Last fall, readers of a local real estate website were agog. A noteworthy stone home in Detroit’s Old Redford neighborhood found a buyer. But those who know and love high-end guitars also took note.
The new owner was Gabriel Currie, founder of the then-Los Angeles-based Echopark Guitars. Not only was the craftsman/luthier (maker of stringed instruments) buying the house, but he was also moving his family and some staff to Detroit to set up shop.
Echopark guitar buyers aren’t exactly garage-band hacks (unless they’re trust fund babies). Base models start near $2,400, but the sky’s the limit — try $14,000-plus — for individual “one-offs.”
Consider a few Echopark customers. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry owns a dozen-plus models. Jackson Browne is both a fan and friend. Detroit-area natives Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age, The Dead Weather) and Joe LoDuca (a movie score composer) are also on Currie’s A-list.
And that’s just scratching the woodwork.
Echoing the Spirit of Leo
Currie didn’t start making guitars out of nowhere. In the late 1980s, he apprenticed at G&L. The “G” stood for George Fullerton. But it’s the “L” that tugs guitar-lovers’ heartstrings. As in Leo Fender.
Fender is to electric guitars what Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet were to autos. It’s one of rock ’n’ roll’s iconic brands (the other being Gibson, which started in Kalamazoo).
When Fender died in 1991, it was the end of an era. Currie went into Fender’s inner sanctum to “have a moment,” he says. “I read his notes. Sat in his chair … ” In a dusty crawl space, he found a guitar body template. He asked the company owners if they wanted it.
“They said, ‘Take it.’ ” Currie did, and he used random parts lying around his house to fashion a guitar. “I still have it,” he says. “I pawned it a couple times. … It was under my dad’s bed for a while.”
Making a saleable version had to wait.
Currie left G&L to work with guitar guru Tak Hosono. But it wasn’t satisfying. “It felt like reinventing the wheel,” he says. “I sort of felt like a used car salesman. I saw the trajectory of working guitar shows with a nametag and a badge and somebody else’s logo on your shirt.”
He went into woodworking, doing historical renovations. “You dream to be a fireman, guitar rock star, a baseball player,” Currie says. “You never think you’ll grow up to be a plumber or carpenter.”
Adulthood set in; then marriage; then a child. Construction provided a decent paycheck. But after Currie was injured in a fall off some scaffolding, he considered his future. Work through the pain? Become a general contractor?
A light went on. Those guitars! With a credit card and encouragement from his spouse, Dawn Howdershell, Echopark Guitars was born with the “Clarence” model — an homage to Clarence Leo Fender’s birth name.
Getting His ‘Wings’
The 2008 economy wasn’t rocking, and the boutique guitar industry was peaking. But Currie forged ahead. “I knew what a good guitar should play like and feel like and react like,” he says, and it’s not merely aesthetics. “It’s not a belt buckle or a f***ing hat. It’s a canvas. You should keep it at home and play it [to] inspire you in your darkest moments.”
He shared prototypes with friends in working bands and asked for feedback. He fiddled and tweaked. A few more musicians turned customers, and word-of-mouth began to spread.
Jonny Wickersham from Social Distortion used an Echopark model on a Guitar Center Sessions on Direct TV. Somewhere along the line, Brad Whitford of Aerosmith got interested.
But Currie wanted to meet him first. “I want to have this conversation with [a customer] before shipping them the guitar,” he says.
Currie went to meet Whitford when Aerosmith was recording, and brought along a few guitars, including one he had in mind specifically for Whitford’s bandmate, Joe Perry.
Then Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas showed up, Currie says. “Jack and I hit it off.” After playing the instrument, Douglas told Currie, “It makes every other guitar in this place sound like firewood.”
“I was like, whoa! This was the guy who recorded f***ing [John Lennon’s] ‘Imagine,’ ” Currie says. “We got into some lengthy conversations.”
The next day Currie got a call: Joe Perry wanted to meet him. “I just sh** my pants,” he says. “I [had been] dreaming about this since I was 8 years old and dropped a needle on the first Aerosmith record.”
