Many know Dana Sutcliffe from his classic guitar design, the Alvarez Dana Scoop produced from the late 1980s through the early ’90s. But most are likely unaware that today he runs a top-notch repair/restoration shop, Dana Sound Research (DSR), just outside Wilmington, Delaware.
Did playing or working on guitars come first?
Playing the guitar. I was actually a piano player from age 5 and just transposed the piano over to guitar. I still see piano keys when I play the guitar. It’s nuts!
When did you first start working with guitars?
I bought a four-pickup Lafayette Radio guitar in 1967 – yes, four pickups! When I soon after got a Univox bass amp, I realized the pickups weren’t so great. I applied my experience rewinding HO-scale slot car armatures to rewinding the pickups. They were very powerful, but they were microphonic as hell. But, I didn’t care – I was 13!
How did you get into guitar repair?
My dad was building dreadnoughts in his garage and that gave me the bug. I eventually did some electronics work for John Marshall, who in ’78 hired me to work at Renaissance Guitars. There, I learned everything about guitar construction. John was a perfectionist and instilled that in me. After Renaissance, I did music-store repairs until I started Guitar Repair Company in ’83, which was very successful. That’s where the first Dana guitars were born, including the Detonator Pickup and DSR5 circuit. I started doing custom work for national acts including George Thorogood. We serviced, built, and rebuilt 14 white ES-125s and all of his amplifiers. George’s taught me how to work with the preferences of other artist techs.
How did you join St. Louis Music (SLM)?
In 1985-’86, we began teaching the sales rep for SLM, who was not a musician, how to set up Crate amps for his customers using Dana guitars. He’d write down the settings and go off to his store clients, but the amps never sounded the same. He’d actually get mad at me! So, we better explained pickups and electronics, and he brought our designs to the attention of Tom Presley, Westone’s product manager, and by ’87, several Westone Dana models were being produced. I started DSR, which owned Dana, as a trademark and the patent on the Scoop, both of which I licensed to SLM.
How do you approach restoration?
I do everything according to historic protocol. I approach each instrument or amplifier as it was built. Unless there’s a factory error, I restore the instrument to original condition. If finishes are destroyed and bare wood is exposed, I have an array of cosmetic epoxies, varnish mixes, and lacquers. I also have a huge amount of old-wood resources around the country in case something really catastrophic comes in.
We keep everything extremely neat and tidy for a woodworking shop. It has a radiant humidity room, which is crucial for bringing dried instruments back to life. It’s always crowded. The buffing, sanding, sawing, and drilling are all done in a sealed, enclosed room with proprietary ventilation on all the machines. There’s also a sanding box to keep dust to minimum. Two of my building neighbors are a jewelry artisan and a cabinet maker, which is a blessing because I can do tricky metal restorations on 100-year-old tailpieces, and if we need anything unusual done to a piece of wood, the machine to do it is right next door!
What is most satisfying about what you do?
I love bringing instruments back from the dead so you can’t tell what condition they were in, originally. And, the art is never dull; no instrument or tube amp is identically the same.
I also really enjoy making demanding clients happy by making all their instruments perform with the consistency they want. I’m very lucky to have found talented apprentices who are sacrificing a great deal to learn the art of musical instrument restoration and repair.
What’s the story on your Dana Scoop reissues?
Right now, I have a monthly budget for buying original parts and whole instruments whenever possible. If the bodies don’t need re-painting, we wet-sand and buff them to be brighter than the original. We re-fret necks and apply the original Dana logo. If the electronics are original, I upgrade the pots and circuit, and I pot the pickups. If the electronics aren’t original, then I install USA pickups that are similar to the original Dana pickups, and I still have DSR5 mid-boost units available. Otherwise, I try and keep everything stock. Scoops are really increasing in value these days, so there’s plenty of demand for these resuscitated guitars.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.