An Interview with Gabriel Currie of Echopark Guitars

By Steve Rider

Guitar Connoisseur: Would you say that you got an early start with guitars?

Gabriel Currie: I think it hit me like a brick when I was 7 or 8 years old that the guitar was the most amazing thing in the world besides girls. So now I can say it was early enough to look back on my life and honestly not be able to remember a time in my life without the guitar or its influence in my decision making in some way. Is that totally crazy?

GC: What prompted your interest? Were there specific moments that moved you in the direction you eventually were to take?

Gabriel C: My father is an artist and I grew up in Los Angeles in the late 60’s early 70’s. AM radio played the doors, there were drum circles on Sunday at Griffith Park, the neighborhood Mexican bands were always rehearsing in the garages. The Mexican bar across the road in back of the house, always alive!

The Southern Pacific Train Annex 3 blocks away, the huge concerts I could hear, but never go to, happening at Dodgers Stadium right across the LA river maybe 2 miles away. The discovery of my parents, mostly my dad’s, AMAZING record collection….at least to me it was a huge turning point. When I found that pile of vinyl with Hendrix doing star spangled banner at Woodstock! Blind Faith, Santana 1&2, Gordon Lightfoot, Cheech and Chong, the White Album, Revolver, the Stones from the first one all the way till exile. All his 45’s from the 50’s, and on and on. So at 10 years old, I had a good idea of a path I was definitely attracted too.

GC: You started on the ground floor at G&L under the direction of Leo Fender himself. Could you describe your time with G&L from the beginnings to running the body shop?

Gabriel C: Absolutely, Leo was at the meeting when I was interviewed. He didn’t say much, just watched me. I only knew he liked me because I brought a guitar I had made. He asked to see it. I showed it to him; he looked up and just nodded to me. He was 40 years old when he started fender, so by the time I got there he was real old and in not the best health, but he could talk and he got around to every department until he just didn’t show up one day. I got the gig because an acoustic luthier I was an apprentice to while in high school was retiring and passed my name along to his old friends Leo and George. I had little knowledge of G&L in 1988, but I found out real quick what Leo was like, and how a real guitar production shop in particular ran. He and Floyd and George were on it! So different from the modern production cookie cutter shop and push button operations that only require an operator. I am so fortunate to have that full experience. I went from cleaning the shop to unloading the lumber truck to gluing up ash body blanks and setting up/learning all the machines he designed with George. Then I was put to operating the production of all the bodies and preparing them for final sanding and paint. That and all the normal scheduling, design, and helping with the neck department, until Leo finally passed.

GC: In your Bio on Echopark Guitars website, you state that wanted to continue your education post-G&L. Why was that? What did you feel that you had gained at G&L and what did you feel you needed to reach the next level?

Gabriel C: Leo brought the industrial revolution to the music industry as the 50s landed right out of WWII.  His genius skills as a radio repairman gave him the real working foundation and knowledge of what not to do and what to do better. His actual impact on modern western culture as a whole is probably greater than any single artist, dignitary, scientist, or philosopher to date, in my humble opinion. From G&L, I learned everything I needed to know about the hand built, bolt-on production guitar, but I knew I had very little understanding of set neck, thru body, or acoustic construction and I really wanted to learn and grow from that point. So, when Leo passed away in 1991 I split to go to work for Tak Hosono in Los Angeles.

GC: Would it be accurate to say that you had an idea of where you wanted to go as a luthier at that point?

Gabriel C: Maybe. I was still young and just getting into making music too, so I was a little torn but I also l knew it was a lifetime deal within my heart of hearts. So I yes, I just dove in. But I left a margin to bail if I saw the trajectory of my career leaning towards doing the typical, NAMM every year, the name tag on the company shirt, demos, more trade shows, etc, etc. I just couldn’t do it. The thing that I wanted to do was make old new guitars, then, in 1991!  But no one was into it at all! It was still super strats and lame paint jobs and hair, so I made a promise to myself one morning. I simply said, if I can’t do what I need to do when the time comes, then I’m out. I was still young. I had playing on my mind as well as my songwriting and lots of girls started to really happen then too, so my attention and my thinking shifted out of the shop world and into the music world. The mind space that this art requires is large, there’s a lot to consider and figuring it out from where I started may seem like an easy thing, but I’m stubborn too, so I had to battle with that. As a kid, the owning or starting of a guitar biz was nowhere in my preference. But a boy can still dream! So I did.

GC: Tell us about your time with Tak Hosono.

Gabriel C: Takashi Hosono had a little shop in Glendale and he was doing mail order custom guitars, production of all the Ibanez USA neck thru stuff, Roger Sadowsky bass necks and bodies, artists like Frank Zappa, you know…the guitar culture in Los Angeles from 1980 till 1993 was bangin! He put a pneumatic shaper in my hands the first day and said, final shape and sand all those necks, then laminate these tops, then radius that fretboard, then dress that neck, then make truss rods, then mill neck blanks for 5 string basses. Tak taught me the art of preparation, neck shaping by hand by feel, the art of fretting by hammer. I still never press frets into this day! He taught me a few techniques, like the way I chamber, or my top carve, and the carve profile, the way I like to roll the edges of the fretboard,  neck thru construction, wood identification, a deep education in shop setup, and many lessons in the art of tonewood coupling.

GC: You transitioned from production work to hand crafted techniques. What is the significance of doing work by hand, in your perspective?

Gabriel C: It’s the feel of the instrument!  It’s the control of the details I’m crafting! I can take my time and work the timbers to the optimum for each one. I can pay real attention to the tonal direction from the selection process through to the final assembly. It’s the only way a true, fine musical instrument should be made. The more a builder handles that piece and pieces that make it up, the more of that builders energy is taken on and it really becomes a part of the energy of that instrument. I know it all sounds a bit hokey, but it’s absolute truth! Sit down in a quiet room with any old guitar that’s been really played on; when them chills come you’ll figure it out. I think we are all getting further from the human touch in just about everything, so I coddle every piece and I try to keep a clear vision in my head of the look of someone’s face as they open the case for the first time. So the significance of hand crafting a superior American musical instrument is being able to skillfully craft a piece of living art to feed the cycle, affect and influence the artist  vs. producing just another commercial product designed by a marketing team, mass produced to wind up in a landfill when it fails and you can’t get it fixed because that is what everything is made to do…fall apart.

Gabriel C: You are quoted as saying, “I was learning from a master craftsman and surrounded by L.A.’s finest independent builders at the time.  It was amazing.” Could you describe what that scene was like and what you gained from your peers that has shaped you as a luthier?

Gabriel C: That was a FUN time! Lots of trading build styles and lots of flipping vintage gear. I studied a lot from my tech friends and my other builder buddies and did a lot of experimenting. Fretting class was always in with Sammy Sanchez.  Gilbert Chavez was running Tobias Basses and Valley Arts, Rob Timmons had just landed here from the Venn school of luthiery, the guys at performance are killin it with Dweezil and Vai, and on and on. So yes, that was a magical period. Michael just did the whole combining of woods like no one else in that world. We were using 2 and 3 different fret wires on the same neck, finding optimum neck pitches for all the different types of builds, oh the electronics too..but mostly we just helped each other and hung out at each others shops and learned everything we could. It was a little competitive, but because of the guitar landscape in Hollywood that ‘Erupted’ in 77/78 , I really had been doing this kinda thing since jr. high school.

GC: What was the most difficult part of the process to master?

Gabriel C: Learning how to just be in business…hahaah! No, I’m a very creative type, I get bored so I have to do different things to challenge myself in the process all the time. The most difficult part of the process to master and stay up on is carving tops and specific neck shaping techniques that yield profiles in my options list like the Custom ‘38V-’59D carve or the ‘56 jr. carve. For the carved top work, after the neck pocket is routed and binding is on, the initial carve point is located with the cove bit. I only use files, steel scrapers, and blocks to sculpt the tops of the Southsider and Downtowner carve top models and the new Bakersfield models.

GC: Let’s talk about wood. How do you go about sourcing the woods for your guitars?

Gabriel C: I have 3 main connections, 2 here on the west coast, one in Hawaii, and a guy back east. I’ve developed my relationships over the years so they just send pics of what they get and they call when they get old stock or fall upon a stash of old mahogany, Korina, or exotic South American. But I do have a bit of a stash that goes back to 1987. I only want to craft instruments that last a couple centuries if taken care of, don’t have the same issues with weak tenons or goofy setups, stay in tune contain the actual fabric, the bedrock of old school American guitar tones and stay true to my vision of why and how I do my craft. Most of the time the tones from my instruments equal or surpass the actual harmonic content and tone of real choice vintage instruments, and it’s the wood!

GC: I see that you are using aged and old stock timber on some models. What do your guitars gain from an aged wood as opposed to a newer piece of lumber?

Gabriel C: I started using old mahogany from the very first Echopark because I wanted my instruments to feel and sound like old, seasoned slabs. And old stock timbers don’t move, the cell structure is cured and its bone dry. Perfect for those who know the difference and those who don’t. It’s an added value that honestly transcends any market value to any connoisseur in search these qualities. So, for upgrades to the standard models and building my case study guitars, there is nothing better. The real bonus is that it’s not a gimmick, not a trick…it’s real vintage tone because the wood is older than some of the companies that first started building guitars in America. You can’t get closer than that!

GC: It seems like your work has a very vintage feel. How does that affect your choice of materials?

Gabriel C: I select everything based on quality, function, and feel. My influences are pretty apparent…i’m into simple and classic but refined. I like soft. I like elegant. My selection of hardware and appointments is to optimize the instrument and compliment the whole piece.  

GC: How do you go about deciding which types of hardware to use on each model?

Gabriel C: Continuity. Mostly you will find that I prefer the classic styles, but it’s really about function. It has to work…really work. There are a couple types of new tuners that I love because they are still the same design as the older ones but better mechanically. From the beginning, the notion of crafting a true modern vintage included using the best, most correct looking stuff and the fact is that we’ve got 60+ years of building. We know what works and what doesn’t! We can look back and say yes, or hell no! I use steel bushings for all the wrap around /stop tails and long, stainless threaded rod for the ABR’s, raw steel plates for my ashtray bridges.

GC: How do you source your hardware? For instance, do you come up with custom designs made out of house, work with local shops, or go for the well-established name brands?  

Gabriel C: There are a few I work with: Tisonix for my ‘62 models Titanium Vintage spec. S-style 6 screw tremolo, Mastery bridge, and vibrato for all my j-models,  Pigtails wrap arounds, Grover pre-war style tuners, Waverly, Gotoh, Kluson recently a custom manufacturer out of Nashville TN. A small shop but they have it dialed for vintage repro and custom work, so we are designing a new intonating vintage wrap around that is to my spec, and a few other goodies.

GC: How important is the selection of materials for the frets? Do you have a certain alloy that you prefer, a certain size and shape? Or does what you’re looking for vary from model to model?

Gabriel C: The fret wire can make or break an instrument. I use a lot of the Jescar branded wire. I am a fan of it because it’s actually from the US. The pyramid jumbo is my personal fav, the 9055 is dead on the older Dunlop size 6105. It works great, the tangs are not as big so the expansion overall is better and much easier to maintain a level fretboard surface after fretting. I like the hardness of it; it’s not as hard as the StuMac stuff from Japan because they mix alloys differently but it is much better that anything else available.

GC: I see that you often to do a patina for that aged effect, such as a cold check patina. How do you get the perfect vintage look?

Gabriel C: My finisher, Paul Slagle, has been at this a long time and I’m very fortunate to have him. The guys at cardinal lacquer here in El Monte have been awesome from the beginning. I’ve only ever wanted to do old school finishes, pure lacquer, so we have 3 different formulas I’ve developed over the last 5 years, one is for a real old school aged finish, one is for an old school non-aged finish and one is for polished lacquer metallics and custom high gloss for the Downtowner carve tops and J-Models.

GC: Do you make your own pickups, or outsource them?

Gabriel C: Rob Timmons aka Arcane inc. is my main guy. I’ve installed a lot of pickups. I’ve listened to a lot of pickups, I’ve collected, loved, destroyed and dissected a ton of them both in awe and looking for the magic… it’s in the little things….not just the DC resistance or magnet type, so the first one we did was a replica of my 1956 double cut dog ear p90..and it’s been the staple of my slab p90 builds since then, going on 5 years now, no complaints .we quickly moved to the Gold Coil ..obviously a nod to one of the  the best things ever accidentally created by the Japanese builders in the 60’s!!  The sonic enhancements these offer slide and lap steels are still an elusive ghost so we made a new one per a custom order from Chris at Shoe Pedals…he wanted a custom silver foil set to match his Inca silver jazzmaster..so Rob found some stainless mesh we both liked and realized the additional benefit to using the new material was its magnetic properties or..lack thereof!!..the magnetic field is clear to the string because the cover is now non ferrous and you are hearing pure pickup and the nickel housing is I great to help focus the field as well ..so I’m offering this as a standard on the webstore as well as the original Gold Coil standard and a full range of what Rob and I have spec’d out over the last few years ..some ..bad ass real PAF’s, a few sets, one in particular that we may be discussing at some point in future for a little project ..and a lot of custom winds for Joe Perry the new filtertron humbucker he did for him are just perfect for that instrument …,Josh Homme, Troy Van Leeuwen, Greg Liesz, he’s all about clean headroom and can make you cry with a short passage of any lap steel.. Everyone I’m privileged to work with is really different and it forces me to listen to every guitar I build in my head first! We talk magnets and steel and wire and potting with wax or lacquer….and on and on ..Rob literally has 5 books full of pickup designs.if this was 15 years ago we would be in the same building ….I’ll get there one day if I’m lucky ..and keep breathing , I’m very happy with Wolftones as well ..I kinda tweaked his off the shelf Humbucker sets and he wound some p90s to my spec that really lived up to what Rob and I do continually so I have them to offer and use as well.

GC: Is there something you feel makes your work unique among your peers?

Gabriel C: Absolutely, there are a couple of unseen things like my standard “full tenon” set-neck,  standard 1 piece ‘slab’ body construction, only using fish glue now(wow)!!!, slab fret boards, using only steel bushings for stud mounts, Cloth wire, solid Head plates then there are the select timbers, the nitro, the range of styles and all the  different types of guitar building I hope to live long enough to do, the different models I love to produce, pickup styles and the level of instrument I handcraft consistently..I just purchased a fully restored 1956 Omsrud pin router so I’ll be totally with the modern times haha…at least I’ll feel like that…I want my schedule for building to drop from a year delivery to 6-7 months from deposit to shipping by January 2017.

GC: At one point, you took a break from building and did other things. How did you feel when you made the decision to start your own business? Was it daunting?

Gabriel C: Yes, but it was the only option that made sense really…I had walked from building because it was too much for me to bear staying in the biz threw the late 90’s-2000’s and into my 30’s I wanted to play, travel, have girlfriends…things the guitar builder lifestyle is not kind too…and it’s a path you don’t do as a hobby…So…I left historic building restoration and being a building contractor to going into debt, spending our every dime on this…yes, I was scared out of my mind but I could not see me not taking this path ultimately…my wife was 100% behind me, my family was behind me…I was a new father and I had no real tools, but I was at the edge looking over it, ran into Mike Lippe at a little guitar swap meet @2008 we built 4 Jr. style builds then parted ways, I took 2, he took 2, I briefly opened a repair biz while I put a plan together at my friend’s studio in Echo Park. Then I found a tiny shop a block up the road in the back of the old Mack Sennett building…within a year the old Keystone Studios building right next door became my shop in 2011. I borrowed $2500.00 from my friend Cosmo Jones who just said, “tell me what you think you need to get you a few pieces out the door”…I found Rick Fusco, an artist in the same compound who was doing custom finishing and painting but had some instrument background, I developed with him some of the finishing I’d not seen much of in the industry at that time..in my contracting life I met fine finishers, and faux artists, I’d seen fine finishing in the high-end architecture world, my wife is a fine artist, my father, an artist to this minute…So I found what I needed, as I needed it for that first couple years.

GC: Was it difficult to go from artisan to businessman?

Gabriel C: From the start I was keyed in on both fronts…it’s really challenging because I need to switch gears all day and I don’t do it with ease, just ask my wife…but I’m learning how to step back and just let things be what they are, the seed is growing now and do everything I can do to make sure anyone who crosses my path has the best experience I can offer but the bottom line is that my life is not mine as long as I do this..I’m subject to question, criticism and deadlines…and thank you’s from many many happy clients, dealers and players, a deep well of different artists I’ve been so fortunate to work with and some peers that as a businessman I’m definitely following their leads and advice.

GC: What obstacles did you need to overcome to make your business successful?

Gabriel C: Southern California AQMD, the city of El Monte and my own doubt.

GC: You have a lot of big names using your guitars, which must be a very satisfying feeling for a luthier. How did you get your instruments into the hands of artists such as Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, even Johnny Depp?

Gabriel C: It all began with Nick Oliveri and Jonny two bags, them two guys really helped me evolve quickly, for a lot of reasons but mostly because road guys need different things that studio guys or local players or collectors don’t necessarily need, they need to be built to ride in a bus across the country and back and not need any real coddling for a long long time…so I got into that immediately…then Nick’s guitar player came by the shop, he knew Marco Moir at the time Brads tech and put in a call, Marco is a pro and he hooked it all up….I still have yet to get him a guitar!!! Joe and I met after Brad got his guitar and Jack Douglas called me in to ask about his guitar…Jack was the door to Joe…he sent Joe an email that evening with some pics and my then tiny website, I think I had just finished the first real batch as Echopark Guitars, didn’t even own the name yet, he was so kind and awesome, he took me threw all his gear…while everyone just waited, we hung all night for like a month…it’s always amazing to hang with him and just listen to him talk about how they recorded this song or going to see johnny thunders and sharing the same dope dealer or the reason duncan has a bunch of real pickups in his stash or the ampeg thing and on and on, fuck what anyone says shit about his faculty,tone or whatever…you go pull off that many years in this biz, that many road hours, riffs and solos that funky for that long with the same dudes you grew up with…he knows his shit!! Maybe more than anyone of the 70’s O.G.’s left….besides Brad..!! well maybe Beck hahaha.

GC: You have a robust internet presence, facebook, a website, Instagram, etc. What are the keys to success in the electronic age?

Gabriel C: My phone, not kidding at all…capturing moments you can let folks into your world with and, I landed very lovingly and luckily back into this walk so I like to share it!!! If I was a kid or anyone in love with the instrument the way I am I would hope they would share it too, this is not mine so it’s just a low key way to open the doors a little. I was in a band when I started this and the social media thing was all the rage…I just said, this is perfect for a broke ass like me that really has something  real to show, and I think I did an ad but it was lame on fb, but yes the videos are something I was so glad to be able to do with my old friend  Dave Osti for some years now..He’s a pro from the bar days and he’s a brother ..such soul and touch..he’s a mason by trade..so his playing style in just right to get IT out of the instrument.

GC: What have you learned from your journey so far?

Gabriel C: That I have a responsibility to do good by the instrument. To be an honest businessman and to make the best instruments I can make no matter what. That it’s important to perpetuate that alone. To spend time away from this as often as doable with my family. To continually improve and look for the faults, always do better…there are always things to improve upon. To not be too emotional, & to listen to the close circle around.

GC: What’s next? Do you have any new projects or products in the works? Amplifiers? Effects pedals?

Gabriel C: I always do..The new Vibramatic 23 amps have just passed the ultimate quality control test, Eric and I were invited into the Iggy pop party with an amp for Troy and then after that first rehearsal, Josh, Dean and Matt needed the same, because of what they heard over the course of a couple of days and the type of venues the tour was about to party apart, everyone wanted to give em a go, they are really pretty amazing for getting that huge sound at a manageable stage volume and they just don’t fuck around, meaning Josh, Iggy, Troy, Dean…they have a wharehouse full of perfect gear…they weren’t free, they had too needed these for a few reasons and there was no prep.

We had no idea that was happening until 3 days before the rehearsals were over. The real test, the road…drop ship and not one issue aside from the last gig of the tour in royal albert hall…iggy being iggy grabs a mike stand and in full legend mode sends the 12” cast iron base of his mic stand into the top of Dean’s Vibramatic 23 head as Matt was plugged in, and it just bounces off the cab still pumpin jams out…not a beat was missed, not a sputter!!! I have the full footage from the kat who took it!!! Nothing says quality like that!!! I feel like issuing a challenge to a few so called American amp companies…but I won’t. Now, pedals! The new buffer /clean boost is in Greg Leisz’s pedal board now, avid is coming soon too. It’s very much about clean headroom and a continuous buffer to keep everything very pure, there is a distortion coming as well as new fuzz/octave…, and a thing called the FQ10. Its a 5 position rotary with 5 specific caps and a depth control with an inductor driving the caps and out with the signal of the guitar as it is a 100% passive device it gives you the tonal range of something you might find in the Jet Propulsion laboratories as the original design we found in an operation and design manual from 1943, for designing parametric EQ’s for film and radio…The Acoustics that Jim Dugan and I are building are just now starting to blossoming with the new weissenborn style 1 slot head, the 12th fret parlor, 0-15, 00-14, 00-18, 000-18 all in mahogany as well..This is really where I want to land in a couple decades or so. I’m looking so forward to developing with Paul and the 2 guys I have here as assistants into full builders that can keep it rollin so that into my golden years I can walk around like my old boss and hopefully see the day I can look at a kid the way Leo looked at me that day, or better if it’s possible to keep this little tradition alive as best I can…this thing goes by fast so I can’t really make enough of these in my lifetime.

To learn more about Echopark Guitars please visit: echoparkguitars.com

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