS(M)MYY0#). Thus, the model made for Nick Viola in ’59 carried the serial number SS105903, which translates to semi-solid guitar completed in October ’59, the third Schulte Custom guitar made. The doubleneck dropped the SS and was coded 66001, for June ’60. The bass, of which there is only one, had the serial number SSB16101, indicating that it was finished in January of 1961, the first made.

Schulte went into a bit of a hiatus in the mid ’60s. No guitars were made between April ’63 and August ’66. During the time off, Schulte abandoned his semi-solid concept. One guitar made in ’67 was called a “Schulte Guitar,” but is described as being a thin hollowbody electric in a natural finish. Following this guitar, Schulte began making copies of “standard” designs.

The Schulte LP Copy
In ’67, Schulte made his first Les Paul copy, a form for which he would become quite distinguished over the years. The guitar was made for Steve Tannenbaum, with no serial number, natural mahogany, with a flat finish. In ’67 Gibson was not making Les Pauls, so if you wanted one, you either bought a used one or had one made.

Following his first Les Paul copy, he went into another hiatus until ’73. He continued to sell instruments, do repairs, and work with a few local men who “apprenticed” themselves. One was John Marshall, one of the founders of Renaissance Guitars, in Malvern.

Schulte’s repair work has yielded a number of Frankensteins. Remember, he got his start “improving” Silvertones ca. 1950. Over the years he has improved a good number of guitars and they can take many forms. Sometimes he’d redesign a guitar, making modifications. Often, people would bring him trashed guitars and he’d rebuild them. There are quite a number of guitars that may have, say, an Epiphone or Gretsch body and a Schulte neck. You probably couldn’t distinguish a guitar simply modified by Schulte, other than recognizing it had been changed. However, if you find a Gretsch body and a neck with a Schulte logo, you’ll know he “improved” it.

Standel and Sam Koontz
During all this, Schulte continued to work full-time as an auto mechanic to keep his family going. One of the products he became interested in was Standel amps, custom-made in California by Bob Crooks and played by Hank Thompson. When Standel decided to go into commercial production in the mid to late ’60s, Schulte got a couple for his shop, becoming the first East Coast Standel dealer. He took one over to his acquaintances, Fred and Ralph Baas, who ran Philadelphia Music Company, and their guitar tech, luthier Sam Koontz. Philadelphia Music was the importer of Framus guitars and often sent repair jobs to Eric. The folks at Philadelphia Music were very impressed by the Standel amplifier, contacted the company, and became their East Coast distributor. One day, the Standel rep was at Philadelphia Music when Eric showed up, and enthusiastically pointed him out as their first dealer.

It was through Schulte and the Standel connection that Sam Koontz hooked up with Crooks and Standel. Ca. ’67, Koontz designed some large flat-top acoustic and archtop electrics, and some basses, for Standel. These were manufactured in the Harptone factory in Brooklyn, a company best known for its guitar cases, but which had made guitars on and off beginning in the 1920s. The Koontz models are easily recognizable by their architectural headstocks with a big circle cutout at the top. Reportedly, only a few hundred of these Standels were ever produced. Following the end of the Standel-brand, Koontz continued making archtops and flat-tops for Harptone, basically the same guitars carrying their brand name. These were made until the mid ’70s, when the trade name passed to the Diamond S company, which also owned Micro-Frets.

Several accounts of Schulte’s work suggest he learned his craft from Sam Koontz. This is not the case. Schulte didn’t work with Koontz until he joined Philadelphia Music, and he’d had some 15 years of experience by that time. As Schulte recalls, he and Koontz were at about the same stage in their skill levels when they met. Schulte chuckles at the thought, noting that he had to teach Koontz how to paint because he didn’t know how.

