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