Sevenstring.org Interview: Michael Sherman of Sherman Guitars
<div align="right"><img src="http://www.sevenstring.org/newsimages/ms/ms_xlogo.gif" alt="Adagio" />
<b>Interview: Mike Sherman of Sherman Guitars</b>
<font size="1"><i>By: Steve F</i></font>
<img style="padding:15px;" align="left" src="http://www.sevenstring.org/newsimages/ms/1.jpg" alt="Sherman Guitars" /><span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: Mike, tell us about yourself - Your history in the business, and how you came to be a master luthier.
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: First off, Iíd like to thank the Sevenstring.org staff and its members for the opportunity for this interview. This site is by far the coolest website out there with a lot of talented, and knowledgeable members. You guys have made me feel at home here, and I thank you for being so kind and supportive in my work. I would also like to thank SS.org member, Eric Lovett (urklvt) for building my website, and being the promotional machine that he is!
I do not consider myself a "master luthier" and I never will. I am flattered that I have been recognized by my peers as such, but I strongly believe that I always will need to improve, both with my instruments and as a person, and I push myself to do so. You are never too old to learn and improve. I was born and raised in Chicago in '61 and actually started as an Auto Mechanic working for a Chevrolet dealer. Being a musician, it seems I would always bash my hands on the day of a gig. One day, it happened for the last time and I quit. Being out of work, there were several Guitar companies in the area in the '70's and '80's, so I figured I would try to land a job in the industry since I was building guitars as a hobby.
My first gig with a major manufacturer was at Hohner back in '78, where I worked in the R&D division. My job duties were to inspect warranty repairs, and determine why they were happening. I would always bring in my basses that I was building at home and the head brass took notice in my designs, which led to designing prototypes for the company. I did that gig for two years until that one day when Hohner decided to downsize and move the R&D division to Arizona. Man, was I bummed that day. It was such a fun and relaxed gig! From there, I went to work for Dean Guitars when they back at the Ravenswood Shop in Chicago. I worked in the binding, and neck department. After that stint, I went to work for Magnetic Radiation laboratories where I was a Machinist. This company made various shielded metal parts for the Aerospace industry, and NASA. It still is kind or surreal to me that I have actually made parts that are on one of the Lunar Rovers on the Moon. I was working part time in the evenings for my local music store (Kagan & Gaines) doing repairs during that stint with MRL, and I asked the owner if I could hang some of my instruments in the store. He said "yes" and I sold my guitars exclusively through them. There started to be a buzz generating around my Basses, and I made the decision to quit the Machinist job to fill the orders and go full time as a Luthier for myself. The orders would come in spurts, so there would be lulls in incoming orders at times.
I saw an add in the paper for Hamer Guitars in the help wanted section of the local paper out in Arlington Heights. I will never forget that day as I just decided to go there with three of my instruments and apply for the job. I filled out an application and showed my instruments to Annette, the receptionist. She replied with, "Oh, I know Frank is going to want to talk to you". After a few minutes, Frank walks up to the window and looks at me holding my instruments and says, "We do not do repairs here!", and walks away. Annette says, "He just didnít dis you like that did he?", runs up to Frank and says, "He is applying for the job, and he made those guitars". Frank came back to the window and says, "You made those? Get in here". After my initial interview with Frank, Jol Dantzig and I sit down in the jam room. I handed Jol one of my basses and he noodles on it for 30 seconds, and says, when can you start? That day started my long history with Hamer Guitars and it allowed me to hone my skills further. Working with Jol was great as he would challenge your mind, and I think we learned from each other. I have so many cool and funny stories from working there, that I could write a book.<img style="padding:15px;" align="right" src="http://www.sevenstring.org/newsimages/ms/2.jpg" alt="Michael Sherman with Dimebag Darrell" />
In '92 Washburn was starting up the new factory on Elston Ave, and the owner called one day and asked if I was interested in helping with tooling up the new factory. I really did not have an interest in the job until he told me that Grover Jackson was on board and I would be working with him. I always admired Grover and jumped at the chance to work with him. Grover and I sat down and he immediately put me in charge of the custom shop. Working with Grover were some of the best times I have ever had. He is such a relaxed and funny guy. I can still see him walking through the factory with his baseball cap on eating a bowl of Cereal. I did that gig for 3 years.