Currie brought a few guitars to the studio. “I don’t even think I had proper cases for them,” he says. “I walked in and just handed it to him [Perry]. There was like this huddle around us. … Then Jack says, ‘Let’s plug that thing in!’ ”
The guitarist began recording tracks, and Currie found himself sitting in the control room with Douglas and Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler.
“I start asking every question I ever wanted … How much drugs did you waste? What were the amps you used? … Who played drums on that? Gotta be you, right Steven? … The feel is different.”
Tyler said: “You’re a f***ing nerd, man!”
Currie hung out in the studio with the band for several days. Echopark Guitars was on its way.
You’re Moving to Detroit?
So how did Currie settle on Detroit?
First, the cost of living in L.A. is awful. “I don’t want to put $400,000 into a box in the suburbs and still deal with traffic and shi**y air,” Currie says.
They wanted a real home for their child. They checked out Texas. Then New Mexico. And Colorado.
“I’d been hearing for years about Detroit … it’s a rock and roll town [but] I didn’t want it to make sense because I’m from Los Angeles.”
A geologist friend originally from Flint showed him around. Checking out venues like The Ravens Club, Currie became “intrigued and impressed.”
Then a real estate listing for the Old Redford place came up. Could this be the house? With all the (mostly false) legends about getting a Detroit house for a “song,” they wondered: Is this place real?
It was. And listed for under $200,000.
Currie took a red-eye flight and drove up Grand River Avenue on a gray morning. When he turned a corner and saw the house, “I sat on ground for a couple minutes,” he says. “I think I actually cried.”
Once inside, he could tell that, like his guitars, this house was custom-made for somebody.
He struck up a conversation with the agent. He hit if off with the owners. It was a done deal.
Since buying the house, Currie has rented a shop minutes from home (nothing like that Los Angeles commute) and assembled a team of L.A. colleagues — master luthier Jim Duggan and amp expert Eric Bernstorff — plus metro Detroit’s Jason Portier.
Customers tend to like Currie. Rather than cranking out cookie-cutter, mass-produced guitars, he prefers working closely with an artist to create the instrument of their dreams. “I want them to lose sleep over what they want,” he says.
Ask Detroiter Joe LoDuca, who studied music at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and in New York and then traveled as a jazz artist, before finding even more work as a movie/TV composer (he created soundtracks for Xena: Warrior Princess and American Gothic as well as the Ash vs Evil Dead series).
LoDuca first heard about Currie while looking for a particular, historic instrument.
“Everybody appreciates that Leo Fender and Les Paul got it right the first time,” LoDuca says. “But he [Currie] takes it to another level. “When it was done, it was everything I wanted.”
He now considers Currie a friend. “I’ve just been amazed at his trajectory. One artist recognizes another,” LoDuca says. “He’s obviously a guy with a vision.”
Jackson Takes Action
Part of Currie’s vision involves the local community, a concept that got a huge kick-start in August.
Currie had sent pictures of his new surroundings to a friend. The friend was Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Jackson Browne, who saw the Redford Theatre and hinted he’d like to play there.
Sure, Currie thought.
Browne tells it this way, in a press release: “Detroit has given us so much — some of my favorite cars, and a lot of my favorite music — Motown, Glenn Frey. When my friend [Currie] told me he was moving his guitar factory … I was intrigued — here’s a guy from the same neighborhood in L.A. that I’m from, and he’s moving to Detroit!”
At press time, a Jackson Browne concert was scheduled for Aug. 10, with net proceeds going to support the Redford Theatre. Currie is also teaming up with the Old Redford Re-development Group to form the Old Redford Community Arts Foundation to create arts education programs for the community.
“We want to find a way to provide a way for [local] kids to have access to the arts,” Currie says, adding that he was fortunate to be raised in L.A., where art programs were free. “My parents took full advantage of that, putting me in clay animation classes,” and more, he says.
Currie is bringing more to the table. He’s a “pay it forward” type of person, LoDuca says. “A lot of craftsmen choose that lifestyle as a retreat from the world. But that’s not Gabriel.”
LoDuca, meanwhile, dreams of the next guitar Currie might build for him. “After you have a taste of what [Currie] brings to the party, you want to go back,” he says. “You’re on that quest with him.”
Precisely the type of customer Currie wants.