Interview with Steve Davis
In January 2009, Steven Davis was chopping up meat at a local grocery store in Seattle, WA. A month later, he and his wife were living in Phoenix, AZ, where he began study to be a luthier at Roberto-Venn. In 2011, Steve built a guitar for Meshuggah guitarist Mårten Hagström (which may be seen on the DVD of their latest release, Koloss). And today, Steve is a full-time teacher at Roberto-Venn and builds custom guitars, as well. Check out the interview with Steve below, then check out his custom work at EIR Guitars. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions, Steve!
One Louder Magazine: Steve…dude! One day you’re a butcher in Seattle and the next day you’re building guitars in Phoenix. What happened? Meat business no good?
Steve Davis: The meat business actually treated me pretty well; the money and benefits were great. At the end of the day though, I felt compelled to create. It’s also a way for me to contribute to the music community in a way that suits me very well.
OLM: Going into it, did you have any experience building guitars or were you totally green? How did you know you wanted to be a luthier?
SD: I definitely had no experience. I recall building a very substandard looking table in high school woodshop, but that was the extent of my woodworking abilities. I had also tinkered around with swapping pickups and trying to set up my own guitars. I learned later at the Roberto-Venn school that I was a little off the mark. It’s a little like trying to work on your own car if you’re not a mechanic.
The moment I realized that I could potentially make a living building custom guitars was in the butcher shop. My friend and co-worker, Dave Garcia, had just turned me on to Meshuggah, and we were blown away that they were playing 8-string guitars. The tone they were achieving was the most brutal, primal thing I had ever heard. It sounded like machines breaking! I had also just purchased the most recent [Guitar World] Guitar Buyers Guide that had an ad for Conklin guitars. In the ad there was a fanned fret 8-string with a buckeye burl top that was crazy looking! At that moment I realized that it was a viable career path and began searching for information.
OLM: How did you find out about Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery? There must be several hundred [thousands?] luthiery schools to choose from worldwide. Why did you select the Roberto-Venn School?
SD: You know, I was quite surprised to find that the Roberto-Venn school is the only accredited luthiery school in the United States. There are shorter programs available, but they didn’t seem to have the reputation for career placement like Roberto-Venn does. Some of the greatest names in acoustic guitar building got their start at RV.
OLM: Then you graduated at the top of your class and had to choose between moving to Los Angeles to work for a luthier there or stay in Phoenix as a workshop assistant at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. Why did you choose to stay?
SD: I sent my energy out to a few places of interest around the country, but the bottom line is that it’s very difficult to find a path to build from your own ideas directly out of school. It’s a very common scenario to go into repair or working for another luthier doing smaller tasks. But so much goes into building a guitar from start to finish that it’s difficult to perform all tasks at a level of perfection required to sell guitars for a price that can sustain your business. So I turned in a resume for “workshop assistant” which, unbeknownst to me, was a 5-month interview for an instructor position at the school. It takes an individual with a very particular temperament to make a good teacher. I know my positive attitude had a lot to do with it, and I try to convey that to the students as much as possible. You can have great chops, but with a crappy attitude, nobody will want to work with you!
OLM: So what do you do at RV?
SD: Currently, I am primarily a teacher who is trying to make a name for himself as a luthier. After graduating from the program, the primary avenue is to go into repair. Having the opportunity to build is surely the path less traveled. But one lesson I have learned in my life is that if someone really wants to do something, they will make it happen. I believe that the life of an artist always appears to outsiders as much more glamorous than it truly is. Passionate people work incredibly hard to hone their art.
OLM: What is a typical day like for you?
SD: There is no grace period! From the time I walk into the building, I am putting out fires. I (along with the other instructors) spend ten hours a day with each crop of students, so we all become very close and get to know each other very well. I also know that the students become very emotionally attached to their individual instruments; what they perceive to be catastrophic mistakes happen frequently. So the majority of my job is to just be available for questions throughout the day. We will give a group demonstration for each individual task that the students are there to perform, and then it’s a lot of one-on-one instruction for the students who don’t have as much confidence. It’s an interesting dynamic because some people may go on to build, and some may be the one who puts the guitar in the box at the end of the assembly line. But I need to be able to challenge everyone and keep them busy despite.
