Such is Bill Asher’s humility that he won’t steer the discussion toward his long list of big-name customers until nearly forced to go there, and that he never drops even the slightest hint that he’s the scion of Hollywood royalty. Asher nearly single-handedly rejuvenated the modern manufacture of electric lap steels after collaborating with slide star Ben Harper back in 1998, and has since numbered star steelers Robert Randolph, Cindy Cashdollar, Greg Leisz, Emily Robison, Ed Williams and many others in his client list.
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And regarding the latter claim to fame, if the name of the TV sitcom Bewitched rings fewer bells in the UK than it does in the US, suffice to say it was one of the most popular American TV shows of the 60s and early 70s, and featured Asher’s mother, Elizabeth Montgomery, in the starring role of Samantha, with the majority of episodes in its eight-year run directed by his father, William Asher (also the director of the mother of all American sitcoms, I Love Lucy). But again, it simply doesn’t come up – understandably, since that has nothing to do with guitar making. And Bill Asher is all about guitar making. Since the epiphanic moment in high-school wood shop when Asher realised he could actually make a guitar with his own two hands that was all he wanted to do, the draw of college and the lure of Tinseltown could be damned
I want to make a guitar
“I was always a creative kid,” Asher recalls. “I liked arts and music, I was a skateboarder and I liked the whole cool culture of that scene. And in the 70s all my favourite bands were guitar-heavy kinda’ stuff, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. I started taking guitar lessons. A couple friends of mine played, and that’s when I got hooked. So, it was early high school when I started playing guitar, in garage bands and all that.”
It didn’t take long, though, for the lure of the making to overtake that of the playing.
“I liked working with my hands and I took a wood shop class in my senior year in high school. Then I started doing some woodworking and realising guitars are made out of wood… In my senior year you could pick a project, so I brought in my first great guitar, a black Strat my step-mom Joyce got me when I was 15, and I showed that to Mr Rosenthall in wood shop. I’d built a box, I’d built a cabinet, and I said, ‘I want to build a guitar!’ I made the body out of a really pretty piece of wood there, and I had to buy a neck because he didn’t think we could reverse-engineer the neck.”
But where to acquire a neck? It would seem a cliché to say ‘at Guitar Center, of course!’ But the outlet originated in Hollywood in 1959, and was a regional California chain before exploding into the dominant guitar-gear franchise in North America. Back in the 80s the local Guitar Center had exactly the Charvel replacement neck the young Bill Asher was seeking, and the capstone project to a budding career was complete.
“After I graduated from high school in 1982 I brought that first guitar to a local shop next to West LA Music called L&M Guitar Repair,” he tells us. “Jeff Lunsford owned the shop. I had never been there before, and I walked in with it… I was on summer vacation and did not want to go to college (laughs). I showed him what I had done at school and he was kind of impressed, and he called me a couple weeks later and said, ‘Hey, I’m starting on a new guitar. I don’t normally have people watch me but come on down.’ That started a four-year apprenticeship with him.”
As it had been for many years, and perhaps always shall be, LA was then the centre of an intense feedback loop in which great guitarists fed work to great guitar repairers, who in turn fed expertly maintained, modified and set-up guitars back to them for tours and studio sessions. Given this setting, that gig and others – setting up his own repair shop for a time, then working a long stint with design guru Rick Turner – not only helped forge the skills Asher needed in the trade, but introduced him to a legion of top-flight players. And through them, was able to lay his hands on the elite vintage and custom guitars that proved essential to honing his talents.
“I mean, you can’t make mistakes on guitars like that!” Asher declares. “When you’re working on other people’s instruments… there’s a lot of pressure in this business, especially when you’re doing repairs and stuff. I don’t know how it all lined up for me, but Rick Turner being one of the great designers behind Alembic, and he was an electronics wizard, and he knew so much about guitar production and building on a very high-end level. Those guitars they did for the Grateful Dead are iconic still; that stuff is just amazing.
“He had all of the pro clients like Crosby, Stills and Nash, we had Jackson Browne – who I’d met early on in one of my first shops when I’d taken it over – and that job involved doing really professional high-end repairs. Like, D-45s of Crosby’s would come in, Graham Nash and Jackson Browne were bringing stuff in, and it was a whole ’nother level.
“Rick Turner was heavy in the acoustic guitar restoration world, but he was at that time getting real busy doing his production guitars that he had built for Lindsey Buckingham. Those guitars would come in for refrets all the time and I kind of took over his repair and set-up thing. After that he moved to Santa Cruz, so I went back on my own and opened up my own shop in Santa Monica in ’96. That’s kind of, up to this date, what I’ve been doing… I met Ben Harper in 1998 and designed his lap steel, which has become the pretty solid go-to modern-day lap steel design.”
Lap of the gods
Like most career repairmen, Asher had put together the occasional one-off custom guitar on request over the years – bolt-neck Strat-style efforts and the like for customers who wanted something they couldn’t get off the rack – but his building efforts began in earnest with that collaboration with Ben Harper.
“I designed that lap steel for him based off his 30s Weissenborn that he needed an electric version of,” he elaborates. “It’s just the neck-through concept, redesigning that whole beautiful hourglass shape of the Weissenborn into an electric, oh my god, it was magic. I built him two prototypes, that was in ’98, and we’ve done 300 of them by now or something, of his signature model, and I’m up to about 1,200 lap steel builds since that first one in ’98.”
