From learning a first lick to playing an entire song with friends, musicians thrive on motivations big and small. Growing up in Hempstead, New York, Bob Fener walked past Sam Ash Music every day on his way home from school, stopping to stare at Mosrites and Rickenbacker 12-strings in the window, a refrain from “So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star” dancing in his head.
A kid when kids fell asleep to the subtle hiss of AM radio signals “skipping” from stations hundreds of miles away, he heard all kinds of music.
“A woman named Dorothy baby-sat me and cleaned the house, and she turned me onto Led Belly and blues music on WFIL,” he said. “From the time I first saw Ricky Nelson on TV, I wanted to be the cool guy in back, playing guitar.”
When he was 10, his parents bought a Harmony Monterey and put him in lessons at Ned Mahoney Music.
“My teacher, Hal Morrow, let me try a Les Paul Junior, and I was hooked. He also tried to get me to read music and play ‘Bye Bye Blues,’ but I couldn’t figure it out and quit lessons – I wanted to fingerpick and play ‘Puff The Magic Dragon.’”
At camp that summer, Fener fell ill and was bedridden – and miserable – until a counselor named Victor Galveston brought a guitar to his cabin and showed him a Chicago-blues lick. The spark was reignited. “A couple years later, I was sitting with my guitar when the Young Rascals’ ‘Good Lovin’’ played on the radio; magically, I stumbled on their D chord and it occurred to me I could learn by ear.”
As a freshman in high school, he got a Hagstrom guitar and Epiphone Comet amp. Soon after, a schoolmate named Tony jotted chords on a piece of paper for him to learn. Then…
“We formed a band that rehearsed in my basement – Laurie was our drummer, Brian played a Farfisa, Tony and I were on guitar, and Dennis was our singer. My first satori came when I could tell we were all playing the same song at the same time, in the same tempo, all in tune – we were actually making music,” he laughed. “One night, we played a party next door and thought we hit it big when we were paid 20 bucks to do Spencer Davis’ ‘Give Me Some Lovin’’ as an encore. We got to our first real gig by loading drums, amps, and guitars into a Volkswagen convertible driven by our drummer’s older sister.”
In 1971, Fener enrolled at George Washington University, where he studied anthropology. One Friday afternoon during finals week of his senior year, he and a friend, Bill Fletcher, went to a cafeteria on campus, where a country singer named Liz Meyer was doing a 5 p.m. set with her band. Backing her was a guy switching between guitar and banjo – and leaving Fener awestruck. Leaning over to Bill, he said, “That’s the best guitarist in the world.”
That player was Danny Gatton.
“I had no idea who he was, but I figured if that was a ‘normal’ skill level, then I really sucked (laughs). I hated my playing for awhile until I realized he was abnormally good.”
Later, two of Fener’s friends moved into a house in Oxon Hill, and a girl who also lived there was managing a band called Danny and the Fatboys; “Danny” was Gatton, and she introduced Fener to him and they connected while chatting about guitars and music. Before parting company, Fener hit up Gatton for lessons and advice about guitars, then made it a point to catch Fat Boys gigs.
“They were so together, especially with Dave Elliott on drums, Billy Hancock on bass and vocals, Dick Heintze on Hammond organ and Danny on guitar,” he said. “You knew you were watching world-class performances, even in the smallest clubs.”
Fener often chatted with the band, and one talk especially sticks with him.
“Proving how musically naive I was, I equated Danny’s song, ‘Harlem Nocturne,’ to Mozart’s ‘Lacrimosa’ in its ‘touched by the hand of god’ affect on me, only to have my soul crushed when Billy said it was a favorite tune among the city’s strippers.”
Later, Fener moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he caught up with Gatton whenever he played a local club.
“He and Mike Faour had opened a shop in Silver Hill, Maryland, and one night I asked if they had any Teles. He told me they had just one and it once had belonged to Roy Buchanan. Stuttering, I told him, ‘I’ll take it,’ and we worked a deal for $700 cash, my Gibson L6-S, and my 1916 Washburn parlor guitar.”
A few days later, Fener drove his ’66 Plymouth Valiant to Gatton’s shop, and at first glance was underwhelmed with the Nocaster.
“It had been stripped and refinished a see-through dirt brown, and someone had used a screwdriver to chisel the neck-pickup rout and a wiring rout to a second pickup rout, sort of in the middle position,” Fener said. “But hey, it was the ’70s; hot-rodding was the norm and I knew guys like Danny would take a guitar body and install a pickup from one guitar, a neck from another. I figured I was getting a guitar that had been ‘high graded,’ as they say in logging. It was a Tele like Danny’s, and Roy had played it.”
Before they finished the deal, Fener watched as Gatton worked on a customer’s guitar. After the guy left, Gatton locked up and started working on Fener’s guitar while they shared a joint. It wasn’t the only time he’d witnessed Gatton’s repair “techniques.”
“To dress frets, Danny used a pad sander, like for wood or sheetrock,” he said. “To slot a nut, he used a hacksaw blade, then tapered the edge on a grinder. On his own guitars, he’d pull the tabs from Volume pots and bend the wipers so there’d be less tension when he did volume swells like a pedal steel.”
Finishing the tune-up, Gatton noodled one last time on the Nocaster.
“Danny knew I sucked as a guitarist, so he didn’t have to do much to impress me,” said Fener. “But he played this amazing, slow, horn-like line. I have no way to convey its beauty, but when I die, it’ll be the music I hear.”
Back at his home, the Nocaster brought more magic.
“The first time I plugged in, I played along with Roy Buchanan’s ‘The Messiah Will Come Again,’ and to my ears, I sounded just like the record,” Fener recalled with a chuckle. “Not bad for a boy from Long Island.”
Like so many players in the era, Fener chased tones – a lot. During a 1979 road trip, a stop in Texas yielded a ’30s Gibson lap steel he bought thinking he’d use its pickup like Gatton did the ES-150 “Charlie Christian” pickup in his Tele. He sent it to Seymour Duncan to be re-wound for a hotter tone, then mounted it in the Nocaster using the surround from a Strat pickup.
In the ’80s, Fener apprenticed with Paul Reed Smith and built a guitar as part of a resumé to get a job doing repairs at Left-Hand Guitars, in Springfield, Virginia. There, he met heavy-hitter lefties like Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas, Brinsley Schwarz, Elliot Easton, and others. He also gigged a lot with the Nocaster. By the ’90s, he was back in D.C., doing repairs at the Guitar Shop, where he had a front-row seat as the vintage market began to blossom.
“With that going on, I figured the Nocaster needed a proper fix, so I sent it to Dan Erlewine, who did great work putting a block in the chiseled routs and re-lacquering the body. That finish is now 30 years old and looks like it’s from 1951.”
The pickguard is from a ’52 Tele that Fener bought at a guitar show in ’95 and other irregularities include the extra fret (“I have never played that note,” Fener laughs) and clipped screws on two of its barrel saddles. The fret was Gatton’s work, while the saddles resulted from it. “Danny took a pliers and bent the screws to intonate those strings,” Fener said. Also, the headstock is bent slightly forward, “…because the guitar has been through a flood or because for years it was strung with a .014 high E.”
As he reads VG each month, Fener sometimes thinks he should’ve kept at least a few of his old guitars through the years – the ’63 Strat, ’56 Les Paul, ’61 Les Paul SG, and others.
“But then again, they bought my farm – and my life,” he said.
This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.