Frank at Hamer decided to return Rudyís favor and called me at the factory one day and asked if I would be willing to come back to Hamer. I was like, no way, I am totally happy here with this gig. In the end, it came down to $$$ and I left Washburn and returned to Hamer. Frank had just been promoted to Vice President of Kaman Music (who has owned Hamer since '89) so he was re-locating to Connecticut.
About a year later, he shows up at Hamer un-announced and asks me to go to lunch with him. I thought I was fired, as Frank just does not do stuff like that. He asked me if I would relocate to Connecticut and run production for Ovation Guitars. They were having trouble making numbers at the time and they wanted to increase production. It came down to $$$ again and I agreed. I did that gig for 2 years, and then Kaman decided to relocate Hamer to the Ovation Factory. Since I had gotten the quality issues sorted with Ovation and that back on track, we brought out 9 of the best Luthiers from Hamer out to Connecticut, and I was put back in charge of the finishing area. We were known as "The Hamer 10".
Two more years there, and I decided that it was time to get out, and do my own gig again. I was always building Michael Sherman Guitars on the side, and orders were at an all time high, so the decision was made. That was 5 years ago and I have never looked back. There you have it. Kind of long winded, but my life has been like a ping pong ball in the industry. I would not have done it any other way though as I learned a lot, and I had an impact on how those companies developed.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: What makes your guitars different from other guitars of a similar build and value?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: I do not really believe that my guitars are different than any other guitars out there. I think they might be more unique than anything, as every build is different. I mainly build to order, so it is important that I listen to my customers needs so I can choose the right woods and the right pieces of wood to create the right tool, while making the instrument visually pleasing. I believe the musician is the voice, and the instrument is the tool that is the extension of the voice. I am kind of anal about how my guitars are built. If it is not good enough for me, it is not good enough for my customers, and I will restart a neck or body if I am not happy with something. Sometimes, certain trees just do not want to be guitars. I guess if anything stands out with my guitars, it would be experience. I have been told several times that I do not charge enough for my instruments, so I guess that would be the best compliment I could receive and I have done my job.
<img style="padding:15px;" align="left" src="http://www.sevenstring.org/newsimages/ms/3.jpg" alt="Michael Sherman with Johnny Winter" /><span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: What are the most common woods you use? Is it all about the tone?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: It is all about the tone! I work with most domestic and exotic hardwoods. When discussing a build with customers, I try to gather as much information from the player, such as their likes and dislikes in an instrument, i.e.: style of music, type of amps they use, pickup choices, and most importantly, their favorite neck. This helps me with determining which direction to take with suggesting the wood options. It does get tricky sometimes as customers will ask for certain wood combinations that do not work well together as far as shrink rates and climate changes, which can lead to instability. Some woods, I stay away from entirely. Like Padauk, not because of its tonal properties, it is due to the dust. The dust is so fine that it gets into the pores of open grained woods and in some cases, it isimpossible to get out.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: What is your preference in pickups? Active / Passive? Do you experiment to find the best sound to match the guitar or bass?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: I personally prefer passive pickups. Nothing against active pups, but I find them one dimensional unless they are coupled to the right preamp. There have been big strides in preamp development as of late, so this is changing for the better. Having built 2,500 and played 30,000 guitars down the years with different pup and wood combinations, I have kind of developed a sense of how a certain pup will sound with different woods.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: What strings do you recommend for your guitars? What gauges for extended range guitars? Why?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: I do not have recommendations for strings. I build the instrument around the strings that my customers use. This way, the instrument leaves the shop set up for those strings. With the ERG's, I try to balance the string tension to the desired scale lengths. Everyone has different likes and dislikes in regards to the string tension, so I try to gather as much information from the customer to help me with building the instrument around the strings.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: Do you have an over-all philosophy of building that defines your decisions and building choices?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: Yes. I try to blend craftsmanship, function, frequency response, and beauty with my instruments. I have always looked at shopping for a guitar this way. When you walk into a guitar store, you are usually confronted with a wall of guitars. The first thing you usually do is spot one of two guitars that will catch your eye. It is the visual aspect that draws your attention to the guitar and it makes you want to pick it up and try it out. How many times have we all seen a killer looking guitar on the wall, only to pick it up to find that it plays, feels, and sounds terrible? It might play bad due to setup issues, or bad craftsmanship, or sound bad due to the wrong pickups for the wood combinations.
I started thinking, why is the setup on all these guitars so bad? I am sure the guitar did not leave the factory set up this bad. I looked at the necks and noticed they were all over the place. So I really started to seek out as much information that I could find about woods, sound waves, and acoustic properties. Thatís when it all came together for me in understanding the dynamics of how sound travels through wood, and the transients involved. This made me look at each individual piece of wood and its frequency response, and also the influence it will have on the other woods being used. I could talk about this subject for hours, so I will not bore you with the details. Build it with quality craftsmanship, read the woods correctly, make it pretty, and listen to the players needs. Thatís my overall Philosophy.<img style="padding:15px;" align="right" src="http://www.sevenstring.org/newsimages/ms/4.jpg" alt="Sherman Guitars Sirius 8 String" />
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: When you first started building guitars, what innovations or craftsmanship did you feel made your guitars different? Are those goals the same today?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: Thanks to my father, I was able to develop wood working skills at a young age. He showed me how to choose a good piece of lumber and read grain patterns. He also taught me the tighter the tolerance, the stronger it will be. When I wanted to try my hand at building my first Bass, I really took notice of what Rick Turner was doing and set my goals for that style of building. Then I discovered Ken Smith, and Michael Tobias, and was even more inspired by their work. I like to think the influence of these great builders reflects in my work. They were my inspiration when I was getting started. Thanks guys!
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: Your inlay work is outstanding, what is your secret? How difficult is it come up with a design and then actually turn it a reality on a guitar or bass?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: Thanks for the nice compliment. I wish I could say there are secrets to inlay work, but I canít. You just need to develop your cutting, routing, and engraving skills. For most of the designs, I freehand sketch the design until I am happy with it. Then I scan it into the computer and scale it to size, and print out a few copies to cut the shapes. For portraits, I will scan a photo into Photoshop, and work from there. The hardest part is orientating the material to make the design have contrast and depth. I still feel I have a long way to go with my inlay work before I reach the level of Larry Robinson, and Britt Laskin. Those guys are true inlay masters.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: What materials do you use in your inlay work?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: Anything I can get my hands on really. Aside from the normal shell material, I use wood, soft stone, soft metals, plastic, and in some cases, I use gemstones.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: How is it working with different artists? Are you ever able to satisfy yourself and the artist, both design wise and tonally?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: I am honored to have worked with so many great artists down the years. I have developed quite a few close relationships from it. Satisfying customers is something that can be a daunting task at times. Some guitarists are more open-minded to change than others. Most guitarists have a favorite guitar that they usually have been playing for years, and they have developed their sound around that guitar. So it is hard to dethrone that guitar, as they have to adjust to a different voice. Usually, it will either kicktheir ass right off the bat, or there will be an adjustment period needed with adjusting the amp settings, and pickup height. One example is, I recently built a "Jerry" guitar for my guitarist. He has played an Ash bodied '73 strat for the past 20 years. So I knew going into it that it was going to be difficult to dethrone that guitar. I based the new guitar from the specs off his strat, both in same wood combinations, weight, and neck feel. His reaction was, "Wow, this thing feels and sounds like my strat, but it has so much more balls to it, Iím having trouble adjusting to it". Every one of our fans that follow the band have commented to me on how much better the guitar sounds than the strat, and they canít believe he still plays the strat. The guitar voices the same as his strat, he is just not used to the increased presence and sustain, and it will take time to grow into it, thatís all.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: Tell us about your growth as a musician. And at what point did you decide that you wanted to build your own guitars?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: I started playing Coronet in 4th grade. I started playing guitar a year later and discovered Bass about 6 months after that. As soon as I picked up Bass, I was hooked. My father died when I was 11 years old and he was a Carpenter/Mason. He used to take me to jobsites and would explain everything he was doing, so I was fortunate to have a mentor at a young age and I had developed an understanding of woodworking and construction. We had all these tools in the garage and I knew how to use them, so one day, I decided that I wanted to build a bass after seeing one of Rick Turner's creations in a magazine. I went to the library and found a book on Guitar Making. I read the whole book that day, and went home and designed my first Bass. It took me about 2 months to build and I had the local body shop shoot the finish for me. I was hooked, and I have been building ever since.
