Luthier Ted Crocker Talks about the Honeydripper Guitar
Modern Guitars Magazine
by Tom Watson
Ask a guitarist, especially one with a slant toward the blues, what separates a great guitar from a good one and the odds are that after listing materials and craftsmanship the answer will contain the word mojo. It's where the magic resides. Movies too (the great ones) contain a dash of mojo and it was to luthier Ted Crocker that director John Sayles and company turned to create an important magic-making element in Sayles' new film Honeydripper - a homemade electric guitar.
Set in the fictional rural town of Harmony, Alabama, in 1950, Honeydripper revolves around the efforts of Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis (Danny Glover) to save his roadhouse lounge, the Honeydripper, from financial ruin. It's a heartwarming story about music, life and change that also celebrates the birth of electric rock 'n' roll and how a new generation drew upon gospel, jazz, R&B and rockabilly to find a voice of its own (full synopsis). Honeydripper screens on December 28 at two theaters in Los Angeles (Laemmle's in Pasadena and West Hollywood) and at the Cinema Village in New York City, and is scheduled for nationwide release in February.
A vital element to the success of the movie's climax is a homemade solidbody electric guitar played by Austin-based singer, songwriter, guitarist and now actor, Gary Clark, Jr., in the role of Sonny Blake, a young guitar slinger who mounts the Honeydripper stage to spread music's new gospel - rock 'n' roll. To craft the guitar used by Clark, Sayles, through the film's property master Phil Schneider, tapped the DIY creativity of luthier Ted Crocker to create two fully functional instruments - what the audience hears in the scenes where Clark plays the Honeydripper guitar is not overdubbed but what Clark played live on the set using the solidbody electrics (two were created for technical reasons) crafted by Crocker.
Ted Crocker built for the movie. Photo by Jim Sheldon, courtesy of Emerging Pictures.
Modern Guitars spoke with Ted Crocker on December 14, 2007, about the making of the Honeydripper guitars.
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Honeydripper movie poster. Note that the image of Sonny (Gary Clark, Jr.), has been reversed. Image courtesy of Emerging Pictures.
Tom Watson: Have you seen the movie?
Ted Crocker: No, I haven't seen it yet. I'm dying to. I have no idea how I'm going to react when I see the guitars on the big screen. Actually, I had the script while I was working on them, so I'm dying to see the movie regardless of my guitars being in it.
Tom: Maybe it will make it to Florida when it goes to general release in February.
Ted: I'm no longer in Florida, I'm in New Jersey. I made the Honeydripper guitars up here. I suffered an injury that left me disabled and I moved to New Jersey to recover at my sister's house. I've been here since February of 2005. I plan on going back down to Florida, but it might take a little bit more time.
Tom: You must be missing that Florida winter.
Ted: Oh, man, especially now. We've got snow on the ground, it's cold and my shop's in the basement where I can't really get the chill out of it. But you know what, you play the hand that's dealt to you and so far things are working out okay.
Tom: Still living with your sister?
Ted: No, I got lucky and found a small one-bedroom apartment right across the street from Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. I came to look at it and saw a nice little kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, and then there was a door in the kitchen that goes down to a 2,000-square-foot unused basement. I saw that and my eyes lit up. Since then, I've put maybe $30,000 worth of tools and supplies into it - just about every luthier tool you can imagine.
Tom: I thought you were in Florida and wondered if the humidity there had any negative effect on the wood you use to build guitars.
Ted: For the most part, I'm making solidbody guitars so it's not as critical as it would be if I were making acoustic guitars or hollowbody guitars with respect to the way the wood affects the sound and the tone. Basically, an electric guitar could be just any kind of a plank with pickups and strings.
Tom: Let's start with your background. How did you become a luthier?
Ted: I had been making guitars as a hobby and for friends for quite some time, maybe a dozen years. I never really thought I'd go too far with it. I just had fun doing it and it was sort of therapy for me. I like creating things, shaping things with wood, and I also like music.
