Detroit’s evolution and growth — and affordable real estate — has drawn talented newcomers to the city from award-winning chefs to recent art school graduates.
The latest pair of skilled hands Detroit has lured away from a bigger, glossier town are those of luthier Gabriel Currie. He’s moved his high-end guitar and amp company, Echopark Guitars, from Los Angeles to the Old Redford neighborhood where he will alter his business model a bit to offer more services for guitarists at all levels.
“There’s no freedom as an artist and as a business owner in Los Angeles at a level that I’m at, which is micro micro,” he said. “I wanted to kind of get out and see if I can do what I think I can do elsewhere, you know, with a little less pressure. Everybody just runs around town in Los Angeles killing themselves to do this or do that, make connections ... do this deal.”
Besides bringing his business to town, Currie also wants to be involved with the growth of the Old Redford neighborhood.
His first move is inviting his friend, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne, to perform a benefit concert at the Redford Theater, just steps away from the shop. Details are still being worked out, Currie said, but the concert is scheduled for Aug. 10.
He also has his eye on the Old Redford Resource Center, a former Masonic Temple, that he thinks would be a good place to hold rock concerts.
With all the musicians in Metro Detroit, a new guy who can fix and build guitars is welcome, and Currie brings with him some real expertise and a stunning resume. He learned his craft from Leo Fender, one of the founders of the modern electric guitar. Currie started as an apprentice at the iconic company under Fender and guitar manufacturing pioneer George Fullerton in the late 1980s, just after high school.
After Fender died in 1991, Currie went on to learn from Tak Hosono, who worked for Ibanez and did custom creations for Frank Zappa. Currie describes Hosono as “the guitar guru in Los Angeles.”
“He taught me the art of hand-building guitars,” said Currie of Honsono. “He taught me about laminating different woods and how and why ... and all of the various techniques in guitar building.”
After starting Echopark Guitars less than a decade ago, his client list grew to include the members of Aerosmith and Queens of the Stone Age (including Detroit native Dean Fertita), plus Browne and Johnny Depp.
The L.A. native has handmade guitars that have been played and custom made for some of the top rock and roll guitar players, including Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. His line of guitars — which take design elements from Fender and Gibson styles — start at a few thousand and run well over $10,000.
For now, at his Detroit shop, a former cabinet factory just steps from the historic Redford Theater, Currie will focus on repairs and services.
“I never did this in Los Angeles,” said Currie, explaining that he’s done vintage restoration and high-end repair work, but did not make his skills accessible to the everyman. “I’ve never offered that because I’ve always done the manufacturing side, but I thought coming here it would be a good way to kind of get into touch with the public, you know, get on the ground floor and interact with the musicians here, professional musicians and not.”
Amp expert Eric Bernstorff and Jim Dugan, who specializes in acoustic guitars, have joined Currie from Los Angeles. They will lend their expertise at the Detroit shop, along with Metro Detroit guitarist Jason T. Portier.
Detroit’s Echopark Guitars is still being set up, but he’s taking repairs now. A grand opening of the studio is planned for July.
Besides offering services at his shop in Old Redford, Currie plans to work with Third Wave Music, an instrument store near Wayne State University, to offer affordable and fast guitar and amp repair.
“I’m excited to see what Echopark does here,” said Third Wave Music owner Jen David.
While Detroit has always been a musical town, she said the music retail business in Detroit is slowly catching back up to make life easier for musicians within city limits.
“Gabriel has shared some plans for nonprofit programming, new takes on guitar making and we will be working together on making guitar and amp repair done fast and affordable in the city,” David said.
Currie, who also has experience in construction and restoration, bought a house in the Old Redford neighborhood not far from the shop and is in the process of moving in. Later, his wife and daughter also will make the trek from California.
“I wanted to buy my wife a house, but I couldn’t afford it Los Angeles, I would never be able to,” he said. “Plus, I have a real love for historic architecture and homes.”
It was Currie’s wife, Dawn Howdershell, who encouraged him to get back into the guitar-making business after he quit to play music and later work in historic restoration.
At first he protested, saying it would take a lot of money to start his own business.
Start small, she said, so he did. Curry bought enough wood to make one guitar and put some tools on a credit card. Fast forward to 2016, and Echopark Guitars is doing a half million dollars in sales a year, he said.
Now a Detroiter, Currie appreciates little things about the area that lifelong residents may take for granted, like the slower pace of life here than in Los Angeles and how stress-free transportation is, from the simplicity of Detroit Metropolitan Airport to the unclogged highways.
“Driving around here I thought ‘what holiday is it?’ ” he said, “there’s nobody on the roads.”
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