History of a Mystery

Kurt Hendrick and His Enigmatic Axes
History of a Mystery
Kurt Hendrick in 2007.

One of the most-enigmatic brands in the history of American guitars was a line of funky solidbody electrics created by Kurt Hendrick.

The son of an aerospace engineer, Hendrick grew up in Houston in the ’60s (near NASA’s Space Center) and studied at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. Halfway through the course, though, he quit to work at the Apprentice Shop, in Tennessee, before returning home to be a repairman with instrument retailer Rockin’ Robin in the early ’80s. Inspired at the time by (and with input from) ZZ Top co-founder Billy F Gibbons, he created Hendrick Guitars, with body shapes that stood obviously apart from the crowd.

“I drew from a lot of influences, including NASA, ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’ and Vegas shapes…

but Billy took me over the edge,” Hendrick told VG in 2007. “It wasn’t really his sense of design – he could take any shape, put double binding on it, have it hand-made, and it would look cool. But he opened my eyes to the fact that anything was possible and that I had the ability to design guitars.”

Shown in his one and only catalog (top), Hendrick’s line included (clockwise from bottom) the Transformer Standard, Generator Standard, Catalyst Standard, Transformer Curved, Generator Curved, and Catalyst Curved. The design of Epiphone’s planned E-Series guitars (above left) was overtly Hendrick, while his Schecter “serape” guitar had a piece of striped cloth under its bound top.

The first Hendrick went to Gibbons in the summer of ’82, the second to Willie Nelson.
He designed three body silhouettes – the Generator, the more-traditional Transformer, and the tailfinned Catalyst.

“My first were one-offs made in my garage while I was working at Rockin’ Robin,” he said. “I had enough business from Texas guys to keep me alive – one or two guitars a month – but I was making pretty good money.”

Things quickly picked up.

“The Generator is the one I was really proud of,” said Kurt Hendrick of his first design (left). “A lot of it came back to my experience at Rockin’ Robin – seeing an old-school guitar and trying to revitalize it.”
Hendrick’s Comet prototype, made of maranti, was designed in 1998 and built in Malaysia in 2003.

“All of a sudden, I was selling guitars to famous people,” he added. “I was in my early 20s, building guitars in my garage, and while it was nice to spend the day working at my own pace, I started missing the interaction with people. I just wasn’t ready to settle down and be a little old guitar maker. Plus, I liked the idea and dynamics of production – big or small. So, that seemed like the logical progression.”

In ’83, his girlfriend was transferred to Ohio and Hendrick followed. There, he made an attempt at mass production.

“I was working at a music store when I met some people, and one thing led to another. But I was young and didn’t know how to mass-produce; the budget wasn’t there, and it was an expensive proposition. So it fizzled.”

Hendrick then sent his tools to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he had a number of instruments made by the folks who were starting what would become Heritage Guitars.

In the ’80s, Stevie Ray Vaughan (left, with Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon), Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, and the Scorpions’ Rudolf Schenker (below) all spent time with a Hendrick.

“They needed something to cut their teeth on. They were good guys, and could probably see my inexperience – I was 24 years old. They got their wheels going while there I was hanging on by a shoestring, without enough to continue by myself.”

All Hendricks made in Kalamazoo were Generator models, set apart thanks to their Schaller hardware. Some had maple or mahogany necks made by ESP, and were unusual in that they were bolt-on.

“You can tell those because they were laminated a hundred different ways,” Hendrick said. “It looked like they were making an acoustic neck, then turned it into an Explorer neck – they had an original Explorer tooling kit – and slapped a Fender-scale fretboard on it.”

Hendrick in the ’80s with two guitars made for Billy Gibbons.

Asked about their striking visual presence, he recalled, “It wasn’t really cowboy, it wasn’t rock and roll,” he said. “It was definitely its own flavor, but I think you could see maturity in those later guitars.”

Two-pickup Hendricks usually had a single-coil near the neck and a humbucker at the bridge because, “…it just looked cool.”

Though he never made a production bass, he did build a custom Generator for Dusty Hill, and in addition to the exposure created by ZZ Top, his instruments showed up in the hands of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford and Joe Perry, the Scorpions’ Rudolph Schenker, and Dez Dickerson, with Prince’s band.

He acknowledged that his inexperience led to the flash-in-the-pan status of his guitars – fewer than 100 were built, and while he also planned “Curved” versions of each model, the only three made were those shown in his one and only catalog.

Following the demise of his brand, in ’85, Hendrick went to work with Schecter, and from August of ’87 until January ’91, he worked in Madras, India, overseeing production for Greeta Musical Instruments.

“What was exciting about the Indian factory – and different from anything in the U.S. – was that it was so far away from anything that they had to do stuff we take for granted. For example, they had to cut logs and kiln-dry the timber. And there wasn’t much room for error, especially when we were shipping 6,000 guitars every month.”

His next stop was the Fender factory in Ensenada, from March of ’91 to July of ’93.
“Fender Mexico is where I learned a lot about production,” he recalled. “It was different from Corona, and I liked [the Ensenada factory] a lot better.”

The world traveler then moved across the Pacific once again, spending almost seven years with Jackson Guitars.

“Jackson had previously been made only in the U.S. and by [Japanese manufacturer] Chushin. I was sent to find a factory in Korea. It turned out that we built one from scratch, with a guy who’d made acoustic guitars for Epiphone.”

He then moved to India, and in 2000 was hired by Epiphone to develop a series of solidbody electrics to be made in Malaysia.

“I went to Epiphone with the intention of working in Nashville,” he said. “They were in a real hurt for new designs. After looking over my portfolio, they signed me to a design contract. After a month in Tennessee, everyone realized I would be overly influenced by what was going on in that plant, so they allowed me to go back to Malaysia, where there was no interference.”

Four of his instruments appeared in an Epiphone catalog. Two – the Moderne and Futura – were based on their ’50s Gibson forebears but had Hendrick-designed pickguards. The Apollo had offset-V shape with rounded silhouette, while the Comet was an original design with three pickups and vibrato. All had bound bodies and 251/2″ scales, except the Apollo, which was 243/4″.” One of each was made in Malaysia as samples for a NAMM Show. The Comet was shown on the cover of Guitar Player in May of ’01.

“Shortly after, there was the 9/11 tragedy, then Gibson restructured the Epiphone team and canceled [several] projects,” Hendrick noted. “Prior to that, we had only sent the samples for production clearance. So, basically, there were no production models.”
In ’04, he returned to the U.S. and worked with RKS Guitars, in California, before briefly going back to Houston to work with Alamo Music Products.

As for the interest in those rare ’80s guitars that bear his surname, Hendrick said, “I’m pretty amazed. Three years after the company closed, they were already getting into the ‘rare’ category at guitar shows.”

Today, he builds a, “…much more mature” version of the Generator. Watch for an update in a future issue.

VG Editor-in-Chief Ward Meeker contributed to this story. The original version appeared in the February ’07 issue.

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This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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