One of the first guitars Ted Crocker built, The BoSS ("Bo" as in Diddley and "SS" for his old Chevelle), that features a humbucker pickup, internal mic and a sympathetic resonator made from the aluminum foil of a TV dinner. Photo by Ted Crocker.
I suffered an injury in June of 2004 and spent three months in the hospital and had five operations on my foot - I almost lost my foot. When I got out of the hospital, it was apparent that I was never going to be able to hold a job again. I came up to New Jersey and stayed with my sister while I recovered then I found the place where I'm at now and it just came together that the only way I'm going to make a living is by turning my hobby into a vocation, and that's what I did.
I started building some guitars seriously, and, really, things started taking off unbelievably quick. It was only a year ago last July that I figured maybe I had some instruments people would like, so I put together a website and a MySpace page. Three weeks later, I was contacted by Phil Schneider, the property master for Honeydripper.
Tom: Three weeks?
Ted: Three weeks later. [Both laughing] The site was only two or three pages - I just had my Taser guitar and some cigar box guitars on it. I've been a fan of cigar box guitars for years and years. Actually, it's through my love of cigar box guitars that Phil Schneider found me for the movie.
Phil saw a friend of mine, Ben Prestage, a one-man band, play down in Miami with a cigar box guitar and came up to him after the show and said, "Those are really interesting guitars." He told Ben the Honeydripper story and asked him if he knew anyone that would be able to make the guitar he described for the movie. My friend Ben said, "Yeah, Ted Crocker."
Ted Crocker's Taser electric guitar. Photo by Ted Crocker.
Phil sent me an email and I immediately called the number he had in the message and asked him some pointed questions about the kind of instrument he was looking for and the plot. That evening, I modified one of the guitars I had previously made and sent a picture to him.
Now, here's something that varies from the John Sayles interview. They really didn't give me any indication of what they were looking for. Basically, Phil said to me that they're looking for a neck screwed to a plank of wood with some strange exposed wires.
I sent that picture to Phil and he contacted me the next morning and said, "I really like your enthusiasm, but I don't think they're going to go with that body shape." About two hours later he sent me an email that said, "John Sayles loves it. Go with it. See what you can work up for us."
I went with the idea that Sonny was a radio man in World War II and he would have been able to come up with something strange. Basically, I tried to put myself in Sonny's shoes. I imagined him walking back from a gig one night where there had been a fight in which his guitar had been broken, and he found a plank of wood on the side of the railroad tracks and put it together.
Tom: You started making guitars and cigar box guitars 12 or so years ago, what about before that? Did you have have experience with woodworking and guitar playing?
Pinetop Perkins strums Ted Crocker's The BoSS guitar at the 2003 Ft. Lauderdale Blues Festival. Photo by Deborah Cannon.
Ted: I'm not a great guitar player. I've always wanted to play guitar a little bit better, but I've never really applied myself like I should. At the time of my injury, I was installing home theaters and club lighting and sound, just doing electronics in some of the really expensive homes on the east coast of south Florida.
I've always dabbled in woodworking and I've always played around with inventing things and making stuff. Creative people always have to have an outlet and I found out years ago that I like making guitars - one, you can play them; two, they look good hanging on the wall; and three, it helps get chicks. [Laughs]
Tom: And you can sell them from time-to-time.
Ted: And you can sell them from time-to-time. Oh, geeze, you can sell them from time-to-time. [Laughs] I'm hip deep in working to get all the projects out I have in-house right now and I've got a list of people waiting for me to start working on their instruments.
Tom: You take building from the ground up, even winding your own pickups.
Ted: Yes. I had only done one or two pickups before the Honeydripper project came in, so I hadn't been winding them seriously for any length of time. When I got the gig to do the Honeydripper [guitar], I couldn't go out and purchase a pickup and stick it in there because there wouldn't have been any pre-made pickups around back then .
