James Trussart: Man of Steel

By Steve Rider

Republished from our “Richie Kotzen” Issue

James Trussart is an accomplished musician as well as a designer and builder of his own unique style of instruments. His trailblazing use of metal for the sound box of his guitars is matched by his artistry and attention to every minute detail. He has lead a life entrenched in playing and performing internationally and can boast a veritable list of who’s who as clients and owners of his instruments.

Guitar Connoisseur: You were born in France and lived in a commune in Lorraine near a NATO military facility?

James Trussart: Yes, Several US & Canadian Air Force bases were built in my region in 1950. After the second world war, the United States Army established a significant presence in France and were responsible for much Air Base construction and maintenance. De Gaulle banned foreign nuclear weapons in France and that’s why the United States had to transfer two hundred military aircraft out of France, and in1966 all French armed forces were removed from NATO’s integrated military.

GC: What was it like growing up there?

JT: It was special to grow up in such a heavy, historical, post-war region. We lived on a farm next to an Air Force base, just 20 miles from Verdun, a first world war battlefield with massive soldier cemeteries. My father shared many stories of his teenage and young adult life with his involvement in the resistance. I was named after his 17-year-old best friend, resistant James Gruhnenwald, who was captured and tortured to death by the Gestapo in the very same high school that I later attended. Walking by his commemorative plaque every day on my way to school, I promised myself to never wear or use a gun. Nevertheless, I always admired the craftsmanship of fine art of hand-engraved firearms, which inspired me to build instruments of peace ….more guitars, no war!

GC: Can you tell us a bit about your family?

JT: My parents were an independent couple, surviving on a small farm trading horses and cattle. While they taught us to be jacks-of-all-trades in the country, we were never expected to become farmers. My parents were tolerant and open to the fact that my sister and I were free to find ourselves and follow our passions. We had horses and I enjoyed riding in the forests around our barn that my dad had built with my help. My sister became the Artistic Director of the embroidery division at Chanel and creates one architectural embroidery called MTX. Coincidently, she has worked for several of the same artists for whom I have made guitars. Artists such as the late Johnny Hallyday (our French Elvis, who sadly passed away last week) along with the immortal Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, among others.

T: My parents were an independent couple, surviving on a small farm trading horses and cattle. While they taught us to be jacks-of-all-trades in the country, we were never expected to become farmers. My parents were tolerant and open to the fact that my sister and I were free to find ourselves and follow our passions. We had horses and I enjoyed riding in the forests around our barn that my dad had built with my help. My sister became the Artistic Director of the embroidery division at Chanel and creates one architectural embroidery called MTX. Coincidently, she has worked for several of the same artists for whom I have made guitars. Artists such as the late Johnny Hallyday (our French Elvis, who sadly passed away last week) along with the immortal Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, among others.

GC: When did you first become interested in music? Was it something you were exposed to in your home or were you first influenced in another way?

JT: The radio was my musical beacon. Almost daily, I had a transistor radio glued to my right ear. I was a passionate listener, especially to the Jazz and Rock programs. Great stations like Radio Luxembourg, with old-school DJ’s who created a narrative on the songs and their authors and origins.

GC: Did the presence of American personnel at the nearby NATO facility influence your tastes and development in music?

JT: A few blocks from my parent’s house was a 400 unit apartment complex & building on 25 acres with a baseball field, and parking for their late 50s & 60s station wagons, cars, yellow school buses, and trucks with impressive designs. Looking at the sky you could see the Starfighter jet`s white trails and hear their Sonic Boom.

It was kind of sad to watch our American neighbors move to Germany in 1967.

As a kid it was just a lot of fun to have a real glimpse into the American way of life; going to their hockey on ice games on a winter’s Saturday night, hearing their phonographs blasting Elvis through the half-open windows , occasional invites to their swimming pool parties, eating hot dogs and smoking my first menthol Kool, all at the age of 8, still riding my bicycle. I once crashed trying to swallow the smoke while I was riding. Hot dogs with relish, ketchup & maple syrup on pancakes were nowhere to be found in France at the time!

It was around this time that my dad sold a beautiful black young stallion to the Gruss circus, who happened to be in town, and we were invited to the show. American R&B soul singer Nancy Holloway was a featured artist at the Circus and hearing her inspired me to dig into R&B groups from the US.

I had a crush on the teenage American girls walking down my street on weekends with their white rolled down socks to their ankles ..they were so cute.

I wanted to look like an American boy in order to have a chance to hang out with them but realized I had to speak English. A few years later, I was lucky enough to have a great teacher who was a black woman from NY. She encouraged me to bring a guitar and learn some Beatles songs in her class. Then in ‘69, I hitchhiked in Europe and the UK. I went to the Plumpton festival in 1969 a month before the one at the Isle of Wright. I saw The Who, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Yes, Family, and King Crimson, that weekend was a life-changing experience for me! Also, that summer in London I met an American Beatles fan who invited me to go to Abbey Road and I took photos of John and Ringo going in the EMI building without knowing too much what was going on in there!

GC: Did you start out playing the fiddle and then become interested in guitar, or were you always into various instruments?

JT: Guitars was first for me and they were hard to find where I grew up. My first two were a 12 string acoustic Eko, and an electric Eko as well, I still have it in pieces! In the early 70s some folk musician friends of mine turned me on to Cajun music and I especially liked Conray Fontenot & Bois Sec Ardoin. they inspired me to play fiddle, dulcimer, and slide all around the same time. I also got into the lyrics and enjoyed singing the French blues, I was curious about any instrument I could get my hands on, jews harp, harmonica, Hurdy Gurdy, Dulcimers, Fiddle, Keyboards, Pump Organs, bowed saw and other obscure instruments. Ever Since I`ve surrounded myself with instruments.

GC: When did you first begin building? Was it something you were immediately drawn to or was it after many years of playing?

JT: In the early 1970s, I acquired some used carpentry tools and started to get familiar with woodworking and experimented with different types of woods and techniques. I started building Dulcimers in a little room behind my parent’s bedroom, they were unusually tolerant for parents to allow me to make so much noise with power tools and the transistor radio on after midnight. I had always a few back orders to keep me going and I was able to sell them to some friends. Someone told me back then that Brian Jones was playing one on Lady Jane. I went to London to find one as a reference for the frets spacing. He and Joni Mitchell were both an inspiration to me playing and building dulcimers. After messing with these instruments for a few years, I had the chance to rent a big mansion in the country for really cheap next to Mirecourt, an old-time traditional town that manufactured violin/viola/cello/mandolin/guitars. At 21 I dropped out after a few days in the local university and was on my own with no particular plans in mind and didn’t worry too much about it, I was already too old to enroll in any Mirecourt apprentice program, but due to the proximity I became friends with some apprentices and invited them to my house for parties. Till `76 I lived in this beautiful 20 room mansion with a barn on top of a hill in the country. These guys were very encouraging to my early development in building instruments, like a copy of a J45, and I learned a bit from them. I build at that time a metal fiddle and restored a broken neck resonator

GC: Can you describe your journeys across America? Where did you go first and who did you meet?

JT: I was invited by a musician girlfriend in Rochester. We drove to visit her friends the Stewart MacDonald in Athens Ohio, I still work with them today! I also got the chance to see Frank Zappa live in Colombus.

GC: How did you meet Zachary Richard?

JT: I was driving my friend’s mom little MG and gave a ride home to his cousins girlfriend who was hitchhiking in Rochester, NY. They gave me his telephone number and after a few days hitchhiking myself to the south, I gave him a call from the Greyhound Station in Lafayette, LA. He came and picked me up. The rest is a 45-year long friendship.

GC: Has he been a significant influence on you as a musician and builder?

JT: He’s always been inspiring at different levels, he`s an open encyclopedia. When I first heard him play piano and sing Second-morning song, I just loved his unique voice like Van Morrison, Jackson Brown or Elton John with a strong twist of southern drawl. He just sent me his most recent album “Gumbo”. I found it in my mailbox yesterday.

GC: At what point did you begin playing professionally?

JT: I was never really a professional musician but a few months after my first visit to Southwest Louisiana in 72, Zach, whose first record deal with Elektra failed, asked me to figure out something in France and the following summer came to visit me at my parents with Michael Doucet (Beausoleil) who was playing guitar and I was playing the fiddle. I turned him on to that Cajun creole blues fiddling` which became his lifelong main instrument. Not long after he returned home, we became friends and recorded with Conray and Bois sec, his main source of inspiration all along his career with his band Beausoleil. Later on, he played on Keith Richards solo album as well.

I helped Zachary to organize some tours and wrote a few tunes with him. We were invited to folk festivals and later the Antibes and Montreux jazz festivals. He went back home the second year with his first record deal and Claude his Parisian wife that he met then, she`s been his manager ever since.

James Hetfield of Metallica Sporting a Trussart

GC: Were you already established in building a business before traveling to America, or is that something that happened later on?

JT: No I opened Guitar station my first official workshop in 1984, I took the lease from the last carpentry shop in Pigalle Paris

GC: How long did you tour with Richard? Can you share some of that journey with us?

JT: Not that long, on and off over the 70s and 80s. A true born Cajun, Zach is not only a bilingual singer-songwriter, performer, and recording artist with over 20 albums, but also a poet, cultural activist, environmentalist, and filmmaker for documentaries (http://zacharyrichard.com/). He’s an official Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres while I’m only a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, haha! Over the touring years, I built a couple guitars for him and for some of the musicians he had in his different bands and recordings. Sonny Landreth, Freddy Koella, Roddie Romero, C.C. Adcock, and Darryl Johnson to name a few.