OLM: Can you build all kinds of guitars now: electric, acoustic, electro-acoustic, slide, Nashville, bass, etc? Do you have a favorite?
SD: I can definitely build all styles of guitars now. I tell students that they can do and build whatever they want to, that it’s just a matter of how much time they want to put into it. I tend to build electrics and that’s what I teach at the school. I can build acoustic guitars just as well, if not better, than anyone else at the school and I have explored some contemporary building techniques that are really cool in the acoustic arena. I just don’t listen to a lot of acoustic music, so I don’t chase the tones like I do with electric guitars.
I break it down in terms of what people define as “sexy”. Do you think “sexy” is playing guitar by a bonfire at the beach or is it darker clubs, cold beer and rock ‘n roll? I guess I lean towards the latter, and I like creating instruments for musicians who also prefer the latter, I suppose. My special interest within the electric field is extended range 7 and 8-string guitars. That is what I would like to become known for and that is the demographic I am aiming for.
OLM: It sounds like you would prefer to remain independent, rather than looking to get in with Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, Jackson, etc. Why is that?
SD: I definitely would like to remain independent. If I were to pursue a job in a custom shop it would be for the knowledge and experience that I am getting from my current job. I feel I have a very strong direction with my work. So I feel very fortunate that I am currently able to pursue my own ideas further.
OLM: You recently built a guitar for Mårten Hagström from metal band Meshuggah? How did that come about?
SD: It was a goal of mine, but I wanted to wait until I felt I really had done my homework and developed a style for my work before attempting such a build. There has been a recent surge in popularity in the ERI (extended range instrument) market, and Meshuggah was a major catalyst in this explosion. I tend to work intuitively, and something was telling me, be it the universe or my own intuition, that it was the right time to try and get in touch with Mårten. So I sent him an outline of the project for a guitar built specifically for the clarity and pummeling rhythms that he delivers on a guitar that is essentially tuned only a half-step above a standard 4-string bass.
OLM: What was your initial correspondence like with Mårten? You sent him the outline and how did it play out?
SD: He was very curious about the woods I had selected. It’s very common for custom bass builders to choose some more exotic woods for body and neck materials, but you don’t see it as much in the custom guitar market. My relationship with Mårten is interesting in the fact that he endorses Ibanez guitars and even has a new signature model with them. I have a lot of respect for that relationship, so I told him I was interested in building the guitar as a gift. Like a gift for good karma, more or less, seeing as Meshuggah is far and away my favorite band and I wanted to contribute to my favorite music. They are also on top of the pyramid of extended range guitar players and I wanted to see how my guitars stacked up against custom shop stuff. My hope was that he would be compelled to play it because it was designed and built specifically for him as a player. So I took the chance. Mårten was very cool through the whole process. He promptly answered any questions I had as far as his preferences and seemed very engaged in the build. I sent him progress pictures every other week, or so. It’s funny, because that guitar is like a forbidden fruit, but he plays it despite, so I feel like that is a very good sign.
OLM: How long did it take to build?
SD: Because my full time duties at the school are very distracting, it probably took about three months.
OLM: So why Mårten and not Meshuggah’s other guitarist, Fredrik Thordendal?
SD: It’s hard to explain, I just felt like it was something I was supposed to do. A lot of what Mårten says resonates with me on a personal level as a musician/luthier. And I like what he brings to Meshuggah. I started to go through writing credits and realized that he was responsible for writing most of my favorite tracks. I would be honored to build a guitar for Frederik, but I knew in my gut that I was supposed to approach Mårten [first].
OLM: Word on the street is that Mårten’s now using it in the studio, at live shows and even on the DVD for their latest release, Koloss? True?