Philadelphia Music
In ’73, Philadelphia Music was doing good business and offered Schulte a job, to help Sam Koontz. Schulte was well into guitars by then and the prospect sounded good. However, he had a good job at the body shop. He told them he made $130 a week at the auto repair shop, and if they’d meet that, he’d join them. That was more than they were willing to pay, so Schulte said no. A couple weeks went by and one of the Baas brothers called him back and asked him to come over. Schulte went and they went out for some dinner. At that point, Philadelphia Music offered Schulte his $130 a week and promised him an automatic raise in six months. He left his auto mechanic job and began working with guitars full-time, and so impressed his new employers that he got a raise six weeks after starting.

At Philadelphia Music, Schulte and Koontz did repairs and spent a lot of time setting up Framus guitars. Schulte recalls there were lots of problems with Framus’ quality control. The store also ran a rental business, furnishing instruments to area schools, and a lot of time was spent fixing student violins. Philadelphia Music sent Schulte down to study with Primavera, the renowned Philadelphia luthier. It was there he got an important lesson in the uncertainties of instrument making, learning that, “You don’t know how an instrument will turn out until it’s finished.”

Two big-name Framus endorsers were jazz/pop artists Atilla Zoller and Billy Lorento, both of whom had signature models. Both would visit Philadelphia Music when they were in the area. Lorento was the stage name for Bill Lawrence, the pickup wizard.

Schulte recalls that Zoller, who’d been sent to promote Framus guitars and had hooked up with the New York jazz crowd, was a really nice guy. However, he recalls one factory visit at which Zoller arrived with his wife. She was carrying his guitar case. When asked why he made her carry the guitar, he responded by explaining that he didn’t want to hurt his hands. This gives Eric much amusement because, as he points out, guitarists have stronger hands than most people.

In the mid ’70s, Koontz struck out on his own. His business did not thrive, and after his wife died, he reportedly took to drinking, and eventually committed suicide.

Back to Guitarmaking
In late ’73 Schulte resumed making guitars. His first endeavor was modeled after a Gibson L-5 made for his former apprentice John Marshall, who’d moved to the Pocono Mountain resort area and opened a music store. This guitar was done in natural, though Marshall subsequently used it to teach himself how to finish guitars, so it received a number of strippings and refins.

The Marshall guitar was followed by copy of a Gibson Byrdland, with a Florentine cutaway and sunburst finish, and another natural-finished Les Paul copy. None of these featured serial numbers, and Schulte went into another pause in guitarmaking for a couple years, meeting the demands of his employer.

However, word of Schulte’s skills began to spread, and beginning ca. ’76, more and more players began tapping him to make guitars. This was, you’ll recall, the height of the “copy era,” when Japanese-manufactured guitars such as Ibanez, Aria, Electra, and others thrived making copies of American designs that equalled or bettered the originals during an era of U.S. corporate hangover when quality was at its nadir.

Indeed, it was around this time that Philadelphia Music began importing Penco copies from Japan. Pencos were generally very high-quality copies of various American models. Ironically, Schulte remembers very little about them because, unlike Framus, these came in well set up, so they only had to be boxed and shipped, and he had little or no involvement.

As Schulte’s work picked up, most of the guitars he was building were Les Paul Deluxe copies in cherry sunburst, and some goldtops. Virtually all translucent finishes were on guitars with highly figured maple tops. Other trademark features included colorful pearl or abalone inlays and beautiful wooden pickguards. Even though his earliest guitars had bolt-on necks, by this time the majority of Schulte Custom guitars (except for the Fender-style models) had glued-in necks. Schulte’s skill has always been in construction, not electronics, so most Schultes feature whatever pickups the purchaser wanted and/or were available. Many feature vintage pickups, often Gibson PAFs. Schulte never got into developing his own.

Beginning with this new round of guitarmaking, Schulte devised a coded serial number system that continues to this day (though he’s thinking of changing it). Basically, this consisted of the final digit of the year followed by a dash and the consecutive number of guitar production, beginning with serial number 7-0123, finished in 1977. Most guitars subsequently followed this pattern, though there are some exceptions.