Well, there actually were since the Fender Telecaster had been released by that time, but seeing that Sonny was poor and he was also an electronics man, I figured what he would do was just wind his own.
Tom: Let's get back to the process of working out the Honeydripper guitar. You sent them the photo of the guitar you had on-hand and Sayles loved it, but they wanted some changes, didn't they?
Ted: It was a back-and-forth between myself and Phil. The picture I sent them was of a two-string diddley bow that I had made out of a little plank, which was basically the same shape as the Honeydripper body, with no tuning pegs and two strings. A diddley bow is essentially a string strung between two nails and you'd use a glass bottle, a piece of wood or even a bolt for the bridge and nut and you'd play it with a glass bottle like an early slide guitar. In the rural south, many times the wire would be attached to the side of a shack, the supports for a porch overhang or a long board.
I thought it was ideal for the kind of thing they were looking for so I took the neck off this diddley bow and put on an old Stella guitar neck, took a picture of it, gave it a write-up, and sent it to Phil. There was a bit of back-and-forth with the pickups and how "intense" I should get with it in keeping with the facts that it's homemade, but still a real instrument.
Ted Crocker's two-string diddley bow that gave rise to the Honeydripper guitars. Photo by Ted Crocker.
Tom: You got fairly intense. For example, you created three two-string, homemade, actually functional pickups that in the movie you don't really see since Sonny's hand is usually covering the pickup cavity. That's a very interesting detail I wouldn't have known after seeing the film if I hadn't visited your website. This is more than just a prop.
Ted: I also made an instrument for Phil Schneider for another movie coming out next year called Bolden! about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden and what Phil wanted for that movie was basically a prop that was going to be in a flashback scene from when Buddy Bolden was a child playing on the streets of New Orleans in a spasm band [a group of musicians playing a mix of manufactured and homemade instruments - similar to a jug band without the jug].
They needed a prop of a spasm bass for the scene. They didn't need for it to be a working musical instrument, it's only going to get a few seconds of screen time, but the way I look at it, there's only one way to do things - the right way. So, I made a really nice working instrument, still keeping in mind that it would have been homemade. It was way more than what they asked for and way more than what they budgeted for, but I got the feeling of accomplishment in pulling that off.
The spasm bass Ted Crocker built for Bolden! Photo by Ted Crocker.
Tom: You ended up making two guitars for Honeydripper?
Ted: Yes. A second one was needed for the scene where Sonny goes out into the street and jumps up on the car. For that guitar I added a second jack so he could use a wireless rig that's hidden under his clothes. The long cable you see him using in that scene was just a dummy, a prop.
Tom: I've heard that you only had 14 days from the acceptance of your proposal to finish the guitar.
Ted: Two of them. I had two weeks to do both of them - that included ordering the parts and getting the approval for the final design. [Laughs] It was insane - night and day, 24 hours - but you know, this was pretty much the first recognition I've had as a luthier and you strike while the iron is hot and jump on any opportunity that you get. It's proved to be great for my career.
The two guitars Ted Crocker built for Honeydripper. Photo by Ted Crocker.
Tom: Why did you decide to go with three, two-string pickups for the Honeydripper guitars?
Ted: I wanted it to be a little bit different. It's almost as if Sonny had pulled out some inductive coils from a two-way radio or something that he had been working with - it's conceivable that he found something with small coils and hooked them up like that. Again, I was just trying to put myself into his mindset. I also thought that if I made just one six-string pickup it would have looked too much like a Telecaster bridge pickup. I wanted to stay away from what people recognize as a pickup today, while retaining good functional properties.
Everybody seems to love them. I'm getting orders from people who want pickups split just like that. I just shipped a guitar to a blues artist called Microwave Dave [Dave Gallaher] based in Alabama. He's an old timer, been all around the world, knows everybody and has played with everybody. He plays with a band called Microwave Dave and the Nukes.
