As a kid growing up in the 1970s, if the guitar was to be your destiny, you could do a lot worse than to be born in Detroit ‘Motor City’ Michigan, and have a best friend whose older cousin was in a band that played nothing but Kiss songs. So it was for Gene Baker, who was driven inexorably toward the rock from a young age, and toward building the tools of rock at an age not much older than that.
Once playing turned to making, Baker took the route of high-school woodworking classes, the infallible smash-and-rebuild route of dissecting the guts of budget-friendly imports, and every ounce of knowledge he could glean from magazines, the scant books available, and reluctant local guitar repairmen to learn what he could of the craft. Like many a young American guitar fanatic, he was driven to study at the Guitar Institute Of Technology (GIT), part of Hollywood’s Musicians Institute. Baker emerged at the tender age of 19 thinking he’d play the guitar for a living – only to soon decide that trekking to Alaska and back in a low-paying cover band was less conducive to a happy life and stable relationships than was sitting tight and repairing and building guitars for himself.
After a stint post-GIT repairing guitars and giving lessons at a music shop in Huntsville, Alabama, Baker returned to California for a position with one of the bigger names in the industry, although his initial brush with factory production didn’t go entirely to plan.
“I took a job at Ernie Ball as a sander,” he tells us. “Apparently I was too slow and was let go – so I put my parents’ garage into full gear, continuing to build guitars with or without anyone’s help, while picking up some pointers along the way from friends made at Ernie Ball, such as Dudley Gimpel. This led to a short partnership with Eric Zollener and we created Mean Gene Guitar Services, a retail shop, rehearsal spaces, repairs and custom builds.
“We were starting to get decent at guitar building and actually produced a few pretty cool guitars that are still around to this day, yet still with no real guidance. Around this time there was one new book that caught my eye: Build Your Own Electric Guitar by Melvyn Hiscock. It featured bolt-on, set-neck and neck-through-body construction from a basic tools standpoint. Oddly the book was written and photographed in the shop of his boss, Roger Giffin, based in England, who later in time would also become my boss.”
With the implosion of Mean Gene Guitars, Baker became a press operator in the print business for a time but continued building guitars on his own – until his love of the craft drove him to seek out full-time employment in the biz. Transplanted British luthier Roger Giffin happened to be heading the Gibson West Custom Shop in Los Angeles at the time, and took a chance on Baker in 1991 when, as he puts it, “my real training would begin.”
Then, with a hefty chunk of grade-A Giffin tutelage under his belt, in 1993 Baker took a job at the Fender Custom Shop in Corona, California, where he worked alongside legendary FCS builders John English, Jay Black, Steve Stern, Todd Krause, John Suhr, John Page, and several others. While rising to the position of Senior Master Builder and crafting guitars for the likes of Robben Ford and Ronnie Montrose, Baker also went to night school to study computer-aided design (CAD), eventually becoming prolific in the skill. Meanwhile, much of this time he was moonlighting on his own designs in his builder pal Gil Vasquez’s garage – until he gathered the wherewithal to go out on his own again. Baker Guitars was officially born.
One of the great challenges for any fledgling guitar maker is that of coining an original design. Baker leaned into this one early in his career, and came up with what’s arguably become a modern classic, although he acknowledges the significant influences that helped him get there.
“As busy as I was working at Fender in 1994,” he tells us, “during our first year in Gil’s garage I laid out the design for what was to become our most popular model, the Baker B1, now known as the b3 SL model. This was still before I learned CAD, so during my schooling I would transfer pencil data into electronic data and start documenting my design changes, printing full-size drawings for template making, rather than just waiting for the day I would get my first CNC machine.
“Design-wise, I think so much of what we favour is based on the players we listen to and the guitars we’ve salivated over in our dreams, so I do try to utilise what I may call cool, sexy, classic arcs and lines in design, the way the automotive world updates models’ bodies, so I think that is kinda what so many of us do to the models we may be leaning on. Kinda like so many hit songs include stolen sections from other great songs: we emulate what we love in our designs or in our playing as a musician.”
With the B1 in particular, Baker was fully conscious of walking in the footsteps of another modern classic which itself had been created through the merging of existing archetypes. And if the Paul Reed Smith shape and feature-set was huge in the mid-90s, that’s arguably because it presented something players could easily latch onto, and run with.
“My B1 model wasn’t too much of a departure even from what PRS did,” says Baker. “But for me I was aiming at what makes a Les Paul great in the recipe department, regarding all portions used. We were both targeting the marriage of a Strat and a Les Paul, as anything close to an iconic model isn’t too frightening to anyone. Kinda’ like rock ’n’ roll; if you sound similar to AC/DC or ZZ Top you should do just fine.
