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November 04, 2016


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Alembic's Long, Strange Trip: An Exclusive Interview

Last month, Chicago Music Exchange had the privilege of touring the Alembic guitar factory (pictured right) in Santa Rosa, California. The impact of Alembic on the guitar-building industry is incomparable, which is why we are so proud to announce them as a forthcoming addition here at CME!  With more than 45 years of custom instrument-building experience, Alembic is often considered the first “boutique” guitar and bass builder of its kind.

Even as the industry evolves, founders Susan and Ron Wickersham—along with their daughter Mica Thomas—have stuck to their core values: Deliver the highest-quality instruments to every customer and make the experience a personal one. 

(Personal is an understatement; Alembic has even researched the dates and locations of clients’ birthdays and weddings, associated them with visible constellations in the area at the time, and included them in custom inlays!) 

A glimpse at the Alembic shop in Santa Rosa.A glimpse at the Alembic shop in Santa Rosa. 

CME’s Marc Najjar sat down for an exclusive interview with Susan and Mica about Alembic’s beginnings, its association with influential artists such as the Grateful Dead, and a very promising future.

So, first question: Why do you build guitars?

Susan: We didn’t start out building guitars. Alembic started because “Bear” [Owsley Stanley] met Ron at Pacific Recording when the Grateful Dead were recording Aoxomoxoa. Bear already had the idea of Alembic [along with the name and logo] and convinced me and Ron that we should go work for them. 

That’s when Lenny Hart managed the Dead. They didn’t want to have this entity; this “thinktank” portion of the Grateful Dead called “Alembic,” so, Bear just said, “Here’s the test equipment, the name and the logo. Go be Alembic!”

The mandate was ‘to improve the quality of live recorded music.’ That was the umbrella. The first thing we did was improve the electronics to take the noise out. The [alembic] logo is the knowledge and the raw materials inside of it. And what does an “alembic” do? It’s a still. It purifies! So you come out with a pure signal. 

Phil Lesh's "Big Brown" bass resides at the shop today.
Phil Lesh's "Big Brown" bass resides at the shop today.

As we went along, we did recordings, of course. One of the first recordings we did was the soundtrack for at Altamont—we did the P.A. and the recording for the movie. The following year, we did Medicine Ball Caravan for Warner Bros.—the same time [the Dead] were doing Festival [Express] in Canada. 

That's so cool. Did she handle it well?

I had to handle it well because I was only 19 years old, and they didn’t have disposable diapers back then! But I improvised—I used gaffers tape!

 

But anyway, we improved [the pickups] so everything would sound better. When we moved away from Movado to San Francisco, we were still doing live stuff—not studio stuff yet—and mixing it there. At that time we were doing repairs on instruments. And what’s the single biggest thing that breaks on instruments? 


The original hand-drawn Alembic logo is displayed prominently on the wall of the Alembic facility.
The original hand-drawn Alembic logo is displayed prominently on the wall of the Alembic facility. 

The peghead.

The peghead! Especially on [guitars] thatare mass produced and are really easy to break, there’s no draft angle, nothing to absorb the stress. That’s where we came up with the idea of reinforcing the pegheads by coming up with the correct draft angle for the instruments.

Ron, being the physicist, made plywood out of veneers in the back for strength and reinforcement. 

So, basically, it was just a matter of improvements, starting with the electronics and then other common repairs?

Musicians are frustrated. They’re on the road. Things break. Design it well enough for a band like the Grateful Dead. They’d go out on the road for like six months, and what’s the first thing they wanna do when they come back home? They’d go right into the studio. Do they want to send their instruments out to repair shops to have them fixed? No.

When we came up with the final design of the instruments, which would eventually be Jack’s [Casady of Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna] instrument, they had everything Alembic on it—the styling, the electronics. People told me “no one is ever going to pay that kind of money for a bass.”

We were the beginning of the whole boutique industry. We raised the bar very high because people weren’t used to the kind of quality we delivered. The instruments were produced for the masses. Thank goodness Leo [Fender] did that because it opened up a whole market for so many things! I am very proud to say that when I used to go the NAMM shows that he would come over to the booth with George [Fullerton of Fender] and tell me that I had “the most beautiful instruments at the show!”

That’s a huge compliment!

Yes it is. And I always thanked him for starting the whole thing!

As the pioneers of boutique guitar building, do you find it difficult to stay ahead of the curve? 

No, actually. Because they still haven’t caught up. 

That’s a good answer!

I’m very flattered that so many people look to us and said “Wow, that’s a good idea. I’m going to use some of that in what I’m doing.” That’s perfectly acceptable. That’s how things are invented. You can’t just do these things in a vacuum. We had the incredible opportunity to start our company with people who were at the top of their profession and expressed what they wanted. Ron could understand what they were looking for. Ron’s not a bassist or guitarist, but he is a musician. He studied concert piano for eight or nine years. He plays clarinet. He’s just curious about everything. A lot of people know a little bit about a lot of things. Ron knows a lot about a lot of things.

We started with our Series I and Series II instruments. There are lots of people who now do active electronics who have taken a lead. We also built the first parametric equalizer in 1971 for Bobby Weir, but we didn’t like the sound of it for electric instruments. We wanted it to go more into the duplication of the naturally occurring filters in an acoustic instrument.

Tell us a bit more about the electronics. What sets you all apart from other builders?

Well, let’s go back to how the pickups were originally made. These were high-impedance pickups with ferrous-material pole pieces in them. The pole pieces are made of iron, and the strings are made of iron. When you electromagnetically charge two pieces of iron, you get “Barkhausen distortion.” There’s only one way to get rid of Barkhausen distortion: You must eliminate one source of ferrous material. Ron found ceramic magnets that would do the job.

[Another distinction is ] when you pluck the string, you’re moving in and out of the magnetic field. We made a nice, big monolithic bar so that your strings are always in the magnetic field while you’re playing it.

You always have tradeoffs in every design. With high-impedance pickups, you get gain but a lot of [excess] noise. Low-impedance pickups, you don’t get all the noise, but you don’t get a lot of gain.

Ron decided, “OK, we want to get rid of the noise, and we don’t care about the battery drain.” That’s another design tradeoff: If you want hi-fi, you get high power drain.

Ron then built an analog coil winding machine [that’s made every Alembic pickup] and we get about 3,500 turns in each direction. The wire we use is about one-fifth the size of a human hair that is covered in a coating. When gets wound up, it fuses together. Otherwise, you get air in there and microphonics.

You never used wax or anything like that?

No need to. The coating melts together. We then use coaxial shielded wire that we connect everything with. Then a solid copper screening that goes across the top and bottom so we’re completely shielded, which then gets potted into a special epoxy. We’ll mold into a special epoxy shell for a custom pickup, or it’ll go into the specific mold. These things get tested along the way to make sure that there’s no broken coils.

There’s not 100% yield on anything, but we’re Alembic and we try our best. We remember that we’re dealing with a tree that was a tree for hundreds of years that we’re making into a guitar or bass. Well sometimes, it doesn’t work out that way. We’re also dealing with people. Sometimes they have good days and sometimes they have bad days. But our reputation is built on what we allow to leave the building.

Do you have any variance in your pickup winds?

Nope. We don’t voice the pickup, if that’s what you’re asking.

Mica: We have two types of pickups: single coil and stacked, hum-cancelling. They’re made to have broad frequency response so all of the tone control is actually done with the tone controls.

Susan: That’s why you can have so many sounds on one instrument. What we do is give you a wide aperture coil. The wider the aperture, the more frequencies that can be addressed. That’s why a [single-coil pickup] may be referred to as a “thin” sound and humbucker would be referred to as a “fat” sound. It has to do with how wide the coil is, and that limits the frequencies.

Mica: My dad told me that when we were just making pickups for people—before we started making guitars, when people would ask for different pickups, they basically were asking for what the highest cutoff frequency would be. And he thought “Well, that would be a lot more convenient to have that on a knob.” Instead of being restricted from the beginning, we had it the most open from the string and everything would happen from the electronics.

Susan: That’s another reason why we’re so different. While Ron is a musician who understands a musician’s needs, he doesn’t have any preset biases. He approaches it from a much more practical sensibility.

Where do you see yourselves in the marketplace?

Susan: When we started out, we made equal amounts of basses and guitars. In fact, we probably made more guitars. Why’s that? There are more guitar players.

Then in 1973, Stanley Clarke did an article in Guitar Player magazine all about his new Alembic. From that point on, we had John Entwistle, John Paul Jones—a lot of bass players named John—all the bass players wanted an Alembic. The public then identified us as a “bass company,” even though during this period, I still made guitars.

Stanley Clarke's famous Alembic bass circa 1973, which resides at the factory.Stanley Clarke's famous Alembic bass circa 1973, which resides at the factory.

Mica: Oh, there were a couple of years where you only made a couple of guitars.

