Mar 03, 2011, 06:15AM

I Knew You Knew Something

An interview with the master luthier who made guitars for George Harrison and Johnny Cash, fixes Steve Martin and Earl Scruggs's banjos, jams with David Lynch, and is just one of the guys.

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Photo by the author. More here.

Los Angeles is a migrant town. Ask almost anyone you meet and chances are they came here for a reason—the movies, the music, agriculture, art, aerospace, the sun, a new life. With close to 50 percent of its 9.8 million people born outside the state or outside the country, meeting a native Angelino is something of a rarity. Seems to me to make up for the lack of community we out-of-towners tend to jump at a glimpsed or heard commonality—whether it’s the lilting twang of a Louisiana accent or the familiar strains of a mountain bluegrass tune from across a parking lot.

I’ve worked at a commercial production company most days for the last three years or so in a loft office space which is situated off 20th St. in Santa Monica and I’ve slowly become friendly with most of our neighbors—the café out front on Broadway knows which breakfast my boss craves (no sausage, extra bacon), the editing company cheerfully helps me out when we need spare AV parts, the vintage car re-seller across the alley shows off his latest vintage Corvettes and Ferraris, and the guys at the Spanish language film company next door mosey over when our mail is dropped off there by mistake. Sometimes when the producers, coordinators and assistants take off for the day, I have some people over for bluegrass jams—the old ceilings have a natural reverb that warms everything up nicely…but if it’s a pleasant weekend day we’ll just play out in the sunny parking lot against the ivy covered fence.

It was on such a Saturday hollering out on the blacktop when we saw a little head pop up on a ladder from a building across the parking area. I thought perhaps the serious-looking man, in his late 50s, was going to complain. He was probably a director or photo scout trying to film a segment in the alley—half a dozen film companies (and the mysterious offices of Playboy West) exist on this block and they often had photo or promo shoots there when it was empty. But instead the man bopped his head happily to the music, gave a little thumbs-up and was gone.

A few minutes later he came over to us. A small guy with a Cheshire-cat smile and a carpenter’s cracked hands, he couldn’t stop talking with a child-like enthusiasm about bluegrass and how nice it was to hear it “way out here.” In a bright Southern drawl he introduced himself as Danny Ferrington and said he made guitars and other instruments at his little workshop over the fence there. Huh, I thought, how did I miss this guy? We all admitted that none of us had ever heard of him and he chuckled, winking at our banjo player and remarking coyly that he had Earl Scruggs’ banjo neck back there in his shop…you know, if we ever wanted to come and visit.

Intrigued, I took up his invitation about a week or later and was amazed by what I saw—just around the corner from where I sat each day sleepily loading up Taco Bell edits onto ftp sites, Danny had a beautiful little one-man shop where, for the last three decades, he had been quietly hand-making instruments for some of the best musicians of our time. With clients like George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Lindsay Buckingham, Waylon Jennings and Keith Richards, Danny has also become the go-to guy for actors and historical film projects who need custom guitars—The Cohen Brothers (O, Brother Where Art Thou, The Lady Killers) Gore Vidal, (The Mexican, Pirates Of The Caribbean films), and people like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Steve Martin and various heads of state are counted as “close friends.” At this point, it’s no question that Ferrington’s arsenal of instruments—and he really can make just about anything—has become some of the most sought after and pricy in the music world.

Internet discussion groups abound about the rareness and Leica-like quality of Ferrington’s axes. Getting to know him, the hype is not that surprising—he does all the work himself—from the laborious sanding of the frames, shaping and fretting of the necks, to the staining and lacquering of the finished bodies which he does out in the same sunny parking lot where we were innocently (and rather messily) practicing The Stanley Brothers classic “How Mountain Girls Can Love."

Over the course of the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure to hang out with Danny in his workshop, often sitting and listening to old records blasted out of his ancient stereo system. He even has a porch swing attached with chains to the shop ceiling but it’s so often covered in newspapers no one really sits on it. He’s incredibly passionate about what he does, still a bit amazed at his growing cult-fame status and clearly pleased that people have started calling him a “master luthier.” What he really cares about are musicians and hearing and encouraging them to do their best work: from the fire and brimstone gospel he heard growing up in Louisiana to the freakish harmony blends of a current Nashville duo that he can’t believe I’ve never heard of—he just can’t wait to play these tunes (and sing along) so I can try and hear just what he’s hearing. While I try to tell him I have to get back to work across the fence, Danny will insist that I stay a little longer, playing me one more record, one more song, just this part … and with an grinning enthusiasm as contagious as his—it is hard to leave. 

Initially Ferrington was somewhat skittish about doing an interview—he likes being way under the radar—but after weeks of playful prodding he agreed to sit down and chat on the record for a bit and let me take a few photographs. I also swore I wouldn’t give out his address.

The below conversation is a mostly-faithful transcript of our recorded conversation. Keep in mind, the man talks very fast.

SPLICE TODAY: So, we’re here in your studio—

DANNY FERRINGTON: Shop! This is my shop, let’s not get to fancy with it. It’s a shop. Well … it could be a studio.

ST: How long have you been making guitars?

DF: Since…let’s see here. Since 1975. That’s when I went to Nashville. I moved to Nashville to work at the “Old Time Pickin’ Parlor” under Randy Wood.

But my Dad and I had a cabinet shop in Louisiana so I had been working with wood since I was in high school. You know, we built kitchen cabinets, gun cases, things like that.

ST: Who first approached you about making guitars for important musicians?

DF: Nobody. Those days, the thing is, you being young, there’s a lot of people making guitars and stuff like that [now] but in my day, nobody did it … there were a few people making custom guitars … but basically you bought a guitar. That world just didn’t exist.

ST: You ordered from a catalog, right?  

DF: Well, you could go to the music store and get a Martin or a Gibson, you know, that kind of thing … there weren’t many guitar makers per-se—the classical world, there’s always been classical makers…and jazz makers making jazz guitars but flat-top acoustics, there wasn’t a lot of people, it was for luthiers. There were a couple of books out. “How to make guitars.”

ST: Who inspired you to do it?

DF: Just living in Nashville, being at that shop. And Randy [Wood]—he made guitars, did stuff for Elvis. You know, the shop was like a crossroads between the rock world and the country world. It’s in the movie Nashville, that Robert Altman film. There’s a scene in a bluegrass club where they have a fight—that’s the pickin’ parlor. Music store downstairs, a workshop on the second floor, a bluegrass club at night. It would be like [fiddler] Vassar Clements or Bill Monroe would come by or Jimmy Martin. During the day we fixed everyone’s stuff—we made banjo necks, did repairs—I fixed Porter Wagoner’s guitars, Earl Scruggs’ banjo. I got this picture of me and Billy Gibbons [ZZ Top] in 1975. Billy would come by and hang out with us. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a lot of songwriters—John Hyatt. Monroe and these bluegrass giants…Norman Blake was there all the time. It was a crazy world and I got thrust into that. ‘Cause Randy knew this man in Louisiana that knew me...Randy needed somebody to work at the shop and play banjo in the club at night. So I moved up there, young guy, 23 years old, never left home.

ST: What town in Louisiana are you from?

DF: Monroe. [53,000 people, the eighth largest city in Louisiana].

ST: Were you approached by bigger guitar makers to work for them?

DF: No … I had this licensing deal from my buddy in the mid-80s with Kramer and they had these “Kramer-Ferringtons”—my acoustic bass, who was that guy with all the make-up and the crazy hair, looks like Edward Scissorshands? The Cure! They would play it on MTV unplugged, and Kiss…we were the first ones to have an acoustic-electric bass. Now everyone has them. We were the first to do these thin acoustics, shaped like a tele or a strat, they had an electric neck. Eddy Van Halen would do the ads for us; he was the client then.

ST: Is it easier to work on your own? 

DF: It’s just … not a very clean thing. Licensing … you can’t control it. I like the simple thing of just making [a guitar] and having my clients one at a time, you know. I could have licensing deals at these companies but I choose not to court it or encourage it.

ST: Who were some favorite clients that you started making guitars for?

DF: Oh they’re all genius. My ninth guitar I made for Johnny Cash. He played it on his Christmas special! I’m in the audience and he’s talking about me—it’s in between takes, they’re doing the commercial insert and somebody says, “That’s a cool guitar!” and John goes, “The fellow who made it—where you at, Danny?” I’m at the Grand Ole Opry and Johnny Cash is talking about me from the stage! Andy Kaufman was on—one of the first times he ever did his Elvis impersonation—he was scared to death.

I’m in the dressing room and Andy comes in there after the show and I’m in there with June and John. Johnny Cash was such a huge—[Long pause]

ST: Presence? 

DF: It was like being around Lincoln. I mean the man was huge, in black, with these shoulders … he’s like carved in stone, right off Mount Rushmore.

ST: How did he hear about you?

DF: It’s a crazy story. Ricky Skaggs was a good friend of mine and he was playing with Emmylou Harris. And Emmy had this black Gibson J-200 that she played on all her records. I’d figured Emmy plays a black guitar so I’ll make a black guitar. Maybe if she likes it, she’ll buy it. No one was going to order from [me] … it just didn’t happen. So Ricky says, “We’re playing the Willie Nelson Picnic in Dallas”—I told him I made this guitar and I think Emmy will really like it. So I go down there, go backstage, take that guitar and Emmy plays it … but she says, “Ah, I’m so traditional, I love my Gibson … but what I’d really like is this rose  …she thought the idea of a red rose on a guitar was cool … can you put a rose on there somehow?” So I refinished her guitar, it was on her Blue Kentucky Girl album…

…it’s in mother of pearl, catches the light. It’s in the Country Music Hall Of Fame. Turns out Waylon Jennings just loved it. I go back to Nashville, I call his office, they say come on by. I bring my mom and dad with me. I’m 58 now, but I looked like I was 12 years old! It’s Waylon Jennings. Ridiculous.

ST: This is before the Highwaymen thing?

DF: Way before! This is 1977. A couple of weeks later I get a call at the Pickin’ Parlor. The guy goes, “Danny, it’s Johnny Cash.” I’m like “I don’t know Johnny Cash.” They patch him in from New Jersey—he goes, “Danny, This is Johnny Cash. Listen, Danny I got a guitar here that you made, that was given to me last night by Waylon Jennings.”

ST: He gave it to Cash as a present?

DF: Yeah he gave it to him on stage at Wolftrap in Massachusetts. And he said, “I just think it’s the finest guitar I’ve ever played,” and blah blah blah … “and I want you to make one for my wife June. Not as black as mine and a little smaller.” So I made June one, he ended up playing it on that Christmas Special. I got DVDs of it from Ameoba.

ST: You were in your early 20s doing this?

DF: I was like 24.

ST: You must have been freaking out. 

DF: I was just around those people; I wasn’t star-struck.

ST: Right place at the right time?

DF: I like musicians. I knew a lot of musicians. It was just kind of bizarre.

ST: And it snowballed from there?

DF: I didn’t get a ton of orders … but I’d go and see Journey and then to England and sold some to Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend and I’d get orders from Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues. If someone was in town, I’d go to see Elvis Costello … lots of bluegrassy musicians in Nashville. I met Linda Ronstadt through a friend, Paul Kraft, who bought my first guitar, he wrote a lot of songs that Linda had done. I came out to LA—

ST: When did you come out here?

DF: 1980. And Linda said she’d help me find an apartment. She was just on the cover of Rolling Stone. We got to be buddies.

ST: She was dating Gov. Jerry Brown, right? What do you think of him coming back into office?

DF: I was living with Linda when she was dating Jerry. I went with Jerry when he bought his first television! There was a place called Federated. He’s kind of in the family, you know what I mean. I think he’s going to do a good job … kick some butt. He’s an amusing guy. He was very austere, not the kind of guy to be Mr. Fancy. He doesn’t have a desk, he sits on a stool. Jerry’s a good guy. I came out here in 1980 … Linda and I were roommates for eight years. I’ve known all these people all these years … you’re around them and it just—

ST: Becomes part of your life?

DF: Yeah, it becomes the people you know! That’s why George Harrison liked me I think, I was fearless about being a buddy of his. Most people just couldn’t even talk to him.

ST: Afraid of the mystique?

DF: I have a friend who did Bob Dylan’s radio show … we were talking about it, me hanging with George and us doing things and he said it was the same way with Bob, it’s like being with a religious figure … ’cause when you’re out in public people are just freaked out but with George, I’d be an idiot, just like I’m being with you ... you forget that he’s a Beatle, well … you can’t forget it, but you just take him on who he is…you get to know that person, and then you either like him or don’t like him.

ST: When did you start branching out from guitars, and start making ukuleles and other stuff for George? 

DF: It was one of those weird things. I made a komongo for this lady Jin Hi Kim … a Korean version of the koto. I made an electric one.

ST: How do you learn how to make something like that?

DF: You don’t learn you just do it! You just do it, you just do it! She met me, she’s an amazing musician, she wanted an electric one … I said I’ll take a chance on this and I’ll do it, same thing I’m doing for David Lynch.

ST: You’re making his guitar right now?

DF: I’m making a guitar for him yeah … a five neck.

ST: Seems … typically absurd in his fashion

DF: Well listen he doesn’t play … he’s not a quote “musician,” but he plays music! We met a few years ago, his engineer was the lead guitar player of Steppenwolf, how about that? It was at an Oscar party…he goes, “Danny, do you like coffee?” and I go, “Yeah, David, I like coffee! And he goes, “Why don’t you come over to the house and we’ll have some coffee.” So he played for me … and he has a really nice studio in his house ... he lays his guitar in his lap, and he’s right handed, but he lays it left-handed.

ST: Like a dobro?

DF: Right, like a dobro … he has a very sophisticated ear for music … sometimes he’ll play slide … the guitar I’m making will be a five-neck instrument, more like an organ … different tunings on each neck. We designed it together, all same pickups, all wired together so if you hit a G chord, you could put a C chord on top of the G chord while the G chord is still going and have them fight or you could shut them down. I have so many things like this in my life that are just insane. The thing about my guitar making, I’m not the greatest guitar maker in the world.

ST: Who would you say is?

DF: Who knows! Maybe Gibson in the 30s, Martin in the 30s … that’s what everyone wants to copy. It’s like frying chicken; it’s hard to mess it up. I can make a guitar and it will sound really good. If you put the braces in the right place and you use really good wood … who’s to say?  

[He shows his absurdly varied client list on two pieces of paper]

ST: Who was your most demanding client?

DF: You know that’s like kiss and tell … everybody is, I want them to be demanding!

ST: Stephen King, did he want skulls on it?

DF: Spiders!

ST: Where does it start? You have a certain wood supplier? 

DF: No, it depends … if I was doing it for you, it would be easy. You’re going to go … I like to fingerpick, but I don’t want it to be too bright … I would interview you, like you’re interviewing me and pull out what you want, and intuit a lot of it. But basically, 0I go “What do you play now? What type of music do you like? Who do you like? Let me see you play.” Donovan came by here and he just starts playing, and it tells you everything you need to know. He fingerpicks, kind of mutes it a little bit. You go, here’s what he’s getting out of that guitar, here’s what he likes about it. “Do you want a bigger sound than that or a smaller sound than that? A lot of punch or really balanced?” As soon as George [Harrison] played that guitar I reshaped for Jeff [Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra] he said, “I knew you knew something.”

ST: Maybe it’s just that instinct with the wood?

DF: Exactly…it’s a musician thing. You’ll play it and go: oh! If you understand what a musician wants, that’s always been my guide. J.J. Cale, one of my best friends … I learn more about making guitars from Cale … in a sort of a Yoda sort of way. A lot of guitar makers they look to other guitar makers, other manufacturers and they want to make it look like that and it works and everything.

ST: But the soul’s gone?

DF: Just the focus, the focus! I focus on the musicians. It’s the difference between going to Harvard or going to a community college. I had a Beatle wig when I was a kid! To have George sit in that chair and then go get lunch … and then buy everything I make … he wanted to be my only client! He didn’t mind keeping me busy. [Laughs]

ST: Who takes priority when there’re multiple clients jockeying for your time?

DF: There’s not that much … I keep such a low profile. I’m so not aggressive about it anymore.

ST: How long does each project take?

DF: Depends—like two weeks to a month. Sometimes it longer, I do it on my own time.

ST: Everything is done in shop?

DF: Yeah! From those big chunks of wood [points to back of shop]. I don’t have necks, you know it comes from a big chunk of wood … it’s all from scratch. I stand outside and lacquer them here. They’re all handmade. I do it the way I want to do it. I made five guitars [for The Pirates of The Caribbean and Keith Richards] in a week!

ST: Did you sleep?

DF: No! I was here till like four in the morning. Almost killed myself. But it was one of those things, you get up for it. It’s an improvisation, the first one is an improvisation … I made a couple for Johnny [Depp] and Gore [Vidal], they had me make copies of them. It’s like tying your shoes … it’s like muscle memory now.

ST: You make banjos for Steve Martin?

DF: I fix his banjos, we’re buddies. I redo his banjos, keep them set up and everything. He had me make him a guitar, for his house. I go up there and play it and he plays banjo.

ST: How do you think the music business has changed since you started?

DF: I always tell people, you can’t help but hear ringing in your ears, like I’m talking like my father or my grandfather or something. What happens is, you hear Bob Dylan and then you hear that Roger McGuinn [The Byrds] is singing like Bob Dylan and then Tom Petty sings like Roger McGuinn and then some other band that sounds a little like Tom Petty—

ST: It all builds on each other?

DF: Yeah, but whenever I hear somebody, people will go, oh, Jack Johnson! And I go … please. He’s like an amazingly watered-down version of Jackson Browne or something. And Jackson Browne is doing Van Morrison and Van Morrison is doing—

ST: Mutual thievery. 

DF: Exactly. Me and George are over at Dylan’s café [18th St. Café in Santa Monica] and I remember we’re sitting there and there was some Bach playing, classical music, and George goes, “You hear that?” and I go, “Yeah,” and he goes, “That’s where John nicked ‘Because’ from!” English guys love that word … nicked is not like stealing, nicked is okay. That’s what it comes down to. Honestly, the last person I heard that was pretty damn original was Kurt Cobain. And I was talking to the guys at Truetone [music store in Santa Monica] about it and you end up sounding like an old guy … they were like, “Radiohead?” and I’m like … hmm, “Radiohead is pretty damn Beatley!” Know what I mean?

ST: So something completely out of its own world?

DF: Kurt Cobain was the last guy, where you were like that guy. There was this quote from Neil Young, he was like “I don’t know what he’s saying, but it’s important!” I remember hearing him and going, “that is a new take.”

ST: So many things now, you don’t know if it’s manufactured or—

DF: Tweaking and tweaking and tweaking. It’s like Charlie Louvin dying. Who now is that good?

ST: That’s the beauty about really knowing music, right? If you take a few things that are just obscure enough that people won’t notice … you can have something really great that has a base of truth in it. 

DF: [He’s blasting a Chet Atkins record that sounds like eerily like early Beatles] A great lick is a great lick! The Beatles synthesized this stuff and it was genius. There are a few people who really set the tone. The older you get … I’m begging you, show me something! Stuff is good but … that whole Shins thing … eh … that Jack White boy, I like him a lot.

ST: He’s based in the blues. 

DF: I like his bravery … he loves tone, based in the blues, but he’s brave to go for it. The kids and Taylor Swift … eh … she looks like an alien! Kenny Chesney and those people, I mean for god’s sake. It’s beyond me.

ST: If there were one last guy, living or dead … who would you make a guitar for?

DF: Be fun to make one for Bob Dylan. I’ve never met Bob—George took me down there to see him but he was gone. Always been a good fan. Not a crazed fan but …

ST: If you had five records on a desert island, what would they be?

DF: Well … that’s just hard. I mean I like Thelonious Monk, I’ll take one of Monk. You know I’ll take the Dylan record that has … [he sings: “How does it feel?”] “Like A Rolling Stone” [Highway 61 Revisited], I’ll have that record. Probably some Mahalia Jackson, a Beethoven record, that kind of thing, a nice wide range.

ST: Nothing you could get tired of.

DF: Something to keep you living! They say Mozart is really good for your brain … makes you smart. You play Beethoven, that’s the human condition, that’s where human strength comes from, I think. If you play Beethoven you can get through almost anything. Same thing with Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord"!

ST: That’s about as good as it gets. Hey, thanks for chatting. 

See inside the studio, with pictures by the author, here.


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