Jason Schroeder: S-Type Personality

Originally Published in our Perfect Pair Issue

Have you read Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road? Are you familiar with the phrase that the protagonist of the story uses to reassure his son that they are fighting the good fight—when he says that they are “carrying the fire?” In your own life, who is out there “carrying the fire?” Who is doing it with reverence, humility, and devotion (not to mention skill, insight, and passion)? Who’s in it so deeply that he’s rendering not only wood, metal, and music, but also tone itself to realize: “The Dream?”

I’m really lucky in that, for me, there are a number of people out there doing admirable combinations of the things listed above. These are people whose websites I visit and to inspired to dig deeper into my own endeavors; people who are so down to earth that they respond to my Facebook friend requests and talk to me like a human being. These are people who probably don’t even know that, by virtue of their simple acknowledgment, they help me get closer to realizing my own dream.

Of all these, there is only one person whose name is a literal component of my own guitars. His name is Jason Schroeder. (P.S. 10 points awarded to anyone who picks up on the Fight Club reference in the last sentence).

Guitar Connoisseur: In a world where just about everyone makes some sort of Strat-style guitar, what makes yours different? And for that matter, what makes Schroeder Guitars stand out in the burgeoning independent guitar making scene?

Jason Schroeder: I am not sure there is anything revolutionary about the Seville necessarily. I designed and built it for Neale Heywood of Fleetwood Mac because he was having issues with a couple of his Strats. He needed a solid, reliable S-type with his Roland controller built in. He also had just come off major back surgery and wanted something a little more ergonomic and lightweight. So I put pencil to paper and drew the Seville—a slightly curvier and a tad smaller bodied S-type (for weight). I used ideal weight alder and the headstock shape that I had designed for the TL—our Tele style model. In terms of construction, I just built from the best materials I could get my hands on and used high-quality parts and it resulted in a great playing and great sounding instrument. The only “innovations” would be the stainless steel frets and two-way truss rod, which are improvements to me. The heel is slightly more ergonomic as well. So the overall differentiation for that guitar is similar to the TL or the Radio Lane: to achieve archetypal tone, be it Strat, Tele or Les Paul, in a slightly different aesthetic, with a few modern upgrades that make adjustability and playability a bit easier.

GC: Aside from the fact that it is arguably the first rock ‘n roll guitar and a good number of famous and influential people played it, in your opinion, why does the Stratocaster continue to be an icon?

JS: You simply cannot imitate the tones of a Strat on a different style of guitar, in my opinion. I have never heard a split humbucker that authentically reproduced a true Strat single-coil pickup sound. You can come close but it is not the same. A thick mahogany body with a maple top will not sound the same. A short scale guitar with a fixed bridge will not feel the same. It is its own beast and there are recording and live situations that require the three single-coil, bolt-on configuration.

GC: What are you trying to achieve with the Seville? Was there a particular time period, aesthetic, or combination of features that inspired you?

JS: I think the problem for the consumer is that there are SO many options and models that it is overwhelming. A $99 guitar can look very similar to a $3,000 one from across the room. So it can leave you weary trying to distinguish between these and all of the choices in between. I try to take the anxiety of the selection process and, starting with the best raw materials I can find, create a guitar that will be the ultimate traditional S-type guitar (Or T-type or 2 humbuckers for that matter). I hear guys talk about having to try 10 guitars to find one good one. My goal is to produce a guitar that you plug in say, “WOW! That is great _ tone.”—whatever that type of guitar is.

I personally love the colors of the ‘50s and ‘60s; pastels and muted colors of that era and car colors always get me going.

GC: Since you build both set neck and bolt-on neck guitars, can you describe the differences in tone between the two?

JS: I am not sure that can be easily answered. It depends on so many things. I think Paul Reed Smith is quoted as saying about guitar building, “Everything affects everything.” So when I am doing an S or T style guitar, it is bolt-on construction because that lends to the traditional tones you get out of those guitars, and if I am doing a ‘59 style Radio Lane carve-top, I would not think of doing a bolt on neck. Just wouldn’t be right in my mind. The type of bridge (trem or fixed), the wood, and the pickups have as much to do with tone and sustain as the neck joint, in my mind.

GC: Where would you like to see the independent guitar making industry evolve in the next ten years and where would you like Schroeder Guitars to be by then?

JS: Interesting question. One of the main questions I have is: what materials will we be building from? With so much pressure on resources and traditional woods becoming less and less available, I wonder what will be around for us to use. I am a firm believer that tone starts with the wood, and some wood just doesn’t work on a guitar, and there have been other experiments with non-wood guitars that really don’t appeal to me. My personal taste is to use traditional woods as a foundation. When they are no longer available, we will need to be creative in working with what is available. I have experimented successfully with local pine for our TL model, and it sounds amazing. You just have to be very selective about which pieces you choose so they don’t end up being to wily and lack sustain if it is TOO light and not dense enough.

It will be interesting to see where digital processing will be in 10 years. There is a possibility that, as woods become unavailable to make authentic sounding instruments, companies like Fractal will be able to digitally produce the perfect Strat tone or the perfect Les Paul tone. So maybe woods won’t matter as much. As a player, I am a minimalist and prefer to plug straight into a Marshall with minimal effects, but I am open-minded!
In terms of Schroeder Guitars, the company, I hope to still be building great guitars! I am less interested than my younger self in trying to revolutionize a guitar design—to create the next archetype. This is mostly driven by my experience as a gigging musician. With a Seville, a TL, a Radio Lane, and a good acoustic, I think I could be content for a lifetime of playing. Well, maybe two of each!

Speaking of acoustics, I have aspirations to delve into acoustics and archtops, which is where a lot of my aesthetic inspirations come from (legendary builders like Jimmy D’Aquisto, Taku Sakashta, and Bob Benedetto). That is a world I am fascinated by and will eventually participate in. We also plan to keep coming up with parts that are of high quality and more functional than traditional parts. My motto for parts has been: “If I can’t make it function better, I will make it prettier.”

GC: What made you decide to start building/marketing your own bridges and tailpieces and what made you choose aluminum over brass or steel?

JS: I suppose it was frustration with the parts available on the market. I wanted better performing parts and I couldn’t find them. I liked the concept of locking studs for example, but the fork required to adjust the bridge up and down made me really nervous on a brand new nitrocellulose finish! So I designed a stud that was adjustable from the top with very basic tools. As for what bridge material I decided on, it was trial and error. I tried a bunch of different materials in the development of my bridge. Interestingly, I consulted with some legendary builders and they all had different opinions. I ultimately used my ear to decide which was the most transparent and musical. In fact, I have a brass prototype stop tail on the Tour Guitar. It sounds great! It is zingy and has that mid-range power that is associated with brass bridges. It is heavy though and is not a traditional tone. What I found to have the best musical properties for vintage tone is aircraft aluminum.

GC: How many guitars do you produce in a year and is it really just you and your wife running the company? Do you at least have some helpers in the shop?

JS: We have had quite a challenge in the shop since we left PBG. In 2010-2011, we made a concerted effort to focus on custom guitars as opposed to gearing up for production. We had an exclusive contract with PBG to do our production models via what was supposed to be a 5-year license agreement. This contract was cut short for a number of reasons, which left us with a challenging set of circumstances. The business has been dramatically simplified. We are on the mend, despite being contractually owed a substantial amount of money from PBG. That is a whole different saga! At the moment we deliver four to five guitars a month, and while we have had a couple of helpers for me over the years, my 17-year-old son Andy is our only other part-time employee. Elizabeth does the communication, shipping, some inlay work, and keeps me sane! There is a production line in the works, but at the moment we are focusing on the backlog of orders.

GC: Do you think that the things you listen to, think, or otherwise do in your life are reflected in your work? Can things like joy and/or sorrow show up in a guitar?

JS: I think my relationship with a client can influence the build immensely. The more I know about them personally and the more trust there is between me and the client, the more personalized the guitar tends to be. Most of the time the design features are very subtle and no one would even know except me and the client, but it becomes our inside joke. I love this type of thing.

GC: Do you find there is more of a demand for traditional designs or for more unique designs?

JS: I think that my clients tend to want traditional tone, better than traditional feel (a lot of old guitars don’t play as well as they sound!), and something a bit unique, but not too unique, in terms of aesthetic. I think all of my designs are rooted in tradition but have some type of twist to the design.

GC: And in the spirit of Fight Club, if you could fight any professional luthier, alive or dead (it doesn’t matter), who would it be?

JS: Luthiers? None. CEOs? A whole different story! Could this be a creative way to arbitrate a legal issue? If so, sign me up. Music Business Grudge Match! Sounds like it has Spike Channel potential!

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