Schulte “Fenders”
Two exceptions to Schulte’s Les Paul output were Fender inspirations. One was a Telecaster copy built in ’77 of natural zebrawood. This was made for a New York man named Craig Snyder, who sent the wood. This guitar featured a glued-in neck with an Epiphone-style headstock. The ebony fingerboard was bound and natty, with no position markers. Three pickups – neck mini-humbucker and two single-coils – sat on a laminated black pickguard. Controls were volume and tone with three on/off mini-toggles. Rather than a Tele-style bridge/tailpiece, it had a finetune bridge and stop tailpiece. Hardware was gold.

The other was a Fender Precision Bass copy made for Eric’s son, Ken, also in ’77. It had a natural-finished walnut body, maple neck, with a maple fingerboard.

With increased demand for his guitars, working at Philadelphia Music began to get in the way of Schulte’s own activities. Circa ’77, he pull backed to three days a week at Philadelphia Music. Increasingly, his time there was spent fixing damaged violins. With even more orders coming in for his Les Paul copies, Schulte cut back to one day a month. He recalls that he’d come in on a Saturday and do two day’s work in one in order to finish up all the repairs without having to come back the next day.

For the next three years, Schulte’s main output was Les Paul Deluxe copies. Most were cherry sunbursts, with the occasional dark walnut, wine red, or tobacco sunburst. One was all natural. Most had mother-of-pearl inlays, but occasionally they sported abalone. Most had maple flametops, though once in awhile a birdseye top would be made. In December ’79 and March ’80, he made two Les Paul Deluxe copies with genuine Epiphone Emperor necks. His first Les Paul Custom copy didn’t appear until January ’81. This had a walnut body with a birdseye maple cap. Occasionally, the guitars would have the owner’s name inlaid in the fingerboard.

Flaming Harry and Kiss
It was during this period that a local blues guitarist named Flaming Harry became enamored of Schulte’s guitars. Flaming Harry (Hank McGonnigal, VG, January ’00) ran a pick-up band that backed touring artists, and he did a lot of recording sessions. It was through Flaming Harry that Schulte met Paul Stanley of Kiss, who promptly ordered two cherry sunburst Deluxe copies (8-0132 and 8-0133), that were delivered in August ’78. Eventually, three Schulte Les Pauls wound up in Stanley’s stash. For a number of years, McGonnigal offered to take any of Schulte’s guitar that he couldn’t sell, and quite a number went up to New York to be sold by Flaming Harry.

In the Fall of ’81, Schulte began a limited run of Explorer copies in cherry or tobacco sunburst. Reminiscent of the Hamer Standard, these featured flamed maple tops. Otherwise, they were similar to their Gibson forebears. Four were built.

Schulte Archtops
In late ’81 Schulte began to concentrate on archtops. He designed an archtop acoustic based on a D’Angelico Excel and built four of them in ’82 – all sunbursts. Several had D’Angelico-style headstocks with the scalloped cutout on top, but Schulte thought these looked too much like Sam Koontz’s Harptones, so he switched to a variation on an Epiphone headstock. Schulte archtops can have a variety of trapeze tailpieces, though many feature a three-piece tail of Schulte’s own design, similar to the old bi-part Epi Frequensators with the rectangular string attachment claws descending basswise. Pickguards could also be anything, but many featured a modified D’Angelico shape. Inlays were whatever Eric felt like. They could have one (neck) or two pickups.

The Schulte Custom Excels were followed by a couple of ES-175 copies. These featured Schulte’s sunburst wooden pickguards, one with cloud inlays, one with large blocks. All acoustic/electric archtops had serial numbers with an “A” prefix.

More Variety
By ’83 Schulte was kicking out quite a variety of instruments, still mostly copies. He built an SG Bass copy and a doubleneck bass for his son, Ken. The black bass was unusual in that it had a huge winged headstock similar to the V-shaped heads on contemporary Deans. Otherwise it had an SG body with P and J Bass pickups, with a bound rosewood board and pearl block inlays.

Another customer got a pair of very fancy dreadnoughts, Schulte’s take on a D-41. Featuring spruce tops and rosewood bodies, these were encrusted with abalone trim on the top and featured snowflake and notched diamond inlays. LP Deluxes still abounded.

Another unique guitar from this period that doesn’t appear in Schulte’s records was a black Flying V copy. Unlike much of his other work, this did not copy the Gibson, but rather had a sharply pointed headstock. In addition it had a more rounded cutout on the bottom between the wings, with a deep V-notch right in the middle. This sported a pair of EMG pickups and fancy mother-of-pearl double block inlays.

Also in ’83, one of Schulte’s young friends began to hang out around the dumpster at the Ibanez headquarters in Cornwall Heights, Pennsylvania. He found discarded Fender-style necks that had been dropped, dinged, nicked, or otherwise rendered unsuitable, though still serviceable. He sold these to Eric for $5, who then proceeded to build a series of guitars he called the El Cheapo line, finished either in burgundy red, blueburst, silverburst, brown sunburst, or brown. These had equal double-cutaway bodies with pointed horns, kind of like a widened, non-scalloped SG. The maple necks were bolted on, and had either maple or rosewood fingerboards. One humbucker sat at the bridge, with a finetune bridge and stop tailpiece. Controls were volume and tone. These proved popular and sold quickly, though only six were made.

George Thorogood
In the Fall of ’83 another celebrity – or at least his guitar tech – made his way to Schulte’s door. George Thorogood was then raising eyebrows just down the road in Delaware, and one day his guitar guy brought Schulte three of George’s Gibson ES-175s to refinish. Pleased with the work, they decided to have Schulte build them a guitar. What George wanted was a thinline halfway between the 161/4″ ES-175 and the 141/4″ ES-125. Thorogood approached Gibson about making these for him, but they demurred. The result was the Schulte Custom CES-135 TD, of which Thorogood got three between ’83 and ’85. These were dotnecks done up in white with a pair of P-90 single-coils. The first two, built in ’83, featured a large stylized “G” on the head (for George). The third, built in ’85, had a Gibson neck.

A few other dreadnoughts appeared during this period, as well as the time-honored LP Deluxe copies. In December ’83 Schulte built a wine red solidbody version of an ES-335. This had a bound rosewood dotneck, twin humbuckers, and finetune bridge and stoptail. Basically it looked like an ES-335 with no f-holes.

Schulte kept busy rebuilding guitars during this period. He customized a P Bass with a new neck with hooked headstock and maple fingerboard with large black blocks. Other Fenders got new necks, as did many other archtops, including Gibsons, Gretsches, a Premier Bantam, and acoustics.

Immediately following the last Thorogood in ’85, Schulte made his one and only single-cutaway flat-top, a large 000 size with a wide, horizontal cutaway and a Guild-style pickguard. The head was more like a Martin. The rosewood fingerboard was bound and had banjo-style inlays with large dots flanked by scrolls that look like bird wings.

A few more Schulte Custom Excels were made in ’85, including a pair with lots of abalone trim and fancy split-block mother of pearl and abalone inlays. At least one lefty Excel was built in ’85.
More Fender-Style
About this time, Schulte built a Fender-style six-string bass. It was a one-pickup J Bass in Lake Placid Blue with the hooked headstock (four and two) with a maple fingerboard, no markers. Also in ’85, he took commission to build another doubleneck. This had a Fender bass offset double-cutaway styling with bass and guitar necks. The bass neck had two split-coil pickups, the guitar had three humbuckers and a Kahler locking vibrato. Originally, the buyer had it made with a black pickguard, but changed his mind and changed it to white.

Several other Fender-style guitars followed in ’86. The coolest was actually more like an Ibanez Roadstar, with offset double cutaways with little hooks on the horns. There was also a little hook on the six-in-line headstock, though not as pronounced as Schulte’s earlier heads. This guitar was finished in black, with a bound fingerboard, large abalone and pearl blocks, two humbuckers and a middle single-coil (three mini-toggles), Kahler double-locking vibrato, and white pearloid pickguard.

Schulte recalls with amusement the story of this guitar; the fellow who bought it had to bring it back for repair because his wife had put a deep gouge in the front. A few months later, the fellow’s wife smashed an acoustic guitar which had to be repaired. A little while later the fellow got rid of his wife.

