With or without Gibson, Detroit guitarmaker strikes chord with musicians

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — Maybe Gabriel Currie and Gibson can still make beautiful music together. Maybe the guitar craftsman in Detroit and the classic nameplate in Tennessee can resurrect a deal that seemed to have such promise when it was announced in July.

Maybe Currie can help Gibson return to its roots in Michigan.

Maybe Gibson will sue him.

Maybe it doesn't matter.

"We're artists," says Currie, 51, from his reclaimed cabinet factory on the city's west side. But Gibson Brands is a company.

Gibson has a history of grumbling about trademark infringement and even taking the occasional small fish to court, albeit with limited success. Currie is among those who've ignored demands to cease and desist, contending no one has exclusive rights to a V-shaped guitar.

Yet in a surprising midsummer about-face, Gibson contracted with Currie's Echopark Guitars to produce hand-crafted versions of Gibson designs such as the futuristic Explorer and Flying V.

A few overly enthusiastic headlines said Gibson would be building guitars in Michigan for the first time since it moved from Kalamazoo to Nashville in the early 1980s, numerous ownership changes after Orville Gibson began fashioning mandolins in 1894.

Currie and Gibson know better, but otherwise, he and the company have not been able to see eye to Inc. 

He says they have agreed to reconnect after the new year to see if they can be more harmonious. Gibson spokeswoman Libby Coffey says the hiatus comes at Echopark's request "while it attends to certain business matters," but "the parties will certainly revisit the anticipated collaboration in the spring."

Guitars produced and refurbished by Gabriel Currie of Echopark Guitars at his Old Redford shop.

It's difficult. He is passionate by nature, and when he took an online poke at Gibson last month for manufacturing some of its Epiphone line in Taiwan, he touched off a brief Instagram spat with famed guitarist and Gibson ambassador Joe Bonamassa that the company had to referee.

"The only thing I have that I can try to leave behind is a legacy of goodness," Currie says. "A little integrity, a lot of love."

What Gibson has, clout and reach and exposure, Currie is no longer sure he wants.

Under the fragile agreement struck this summer, the new guitars — none of which have been built — would not carry the Gibson name. They would be called Echopark Kalamazoo Spec, as in specifications, the tag Currie was using for similar products before he and Gibson became uneasy friends. 

Gibson offers no specifics about its compact with Currie; from Los Angeles, Coffey says only that it "launched a selective collaboration program" that includes Echopark, Jimmy Wallace Guitars of Garland, Texas, and Banker Custom Guitars. Currie says Gibson plans to sell his custom guitars for up to $15,000, taking a 20% royalty.

His top-end Echopark models typically sell for $3,500 to $10,000, online or by word of mouth, so it could be a profitable arrangement if the deal goes forward. But he says it's the opposite of his focus now, which has shifted to more affordable instruments and more access for kids.

It's the opposite of why he came to Detroit.

Guitar strings are seen inside Gabriel Currie's Echopark Guitars workshop in Old Redford.

Learning from masters

Currie grew up poor in northeast Los Angeles. His first guitar cost $15 at a pawn shop.

His father, Steve, was a civil engineer and artist who would set up an easel and paint after work at job sites. His mother's name, Corallia, is tattooed on his neck.

Currie did not inherit his dad's skill with a brush but discovered a gift for crafting and repairing guitars. He apprenticed after high school with one legend in the field, Leo Fender, and then worked with another, Tak Hosono.

Guitar maker Gabriel Currie works on an Echopark guitar.

He met his wife, Dawn Howdershell, through friends in Pasadena. While he is impulsive, he says, she makes lists.

She is rock 'n' roll enough, though, that her hair is vibrant shades of blue and green. She agreed with him that there were better places to raise their daughter, Petra, now 13. And she did not blanch when his heart and feet said the place to be was Detroit.

"We looked for a good five years," he says, in at least 10 spots from Washington to Washington, D.C. 

In August 2016, he took a look at Detroit from ground level, strolling the Cass Corridor and adjoining neighborhoods. "I'd literally walk from midnight to 4 a.m., just to test the waters."

He did not find trouble. He did come across the Raven Lounge at Chene and Farnsworth, home to "the sweetest sounds I've ever heard, and the best chicken I've ever had."

Six months later, the Curries were living in a 2,800-square-foot, 1920s stone Craftsman on a sprawling lot in Old Redford, a few minutes from the shop.

Friend and customer Chris Koltay, left, and Gabriel Currie test guitars in the Echopark amp room.

Affordable goal

In only two years, the shop seems to have accumulated a decade's worth of clutter.

Tiny parts, bits of wire, files, drills. Magazines, reference books, rolls of packing tape. A 15-foot-long slice of pine log, salvaged from the bottom of Lake Michigan and bound for glory.

"The whole catalyst for leaving LA was to hit a place where we could afford to share," Currie says.

A bonus was discovering Michigan wood.

The sinker logs, as they're known, are lightweight because they're pine and strong because they're petrified.

If you know where to look, Currie says, there's enough leftover silver maple and cherry and other treasures to create an entire line of $500 to $1,000 guitars without cutting down a tree or tampering with a Honduran rain forest.

Guitar maker Gabriel Currie works on an Echopark guitar.

Hand-finished but computer milled, "they'll be an affordable version of what we do now" — he, Jim Dugan and Eric Bernstorff, the friends and employees who moved east with him.

"My goals have changed," he says. "I want to produce an affordable, American-made guitar here in Detroit."

His plans are like a guitar body in the early stages of creation, rough but with evident potential.

One of the first things he and Howdershell did in Detroit was put on a benefit concert at the Redford Theatre starring his friend, Jackson Browne, using the money to start the Old Redford Community Arts Foundation.

The foundation has held family nights at the theater, hired musicians to play local festivals and done small projects with kids.

He wants to do more of all of it, plus encores. A small music shop, maybe. Something to replicate the rec centers that gave him places to go and grow no matter how little money his family had.

Through guitars, he has bonded with Vince Paul, president of the Music Hall in Detroit and owner of eight six-strings and a banjo.

The Music Hall's latest push for music education is at Marygrove College, Paul says. They use performance opportunities as a goal, perhaps at lunch or a cafe, "and Gabe will come through with 20 guitars. We can borrow almost on request."

"I've actually dinged up a few guitars in the loaning process," Paul says. "Instead of saying he'll never do that again, he just rolls with it."

One of the many guitars made by Gabriel Currie of Echopark Guitars.

'A true artist'

It helps, Paul concedes, that Currie is one of the top 10 or 20 luthiers in the country. It's not as though he has to outsource the repairs.

A large number of big names have discovered his small operation, with its six-to-12-month waiting period and maximum capacity of a few hundred instruments a year: Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Royal Oak native Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age, Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke, David Catching of Eagles of Death Metal, and so on through the pages of music magazines.

"Gabriel is a true artist," Starr tells Guitar Player. "His attention to detail is incredible, particularly the neck profile, body weight, and even the resonance and tone. A lot of the wood he uses is really old growth — 300- to 500-year-old mahogany and korina."

On Wednesday morning, Chris Koltay of High Bias Recordings in Corktown comes by to pick up a 1961 Fender Jazzmaster that has resisted two previous renovations.

Koltay plugs into an amplifier, strums for only a few seconds, and stops. "Amazing," he says. "It's never played like this."

Currie has just rolled in, in his usual uniform — a rock band T-shirt bedecked in cat hair. But he and Koltay are immediately in tune, talking instruments and musical history and passion.

"The first chord. That's where the truth is told," Currie says.

That's the focus. Whether he and Gibson can string each other along, the craftsman and the company, remains to be seen. Or heard.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn