Saturday, I hosted Chris Buono and Adam J. Wilson for a focus group session. Our mission was to evaluate two current areas of research: multi-scale fretless design, and Pisces™ tremolo performance.
We tested both of Adam’s fretless Spearfish™ guitars plus Pisces™ prototype through an extensive array of tube and solid state amps plus modeling: Roland Jazz Chorus, Carr, Fender ’64 Deluxe, AxeFx II.
Not many people in the world play fretless guitar, let alone exceptionally well, nor do many people build fretless guitars, let alone exceptionally well. Today, I got to hang with both varieties. With all that’s going on in the world, this was a welcome respite. (Adam J. Wilson)
In addition to intensive discussion, I was treated to several hours of duets and solo improvisation. You are already well familiar with Chris Buono and his mastery of the instrument. Adam is similarly gifted, employing a fascinating two handed fretless tap technique. He makes fretless shredding look absolutely effortless…micro-tones, scales, harmonies: eight fingertips on the fingerboard is just so fast.
A meeting of like-minded fretless freaks is a rare thing. This was an immensely important day for me on many fronts and will surely change how I approach fretless guitar going forward. (Chris Buono)
I have some new ideas for how to improve fretless design. Fretless is a tiny niche market of players who are super skilled and super dedicated to the almost limitless possibilities of a life without speed bumps.
Imagine the virtuosity of a solo violinist yet with the added capability of harmony.
Glorious day of exploration and learning. Most importantly…it was so good to see old friends in person. Magic happens when we share a space and music together.
Beneath the layers of upbeat major chord harmonies and deft pop production of a love song lies this image. Coiled, writhing. Existential terror as Emily Dickinson describes:
But never met this Fellow Attended or alone Without a tighter Breathing And Zero at the Bone.
“Serpentine” combined with “mind” is especially horrifying. Reptilian non-negotiable predatory purpose superimposed on (dwelling within) mammalian skull, our locus of empathetic warmth and compassion.
Excellent writing, Gabriel.
Throughout our evolution, what is the one predator from which there is no escape? The one predator capable of silently killing, even when we are hiding in treetops for safety, seeking protection from larger carnivores below?
I want to propose an hypothesis.
The hypothesis is this: crowd-sourcing safety is the evolutionary driver for language.
Let’s step back 2 million years for context. Fight, flight, freeze, fuck. Our basic survival responses to new external stimulus. Fight (including hunting), flight, and freeze are physical movements under the control of each individual. Fuck — sexual reproduction — is coordinated and negotiated chemically via pheromones.
None of these responses require vocalization.
However, what would? Two million years ago, what would be the single most useful tool to ensure our species survival?
“There’s a snake on the branch above you.”
The ability to transmit instantly an image directly from mind to mind using sound waves.
There is a multiplier effect when suddenly ten individuals with twenty eyes and twenty eardrums are coordinating information from ten locations and perspectives. Incredibly powerful survival mechanism. This is what drives the evolution of language.
Once Homo became fully erect and disconnected diaphragm control from breathing, our ability to develop complex nuanced language evolved exponentially. We now use and practice language as play, enriching our experiences across the entire spectrum of human activities.
However, the fundamental purpose underlying all linguistic development remains: safety.
I want to propose a second hypothesis.
Freedom of Speech is not only a moral right, Freedom of Speech is a biological imperative essential for human survival. Surrender that right at your peril.
When considered at the level of DNA replication and generational transference, all speech is useful, and all thoughts are useful. This is our species-wide survival mechanism of individuals broadcasting their unique perspective from their location. And as individuals, we assess the relative accuracy and urgency of that raw incoming data from other people…
Absolutely wonderful email last evening. My clients tend to be deeply kind and thoughtful human beings. I am very fortunate to have the privilege of sharing this bond of music with them. Thank you, Carl.
Happy New Year! It has been 6 months since I picked up ‘Declaration’ Spearfish. I have held off on writing this letter, as every time I began writing, I realized that I was still learning more about the guitar’s character. The full impact of this guitar has finally hit me.
Craftsmanship: The word that comes to mind is precision. Although the artistry of your guitars is what drew me in, what blew me away was the precision. The care you put into the build, and the perfection you strived to attain are clearly evident in every part of the guitar. As a hip and knee replacement surgeon with some experience in design, I especially appreciate the design/stability of the unique neck/body interface. This thing feels like it should be a part of a high-end military aircraft!
