Girl Brand Guitar - Kanji Girl - created by artist/luthier
Chris Larsen, January
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needed another guitar like a hole in the head. And I didn't have much
money. But against my better judgment, I wandered in Westwood Music, a high-end guitar store in West
LA, probably around 2000. My gaze was immediately yanked toward a
phenomenally beautiful guitar hanging on the wall, as much a master work of
art as a musical instrument.
I walked to it, oblivious to anything else. I looked carefully at the Japanese motif, the exquisite work, the attention to detail, the Hai/Kai pickup switch, the unique bridge, everything. Fred Walecki, the extremely friendly owner, walked up to me.
"This is so beautiful..."
"You should hear how it sounds."
had someone set me up with a Victoria amp. It was complete sweetness.
Not that I'm an expert or supremely discerning connoisseur of electric
guitars, but I had never heard a guitar quite like this. The pickups
seemed to get an extremely wide variety of sounds, and the guitar had a
great deal of sustain and resonance. This, I was told, was because the
guitar was hollow, not unlike a National.
|I played the guitar for half an hour, alone and undisturbed in one of the side rooms. Amazingly, the guitar sounded as beautiful as it looked. There was no pressure from Fred or anyone else.|
I went home, and for a week, I thought this guitar constantly. I described it in detail to my girlfriend Lisa. Although it was an expensive purchase, she thought I should buy it. I returned a week later. After pleasantries, I said I'd like to buy it.
Fred smiled. "This guitar is quite special, and I know your tastes. I really think you'll love it."
I nodded, smiling. Fred knew that I was a teacher and wasn't made of money. "This guitar is one of a kind, hand-crafted. Guitars like this only go up in value. Not long from now, if you ever need to, you'll be able to sell it for much more than you you're going to purchase it for."
"Fred, I don't think I will ever sell this."
entire guitar has paintings, designs, inlays, etc., as much a work of art as
a musical instrument. My headstock is why my guitar is named "Kanji
I don't know exactly how many guitars artist and luthier Chris Larsen created at his Tucson home; some believe he made only about 100 before stopping several years ago, making them quite rare. Guitarists such as Rick Neilsen (Cheap Trick), Henry Kaiser, Meredith Brooks, Mitch Easter, and Elvis Costello are among those who own the 100 guitars made.
And thankfully, the guy in the middle as well:
is a three-position pickup switch, labeled Hai/Kai. Additionally, each
pickup has its own dedicated transformer to alter the tone. A This guitar has chiming clean sounds like bells,
beautiful sustaining distortion, sounding great either way. It's by far
the most versatile sounding guitar I've played.
When asked by Nymph USA about the pickups and electronics, Chris Larsen said, "Dave Schecter (who founded Schecter Guitar Research but left that company over disagreements on the direction it was going) regularly comes up with new designs for cars, electronics, Hi-Fi and guitars. He designed the pickup system that I build and use in my guitars. Each pickup has its own dedicated transformer with taps to vary the output and tone. This yields about 15 separate tones from just the switches. Most of these are not typical Tele tones for which I am glad. Players hoping to find a guitar that looks, sounds and plays like a Fender Tele are graciously requested not to contact me or my dealers as they will only be disappointed. I explained that to Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick when he called to ask me to build one for him and he replied that he uses a different guitar for each song and so is grateful for different tones. That's my kind of player."
pickups are based on Dave Schecter's design, but Chris winds them and the
transformers himself. It has an aluminum rim that supports top and back
plates, and these plates have these gorgeous Japanese letters printed.
I love this guitar. It gets played a lot. There's something quite special about such unique, hand-crafted guitars.
I asked Chris about the surface of this guitar. He replied, "It's hard for me to remember and I never kept notes, but I think all the Kanji Girls had a top made of galvanized steel in which the zinc was selectively eaten away by acid and the exposed steel was rusted with chemical accelerants in a pit with a bunch of leaves and twigs. The surface was then stabilized with water-based lacquer, I think. Some of the lacquers worked better than others so some guitars just kept rusting away right up through the finish. Nobody complained though so I guess it must have looked alright."
I am really looking forward to another guitar. That's right, it never stops. My good friend Paul has gotten into making guitars in his Northern California home. His family has had a giant hunk of old-growth redwood for 40 years, and he's already turned one of them into an extremely beautiful Tele-style guitar, which looks fantastic and has tone for days. He's currently making me a Jazzmaster-style guitar, all out of this amazing redwood, a sort of wood that is rather unusual for electric guitars. I am eagerly awaiting this guitar, anxious to play and record with it at Blueberry Buddha Recording Studios.
Nymph USA also asked Chris what was
unique about his guitars.
"Because I decided early on to make this series of guitars with an aluminum rim (frame) supporting top and back plates, a large number of top materials became available to me that would ordinarily be very difficult or impossible to use on a typical solid guitar body. Having such an array of potential tops (steel, copper, galvanized, flooring, street signs, plastic laminates, etc.) has meant that I can keep producing one-off guitars and remain interested and excited by the process. Still, since every guitar is basically experimental, weird stuff can happen. When I obtained a machine for printing into plastic I started modifying the pickup selector switch plate from the familiar Rhythm/Treble choice to polarities of my own choosing. I can't remember them all, but Man/Woman, Love/Hate, Heaven/Hell, Birth/Death and True/False pop into my head as examples. Every guitar gets it's own, even if it is part of a limited series like the Rodeo Girls."
|And they asked him why he
chose "Girl" as the brand name.