GC: When did you turn from recording and touring to begin establishing workshops and stores in France?

JT: I finally opened my first shop in 1981 and I shared it with three other friends who were guitar repairmen. Then I opened my own in 1984 in Pigalle, Paris, 18th arr surrounded by almost 50 other music stores and 5 live music venues in the area.

GC: How long had the idea of metal instruments been in your mind? Was it first related to guitar, or did the violin first inspire you to explore this rare production methodology?

JT: In the mid-1970s, I wanted to build a hollow, metal Les Paul because I had feedback problems with the resonator I had restored to play electric slide and open tunings. Instead of pursuing that idea, I built myself a metal violin and tried to experiment with different violin pickups. Well, that thing was heavy and my friends were laughing at me and not very encouraging toward that idea. I listened to them and switched to the metal-bodied guitar. I took a couple of welding classes and then was on my own with the skills I was trying to craft. Step by step, I got more familiar with different kinds of old and new techniques.

GC: What was your first instrument to be built with a metal sound box?

JT: I sold one of my first guitars to Taj Mahal. It was a SteelDeville, two cutaway inspired by the Gibson Les Paul. Recently, Taj sent me a few tracks of recordings with that guitar played by Jesse Ed Davis.

GC: Did you first debut these in Louisiana? What made you choose there instead of New York or Paris, for example?

JT: No, I first debuted my guitars, the Steel Devilles, in Nancy, but during the 70s my guitar inspiration really took root in a junkyard outside Abbeville, LA that was full of salvaged Chevys, paneled trucks, and Cadillacs. With a crowbar in my hand, I was filling up bags of Cadillac hood ornaments and emblems. I created my logo completely inspired by the Cadillac fonts. By the way, Cadillac is also a town in France that I d like to visit!

Paris 1981 to 2000

In 1981 after returning from a whole year in south-west Louisiana James became a fool for the city and moved to Paris. There I opened up a guitar & repair shop to realize and dive into the guitar& music world and that’s where slowly and laboriously I started to complete some interesting designs. I felt welcomed in Paris as my custom guitars after a few years became sought after.

Eventually, the work became an eight-day a week occupation. For almost 2 decades my doors were opened to musicians of all genres with their own custom projects in mind that they wanted me to help bring to fruition. Eventually, I had to stop doing repairs and customization to focus on my own unique designs as these years of experience finally gave me the confidence to do so.

Ultimately, I moved to the sunny City of angels to complete the production of an Album. Return to Alpha by Penta Swanson my then wife and consequently gave myself a chance to open a new workshop at my house in Echo Park.

GC: What brought you to the decision to combine a vintage feel with a cutting-edge design?

JT: I managed my guitar repair shop named Guitar Station in Paris for over 15 years where I had the opportunity to repair, modify, and improve some vintage instruments with a meticulous choice of parts. I acquired the day-by-day knowledge of all the recipes to give life to old Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch models. I was also relicing some new guitars for some customer friends who couldn’t afford an authentic vintage one. Like me, they didn’t like the feel and design of most new guitars on the market, so I was in the perfect situation to slowly craft my steel hollow bodied guitars.

GC: Can you tell us about your design methodology? What brought you to combine metals with organic materials? The combination of steel bodies and tops decorated with a distressed alligator skin pattern, for example.

JT: At the same guitar repair shop, I started to build steel bodies instead of shiny polished aluminum and stainless steel to allow myself to rust the steel parts and develop unique patterns and techniques. So I was the first to build rusty guitars with the encouragement of Billy Gibbons, I created names for those models with Billy’s kool advise like the “Rust O Matic” Steelcaster, SteelDeville, SteelPhonic, Steelmaster, etc. Back to my Louisiana inspiration, I started to use real alligator skin to perfect my unique reptilian rusty metal finish.

GC: What were you searching for in your designs? Was there a certain tone, increased sustain, certain aesthetic? What was your Holy Grail?

JT: From the beginning of my craftsmanship exploration, I always wanted to bring something new to the table, but based on my personal taste since I first built guitars for my own use. Along the years, I have come to a point where my guitars and tones are nowadays the best I’ve ever built. I never thought I was going to get busy building guitars for the rest of my life, but guitar players of all genres keep ordering them and share my passion playing my guitars from smokey bars to huge coliseums!

The Holy Grail for me is to combine all the designs and materials that will produce one of a kind instruments that I never get tired of looking at every day after years and decades. I want my guitars to be keepers for life. They have a unique voice and identifiable look at first sight even with their classic contour. Some of my customers already have 25 guitars of mine in their arsenal.

GC: Can you tell us about the various models you offer and what makes them unique?