Ergonomics: My 10-year-old’s first response when I let him play the guitar was “why does this feel so easy to play?” This also sums up my feelings. The unconventional shapes and materials in this guitar hide the quite substantial considerations to size, weight, balance, and texture. Simply put, the result is an instrument which doesn’t get in the way of playing music. I find myself playing for longer periods of time, with less fatigue. The choices you have made with respect to neck shape, materials, and body shape constitute an unquestionably discernible advance in the ease and comfort of playing.
Versatility: An unexpected surprise, which took me a very long time to fully appreciate, was the breadth of sounds that could be created with ‘Declaration’ Spearfish. I have found myself playing less with pedals, now focusing more on the guitar’s native controls. Whatever magic you injected into the electronics and wiring, I love it.
Art: The art is what drew me to your guitars. Not sure if you remember, but when I asked you to take this guitar to wherever your imagination leads you, I suggested the words: elegant, industrial, strong, depth, and striking. You nailed it. Declaration is a stunning work of art. It is the clear expression of imagination, emotion, and freedom that art inspires.
So, in case you cannot tell, I love this guitar. It is extremely special to me, and I am very grateful that you have created it for me. Thank you, and keep pushing the limits!
Startled, I opened the door to a horseman dismounting his lathered chestnut mare. Early thirties. Auburn hair tied back in a short queue, rider’s clothing late 18th century. “Twenty eight miles and a swim from Independence Hall,” he said by way of introduction.
“Thomas Jefferson.” I scarcely breathed the name.
“Yes,” he replied.
He unbuckled his saddle bag and presented scarred timber — burn marks and bullet holes. “Given to me by a friend. Will you accept the responsibility of fashioning an instrument from this?”
I weighed the piece with my hands, history immediately visceral. I understood. “Not an artifact, a reminder. Much like your Declaration.”
“Which you have let slip through your fingers.”
“Me, personally? I build guitars. What do you expect me to do?”
Ferocious intelligence assessed me: my words, my physical self. Unbearable scrutiny of this experienced swordsman, blade in hand. “I gifted you a set of Principles. At full risk to Life and Fortune we fought to give you self-responsibility. We have granted you the freedom and the mandate to speak Truth.”
He continued. “Instead, I find an Empire of Lies.”
“A central bank — the Federal Reserve — which you have allowed to finance military expansionism around the globe. Recently you have purchased the finest pandemic borrowed money can provide, from patented disease to patented cure, while you cower in your homes, begging unelected bureaucrats for permission to live.”
I countered heatedly. “But isn’t this for the greater good? Export democracy to spread peace? Accept restrictions to protect the weak…how can you possibly suggest we ignore Science?”
“In both instances, correlation is not causation,” Thomas Jefferson stated.
“What if you were to discover reality is actually completely opposite the narrative you have accepted?” He looked directly in my eyes. “I submit you prove current regulatory actions are not exacerbating your circumstance. If you wish to follow scientific principles, you will begin with Marek’s disease.”
I countered, the phrasing as if memorized. “Many alive today believe hypocrisy as a slave owner cancels your words and actions.”
“It would seem the Age of Enlightenment is ended,” he noted. “What exactly passes for rational thought in your era?”
“Twitter mobs,” a sonorous voice quietly interjected.
Powerfully built black man of similar age stepped forward, and my two visitors warmly embraced. Thomas Jefferson turned to me, “May I present Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: It seems unreal as I relate this experience. And yet…
“Would you gentlemen mind if I pick up the thread and weave several strands into this cloth?” Dr. King asked. “Spiritual aspects underlie the purely logical and biological.”
“Slavery is a universal human condition. As far back as known in recorded human history, slavery has been the default: on every continent, across every race and culture. Continuing in many places today, including slavery of debt. The exception proves the rule. This one singular individual,” he indicated Thomas Jefferson, “in boldly stating ‘All Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’ established for the first time a framework recognizing the primacy of the Individual above the desires of the State.”
“There can be no Freedom without this principle.”
“Thomas, I deeply and sincerely thank you for this accomplishment you have wrought. You made my life, my work, possible.” Tears rolled down Dr. King’s face. Jefferson too was moved. I observed, fascinated.
“At the risk of being offensive, how do you reconcile your words — and works — with the treatment the both of you are said to have visited upon women: forced childbearing by slave Sally Hemings, marital infidelities against Coretta Scott?” I asked.
I held their gaze for a long minute of dead silence.
“A man is the product of his time,” Dr. King spoke slowly. “We cannot live outside historical context. In the words of God: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.‘”
Thomas Jefferson watched my reaction as I thought.
Then he asked, “Is it not more useful to value and build upon the greatest achievement of an individual?”
Luis Villarreal called to inform me his daughters had just been signed to Lava Records and would be recording their — as yet untitled — third studio album: autumn of 2020, in New Jersey, with producer David Bendeth.
“I’ll meet you and prep Dany’s personal Spearfishes for recording.”
“That would be wonderful. Thank you so much, Rick.”
After some thought, I decided to build two additional Spearfish™ guitars for her to use. Moria: a 24-fret ‘fish set up for drop D tuning. And Conquistador, this 22-fret Bare Knuckle pickups-driven light weight axe…which she fell in love with for soloing.
I made four trips to visit the band at their hotel and in the various studios, including one memorable day when Chris Buono joined us. Chris was also kind enough to lend Dany his personal Goshawk™ 6-string.
Ms. Villarreal was now equipped with four of my guitars for recording.
In addition, she used guitars from David Bendeth’s vintage collection. He has decades of experience with his specific instruments, knows their frequency mix slots well, and often pushes artists to use them extensively on albums he produces.
It is not an insignificant victory this album is exclusively a recording of Rick Toone builds plus select classic instruments from the 1950’s and 1960’s. I am deeply grateful to Daniela for insisting on using my guitars (and giving David a glimpse into my world).
A few months after recording I received a phone call from The Warning’s manager, Rudy Joffroy: “Rick, this is a courtesy call to let you know Dany will be pursuing endorsement deals with major guitar companies.”
As a solo builder, one thing I cannot provide artists is tour financing and major media exposure. Dedicating time and instruments I’ve built is…as much as I can gift. Sometimes, more than I can afford to give.
I love music, and I love to help artists develop.
I wish Dany the best of luck on her next steps. A beautiful afternoon she and I had together in her hotel conference room, listening to her playing and singing as I worked on the guitars, is a memory I treasure. Her voice in private, in person, is much more delicate and beautiful than anything I’ve yet heard recorded with the band. I do hope someday her more intimate playing is recorded for posterity. She is a major talent.
I also hope The Warning’s management team and Paul Reed Smith honorably attribute credit where it is due for the sound of the pending new album.
VIDEO: Gabriel Levi explores the newly rebuilt Spearfish™ Conquistador.
American cartoon artist Jim Woodring has such a uniquely awesome visual style. Awesome, in the truest sense of the word: inspiring awe. Hieronymus Bosch discovers psychedelics and is visited by those inter-dimensional elves who playfully transport his spirit to our current century.
I knew incorporating Jim’s art would be both honor and challenge. I knew also, that simply imitating his artistic style on the guitars themselves would not be enough…to merge two artists’ personalities would require each of us to enter one another’s domain.
Visual and metaphorical playfulness abounds.
The original idea was to take Jim Woodring’s personal view of my music and apply it to the Spearfish guitars, which are the perfect fit for me, allowing me to totally express myself through the instruments. Everything about the instruments is perfect. The way that the etching is incorporated into the guitar and the impeccable execution of the build are truly inspirational.
Thank you for taking this ethereal concept and making it a reality. Jim Woodring and his art are very personal to me and he even included me in the dedication section of one of his books. Combining that with your innovative and artistic philosophy of building has created truly inspirational functional works of art. You have given me something very special. The instruments have what Buddhists call the Given Power, an aggregate power that in all cases transcends the individuals.
What did fine arts painting look like at the moment of Picasso?
Killick Hinds has a significant history of recording with some of the most interesting artists. Players who are pushing limits and exploring boundaries.
Yesterday, I asked him if he wanted to record something together. I truly don’t believe you can fully understand Killick’s genius until you actually work with him.
“The interplay of Killick’s 8-string you built and the great range of the tremolo is very exciting. Your playing is exciting, love diving the vibrato at the end of a phrase — reminds me of cutting the power on a tape machine. Reminds me of Xenakis textural language. Excited to hear more of it and see how that thing is working!” (Andy Pitcher, StringJoy)