Dead Wood: Is This the End for Classic Rock's Greatest Guitar Makers?

Building custom instruments for the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, Fleetwood Mac and others, the Wickersham family has been on the cutting edge of sonic sorcery. But are these artisanal wizards becoming obsolete?

Ron Wickersham poses in his workshop. Credit: Daniel Dent

Oh, look at that," Susan Wickersham says proudly, as her daughter Mica carefully escorts Phil Lesh's new bass guitar into her mother's office, presenting it to the room as if it were a royal infant or rare bottle of wine. Mica cradles its long mahogany neck in her hands and a visiting family friend, a bassist himself, scratches his goatee in disbelief. "Just gorgeous," Susan says, nodding.

It's a hot, dry August afternoon in the modest Santa Rosa, California office space of Alembic, the fabled high-end guitar laboratory that Susan and her husband Ron – former in-house sound technicians for the Grateful Dead – have maintained for more than four decades. For much of the summer, Susan, 65, and Mica, 44, have been working on this wonderfully immodest instrument, a fast-tracked custom job for Lesh, the Dead's 74-year-old founding bassist. The Alembic team is tasked with creating a lighter yet uncompromising six-string bass, one the road-worn veteran can hold for long stretches without tiring. Susan, acting president, CEO, and the artist responsible for the guitar's shape and décor, advocates for radiant abalone inlays and burled, Mexican cocobolo for much of the body. Worried by Lesh's recent forays into what she calls "super high-frequency land," Mica, product developer and general manager, adds ebony to the neck, as a tonal anchor. "When she's fully dressed," Mica continues, pointing to the guitar's current lack of electronic hardware, "she'll look. . .beautiful." 

Alembic's original mission, inspired by the Dead's philosophy of connecting the band's music directly to their fans, was simple: remove all obstacles along the signal path, so that what the audience heard was as accurate and human a musical expression as possible. When Ron realized that to clear that path further he would have to improve upon the band's instruments, Alembic unexpectedly found itself in the business of handcrafting astronomically expensive, high-performance guitars for the Dead and other musicians, with electronics assembled by Ron and exotic woods selected by Susan.

In 1973, Rolling Stone published a story about Alembic as part of a professional audio insert, describing the company's luthiers as "wizards," a conclusion supported visually by Ron's extraordinary beard and the liquid, fantasy fiction-ready curves of Susan's designs. Among many others, the couple's guitars have been played by Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana and Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, its basses used by the Who's John Entwistle, jazz virtuoso Stanley Clarke and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones on "Stairway to Heaven." When you include the number of musicians who've also used the company's pre-amps (Pink Floyd's David Gilmour is one such customer, according to Mica) a significant amount of the iconic rock sounds of the Seventies can be traced back in some fashion to Alembic.

"We're not necessary. Not everyone's going to drive a Ferrari. They can get to their destination in a Honda"

But in 2014, with Alembic's original customer base at retirement age and guitar-based music not enjoying an especially vital period – hip-hop and EDM-influenced pop rules the charts – the Wickershams can seem about as modern as horse cobblers. When they began, the sonic utopian goal was to transmit an unfettered purity of sound. Now, what's striking about popular music is the ways in which the ideal has moved towards adding more layers of digital technology. When even some of pop's most gifted vocalists are opting to manipulate their voices to mirror the inhuman, are Alembic's artisanal stringed instruments irrelevant?

Mica Wickersham was born in 1970, two years after her parents met at San Francisco's Pacific Recording Studio. At the time, the Grateful Dead were putting to tape their third full-length album, 1968's technologically advanced AOXOMOXOA. Ron, a shy and mostly self-taught design engineer from rural Indiana, was working for Ampex on a multi-track mixing console, for what was then a revolutionary, 16-track tape machine. Susan, nearly 10 years his junior, had been hired to paint a mural inside. Noticing Ron's innate love and understanding for electronics, the Dead's sound man (and notorious San Francisco countercultural guru/LSD chemist) Owsley "Bear" Stanley asked Ron and Susan to run Alembic, a creative extension of the band for which he'd already conceived a name, a font, and the logo that the company still bears today. The Wickershams agreed and Ron quickly began to work on perfecting the fidelity of the band's now-famous live recordings. "[Mica] was around it in utero," Susan says of that time. "And after she was born, she slept through many a Grateful Dead concert backstage."

What makes the Alembic instruments so singular is also, in certain ways, what makes them so unattainable. Alembic will reproduce, with brutal honesty, "every deficiency in your playing," says Susan. "It's like Stanley [Clarke] always tell me, 'Susan, your basses do not lie.'" For kids, who generally have small, relatively weak fretting hands, this is not a good starting point, regardless of price. But while Fender and Guitar Center have struggled, Alembic has held fast, despite a minimal ad budget and a policy against commercial endorsements. In large part, the Wickershams have survived because of a small, ravenous cult following that is willing and capable of meeting the product's lofty prices.

"We're not tied to selling 10,000 instruments a month," Susan says, "so we're a much more flexible organization. But we're not necessary. Not everyone's going to drive a Ferrari. They can get to their destination in a Honda, if all they need to do is get there." She told the story of a friend who went to a Phil Lesh and Friends show in nearby San Rafael while wearing an Alembic T-shirt; another concertgoer saw the shirt and said, "Whoa, Alembic: Too bad they went out of business." When the concertgoer was told the company was alive and well, he ended up buying a guitar days later. "God," says Susan, "they've been saying [we were going out of business] for 40 years. Twenty-four-hundred dollars for a bass? In 1972? Come on. We've gone from $2,400 to $18,500 for the same instrument. They said no one's going to pay that kind of money. But the thing is, I can't make them less expensive." 

Alembic's output is extremely limited and their target demographic is comprised mostly, Susan says, of former Deadheads who went on to become lawyers, doctors and politicians. "The one who's in competition for all-time holder of most upper-end Alembics," she adds, "is Steve Wood. He's the chief deputy prosecutor for the state of Delaware."

When I asked if she worried that fewer and fewer people will be interested in such rarefied objects, her answer is resolute. "If people don't want them, we'll stop making them."

Standing sentinel on a light box in the corner of Susan's office is a four-foot skeleton she uses as a model for what Alembic devotees refer to as custom-inlay "medallions," which are a sort of decorative oval plaque embedded just below the guitar's tailpiece. This summer, a customer Susan describes as "a guy with his own hedge fund," asked for a guitar with a tribute medallion featuring the famed Jerry Garcia skeleton image.

"His only requirement," Susan said, "was that it have a Captain Trips Hat on it, and that it be set in Telluride, Colorado, because Jerry used to play in the bluegrass festival there." 

Susan presented him with a drawing of a skeleton whose "dip of the shoulder and subtle nuances made you think, 'It's Jerry'," wearing the appropriate headgear, draped in intricately embroidered garments like those from Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, playing an Alembic on a rose pedal-strewn stage at the foot of the San Juan mountains under a star field that could have been seen in the sky "the night his daughter was born in North Carolina." Denim lapis, ebony, rosewood, flame maple: Every detail and piece was to be cut and layered by hand, from the nails in the stage's floorboards to the stars above. Earlier this year, she did something similar for one of the country's only robotic heart surgeons, a Civil War enthusiast whose tribute skeleton rested amid the exact topography of the Battle of Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Below the guitar's bridge, Susan furnished a sine wave made out of mother-of-pearl. 

"This is so specific," I tell her, as I pored over her drawing.

 "Yeah," Ron says as he appears in the doorway, his voice nearly lost in his thick, white beard. "We do that."

Ron Wickersham's late mother once told Susan that when her son was just five years old, he asked permission to take apart his grandfather's pocket watch. She approved and young Ron got to work, laying each piece side-by-side on a handkerchief until he was finished. When he put it back together, the pocket watch began to tick just as it always had. Ten years and several disassemblies later, he would help build one of two FM radio stations in the state of Indiana: WGLM, which stood for Good Listening Music.

Growing up in the small town of Richmond, Ron played piano and clarinet, but balked at the idea of performing. After a brief stint in the military, he moved to San Francisco, following the psychedelic protest music of Country Joe and the Fish, a band "who played music that was like mini-symphonies," he said. "They had movements. I thought it was as important as Beethoven. I didn't feel that way about the Dead at the time. But I learned to."

Ron treated any equipment that the musicians were using as the rock & roll equivalent of a Stradivarius. His dedication to refining every element — from recording gear to instruments — fit perfectly with the Dead's vision. "They were receptive to technical improvements," Ron says. "A lot of people weren't. Musicians thought that it would ruin their creativity if they understood anything. Most of the them during that era didn't embrace new things at all." 

The quiet, aloof and relatively reclusive Ron has stayed out of the public eye over the years, engrossed in his work while Susan and Mica act as "a buffer" between him and the rest of the world. Through several tours with the Dead, at home and abroad, he remains singularly focused on the "technical aspects" of the work. In the same way that his passion for building telescopes hasn't been deterred by his lack of interest in star-gazing, his interest in guitars and music is mostly tied to the way they work. 

"It was exciting to see the audiences reacting [when the Dead played live]," Ron says. "But I wasn't really part of the Deadhead culture and I didn't have much social interaction with the band."

There were times, says Susan, "when we were doing the recording at the concert and I'd walk in, no problem. But I'd turn around and say, 'Where's Ron?' Well, they'd stopped him at the door. He never looked like he was supposed to be there." What did he look like? I ask. "Like somebody who'd come in off the street," she says, sheepishly. Ron, sitting across from her now in a strange graphic T-shirt with a chrome peace pendant hanging around his neck, laughs quietly. Shards of teeth and bare gums are visible just beyond his whiskers. "He had this bright-red beard and dark hair, and his glasses were taped together with bus wire. But once you put him in a technical role, in his comfort zone, he was unstoppable."

Before he'd appeared downstairs earlier, Ron had been up in his workshop, surrounded by piles of old computers, oscilloscopes and obscure meters. Most of the week, he'll work up there on his own, usually through the night, sipping on Coke for an added boost. On his belt, beside two Swiss Army knives and a holstered Leatherman knife, he wears a brown leather fanny pack full of assorted tools: a wrench, a titanium flashlight, a volt meter from Radio Shack. From the moment he wakes up and puts on the pack, he doesn't take it off until he's getting back into bed to sleep.

He also has a vast collection of electronics accumulated over the decades, which he disassembles as part of his learning process. Despite the cost and the anti-war sentiment of the time, Alembic began by using military-grade switches and components. "We used op amps," Ron said, "that were not made for use on Earth. They were radiation-resistant so they could be used in space. The military was the most careful and precise when building switches. The idea that saying it's good enough for government work or good enough for rock & roll: Those rules don't apply in real life. They're an excuse to compromise. They're not what drives you to go on."

"We didn't start out making instruments," Ron continues, as we walk a hallway filled with wheeled racks of unfinished guitar bodies. "We started out improving them. Our whole approach isn't, 'Oh, I want to make the best guitar in the world.' I don't think any of us have any idea what the best guitar in the world would be." More a doctor than a magician, Ron works with Mica and Susan to isolate and correct issues that musicians (like Fleetwood Mac's John McVie, just recently) bring to them. This could result in the addition of extra strings or the use of frequency-specific wood recipes.

Ron traces his scientific worldview back to the mostly uneducated, but mathematically sensible farmers he grew up around in Indiana. "You want a deeper understanding of something, it comes out of a respect for interacting with the real world and its limitations, and how you can optimize things."

In a room next to his workshop, Ron keeps a library of engineering and computer-science books. He's fascinated by the mathematics at work in digital music. "The MP3 is a compromise," he said, waving his hands. "Let's get that out of the way. But the idea of fully computer-generated music? That's interesting. Electronic music is cool, but it's different. The people who are going to take advantage of it are the people who are still listening closely to what they're doing. It's not about equipment. The guitar, for example, has always been antiquated. It's amazing that people are still playing strings at all. They go dead, they're expensive, and they're hard to play. But on the other hand, without them, there are things you can't express."

Susan had keenly pointed out earlier in the day that rock & roll's critics have been sounding its death knell since the moment it arrived. If and when Alembic fades away, it won't be a surprise. But something larger, something harder to describe than a custom guitar, will have been lost, too.