JT: I have a lot of musician friends and I watch them play, share a drink, ask them a few questions, and laugh. Sometimes I’m allowed to play their guitars, like some of Keith Richards favorites, and learn about the feel and tone of them. I was invited to the Rolling Stones concert in Havana last year. I’m always curious and can’t help myself to try different ideas that luckily constantly cross my mind. I have no problem with creativity, just need another 7 lives!

I would get really bored if I had to build the same guitars over and over.

GC: What made you choose Arcane pickups for your standard offering?

JT: I met Rob Timmons of Arcane Inc. when he was working for Bband acoustic pickups at Third Encore Rehearsal Studios. He helped me out notching out some undesirable frequencies on some transducer pickup I was interested in using on some of my guitars.

In the meantime, I tried a few Humbuckers that he had built. At the time I was using Tom Holmes Pickups & Joe Barden pickups which Rob was familiar with. I encouraged him to make a design for my own pickups and hired him for several years in my shop to allow ourselves to do blind tests and research of the Holy Grail of tone. I work also with TV Jones, Duncan Custom Shop, EMG, Lollar, and Fralin. Sometimes I combine these brands.

GC: There’s a very impressive list of famous musicians playing your guitars. Can you tell us about some of them and what it means to you?

JT: Along the last four decades, all genre of musicians and luthiers and guitar technicians have encouraged my passion for music and guitar building. BB King, Taj Mahal, the Rolling Stones, Charlie Sexton, Richard Fortus, CC Adcock, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lianne la Havas, John Oates, Emily Robison, James Hetfield, Bob Weir, Tom Morello, Johnny Thunders, Freddy Koella, Johnny Halliday, Nikki Six, Hanz Zimmer, Joe Glaser in Nashville and his B bender, Amadou & Mariam, Tinariwen to name a few. I never expected to build so many guitars in the hands of so many amazing musicians who’s music I collect, love, and have listened to for years.

GC: There’s a trailer for a documentary online called James Trussart: Looking for the man of Steel. Anything you can tell our readers about this? Has it been released yet?

JT: I just watched it after reading this question! It’s interesting to listen to what friends and people I’ve known, worked with and trained to be guitar makers/repairmen have to say about me and my work. I’ve never met these documentary guys, I appreciate their intentions it’s like finding an animated postcard from Paris in your mailbox signed by old friends I haven`t seen for a while.

GC: In the trailer for the documentary, it seems that many of the people interviewed had a real admiration for you as a musician and a builder, but it was also noted that you were the kind of person that someone would either love or hate. Do you have anything to say about that?

JT: I just do my thing trying my best to keep up and honor myself and my passions. There is no love without hate!

GC: Someone, I believe it was Zachary Richard, noted that you are a consumer of energy of all kinds. Do you think this is a fair description of your approach to life, a sort of full-throttle, full-speed-ahead mentality? If so, how has this defined you as a musician, artist, and human being in general?

JT: According to my friend Zach, I’m also a party animal, I would say in a good way. I went to tons of live shows all over the world and meet so many amazing musicians and songwriters, I had so much fun, sharing dinner and listening to their great life stories.

This fueled my passions. I’m just grateful to still be able to function the way I do. Being surrounded by my young team, all of them are great musicians, I guess that keeps me young at heart too.

GC: Can we quickly recap your years in Paris from 1981 to 2000?

JT: In 1981 Returning from a whole year in south-west Louisiana country I became a fool for the city and moved to Paris. There I opened up a guitar & repair shop to realize and dive into the guitar & music world and that’s where slowly and laboriously I started to complete some interesting designs. I felt welcomed in Paris as my custom guitars after a few years became sought after. Eventually, the work became an eight-day a week occupation. During this almost 2 decades my doors were opened to musicians of all genre with their own custom projects in mind that they wanted me to help bring to fruition. Eventually, I had to stop doing repairs and customization to focus on my own unique designs as these years of experience finally gave me the confidence to do so. Ultimately, I moved to the sunny city of angels to complete the production of an Album (Return to Alpha) by Penta Swanson my then wife and consequently gave myself a chance to open a new workshop at my house in Echo Park.

GC: Finally, is there anything you would like to share about yourself, your guitars, or upcoming events with our readers?

JT: Its Christmas time, I `d like to thank my crew, Christian Williams, Joe Bourdet, Sonja Midtune, Iain Weigert and Victor Martin. I also want to give thanks and credit to Tanya Sakolsky, Tamarind Jones, Jeremy Valdez for the photography.

Also, friends of the shop Angela Wurtzel, Lucille Clerc, Brett Simons, Hal Craigin, Vudi, Olivier Scoazec, Vincent Tabaillon, Tracy Philips, Steven Petiteville, Thierry Vivier, Mambo & Julie de Marigny, Danny B Harvey , CC Adcock, Richard Fortus, Charlie Sexton & Billy Gibbons.

Merry Xmas and happy new year 2018 to you all

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