“But my passion was embedded into the ’59 Les Paul and all things cool about vintage Gibson models, from Vs, Explorers, the Moderne, Firebirds, and so on. But then you take Leo Fender as the father of a great format for modification, find a way to blend the two and you can lean into any direction you want in styling and dress codes used. But my heart was focused on a the Les Paul carve top, set neck, binding, inlays all the bells and whistles. For me that was building a modern-day violin: it took skill, more so than a slab-o-caster. But as we all know there’s a lot of skill in any Fender-like model as well, just very different build approaches and material costs.”
By around 2006, Baker’s brand, B3, were built under the sole proprietorship Fine Tuned Instruments, in a lineup that included the B1-based SL, the Fire – based on his Robben Ford Signature model – and the Phoenix. The latter, he says, “merged the Telecaster and the Firebird in a very appealing model that became one of the benchmarks of what became B3 guitars.”
Just a few years later, though, a major change was in the works, not only for Baker himself but for a host of similarly well-respected small-shop makers.
In 2009 the Premier Builder’s Guild (PBG) was formed by guitar-industry entrepreneurs Howard Swimmer and Michael Bernstein, with the goal of providing more accessible team-built renditions of boutique electric guitars. The California facility would turn out its own versions of guitars designed by Dennis Fano, Saul Koll, Jason Schroeder, Roger Giffin, Saul Koll and Johan Gustavsson, as well as Baker’s b3 models – and Swimmer and Bernstein hired Baker to head up the team and oversee production.
While PBG occasionally took a hit in the vociferous guitar forums for the fact that its guitars were not actually hand-made by the person whose name was on the headstock, Baker’s oversight of a team of skilled builders ensured that the facility turned out a wide range of consistently great instruments. Whatever corporate tentacles were inferred by some, most who actually owned and played the guitars were very happy campers indeed. The venture folded in 2016, and the various brands it produced ended up in other hands or back with their namesakes, but Baker himself took away plenty of positives from the experience.
“That was a time for engineering in overdrive!” he says. “Having to clone all those different builders, reverse-engineering so many guitars handed to you in different formats, and maintain their energy and do justice to their brands was exhausting, yet very rewarding. And we did it! That was not a production shop; it was a high-end custom shop, to say the least.”
So, Gene Baker has been out on his own again for several years, at the helm of the fully revitalised B3 Guitars. His current facility comprises a four-man crew working in a 3,400 square-foot shop in Tehachapi, California, while his business partner, Michael Brandt Rinkenberger, handles all things sales and marketing related.
Back to the drawing board
Add together his experience under Giffin at Gibson, the Fender Custom Shop, PBG, and his ongoing independent ventures, and that’s a lot of intimate exploration of the finer points of high-end guitar making. So, what insights can he share on some of the seemingly small things that can really make a difference… or not?
“As guitar builders know so well,” says Baker, “wood is very unpredictable yet is such a beautiful material, so how do we make it more stable? One of the things, which isn’t necessarily new but has made a big difference, is graphite reinforcement in the neck. Since we’ve been offering graphite in our more modern models I’ve noticed how stable they remain during machining steps, which directly translates to less tuning problems.
And I do like to keep up with new developments from parts makers, like Sophia Tremolos reinventing the Floyd trem, or Fishman Fluence pickups tapping into new technology to make both old and new sounds. That’s really the guitar nerd in me, just checking out all that’s out there, the lifelong tone quest.”
While all of this can prove the icing on the cake, however, for Baker the process of getting it right begins at the beginning – and quite literally at the drawing board.
“Drawing, to me, is the start of everything, even if it’s a giant piece of paper. Establish centre lines, measure everything with precision rulers and dial callipers and draw it perfectly in the front, rear and side views. Take that to a blueprint copy shop and then you’re making templates out of Masonite. But you work everything out in the math first, so you draw to scale and figure out problems before it’s too late.”
Otherwise, when it comes to turning these drawings into instruments, Baker’s first love is still with the raw materials that form the foundation of every build. “I love staying in the wood shop, basically right from the beginning,” he relates. “All CAD programming, R&D, running the CNC, making sure all parts spec correctly, inlay, final shaping then hand-off to my apprentice to get sanded ready for paint. I love all of it!
“For many there’s so much lost art from old-school technologies, yet for newbies there’s this enormous set of new tools. So, ‘creativity is the mother of invention.’ Today, wild things are happening with CNC pushed to the edge for design versus quantity output, plus 3D printers and lasers are all adding so much to the art in a capacity that you just couldn’t make efficiently before.
“It’s really hard to keep up with it all, and it’s taking the guitar world in some wild directions. Yet, so many things begin with the hands. As long as I continue to design new things, I feel it keeps us relevant and pushing the envelope as far as we can push guitar evolution, while having a strong footing in the vintage tradition.”
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