we first found out about doug rowell's carved guitars and basses from someone who sent us an email - it was a suggestion that we put one of mr. rowell's instruments in the amusing bass gallery. he sent us mr. rowell's url, so i went to check out his website. the first thing i thought was 'yikes'. i'd never seen anything quite like it before, and i enjoyed browsing his site. intrigued, i sent him an e-mail asking him if he'd mind being the subject (victim?) of an interview by e-mail. he consented and jon and i started drawing up some questions. pretty soon we were going back and forth a little bit via e-mail. we've enjoyed talking with him a lot. i've said this elsewhere on this site, but i might as well say it again here: i respect those who commit to their vision and work hard to develop it. mr. rowell has done this over many years. i also tend to appreciate someone's work even more when they are honest, polite, and down to earth. i hope some of this comes through in this short interview.
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Mimi: so far, everyone's reaction when i show them pictures of your guitars and basses have been the same: 'whoa!' their eyes just get real big. but i'm assuming that you didn't arrive on this kind of process overnight. can you tell us a little bit about how you began sculpting in guitars and basses?
Doug: I started learning to carve in Cub Scouts... making neckerchief slides and little figurines. I liked to draw a lot as a kid and my dad had a lot of wood working tools so it was kind of a natural progression for me. I used to make a little extra money in high school, carving key chain fobs with a hand flipping the bird. I charged a buck and they became fairly popular. In 1969, I moved to Hollywood (about 60 miles from where I grew up) and started trying to get into the music business.
I had an old '46 Mecury woody at that time. I was carving designs in the body as a hobby. Brian Cole, of the Association, saw me doing it and asked if I could carve his old Stratocaster. He offered to buy me new carving tools in exchange for the carving. Some other players saw Brian's, contacted me to carve their guitars and a new career was launched.
The Steve Martin banjo was fun. Steve hired me to do it in 1970. Shortly after I started, I was hired to play the lead role in the national touring company of the Broadway show, "Hair". It took me a couple of years of carving in hotels rooms around the U.S. and Canada to finish it.
Mimi: i like that steve martin story - you've been at this for quite a long time! what have been the most important ways in which you think your style and technique has evolved and matured?
Doug: I've been influenced by a lot of clients. Their ideas of what they want on their guitars has made me stretch as a designer.... and a technician. Also, I've learned a lot about adapting to the practical limitations of the guitar... not taking too much wood away from areas that reqire strength, like the neck pocket and strap pins. Also, each new piece is an education. I think every artist learns and grows in terms of design and technique as he goes along. This is true in carving as it is in music.
Mimi: lots of people can draw nicely on a flat, two-dimensional surface. you seem to be able to carve in anything. how did you develop your, um...'3-D vision' (is that a term?) and understanding of sculptural form?
Doug: O.K., Mimi, here's the real deal. My adolescence was in the pre-playboy era. Most boys my age had to resort to National Geographic and the Sears catalgue for tantalizing girly pix. I accidently discvered the "sculpture" section of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. There were all these statues of naked women. WOW!!!
White Rabbit, from Alice in Wonderland. Walnut, 2.5 inches tall
As I spent more & more time looking at the statues, I became facsinated with the sculptors. Michelangelo, Bernini, Giambologna, etc. These guys were really good! How did they capture the expressions? How did they get the flow of the garments and drapery? The subtleties of the body? I started to study these guys. I wanted to be Michelangelo. So I guess you could say it all started with sex.
Mimi: the earliest fender and rickenbacker basses were quite blockish, very utility-oriented. and the vast majority of contemporary basses have remained quite closely patterned after these designs. i'm curious how someone very interested in complex sculptural form feels about 'production' electric bass (and guitar) design in general. i mean, do you think bass makers could (or should) be taking more risks in terms of designing different looking, different playing instruments?
Doug: There have been some interesting inovations in design over the years. I think the Steinberger headless design is fascinating. They said. "Hey... you don't need that bulky head up there." For my purposes, I like having the head... it gives me another piece of wood to carve. But I can appreciate the inovation.
Basically, the electric guitar is a piece of wood with pickups. It can be as simple or as complex as the builder wants it to be. But players, I think, tend to stay with the more traditional designs. They tend to not only want them not too big or heavy... but not too small or light. So manufacturers tend to give them what they want. The traditional designs (Strat, Tele, Les Paul, P bass, etc.) will probably always be the most popular.
Mimi: many of your guitar and bass designs are extremely complex, with lots of elements combined into a tight composition. how do you begin the visualizing process? how to do develop and refine the design? and how to you know when you're finished?
Doug: "How do you know when you're finished?" is one of the best questions I'm ever asked. And it's not often asked. Every piece I do can be better than it is. I'm very critical of my own work. I'm rarely satisfied with a piece when I'm working on it. I have to spend so many hours with each one that I lose perspective. There comes a time when I have to stand back and look at a piece and say, "that's enough." To make one more cut would be superfluous. Then it's done. I always like 'em better when I haven't seen 'em for a few years. ;o)
As to the design elements, I like to talk to the client. I find out what he or she likes. I've had a number of requests for dragons. Or, if there's no client, I try to imagine what might appeal to a prospective client. When I had completed the Rodeo Strat, someone said, "You ought to do something with sculls." That's when I started working on the "Bad to the Bone" Jazz Bass. I did a couple of Harley designs because that seemed to be a popular theme. The Jimi Hendrix Strat was one I'd been wanting to do for over 20 years.
The process starts with choosing a guitar, collecting tons of images on a theme (scanning from books or copying from the net), and fooling around in Photoshop. I super-impose images on a pic of the guitar and move, stetch, cut, combine and draw layer after layer until I have a design I like (or the client likes). I make a life-size B&W print out of the design and transfer it to the disassembled body with carbon paper and start cuttin'.
Mimi: since you work with these kinds of imagery a lot, maybe you're well qualified to venture a theory here: why do men seem so much more interested in skulls, dragons, motorcycles, and predatory animals than girls? do you think of guitars and basses as being masculine? feminine? gender-neutral?
Doug: I don't know that I'm qualified, Mimi. I'm just a humble Geppetto type. But men and women do see things differntly. The male of all species seem to seek breeder and nurturing qualities while the female seeks security. It's a great compliment to us, as humans, that we ever look beyond breasts and wallets (and some of us don't).
A lot of guitars players give their guitars girl's names. And yet I think they also think of them as a phallic symbol. As to the sculls, dragons, etc. maybe it's the primortial hunter thing. Or maybe men are more attracted by death and women by life.
I told you I wasn't qualified.
Mimi: you seem to draw from many different artistic styles. what kind of art, or which particular artists (if any), do you find yourself most drawn to?
Doug: I like a wide variety of art & artists. As I said, Michelangelo is my sculptor hero. Leonardo Di Vinci & Salvador Dali are 2 of my favorite geniuses. I'm absolutely in love with art nouveau... Antonio Gaudi, Hector Guimar and that whole European school from the 20's. A lot of the art from the psychedelic era, like the wonderful posters and album art of Rick Griffin. I'm aslo a huge fan of Frank Frazetta, the "Conan the Barbarian" guy. Then there are a lot of lesser known artist who are influenced by the same people and styles that I am. And I'm influenced by their perceptions.
Mimi: that's quite a mix of artists - i guess you could say that they cross class boundaries! da vinci and gaudi are well-respected members of the 'masters of fine art' catagory. dali's reputation as a modern master is often hotly contested, and a lot of art historians probably turn their noses up at frank frazetta. how much do you think about these kinds of distinctions?
Doug: I never consider what other people think of an artist. If it moves me, I like it. There are a lot of artists I know are good... because more knowlegeable art critics than I say they are... yet I don't care for them. By the same token, if an artist I like is shunned by the art community, it has no effect on my opinion of the work. I can look at Picasso's marvelous body of work and know that he is a master. I see the genius in the work... but I don't personally care for it.
Mimi: do you ever worry about 'your place in history', or perhaps simply 'how others see you'? are you ever accused of making cheesy art, or maybe on the other hand, of being 'too artsy'?
Doug: Like anyone else, I care about what people think of me. But I do what I like. When I put the "Bad to the Bone" bass on eBay, I got several emails asking, "Why did you that to that bass?" Made me giggle.
My Jimi Hendrix Strat was something I'd wanted to do for a long time. I thought a lot of people would want to own it. There were a lot of people who admired it... but nobody seemed to be obsessed with owning it. (i.e. getting up off a buck) But I LOVE that I finally did it. Maybe people look at it like I look at Picasso.
I don't "worry" about my place in history. I've done some nice carvings, written a few good songs and helped some people to laugh. I have a daughter I'm very proud of and people who love me. When I leave here, I know I've left the place in better condition than I found it. That's enough.
doug's website has way more guitars to look at.
please take a moment to visit it here: