Danny Ransom spent the first six months of his career tediously making deformed electric guitars for $10 each.
Today, he creates near-perfect instruments, veritable works of art, that sell for as much as $4,000 to a list of clients that includes some of the world's best-known musicians.
The average large-scale guitar manufacturer can produce one guitar body and a dozen guitar necks in about seven minutes. But a craftsman like Ransom spends several days, sometimes weeks, on a single instrument.
"These huge companies pour out these glossy ads that say, 'We build the most perfect machine in the world,' and most of their stuff is junk," Ransom said. "I've had to make sure every instrument is right."
Ransom, 36, has been in the guitar-making business 13 years. He has made guitars for members of the Grateful Dead, Santana and Alabama. Laurie Anderson and Jean Luc Ponty play $4,000 synthesizer violins he made for a company called Zeta.
Experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser bought one of Ransom's Stratocaster-style guitars last year from a friend. He said Ransom understands the complexities of the instrument and how the different parts interact.
"He's very sensitive to all those things that go beyond most guitar makers," Kaiser said. "It's just a versatile, expressive instrument."
An independent contractor, Ransom works out of a sawdust-strewn studio adjacent to "Real Guitars," a collector's guitar store in the city's South of Market district.
There was a time when Ransom was low man on the guitar-maker totem pole. He first worked for a huge custom guitar manufacturer, now defunct, initially making what he calls "the worst garbage."
Then 23, he was hired because one of the staff workers had a habit of taking LSD on the job and "talking to the tools."
"The day the bandsaw turned into a serpent was the day I was brought in," Ransom recalled. "They stuck me in a room with a bunch of tools, handed me a guitar and said, 'Make these.' "
His first guitars took weeks to build and earned him a whopping $10 each. They were stacked up and sold as seconds or thrown out.
Bursts Into Flames
One particular guitar stands out in his memory. It was the first time he had completed a carved top for a Les Paul-style guitar. The final touches required a butane torch, and one of his bosses decided to show him how it was done.
"At first, it got these little red embers, like little coals burning on it," Ransom said. "I said, 'Do you know what you're doing?' He said, 'Shut up, of course I do.' Then the glue line started to lift off and the thing burst into flames right in front of us.
"If you can imagine putting out a fire with coffee cups. . . . This is like watching your child burn."
Things started to pick up after other workers began teaching him. Ransom said the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar lies in the details, such as the curves in the wood and placement of the finger board and joints.
"There's a real learning that goes on with figuring out detail. The better you can adapt your eye to detail, the better you will get at whatever you do in terms of craft. That's really what I got from some of the people who helped me early on."
His guitars, usually Stratocaster and Telecaster styles, are made mostly of alder, ash and maple. Ransom often visits lumber yards, armed with density and moisture meters, to find the right wood. Soft woods, such as mahogony, tend to give off more mid-range sound while harder woods, such as poplar, produce the higher, treble sounds.
He has ebony shipped from India, rosewoods from Brazil and swamp ash from Louisiana.
Ransom traces the guitar bodies and necks on templates, cuts them out on a bandsaw, then screws the templates back on. He runs the body off on a pin router. Finally, instruments are shaped and sanded, and the elbows and bellys are cut by hand.
As a lithography major at San Francisco State in the 1970s, Ransom had planned to become a cabinetmaker. Prior to that, his experience working with wood was in making matchstick holders and other "goofy little things" when he was a Cub Scout.
Although he is an admitted "Deadhead"--Grateful Dead fan--Ransom is not much of a musician. He sees that as more of an asset than a liability for a maker of electric guitars and violins.
"The guitar builders who have an understanding of music but aren't players tend to be much more versatile in their building and are much more involved in the quality of their instrument, not just the sound or the playability, but the overall quality."