He also does a solo show where he accompanies himself as a one-man-band with a drum kit and a looping machine. He came up with an idea for me that had two output jacks - one for a regular six-string pickup with regular volume and tone controls and the other output jack for three, one-string pickups covering the three low strings, with each pickup having its own volume control. That second jack will go to an octave pedal then out through a separate bass amp.
High Freq - a guitar built by Ted Crocker for Microwave Dave. Photo by Ted Crocker.
This idea of pickup/string splitting seems to be catching on. I'm building another guitar along this line for Ben Prestage, a bass for Mike [Mike "Monotone" Taylor] of Big Red and the Soul Benders and another strange kind of guitar for Kirk Withrow of Buckeye.
Tom: How did you come up with the Stonehenge pickup design?
Ted: I didn't have a lot of time to order parts for the Honeydripper guitars. I could have ordered the basic single-coil pickup parts and then somehow tried to modify them so they looked sort of homemade, but with the time constraints I just started building the parts that I would need.
People seem to like them and they've become sort of my signature design. The name came from a picture I took of three of these pickups arranged in a semi-circle. It looked like Stonehenge and the name stuck.
The photo that inspired Ted Crocker to name this pickup design Stonehenge. Photo by Ted Crocker.
Tom: How did you learn about making pickups?
Ted: I just went online and scoured forums and documents and went to Seymour Duncan's website and read some of his technical reports, and then stewmac.com [Stewart-MacDonald] is a supplier of pickup parts and they've got some great white papers on it also.
From there, it was just trial and error. [Laughs] I pretty much lucked out with it on my first shot.
Tom: John Sayles told me the guitar had to be playable and sound good, in addition to having the right look, and that when we see Sonny playing the Honeydripper guitar, what we're hearing is Gary Clark, Jr., actually playing your guitar live on set. Sayles also said that Gary Clark, Jr., like most good guitarists, is "picky" about the instruments he plays and liked the guitars you built. It's hard to imagine bringing these requirements together in only two weeks.
Ted: I was driven, Tom, I was really driven. Like I said, it was an opportunity that I couldn't let pass me by and I wanted to do the best that I could. I could have purchased parts and just slapped something together, but I wanted to put some thought behind it and I wanted an instrument I'd be proud to sign my name to. What can I say? I went down into my little cave and this is what I came up with.
Tom: The guitar's body is one-piece Honduras mahogany. Is it heavy?
Ted: I think the entire guitar weighs in at about seven pounds. If you look at the way I cut out the cavity for the pickups and also the cavity for the volume control, that removes a little bit of the mass.
Now, I had no time at all to build the necks for the Honeydripper guitars. Building necks is not my favorite thing to do - it would take me a week just to get the neck right - so I found a woman in Canada who builds guitar necks that are pretty much like Gibson Les Paul necks and she was able to rush a couple to me.
Tom: I was wondering about the trapezoid inlays on the Honeydrippers. They reminded me of a Les Paul neck that wouldn't be out until 1952. But, I guess Sonny could have seen those inlays in some late-'40s Gibson ES-125s and acoustic L-50s
Ted: That's right. It was something that came back to bite me in the butt, also. One of the comments when I first showed them my original prototype was that they really liked the inlays. As I said, it was an old Stella neck, maybe from the early '50s, and the inlays were similar to the trapezoids, so since that was a feature they liked, I was sort of stuck with the idea. It took me a bit of searching to find a readily available neck that would fit the bill.
Close-up of the Honeydripper guitar's pickup and volume knob. Note the feather - a little extra mojo from Crocker's shop assistant, Taxi. Photo by Ted Crocker.
Tom: Definitely has a better stage look with those inlays.
