Love of rock music inspired Bill Riegel to become a renowned luthier
The electric guitar, created in the early 1950s, may have been the most powerful middle-class U.S. export of the 20th century. Not only did it generate a market for a new variation on a traditional acoustic instrument, it opened the doors to musical freedom and cultural integration.
Use of the electric guitar began in urban clubs, then quickly spread to suburban basements and garages.
As rock ’n’ roll was born, so was the movement that shared the message over the U.S. airwaves. Unrestrained content and American genres – blues, gospel, country and folk – blended with the powerful electrified sound of the new solid-body instruments manufactured by U.S. companies such as Danelectro and Fender. The new music spread across mainstream America and out of the country, stimulating a revolution in popular music. The wildly popular genre created a competitive market for affordable, mass-produced American-made variations of the instrument and the amplification supporting it on stage.
Bill Riegel of Dolores, Colo., was listening to it all in Pennsylvania, where he was born. “I was a teenager and the great musicians were there,” he says. “I heard the blues in Philly and when the Beatles were getting big, my dad got me a guitar. Everywhere my family moved the musicians were there. I got to hear them. But I was interested in race cars then, not in playing guitar.”
Still, the music affected him deeply. He lived rock ’n’ roll history on the East Coast, and tells stories of the musicians he knows. Riegel is modern, yet he speaks easily in the many music vernaculars that describe groups and singers, celebrities, tunes, equipment and context – how it was to be there decades ago when music’s power was unleashed and began to impact social change in the U.S.
It was these rich experiences that would shape his life and later career as an electro-age luthier capable of repairing the finest Fender Stratocaster or the most humble four-string acoustic guitar.
By the time Riegel finally made his way to Las Vegas he was an experienced auto mechanic, using his skills to repair hot rods and slot machines. He also hung out with friends at sleazy bars, he says. It was where the music was happening, “the heyday of rock ’n’ roll.” It was also where his career repairing instruments began, as professional musicians learned of his mechanical skill.
A box with strings
Since then, and his subsequent 1994 move to Dolores, his reputation has grown. Demand for his services keeps him busy in his studio shed adapting, repairing, inventing, re-creating and resurrecting instruments for clients who live and work throughout the U.S.
Guitars hang in a long row on the wall above a slot machine and some vintage amplifiers. His appreciation of the craftsmanship and the musicality of each one is apparent when he lifts down his favorites to explain a small detail, a fine repair, or an odd adaption.
He has his favorite manufacturers, too. According to Riegel, Danelectro is one of the foundation companies of the embryonic rock ’n’ roll technology. “They’ve been around since the late ’40s producing tube amplifiers for Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck,” he explains. He keeps an eye out in ga rage sales and thrift stores for 20-30 tube amplifier / speakers because the sound is in demand again today. “They’re getting harder to find, though, now, that the word is out.”
A recent check on ebay shows a “buy it now” price for a Danelectro, Special Model, Tube Amplifier for $895 and yet another 1964 Danelectro Vintage Tube Amplifier for $3,199.99.
Rock ’n’ roll shed
The approach to Riegel’s working studio, now located closer to Cortez, feels like a throwback visit to Grandpa’s work shed. But cross the threshold and you are surrounded by working music history scattered throughout the well-organized space. Big shallow dishes holding tuning pegs sit beneath the wall of finished guitars waiting to be picked up by clients. A Fender telecaster headstock hangs near a solid-core electric body and a new handmade copper dobro model shines on the work bench, soup-pot lid – the potential resonator – resting upside down on top.
Everywhere are instruments stripped of strings and necks, curved body-part patterns, materials like masonite and sheet metal, 2-by-4s, clamps, tools, pickup kits, bridges, strings and all the equipment needed to construct an experimental guitar or repair a beloved vintage acoustic, the stuff dreams are made of if you’re a rock ’n’ roll fanatic.
Rich Talbot, bass player in the local band Big Money and the Corporate Citizens, owns a few Riegel guitars. “He’s a creative genius,” Talbot says. “I don’t know where his ideas come from but his guitars keep a whole lot of us going and impact our musical inspiration. If you like what you’re playing on, it is inspiring.”
Riegel’s reputation as a modern luthier is equal to his renown as a rock ’n’ roll historian. He knows the history of the instruments, companies, musicians and sound equipment and is also an accomplished musician – not on guitar, as his father had hoped, but on harmonica.
“I never practiced enough to play the guitar well. It involved a lot of time to play those chords, but the black musicians in Vegas taught me harp. They told me to play one note at a time. That fit. I could practice one note at a time. Learn it.”
Today he’s a well-known player with local bands. According to Louie Martinez, percussionist for the classic rock ’n’ roll group Not Quite Dry, “This summer I got a first-hand experience to actually play music with Bill. He joined in on harp. He’s one hell of a player. I feel that he should be commended for all of his work, his knowledge, awesome abilities and his works of guitar art. I take my friends there to meet him. He deserves a lot of respect.”
Martinez appreciates Riegel’s craftsmanship. “I don’t play one of Bill’s guitars, I’m a drummer. But I recently took my banjo to him to have him work on it. As always, he did an amazing job on it.”
Riegel said he used the sheet metal in an old refrigerator to make his first guitar from scratch. “It was like the next generation of metal guitars,” he says. “Now, I see some piece of scrap and I just want to pick it up and do something with it.”
He picks up his latest art guitar from the work bench, plugs it in the amplifier, plays some slide notes on the strings. Sound explodes in the space. It is surprising because the instrument body is small, the size of a vintage Colorado license plate he found at Belt Salvage, south of Cortez. A week later it’s listed on ebay and sells in a few days, described as “A license plate guitar handmade by me, 6 String Lap Style, Short Scale, Volume, Tone, Pick up, Sounds Good. Decorated with a vintage Colorado License plate. Great little conversation-starter. Works great. Shipping is flat rate $30, but I will refund the difference if it is less.”
The material he needs for the traditional fine wood guitars and headstocks he fabricates is getting harder to find and afford. Like most luthiers today, he sources materials from creative places, like the old maple headboard he used a few years back. “It had been around a long time. It was dry and quality. To harvest it today means finding wood in California or sometimes the rain forests,” he explains.
In January, the Moetones and Big Money and the Corporate Citizens played a fundraising gig at the Phil Hall in Shiprock, N.M. The Riegel guitars were there. The Moetones had two on stage.
Although Talbot didn’t play his that night, he says his favorite Riegel is a Fender Strat and Mustang double-neck, short scale. “The Mustang neck was 2 ½ inches longer than the Strat, yet somehow Riegel figured it out,” Talbot says. “It’s a fantastic instrument. Bill’s an incredible fabricator. He built the body and attached the necks and I turn down offers on it all the time. His work just fits in my hand. