There’s always a sense of pride and ownership when it comes to a musician and the tone of their instrument. Some take years finding the right gear and components to complete their rig and create that perfect sound. Others, however, don’t have the patience to look keep looking around but decide to take things into their own hands. Whether they’re looking for the right string size, the right crunch from a distortion pedal or just something pretty that catches the eye, they decide the best way to find it is by building it by hand themselves.
These kinds of craftsmen and luthiers from Salt Lake City and its surrounding areas met for the second time last Saturday, August 31st, for the Salt Lake Association of Music Merchants and Manufacturers Music Expo, or SLAMM, which I find to be a bit more fun and a lot less exhausting to say. Rob Gray, the head organizer of the expo, started the SLAMM Music Expo in an effort to create a sense of community amongst music makers from around the valley, as well as give them a venue where they could show off their gear to local musicians. “It is supposed to be our event to come together as a community and show the people who play the gear that we make,” says Gray. “I just want a place for all of us to come and exhibit our gear, ’cause it’s not always logistically possible for us to put a bunch of stock in a shop or have a bunch of demo pieces floating around in the world ’cause we’re so small”.
“I just want a place for all of us to come and exhibit our gear.”
Being a craftsman himself, Gray understands the importance of having a place to exhibit his work. “I run RIP Custom Guitars, or Radical Instrument Products. I build custom guitars completely from scratch, so all my stuff is handmade. I design it all myself,” says Gray. “I started building when I was fifteen years old [and] have been working on it ever since, making cool, pointy guitars for heavy metal players.”
One of the big appeals of buying from many of these local luthiers is the amount of customization and unique stylization you can have. Black Harbor pride themselves on the one-of-a-kind tonality they provide in guitar strings. “We basically make strings that are higher in iron content so they have more magnetism in the pickup, the guitar,” says Drew Ehrgott, co-founder of Black Harbor. “[That] basically translates to a louder volume and more sustain, and also a little bit of a brighter tone than like your typical Ernie Ball or D’Addario type of string.” Say you wanted something that went a little beyond more sustain and a brighter tone—say you wanted something just a bit obscure. “A calling card of ours is our custom shop online. Anyone can go on there and pick any gauge that they want for guitar or bass and build out their own perfect set,” continues Ehrgott. “So if they’re just wanting to change one or two gauges just on a couple things, or if they play [in a] really strange tuning, a really rare tuning, then they can go online and do whatever they need.”
“Every instrument is beautiful, but with a little extra, it makes it yours.”
Some of the vendors find, however, that they need something that doesn’t just sound louder and more vivid, but something that looks the part as well. “The visual pop is something I really go for,” expresses David Kirkham when I ask him about KSM Guitars and his own guitar company, Malyse Intende. “Every instrument is beautiful, but with a little extra, it makes it yours,” he explains as he shows me a set of guitars with images of sea floors and shipwrecks painted on the bodies. He also gives me insight on what it’s like making these kinds of handcrafted instruments. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he admits with a grin. “It’s all trial and error, kind of thing of ‘ok! This didn’t work.’ No one ever gets to find that out. When it doesn’t work, nobody knows. When it does work, then I release it.” Whether his experimentation often works or not, one of the greatest emphases in his craft is simply “not being stagnant.”
Whether the other luthiers of the expo are as clear on this point or not, that seems to be what they are all going for: Not being stagnant, to bring something one-of-a-kind to musicians and their rigs. The value that comes with these local vendors is getting something handmade and crafted from the heart. Whether it’s a custom preference or something just purely unique, their kind of crafts are not found in the big commercial markets. Let’s hope Rob Gray and the other luthiers from around the valley can continue to work together and keep the SLAMM Music Expo going for years to come, as well as convince musicians that there is something special to be found in local craftsmanship.