Ted: We got into this to a pretty fine level of detail. For example, Phil made a comment to me that Philip-head screws wouldn't have been used back then, but I had done some research and found out that while Philip-head screws were pretty new, they had been used throughout the war [World War II] effort. This is the minutiae that you or I or John Sayles or Phil Schneider enjoy thinking about, but it's not something anyone sitting in a movie theater will ever think about. It's our responsibility to take care of the detail so the movie watcher doesn't have to be concerned about it.
This whole Honeydripper experience has really opened things up for me as a luthier. I've done one other Honeydripper guitar - for the gentleman in Midway, Alabama, who owns the old grocery store that John Sayles rented to use as the Honeydripper lounge. He wanted to collect as much memorabilia associated with the film as he possibly could. Through an agreement with John [Sayles] and Maggie [Renzi], when the movie is released I'll be selling copies of the Honeydripper guitar from my website.
Tom: You're also involved with an upcoming documentary film about cigar box guitars?
Ted: Yes. It's a film [Songs Inside the Box] by Max Shores who's also based in Alabama. He's with the University of Alabama Center for Public Television & Radio. He's putting together a PBS documentary about cigar box guitars and their place in history and also where they're going now. There's a huge groundswell of interest in cigar box guitars. Quite a few artists are playing them and quite a few luthiers are making them. Max, myself and many others have been inspired by Shane Speal, King of the Cigar Box Revolution, who is the curator of the National Cigar Box Guitar Museum.
Tom: What got you into the diddley bow and do-it-yourself kind of instruments like cigar box guitars?
Ted: I've always been a DIY kind of guy and I've always been the kind of guy who taps his fingers on the table with a song in his head. When I was a kid and found out I could just take a piece of wire or weed whacker line and put together something that you can make music with, I thought that was great - and one little discovery led to another.
That sort of attitude and joy has grown over the years. When I was in the hospital in Florida I was pretty much stuck and bored out of my mind. I went down to my van and found an Epiphone catalog. I had always wanted to make my interpretation of the Flying V and Explorer so here I had the pictures in the catalog.
I'm good with math, so knowing that the distance between the nut and the bridge was 24.75 inches I could figure out the dimensions of everything else on the guitars. A friend of mine brought me some craft paper and I drew full-sized replicas. When I got out of the hospital I built them, but having no money at all, I used some lumber that a local tavern owner had used to protect his tavern during hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004. Those guitars are still hanging on my wall.
Then I went to the local Guitar Center and asked if they had any spare parts laying around. For about $60 they sold me a handful of pickups and tuners and whatnot that I used to build a guitar. Then I'd build another and strip out the parts from the last one for the new one.
The Taser was the first guitar I built from a full list of parts that I went out and bought new. I was so excited that I was doing things "the right way."
Now, I've got a different approach - I make as many of the components myself as I can and purchase the least amount of parts possible. I try to keep it organic and kind of primitive. For the blues, it's got more mojo than if you buy a mass-produced guitar off the wall.
Ted Crocker plays what he calls a one-string diddley cane at the 2007 CBG Extravaganza in Huntsville Alabama. Photo by Max Shores.
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A real guitar hero
March 21, 2008 By Kaelin O'Connell
Ted Cocker, with cockatiel Taxi, plays a guitar made of a cigar box and walking cane, with a small bottle of Jagermeister as a slide. Staff photo by Jillian Bauer
In Ted Crocker's Glassboro apartment, guitars are everywhere. They hang on the walls, they lean against the furniture, they decorate the kitchen, they lie on the workbenches. Their designs range from those that are futuristic with geometric angles, to those that are primitive with straight-lined simplicity.
Crocker has hand crafted, and named, every one.
"This one's called Juke Stomper, that one's Delta Box Blues, there's High Freq and Low Freq, and that one's Armageddon," he said, pointing from one instrument to another in his basement workshop.
Crocker, 52, takes a father's pride in each instrument. Still, though, it's clear he harbors special affection for Honeydripper. That's probably because she is the one that could really put him on the map.
