Filmmaker Gary Hustwit talks 50s Gibsons, getting threatened by Russian thugs and Thelonious Monk

Famed for his critically acclaimed documentaries, Gary Hustwit is also something of a guitar aficionado. Here the partner at Oregon-based Koll Guitar Co tells us about trading guitars at age 12 and how music inspires his films.

Gary Hustwit
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The moment it all started

“My mom’s brother was a luthier and guitar collector. When I was a kid, I used to go to his shop during the summer and apprentice there. He would teach me about instruments, repairing things and going out on buying trips. I started learning how to play, and buying and selling guitars. When I came back to California, I started putting classified ads in the local newspapers. People would come to me and find this 12-year-old kid being like, ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll give you 400 bucks for that D-18’. Throughout high school and college, I would keep my eyes open for things at flea markets. I remember finding a late-1940s Martin 0-17 for about 100 bucks!”

I couldn’t live without my…

“I have a ’56 Gibson J-45 that’s beat to hell but sounds so good and so broken-in. It feels like an old pair of blue jeans. It’s so comfortable and, when I pick it up, I just want to tune everything else out and strum and play songs.”

The one that got away

“My first guitar was a Martin 0-16NY that my uncle gave me when I was 13 years old. At the time, I didn’t appreciate it. Shortly thereafter I started listening to Led Zeppelin and wanted an electric, so I traded it in at a Guitar Center and got some crappy Peavey or something ridiculous. I’d love to find that Martin. I had a ’67 Telecaster that I let go in college, for rent money or something stupid. I could list another 10 guitars that I wish I hadn’t sold.”

My signature model

“About 10 years ago, it would have been a 000 acoustic, Brazilian back and sides and an Adirondack top, something like that. Now, I think it would probably be a thin mahogany solidbody, like a Koll Junior Glide, maybe a couple of humbuckers and a wrap on it, a Brazilian fretboard, and there you go. Simple, functional, light, phenomenal-sounding, stripping the design down to the essentials. I see a lot of guitars that have design details and ornamentation for no reason, which I’m really not into. I like simplicity and getting rid of distractions.”

Gary Hustwit
Image: Getty Images

The first thing I play when I pick up a guitar

“I’ll strum a few open chords just to get a feel for it. I have a thing that I started doing early on – if I’m in a guitar shop, I’ll strum all six strings individually and hear them resonate. I’ll go from guitar to guitar while they’re on the wall and do that, just strum across. I love getting that comparison between guitars and I can tell almost immediately, at least with acoustics, that I’m going to like a guitar just from that.”

The best advice I’ve ever been given

“I can’t think of anything that strikes me. I’ve had a million musical influences, bands I’ve known, guitarists I’ve watched and been inspired by. Music is my biggest inspiration, even when it comes to film. When I hear music, I see images. When I come up with the idea for a film, I always hear what the soundtrack is first. When I had the idea for the Dieter Rams film, what I was hearing was something like Brian Eno. I managed to get Brian to work on the film with me, which was insane.”

My Spinal Tap moment

“I’ve never had anything horribly go wrong. I’ve had various amps blow up or tubes go out but nothing on a Spinal Tap level. When film-making, though, sure. I’ve been almost arrested and almost hit by cars many times. I’ve been threatened by Russian thugs. But no-one was killed. No drummers died.”

My guilty pleasure

“I have an eight-year-old daughter so I listen to a lot of Taylor Swift and Rihanna. I do it begrudgingly but sometimes I get into it. There’s so much 1980s new wave and so many bands from my past that I don’t listen to anymore that I look back on and am a bit embarrassed by. But I think you have to own those moments in your musical history. When I got into punk, I disavowed all my Zeppelin and AC/DC but then, of course, I came back to all that stuff. Never disavow the stuff that you loved when you were a kid.”

Gary Hustwit
Image: Brad Barket / Getty Images for Fast Company

I wish I was there

“I would love to have seen Thelonious Monk at The Five Spot Café. I would love to have seen Television at CBGB. There are too many answers, I don’t have just one.”

If I could just play one thing

“I’m not one of those natural players. It takes me a long time to get my fingers to co-operate. I see somebody like Julian Lage and think he’s phenomenal, the freedom and the way his fingers are channelling what his brain is coming up with. I could sit and play guitar for 12 hours a day for the rest of my life and never even approach that. That level of natural musical talent, I would love to have that.”

Gary Hustwit’s latest film, Rams, is out now. Follow Gary on Instagram: gary_hustwit

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