Since their conception in the early 1950s, basic solid body electric guitar design has remained more or less the same. Leo Fender and Les Paul were pioneers in guitar design, bringing about the two most popular designs the rock ‘n’ roll world would ever lay its hands on: the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul.
The Les Paul gave us wicked distortion and sustaining notes through its chunky, heavy body and its humbucking pickups, while the seductive, womanly curves of the Stratocaster and its triple single-lace pickup configuration gave rise to the phrase “twang” and added the concept of the tremolo bar, as well as producing some sonic distortion.
Cut to the late ’70s and early ’80s. The rise of hair metal brought about some radical new sounds, and the design of the guitars made by newer companies like Jackson, Charvel, ESP and Ibanez got wilder. But with few exceptions, most were obviously based on Gibson’s and Fender’s timeless creations.
Enter Chattanooga. While Nashville is home to the famed Gibson Guitar Company, the Scenic City can lay claim to at least two custom guitar makers—Warrior Instruments in nearby Rossville and the newer J. Backlund Design on the North Shore—each producing quality, high-end guitars that are attracting attention from aficionados and celebrity endorsers brandishing these custom axes.
At J. Backlund Design, Chattanooga native Bruce Bennett has brought to life some retro-futuristic guitars that are sure to have players turning their Marshall half-stacks up to 11. With designs reminiscent of the something one might have seen on “The Jetsons,” these guitars have rock ‘n’ roll written all over them—and they’ve even been purchased by the likes of The Eagle’s Joe Walsh as well The Car’s head axe-man, Elliot Easton.
In his early years, Bennett said Christian music was all he was ever exposed to in his home. “Apart from the music I heard in my head,” Bennett added with a laugh. His whole life changed, however, during a shopping trip with his mother.
“She took me out and bought me a pair of Sedgefield Jeans,” Bennett recalled, “and with those jeans came a record of blues artists like Elmore James, and that’s where everything changed.”
Already a budding guitarist at the time of this epiphany, he had a whole new world to explore. His love of playing six strings led him to begin building guitars.
“I spent a lot of my time on Internet blogs that dealt with guitars and guitar building like Harmony Central,” he said. “There I found a blog entitled ‘Doodle of the Day’ by a Rapid City, South Dakota artist named John Backlund. He drew these guitars with these incredible, radical designs. From these pictures and working with Backlund, I developed these designs. I could not let his talent go unseen and wasted.”
Along with entrepreneur Kevin Maxfield and Steve Lewis, formerly of Litespeed Bicycles, the JBD Guitar Shop was formed in 2007.
“I’m in an all-or-nothing situation,” Bennett said. “In 10 years I’ll either be making a lot of guitars and this company will be big or not in existence at all.”
Using colorful components and even chrome, these retro-futuristic guitars are fully loaded. Utilizing the most modern pickups, state-of-the-art bridges and buttery and fast action on the custom-made necks, the axes not only look hot, but they also are built for playing.
“I’ve dedicated a lot of time in the engineering of these instruments,” Bennett said. “I want the same quality that was found in a 1959 Les Paul.”
“These guitars will definitely be major collector’s items in 20 to 25 years,” he added. “It’s getting harder and harder to find a good American-made, hand-crafted instrument. These guitars play better than they look and look better than they play. They stay in tune and play in tune!”