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Username: sfnic

Post Number: 2
Registered: 3-2005
Posted on Thursday, April 21, 2005 - 12:52 pm:   Edit Post

Good morning, and thanks for the warm welcome over in Dave's broken string thread.

I've actually been lurking for some time now, as I've primarily been doing some research into a few facets of Alembic lore. Now that I've got that stuff pretty well wrapped up (more on that a bit later), I can devote the time I spend here to participating!

About me: My name is Nic Grabien, and once upon a time I worked, well not exactly _for_ Alembic, but certainly _with_ Alembic. Back in 1972, I wandered into the old Brady Street store looking for someone who could tell me about a guitar I had seen on the back of a Warehouse Sound catalog. The guitar was what we know refer to as a Triple Omega, but the body was highly carved and the non-electronics side of the lower bout was cut all the way through. A complete unique instrument and absolutely stunning, and I had to know who built it. (IIRC, it may have been made for Johnny Winters, but I could very well be wrong.) Anyway, Warehouse Sound had that on their catalog's back cover for over a year, and I finally had to track it down. By then I had also heard/read about Jack's custom bass and had seen Phil's old Starfire in action. So, off to Brady St.

At that time, most of the lutherie had moved north, and the shop was primarily repairs and sales. Ron Armstrong was managing the shop, and was extremely helpful in helping me get my old Hagstrom bass bridge squared away. A few weeks later, I bought Larry Klein's old Guild Starfire, and started down the road towards total perversion.

I ended up working for the shop on a freelance basis, doing amplifier mods and repairs. I was never an employee, in the W2 sense, but I was a part of the Brady St. shop all the way through the Stars Guitars buyout (I was one of the original investors that put up the purchase money--thanks, mom!), and continued working with Stars after the move to Folsom St. I also did freelance work for Jim Furman (I assembled the first 200 PQ-3 parametric equalizers) and later designed some of the active electronics for Stars Guitars.

During my years there, I never had occasion to go north to visit the factory, and never really got into the construction/guitarmaking side of things. I was pretty much electro-boy, and was actually employed by Studio Instrument Rentals as their in-house repair geek, and later by Clear Com Intercom Systems (Bob Cohen's company that was spun off of Bob's old PA service he ran with Chet Helms) as their test department manager and mechanical design engineer.

So I had picked up guitar repair chops (fret mills, setups, tons of electronics mods, etc.) on an ad-hoc basis, but never really concentrated building instruments or getting into the woodworking and finishing aspects. I also worked as a free-lance audio engineer, working with Eliot Mazer after he bought the old Pacific High Recording Studio at Brady St. I ran Rivendell Productions and Horizon Sound, both small PA companies in San Francisco. From that, I spent some shop time working on chunks of the Wall of Sound gear, and helped Tom Scalley build some of the "before Hard Truckers went public" Alembic speaker cabinets. (I still have a pair of A-15s, a B-12 and a handful of B-5s floating around; all JBL and Gauss drivers, all probably dying of cone rot.)

In the middle of that, I also worked with Mike Tobias during his "San Francisco" years, both with his own stuff and the Sierra Guitars joint venture he did with Ron from Stars. Alas, that venture died from under-funding, a few broken purchase contracts (an Italian distributor booked an order for 30 basses, then went bankrupt after paying the 25% deposit that let us buy the wood) and some of the other pressures startup companies have.

By the time Stars Guitars closed down, I had started working as a freelance tech writer for any number of South Bay startups, and have generally been doing that ever since. These days, I'm writing documentation for various government certification programs at a well-known security company best known for their anti-virus products.

About two years ago, I was introduced to another networking geek, Matt Hayden, who is a superb guitar player living in the East Bay. Matt also builds fairly competent acoustic guitars, so we started reminiscing about the "old, Alembic days." He had never heard much of the history, but had always admired the basses. At one point, I told him about my old '75 Series I bass (a basic walnut-topped small body), which I had long since sold (as a freelance writer, you often desperately need cash). He suggested that we build a clone of my old baby, and from that, we've started building up Niles Guitar Works. The plan is to build custom solid body electrics and various models of acoustic. So the past two years have been a crash course in all the aspects of guitarmaking that I never picked up 20-30 years ago.

My first impulse was to call Susan and beg for permission to build one (1) clone of a small body Series I. I decided not to do that, partly out of respect and partly to commit myself to design something myself. (My current plan is to make enough money from my own basses to let me buy a few Alembics. That old Warehouse Sound Triple Omega is still vivid in my mind, and I miss my old '75.)

So, as part of putting together the business plan for NGW, I decided to revisit Alembic's history for hints in how (and how not) to build a reputable brand name. I've been through the startup drill with Stars and Sierra, and have a pretty good idea of how large (i.e., _very_ small) a company I want to aim for.

Which brings me here. I initially wanted to gather pricing data for various "boutique" companies, like Alembic, Tobias, Pensa/Suhr, Pedulla, Sadowsky, etc. Look over product mixes, production rates, etc. What I found here, however, was a total gold mine of information and it put me in a quandry.

The community here is incredibly strong and tight, and the amount of care and support you all give each other is fantastic. So I had to ask myself if I _could_ participate here without disturbing that social fabric. I absolutely do NOT want to come here to pimp my own stuff, or to show off how much I know or how cool it was in the old days or whatever. I need to be very careful about what I use from this forum, in terms of design factors and construction techniques. I don't ever want to cross the line between "student" and "thief."

But I have felt, over the past few months of lurking, that I do have some positive stuff to contribute, both on an historical level as well as in fundamental lutherie.

Alembic makes, flat out, the finest instruments available. Period. Yes, there are some incredibly talented builders out there who make fantastic instruments. Some that are even preferred to Alembics by specific people, for specific purposes. But day in and day out, producing hundreds of instruments a year, Alembic has the highest consistant quality and the best overall feature set of any maker on the planet.

I can only hope to put out a bass that's even remotely close, and that on a one-at-a-time basis. Alembic is the model for how I want to build instruments, and the touchstone for the degree of quality I aspire to.

And, as I said above, this forum community is incredible. I respect you guys as much for what you've built here in the message board as I do the company itself for building the instruments.

So, can I play in this sandbox without violating my own "separation of interests" ethics? I think so. I HOPE so.

Again, thanks for the welcome!

Username: davehouck

Post Number: 1633
Registered: 5-2002
Posted on Thursday, April 21, 2005 - 2:02 pm:   Edit Post

Is this it??

Great story Nic! A very interesting history!
Username: edwin

Post Number: 62
Registered: 5-2002
Posted on Thursday, April 21, 2005 - 2:14 pm:   Edit Post

Welcome! I believe that I can speak for everyone by saying that we would love whatever you contribute and at this forum it does seem to be a collaboration that is open to anything.

So, what's up with Larry Klein's old Starfire these days? Lots of SF fans here!

Not the one with a signature Alembic.
Username: sfnic

Post Number: 5
Registered: 3-2005
Posted on Thursday, April 21, 2005 - 2:20 pm:   Edit Post

Thank you, Dave, and yes, that's the beast.

Odd; I remember it as being around 1972, though. Also, "689" is a bit wierd for a '75 serial number...

Larry's old Guild is alive and well and needs new strings. I named her Bubastus many years ago ("Bast" for short). She makes an interseting match for my '61 335. They're both cherry red, of course.

(Yeah, yeah. "Pictures!" Later, and in a different thread.) :-)

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