<img style="padding:15px;" align="left" src="http://www.sevenstring.org/newsimages/ms/5.jpg" alt="Sherman Guitars Fretless Seven String Bass" /><span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: Do you have apprentices that you mentor?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: Are you looking for work, Steve? Youíre hired! [laughs] I have recently hired two part time apprentices that are in training.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: Tell us about the first guitar you modified or build?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: The first instrument I made was a Bass when I was 14. It was a neck thru 4 string with Curly maple wings. I played it for 3 years, and then to my amazement, a friend of a friend saw it and wanted to buy it. He still has it to this day.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: Did you work directly with Dean Zelinsky? How was that relationship?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: Yes, the relationship was pretty uneventful. Dean spent most of his time in the office back then and we rarely saw him.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: How was it working in the Washburn Custom Shop?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: Honestly, they were the most memorable and best times I ever had working for a Major Manufacturer. I was responsible for prototyping, building artist guitars, and the ambassador when artists would be in town. Grover really gave me Cart Blanche when it came to dealing with artists. He would say," Youíre the Custom Shop guy, take them out on the town tonight, and make sure they are happy". Man, believe me when I tell you, we ran up some pretty hefty credit card bills on some occasions. On one occasion, Dime, Grady (Dimeís Guitar Tech), and myself ran up a $2,400 bill at one strip club alone. I developed some pretty close relationships with artists during that time. I really enjoyed working with Grover.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: What are your musical influences?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: Anything that is good! Iím all over the place and listen to all genres, I am a Jazz Fusion guy at heart and grew up listening to Return to Forever, Chic Korea, Jean Luc Ponty, Al Di Miola, Stanley Clark, Lee Ritenour, etc. I am also a big R&B/Funk kind of guy. Tower of Power, The Metors, Earth Wind and Fire are tops on my list. Lately, I have been into Bluegrass.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: Tell us about your hobbies outside of the guitar shop?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: I restore, collect, and race historical Grand Prix Road Racing Motorcycles. I currently have 14 in my collection, but with the growth of the guitar company, I havenít had much time for them lately.
<span class="ivorange">Steve</span>: What plans do you have for the future?
<span class="ivred">Mike</span>: Oh Man, big things on the horizon! First off, I am focusing more on extended range instruments. I have always been an extended range player, and that is where my heart has been for the past 25 years. ERG's have finally become accepted in the 21st century. In recent years, there has been progress in pickup, hardware , and string development for ERG's. Even the big names have come on board recently which in turn, gives us more options to chose from now. Kahler is tooled up and making 8 ,9,&10 string tremolos, which I am excited about. I recently received the first Kahler fanned fret tremolo that is going into sevenstring.org member Andre Maharaj's guitar, so the future looks bright, and the music that will be possible with these instruments will be exciting. I am also heading in the direction of hardware and pickup manufacturing for ERG's. I have three different types of Individual "finger" bridges drawn up on AutoCad, and I have been programming the CNC in what little spare time I have these days, but it has been progressing. I will keep you guys abreast as this develops.
<a href="http://www.michaelshermanguitars.com" target="_blank"><img border="0" style="padding:5px;" align="center" src="http://www.sevenstring.org/newsimages/ms/bottomlogo.jpg" alt="Michael Sherman Guitars" /></a>
For more information on Michael Sherman Guitars:
<a href="http://www.michaelshermanguitars.com" target="_blank"><span class="ivred">Sherman Guitars Official Website</span></a> - <a href="http://www.myspace.com/sherman_guitars" target="_BLANK"><span class="ivred">Sherman Guitars MySpace</span></a>