Susan: (laughs) Literally...only a couple of guitars. Anyway, with Jerry’s guitars, and the fight over the guitars and whether he could will them to Doug Irwin. It’s a tricky thing when the band owns the guitars...People kept asking us to make a tribute to those guitars. I had done some work on it and Mica had done some work on it. Then, the whole thing [with Jerry’s guitars] got settled and they were going to go up on the Guernsey Auction . So, I said to Mica “this would be the time to bring those models out…” I then had several stores order several guitars all at once.

That was about 11 or 12 years ago. Actually, the first one sold before the store even opened. I got an email from this one guy that basically said “I wanna get one as soon as they come out.” It was about one o’clock in the morning and I’m emailing him “OK, it’s going to be at G Guitars in Connecticut, they open at ten in the morning. You can contact them.” Six o’clock in the morning my time, 9 o’clock in New York, he was like “OK. It’s mine.” He hadn’t even played it, he just booked it!

We’re getting back to our roots of making guitars and basses equally for people who have a mindset for our type of instrument. I don’t think our instruments are for everybody. It just has to be somebody who likes to tweak knobs.

And they’re buying a history.

Susan: There is that kind of romance to it. That’s why people are instrument collectors.

Mica: I think a lot of people who are attracted to our brand—or our hope is really—that people are able to make their own sound and their own history. They’re exposed to [Alembic] by seeing someone notable play, but they’re not going to sound like Phil Lesh when you play his bass.

No, I definitely proved that.

Mica: You know what I mean. It’s a tiny facet of the story. People who have something musical to say wind up getting attracted to our brand. Otherwise, you sound like crap. You really can’t hide.

Susan: Well, as Stanley [Clarke] always says, ”you have to play them right, they don’t lie.”

So, you’ve built for a lot of artists...what’s the craziest build story you’ve got? The one where you all were like ‘I dunno how we’re gonna do this..."

Mica: There was this guy in Norway—this drummer—who was in a motorcycle accident and lost the use of his legs. So he became a bass player and had us make two really weird instruments -- these were weird instruments.
[For the first one], they sent us his bass drum shell, the laminate. The “mother of toilet seat” laminate of his drum. We made that the top of his bass. For the instruction was, “I want it to look like a Harley that had been in an accident.” Road rash and all. He wanted it black & chrome—and this was way before relic jobs and stuff like that. What did we know?

Our bookkeeper at the time had a husband who was a Harley mechanic so he brought over a Fat Boy motorcycle. We painted the bass all up, shined it all up black...

Susan: ...and dragged it behind a motorcycle.

Mica: Tied it up to the motorcycle and literally dragged it all across the pavement!

So you do relic'ed guitars now! You all started it!

Susan: We had to be creative. If we wanted authenticity, we had to be like, “Take a curve, go faster and whip around the corner. We’ve got to get the edges!”

Mica: It was actually very hard for us to watch that one.

No one can build guitars forever. Do you see yourselves passing the torch to someone?

Mica: I’m not planning on going anywhere, and my 9-year-old son keeps threatening that he wants to do Papa’s job. He wants to build electronics.

So this is just going to be a family operation indefinitely?

Mica: That’s our plan. It’s fun. it’s interesting.

Susan: It’s frustrating. It’s a pain in the ass sometimes.

Mica: All of those things. But at the end of the day, you’ve made something that didn’t kill anybody. It made people happier.

Susan: We get so much positive feedback. It’s very humbling when you get people who tell you that you’ve changed their life. I mean, how many things do you get to do where you get someone who’ll tell you you’ve changed their life? One of the things that we get told often that when people get their first Alembic, they had all this music that was trapped inside them that they just couldn’t play -- their other instruments just couldn’t produce the sound that was in their head. Then when the get the Alembic, all of a sudden, the notes were just coming off their fingers.

An Alembic family photo. (From left to right: Ron Wickersham, Mica Wickersham, Bob Thomas, Susan Wickersham, CME's Marc Najjar and Mike Rickenberger)
An Alembic family photo. (From left to right: Ron Wickersham, Mica Thomas, Bob Thomas, Susan Wickersham, CME's Marc Najjar and Mike Rickenberger)

 

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: On a personal note, over the timeline of my life, at many different stages, you all have changed my life. Because of what you all have been responsible for—the sounds and the instruments—just...thank you.)

For more information about Alembic guitars and basses at Chicago Music Exchange, feel free to email marc@chicagomusicexchange.com}


Marc Najjar
Marc Najjar

Author