Although the lap steel wasn’t a particular passion of Asher’s before he met Harper, it’s a style he took to easily. Also, he clearly saw the line as a way to distinguish himself as an all-rounder in a custom market flooded with makers who mostly concentrated on Spanish-style electrics:
“The lap steel, that’s where I kind of felt like I could brand myself. It’s such a unique guitar, I wasn’t just building a Fender or Gibson knock-off. Then when I started my bolt-on series that followed, I love the Strat shape but I kind of wanted to get away from that. I’ve always liked the offset bodies of the Mosrites and those types of guitars, so I designed my Strat and Tele styles as offset-bodies, and it creates a really nice balance and different lines. I really don’t want to make knock-offs, and I have my own style.
“Then when I met Marc Ford in 2003 he was totally keen on that offset body shape, and that’s why we did his. He said, ‘I want you to take my favorite 50s Strat, my Les Paul Special, and make a hybrid of those two.’ And that became that double-P-90, mahogany body, offset… you know, it’s like a Strat-style body, three-on-a-side headstock. That’s a cool hybrid.”
Which is not to say that Asher’s cornerstone six-string models, the S Custom and T Deluxe, are merely re-shaped renditions of their Fullerton predecessors. As the thorough change-up of the Marc Ford Signature Model indicates, the maker has gone to pains to put extra muscle and versatility into these bolt-necks, and the expressed satisfaction of one notable client reflects his success in that venture.
In addition to working with Jackson Browne himself, Asher has found clients in two of his main sidemen, Val McCallum and Mark Goldenberg, and a T Deluxe crafted for the latter indicates the extent to which the template can be bent to fit alternative requirements.
“Mark bought one of my T Deluxe guitars because he was looking for something very versatile and liked the Tele-style guitar, but that did not fit with Jackson’s tone,” says Asher. “So, I lent him one and he fell in love with it on the Jackson tour with David Lindley and used it a ton. I had met pickup designer Pete Biltoft at the NAMM Show in 2007 or 2008, and I said, ‘I want to do blade poles and I want a bluesier bridge pickup, but I want a neck pickup that is super versatile.’
“We worked on some pickup designs – I call them my T-Blade set – and at the time I was playing with different Varitone ideas, so with the ToneStyler from Stellartone I chose my favorite six positions of this tone sweep, and position six is actually bypassed. It’s a passive network, and I wanted to keep everything passive but give players a palette. A lot of guys really like the Varitone in the studio – and live too, but when you have time to sit with it you find that it’s super useful.
“So, the T-Deluxe has two pickups, three-way selector, volume, tone, just like a Tele, and you’ve got the little extra EQ switch. But what’s cool about the pickups is the bridge pickup by itself is definitely bluesier, honkier. That’s what people usually wanted, to play Teles in blues and rock, so it gives you that. And the neck pickup is super clear. You can get great Strat neck pickup tones with it wide open, and then with the Varitone you start rolling that back on the neck pickup and it’s like jazz land, killer. And then when you put both pickups on together when they’re in parallel it just sounds like the Tele bridge pickup. For some reason, those two just worked out that way, so all positions are good.”
The essential parts of Asher’s formula tend to vary depending on whether he’s constructing bolt-neck or set-neck guitars, but his approaches to both also have their commonalities. In particular, he seeks the resonance and sustain of a heavier instrument without the weight generally required to get there, and has discovered a few key ways to get there.
“I do like the neck-through construction,” he tells us. “I do that both on my lap-steels and my Electrosonic single-cutaway guitar. And that’s something where I also do string-through-body, instead of just a floating tailpiece, to create a lightweight guitar that’s going to give you the sustain and resonance out of a solidbody electric, where you otherwise have to have the extra weight of a Les Paul.
“That’s been part of the goal: light or medium-lightweight guitars with a lot of sustain. And then on the bolt-on stuff I like to do that kind of angled heel, neck pockets are tight, and I always choose the wood grain for the necks – be it flat sawn or quarter sawn – where the rings are tight. You want a nice dense piece of wood for the neck. And easy access to the truss rod, for all my guitars: it’s at the heel side, which is an extremely strong area of the neck. I’ve fixed too many broken headstocks over the years to put my truss-rod adjustment at the nut.”
Another of Asher’s resonance-inducing secrets involves a technique that might first lead you to think it was applied by a builder rushing to finish and ship a guitar too quickly, but for him the sticky results are entirely intentional.
“Something I actually do to my bolt-on neck guitars to make them feel really solid and hopefully never go out on you,” says Asher, “is I brush a little bit of lacquer in there when I do the final setup and get it strung up for the first time, so it sets the neck to the body.
“I found [the technique] from having to remove old Strat or Tele necks to do refrets, and a lot of times people don’t want you to take the neck off an old guitar because they realise that that lacquer between the body and neck has kind of cured into each other over the years. A lot of really old Fenders are kind of stuck on there. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not a bad idea, to make that happen intentionally.’ And you still pop ‘em off easily enough when you need to, it’s not like a glued-on neck.”
Currently, Asher completes around 80 to 100 guitars a year in a shop populated mainly just by himself and his wife Jessica, with some help from his brother and stepbrother now and then, and that’s exactly how he wants it.
“I talk to the customers as much as I can,” he tells us, “and doing the woodworking is what I really enjoy. I think that’s why when I build people guitars there are so many people and players that support me that are not pros. The thousands of guys I’ve built guitars for – local bands, people who are [day-job] professionals that love to go home and play guitar – and, you know, it just keeps me really creative and constantly busy.”
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