Another guitar from this period was a Strat copy in white. In typical fashion, it had upscale timbers, with highly flamed maple for the neck/fingerboard. This guitar carried no logo. Schulte built another white Strat copy ca. ’88, but with G&L pickguard assembly and vibrato. A guy who Schulte had made guitars for moved to California and called him one day to make a Strat with G&L pickups. Schulte suggested he was in G&L’s back yard and why didn’t he contact them. But the man was adamant, bought the parts from G&L, and shipped them to Eric.

More Rebuilds
Among the rebuilt guitars of this time was a Gretsch that Schulte customized for Philadelphia-area country ace Ross Finley. This had a new Schulte neck with elaborate pearl inlay on the bound fingerboard, wood surrounds for the pickups, and an “RF” inlaid wood pickguard. Others included a red Gibson SG, a greyburst Gibson L6-S with a mirror pickguard, and a Framus Atilla Zoller, all with Schulte necks. Since Schulte’s own guitars are often pretty close copies, it may sometimes be difficult to tell if a guitar with a Schulte neck is an original Custom or a rebuilt original.

Schulte recalls one rebuilding job with amusement. One day, a Philadelphia-area lawyer and friend named Steve Scarpa was driving around the city with his girlfriend. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a guitar body sticking out of a dumpster. He told his girlfriend to pull over and retrieved what turned out to be an older Harmony archtop body made of solid wood, with a carved top. All that was left of the neck was a little nub at the heel. Scarpa thought maybe the neck was also in the dumpster, so they circled back, and sure enough, retrieved the neck.

The “trash” guitar was brought to Eric. Scarpa didn’t like the Harmony neck, so he had Schulte install one of his own necks. He also asked him to inlay the word “trash” on the headstock. Horrified his work was going to be called “trash,” Schulte asked why. Scarpa replied that it was because that was where he found it. It took some creative effort for Schulte to convince Scarpa to let him put a nice tasteful “S” for Scarpa/Schulte on the headstock, instead of a mother-of-pearl “trash!”

Schulte expanded his acoustic repertoire in ’86 with a nice 00-18 copy made for Steve Bauer, whose name is inlaid into the rosewood board. This was finished in a nice sunburst. A relatively plain D-18 copy and an abalone encrusted 000-41 followed.

Big Red
About this time Schulte built a couple more ES-175 copies, including one of his favorites in a red sunburst, affectionately known as “Big Red.”

“You know how sometimes you find a guitar you know is just right the first time you pick it up?” said Schulte. “That was Big Red.”

He played it for awhile and one day took it to a pickers’ picnic in New Jersey, where another player tried it.

“I guess he loved it more than me,” chuckled Schulte. “So I sold it to him. Eventually it got sold to a man down South who called me not long ago. When he described the guitar I knew it was Big Red.”

More copies continued through the end of the ’80s, including very fancy Les Pauls. A relatively rare goldtop was built in ’90, with Custom-style large pearl block inlays. Another was an ’89 Deluxe in metallic blue with black shading.

It’s hard to pick special guitars from such a prolific output of fancy guitars, but in 1990, Schulte built a Jazzmaster copy and a Telecaster copy that stand out for chutzpah. The Jazzmaster was a translucent orange job of highly quilted maple for Ross Finley. Trimmed in abalone, this baby had a scrolled F-5 mandolin-style head, fancy pearl inlays on a bound, tapered ebony fingerboard, finetune bridge, and Bigsby. Since Finley has always been a Gretsch man, it sported two Gretsch DeArmonds. The Tele was a bit closer to the original design, but made of the same highly quilted maple with abalone trim. This had a maple neck and fingerboard.

Bigsby
In the early ’90s, a local collector purchased a Bigsby guitar that was pretty much falling apart, and brought it to Schulte. This sparked his interest. Schulte took it apart during the restoration and made detailed templates of all the parts. Taking a page from Paul Bigsby’s old book, in ’93 Schulte made a Gibson J-200 copy with a Bigsby headstock, the kind of hooked, exaggerated thing similar to what would become the Strat headstock. If you look back on Schulte’s career, including his first Custom models and various rebuilt Fenders, the shape obviously struck a cord.

