The list of folks who use Tim Scheerhorn’s guitars reads like a who’s who of resonator and slide guitarists. Jerry Douglas, Mike Auldridge, Sally VanMeter, Rob Ickes, Ben Harper, Phil Leadbetter, and Jimmy Stewart all rely on their Scheerhorns. What is it that causes these artist to faithfully flock to these unique axes? VG talked with Tim Scheerhorn by phone from his workshop in Michigan.
Vintage Guitar: The first question is of all the instruments in the world to build, why square-neck resonator guitars?
Tim Ssheerhornr: I’m a player and I wanted to build something I couldn’t buy. I was fortunate enough to show my first guitar to Mike Auldridge in 1989. That instrument was built in April of ’89, and I was scared to death. I was in awe of the man and asked if he had a few minutes after one of his shows. He opened the case, his eyes popped, and he sat on the fender of his car for an hour and a half, playing it.
Two weeks later I got a wonderful letter: “It was a pleasure to look over your guitar. It was honestly the most beautiful guitar of its type I have ever seen. More importantly, it sounds wonderful. It is very difficult to tell what a guitar will sound like over a sound system or a recording studio when you play it live. I would love to have the opportunity to test drive one of your guitars in one of these environments. I feel pretty sure it would pass the test with ease…”
Anyway, he’s totally responsible for me building more.
How many do you build a year?
About 40; that’s a good number. They are all built to order and I have 50 on backorder. [There is] a 14-month wait, and a tremendous number of people want to know if I have any scratch-and-dents. I don’t.
How do your guitars differ from the traditional dobro?
They look like a Dobro and have Dobro parts – the cone, the spider, the assembly using a quarterman cone. But I do things different inside. I realized what we have here is a speaker cabinet. I studied bass reflex principles and realized there is air in there that has to do something to complement what’s going on. Consequently I don’t have the traditional soundwell construction. My whole motive was to build an acoustic guitar and let the wood work acoustically, as well as the mechanics of the resonator.
Your guitars are made of solid wood, as opposed to the traditional Dobro, which is a laminate.
Right. Solid wood from day one. Occasionally, Dobro would build a wooden instrument. It’s rare to see one in the pre-war days but in the OMI days they made special-order solid-wood instruments. The problem with them was that they had a sound well, which meant they tied the back to the top and locked all the resonant qualities of the top and the back.
What’s a sound well?
A sound well is a ring of wood with holes drilled in it. It sits underneath the cone, and the top and assembly are glued to it. Dobro tried to sell this as a great idea because it made the guitar indestructible. I’ve seen photos with guitar bodies stacked up with a guy standing on top of them. I’m building a musical instrument, not a piece of furniture. I’m sure I couldn’t stand on mine.
Some people have complained that your instruments don’t sound like a traditional dobro in that they are louder and less metallic in tone.
I certainly don’t represent my guitar as traditional-sounding. It’s very contemporary. My whole motive initially was to build a resonator that could go to a jam session and be heard. I didn’t want to build an old pre-war-sounding instrument. If you want that sound, there’s a ton of them out there.
Have you ever built anything besides square-neck resonator instruments?
Round-necks, banjos, and resonator banjos. I’ve built eight or nine round-neck resonators and I also make Weisenborn-type lap guitars on a limited basis. There’s a big interest in the Wisenborn style. I am certainly not building a ton of them, but I built about 15 and have eight or nine on backorder. On Restless on the Farm, Jerry Douglas is playing a lot of the Weisenborn I made. He’s holding it on the inside cover photo.
You destroyed a number of early instruments because they weren’t up to par. What’s the earliest instrument in the field?
Sally VanMeter has number three, and she’ll never give it back because I’ll destroy it. I have repaired it. It’s popped its buttons because some of the structural integrity was lacking. It has survived 10 trips around the world and a tumble out of the back of a Bronco going 60 MPH. On guitar number six – Jerry Douglas’ first one – I decided that if I’m going to make these guitars to survive, I’m going to have to make some changes.
Have the guitars evolved aside from the structural changes?
The body shape of the standard L-bodies (L for large) has stayed the same. Material selection, shape, and bracing have been identical. Small things like neck width and subtle dimensional changes have occurred. I felt more comfortable adding more material on the neck width, those are things nobody but me is aware of. At a certain point, and I am trying to remember when, I did an experimental guitar for myself with a radius back that is arched from the neck to the tailpiece, it’s not like a radius back on an acoustic guitar that’s arched in two directions. All of my guitars are tapered, the tail piece is thicker than at the neck. There is a slight taper. I was building flat back guitars for a quite a few years, after I did this experimental one I decided that the radius was giving me a little more depth of tone, and at a certain point I made a running change and put on the radius back instead of the flat back.
Is there more than one way to set up a resonator guitar? I know that for regular guitars there’s a myriad of ways.
I strongly believe in ebony-capped maple bridges. Ebony is harder, denser, and much more consistent than maple. My experience is that the old guitars all sounded different. You could pick up 20 pre-war guitars and all will have a different quality to their tone. Part of that I attribute to the bridge insert. Some were birch, some beech, and some maple. The string slots were also all done differently. Consequently if you have a lot of variety or variation of that wood, by introducing the ebony caps on top of that bridge insert, it gives it a clearer note with more sustain yet the maple bottom provides the woodiness. This design is sort of a derivative from the banjo bridge. Banjo bridges have been that way for years. People who want a more contemporary-sounding guitar seem to prefer it.
Tim Scheer-horn at the workbench. Photo courtesy of Tim Scheerhorn.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’99 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.