One day when I was building the first prototypes of these guitars, and was thinking about words and names that might be put on a headstock, the word "girl" popped into my head. I realized that there probably aren't too many other four letter words in the language that are as freighted with different images and overtones. Girls, after all, are the subject (directly or indirectly) of at least 80% of all Rock and Roll. Teenage angst, cars and substance abuse taking up most of the rest. Besides, guitar playing (at it's best) is often a sensual activity and the guitar itself is generally regarded (like ships) as female. Also, I needed a name and didn't think it would ever matter to anyone anyway.
|Chris discussing his
background as an artist:
I am a painter in watercolor (called aquarelle in much of the rest of the world) and spent most of the twenty years after graduating from the University of Arizona art school painting large watercolors of water flowing in irrigation ditches through the desert here in southern Arizona. Since the market for paintings of irrigation ditches is not very large, I also taught painting classes to make ends meet.
I still teach painting at the Tucson Museum of Art School. To artists most activities can be experienced as an opportunity for creative expression. House building, cooking, drawing and guitar building can be chances to use materials in new, interesting and hopefully, exciting ways. Since I've always loved guitars and building things I suppose it was inevitable that I would sooner or later start building guitars.
Jun. 18, 2005 12:00 AM
Tucson guitarmaker crafts works of art
Arizona Daily Star
TUCSON - The tags that hang from Chris Larsen's electric guitars say a lot about him and his creations:
"Inspect this instrument carefully for scratches, blemishes, ill-fitting or poorly located parts, shoddy workmanship and excessive shop wear. These are your guarantee that this guitar was built in a garage in Tucson, Ariz., not in some fancy-pants factory in Asia."
For about 15 years - chronology is not a strong suit of the 58-year-old painter and art teacher - Larsen has hand-made electric guitars that are now lauded not only for their beauty but also their sound and playability.
Satisfied customers of the instruments, which sell for about $4,000, include Elvis Costello, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, and music producer Mitch Easter.
Handmade guitars that are simply copies of vintage Fender and Gibson electrics often sell for twice that much and don't sound or look nearly as good as Larsen's one-of-a-kind masterpieces, said Fred Walecki, owner of Westwood Music in Los Angeles.
"They're incredibly great-sounding instruments and the fact that these are real art, it's just something that's intangible because it's functional art," Walecki said. "There is nobody remotely like Chris in the guitar-making world."
There is nobody remotely like Chris Larsen, period.
A Flowing Wells High School and University of Arizona art school graduate, Larsen played harmonica and guitar in local bands in the late 1960s and early '70s, fixed guitars in the basement of the Chicago Store while in college, and became something of an expert at hunting vintage instruments after a guitar built and given to him by a friend was stolen from his workshop.
"I started looking at yard sales and swap meets for guitars and it turned out I had a talent for it," Larsen said. "During the economic downturn, three-quarters of the artists I knew were surviving on eBay because nobody was surviving selling their art, so we were all hitting the yard sales, finding cool stuff and selling it."
When the supply of vintage guitars began to dry up, Larsen decided to begin building them, he said.
From the workshop he built behind his downtown home - a shop filled with enormous power tools and drawers full of assorted hand tools and supplies, and featuring a working portion of the neon sign from the old Fox Theatre - Larsen has made 92 of his Girl Brand guitars and three basses.
Just as B.B. King's guitar is "Lucille," every one of Larsen's guitars is a different girl. The Plexiglas tops of about 15 of Larsen's girls were painted by local artist and collaborator Janet Miller.
"The collaboration with him is just so much fun. I never dreamed I'd be doing something as cool as this," Miller said. "And I don't know much about guitars, but from what I hear, they're really amazing instruments."
That they are, agrees Mike Tepee, owner of Acme Guitars in St. Louis.
"If they didn't sound good, there would be absolutely no attraction for me," Tepee said. "And every one has its own sound. You're not going to get a whole lot of continuity when you only have one guy, because he's a human being, not a factory."
Larsen said he makes about "10 to 15 guitars" a year, but probably won't meet that quota this year.
"There are too many days where it's either too hot to work in the shop, too cold to work in the shop, or too nice to work in the shop," he said.
Each guitar Larsen does finish this year will be eagerly awaited, Tepee said.
"Every guitar he makes, in addition to being an incredible piece of art, it's just a true American guitar that just sings, just a wonderful instrument," he said. "I can't wait to get the next one, because it's so exciting to see what it looks like and what it sounds like."
|The guitar photographed here is #0047 and is named "Kanji Girl". I photographed it really quickly and all hand-held, so it's not quite as clear as it could be, but I wanted to photograph it really quickly. At least I've done it, though. I've had this guitar for I believe ten years, and never photographed it before.|
YouTube video about another Girl Brand guitar, discussing the pickups, electronics, paint, finish, and more. He speaks for the first half, concluding by saying, "If you ever find one of these things out there, buy it, no matter how much it costs. They're incredible" before beginning to play around 2:50 in to the video.
By the way, he is playing through a Carr Rambler, which is the same amp I have, a really sweet sounding amp that I purchased used around 2002.
Ken plays guitar, keyboards, and records at
Blueberry Buddha Recording Studios in Los Angeles, CA. His music
has appeared on MTV, VH1, BBC, and various movies. He's also written
for EQ Magazine.
Ken's photos of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung
San Suu Kyi, as well as photos of Peru, Burma, India, Morocco, China, Thailand,
Ghana, Ecuador, and elsewhere, have appeared in many books, magazines,
websites, and galleries. Visit the
Ken Lee Photography Website. Some of Ken's select photos may be
purchased through his
Girl Brand Guitar - Kanji Girl
Los Angeles and Miscellaneous Photos Page
Eleven Shadows Travel Page
Contact photographer/musician Ken Lee