This fling led Schulte to build his own copy of a Bigsby later that year. It was a pretty close replica, including the scrolled upper shoulder, pickguard, and armrest. Pickups were a pair of Gretsch DeArmonds. Unlike Bigsby’s early guitars, which often had a violin-style trapeze, this one had – what else – a Bigsby vibrato!

Schulte’s output in the ’90s pretty much followed his past work. The majority were Les Pauls, increasingly with fancy tops. Several more interesting models were made with what Schulte calls “wide flame.” Indeed, the flame is remarkably wide. These tops were actually made of a rare flamed birch, not maple. A couple Teles and several more dreadnoughts came out of the shop. Archtops were mostly abandoned, although he was recently working on another Gibson archtop copy to be finished in blue because the art director who designed the cover of the purchaser’s latest CD had colorized his guitar blue, so he knew he’d better get a blue guitar when he went out to support the record!

Throughout the years of making copies of popular guitars, Schulte never copied a Gretsch, though he’d worked on many, much to the dismay of some of his friends, who are Gretsch fanatics. In ’99 he finally got around to it. The last two guitars completed prior to his interview with us were his first Gretsch copies, two natty White Penguins.

Numbering Schemes
In late ’91 Schulte realized he’d been making guitars for quite awhile using his old numbering scheme, so the first annual digit was repeating a lot. There were now four series of serial numbers beginning with 0 – 1960, ’70, ’80 and ’90. In response, from ’91 to ’95 he changed his scheme to two digits for the year, a hyphen, and the four-digit sequential number. For example, a ’92 Les Paul with a “crazy maple” top was 92-0237. While the prefix changed, the sequential numbers remained constant. Schulte tired of this in late ’94 and reverted back to the old scheme. Thus, a flametop Les Paul finished in December of ’94 had the serial number 4-0258. This gets a little dodgy of late because Schulte’s records show that his last guitar in ’98 was 8-0271, but in ’99 he started with 9-0215, a number that, ironically was last used in ’89, serial number 9-0215! The serial numbers 9-0215 to 9-0218 repeated in ’89 and ’99. However, because the ’89 215 was the blue metallic Les Paul, the 216 was a D-28, the 217 was Ross Finley’s Jazzmaster, and 218 was the fancy Tele; the ’99 215 and 216 were Les Pauls with a center walnut strip in the top, and the 217 and 218 were the White Penguins.

Now that we’re in another zero year, Schulte is thinking of changing back to using more digits.

Output
According to Schulte’s logs, the highest serial number as of this writing was 8-0271, indicating 271 Schulte Customs have been made. However, the four redundant numbers bring that to 275. But as we’ve seen, there are a handful more that don’t appear in the logs, so the total output to date is around 280. No records were kept of the various Schulte customizations. Based on photographs in Schulte’s albums, there must have been at least 50, and probably considerably more.

The single largest category of Schulte Customs have been the Les Pauls; Schulte’s records show 97. There were nine of the late-’50s Schulte Custom (the original model, including one bass and one doubleneck), five early-’60s Schulte Guitars, eight variations on the Excel archtop, six El Cheapos, four Explorers, and four Teles (including his first guitar). Most other guitars are in small or one-off quantities.

C. Eric Schulte’s wife of many years passed away a few years ago. It was a hard blow, but he remains positive and active. He lives in the neat little bungalow and studio he has occupied for ages, shared with his son, who helps with much of the prep work. Schulte continues to make guitars and take orders for new ones. He’s at least a year behind, so there’s a wait. He loves to fish, and takes off once in awhile to visit fishing holes maintained by friends in nearby mountain foothills.

So, when you see a quilt-top Les Paul or abalone trimmed archtop carrying the Schulte name, you’ll know where it came from!



1960 Schulte Custom Doubleneck, courtesy of Eric Schulte.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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