Crocker designed the guitar specifically for the movie "Honeydripper," starring Danny Glover and directed by John Sayles. The movie tells the story of the early days of rock and roll when electric guitars were still a whispered-about novelty. It was released in November but is still playing in some theaters.
Crocker said he got involved with the project when the property master for Honeydripper saw one of his guitars in a show in Florida. He asked the performing musician if he knew anyone who could design something for the movie.
"Sure, Ted Crocker," the musician answered.
Then, because Crocker was a friend, he added: "If you can get him."
At the time Crocker was settling into life in New Jersey. The New York native with a degree in electronic engineering had been installing home theaters and club lighting in Florida until June 2004 when he stepped on a rusty nail and seriously injured his foot. Still recovering and unable to work, Crocker came to live with his sister in Glassboro.
While in the hospital, he asked a friend to bring him some craft paper ("I was bored out of my mind," he said) and started designing guitars. Until then Crocker had made about 30 guitars, giving them to friends or selling them locally, but it was not until after the accident that he considered turning the hobby into a business (now, appropriately, called Rusty Nail Guitars).
"I was getting a dinky disability check, and I figured I better do something," he said.
So he found an apartment in Glassboro, chosen as much for its affordability as for its access to an empty basement, and moved in with his cockatiel, Taxi. The space suits them well; Taxi can fly around freely and Crocker can spread out his work. He turned the basement into a full-fledged workshop, buying $14,000 worth of equipment and trash-picking the rest. Slabs of wood, strips of leather and yards of cords pepper the scene, along with a bag of potato chips, a couple cases of Budweiser and a few filled ashtrays.
When making the Honeydripper, Crocker only had two weeks to finish the ordered guitars. He took authenticity seriously, only using parts and techniques that would have been available during the movie's 1950s setting, and traded sketches back and forth with the property master and director before settling on Honeydripper's final design.
That design is now one of Crocker's signature styles, though he commonly uses templates for three or four more styles as well. Sales typically come through word of mouth, and by now Crocker has made about 60 guitars. They range in price from $200 to $4,000. Every one that goes out gets a feather from Taxi tucked in its strings.
"It's getting easier and easier to let them go," he said. "At first it was hard because I put a lot of myself into them."
Most of them are electric, some are acoustic, and some hardly look like guitars at all.
One electric guitar, for example, is a metal walking cane with a cigar box fixed in the hooked handle. But, tapping the instrument's one string with a pencil and using a small Jagermeister bottle as a slider, Crocker proved that it sounds like any other electric guitar.
"To a degree, you get music out of a stick and a pickup," he said.
Many of Ted Crocker's cigar box guitars hang on the wall in his Glassboro residence. Staff photo by Jillian Bauer
That means an electric guitar's body is largely an artistic creation, Crocker explained. His experimentation with shapes and bodies has even led to a travel guitar made of a long, skinny plank and many cigar box guitars, which have found increased popularity lately.
"It's a movement that's almost anti-establishment; it's Do-It-Yourself," Crocker said of the cigar box trend. "Part of the whole movement is giving more spirit and personality to the instrument."
And that is exactly what Crocker hopes to do in each of his own creations -- by learning about customers before building their guitars, by documenting each instrument's construction process, by giving every piece its own name.
"Why would you go to a guitar center and pay thousands of dollars for something never touched by human hands?" he asked.
For more information, visit tedcrocker.com.
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Thanks Tinq, you can buy it at Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Honeydripper-Vondie-Curtis-Hall/dp/B0017M9ZNI. If you can use NetFlix I hear you can rent it but don't know about to France.
Here's the website for the movie http://honeydripper-movie.com/
Beat Magazine video interview
Interview in the Tallahassee Democrat Limelight entertainment/weekend section 12/13/13.
There's an online version with a video here: http://www.tallahassee.com/article/20131212/ENT/312120051?nclick_ch...
Man, that is so inspiring. I just ordered Honeydripper from Lovefilm, looking forward to seeing that great guitar in action.