SD: Mårten was using it in the studio but not for live performances. They use their signature Ibanez guitars live. He stated that he is working on a solo project that he will be using it for, so I am very excited to see how that pans out! He started using it because it has such a consistent sound no matter where you’re playing on the neck. The neck on that guitar is what sold him, I think – hand carved out of African ebony. It is a monolith! They also share a rehearsal space with his guitar tech’s band. His tech likes the Omega so much that I am talking with him about building him an 8-string, as well.
As for the DVD, it appears at 4min: 28sec in black/white for only a few seconds. Then again at 6min: 37sec; it shows Mårten and Fredrik at a computer workstation with it. And from 8min: 20sec to 8min: 55sec it shows Mårten recording some riffs for the song “Demiurge” on the new album Koloss. This was, of course, quite a surprise to me as it was not mentioned in any previous correspondence.
OLM: Are there any other guitarists out there that you feel inspired to build a guitar for? If so, which one(s) and what kind of guitar are you thinking?
SD: There are a few, for sure. I am working on a classic single cut at the moment, which I could definitely see in the hands of Jeff Martin from [Canadian band] The Tea Party. He is still recording solo albums and has always been one of my favorite guitar players. I would also love to build a guitar for Brendon Small, one of the creators of Dethklok. He writes all the music. I would love to build him a custom guitar and, in return, have it be animated into the show for an episode. It would bring together my love of metal and cartoons!
OLM: Do you take special orders? In other words, can anyone come to you with an idea for a guitar and ask you to build it?
SD: For sure! I have a website up Eirguitars.com where I can be contacted. Because my time is very valuable, I am very particular about what projects I will take on. My full time gig is as an instructor, so building is like art for me. If I don’t get something out of it creatively, I probably won’t do it. For instance, I won’t build copies of other guitars. I put as much into every guitar I build as I can muster, and that intent and hand crafted component is what is going to make it special to the individual. Every aspect will be tailored to the individual within a certain framework that I have developed as my aesthetic.
OLM: Ok, so you build guitars, but do you actually play them, too (other than checking playability/specs)?
SD: Heck yes! I love playing/song writing. It’s imperative that you play in order to know what your customer wants. Unless you’re stamping out strats you need to keep your chops up!
OLM: Did you ever have a desire to become a full-time guitarist, writing, recording, touring, etc, or do you prefer to be behind-the-scenes?
SD: I tend to be a more private person. I really like providing the tools for individual to express themselves through, and hopefully that energy will impact a lot of people in a positive way and I have participated in that relationship in some way. So mostly behind the scenes, but some small part of me would love to be screaming out with my foot up on a monitor in front of hundreds in a dark club.
OLM: What are some of your hobbies? What do you like to do when not working?
SD: I like to Photoshop-terrorize people on Facebook. And my wife and I love to read Eastern philosophy. Mostly to help put our daily drama into perspective. I watch a lot of cartoons and TED talks as well. I find myself staring at guitars and contemplating various aspects of them a lot.
OLM: The desert island question: if you were stranded on a desert island and could take the collected works of five artists, who would the five be?
SD: Jeff Martin of The Tea Party. I think that they were so underrated, but I find solace in their cult following. It probably preserved some of their “coolness” to have not gotten the accolades they deserved.
Maynard James Keenan. From Tool to Puscifer, I love listening to it all. I tend to like what I would classify as “epic” music and Tool personifies this.
Meshuggah. These albums are so complex I don’t know how you could ever get bored listening.
Bjork. She launched my love of European female vocalists.
Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains. I still listen to Dirt on a weekly basis and it’s been how many years? I would put him on my short list of guitarists I would love to build for.
OLM: Who are your guilty listening pleasures?
SD: I do like some dance rock like Justice. And I listen to a lot of chill music at home with my wife like Dido (who puts on one hell of a show I might add) and Bat For Lashes. Also, Jónsi of Sigur Rós.
OLM: How can people find out more information about your guitars, becoming a luthier and/or the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery?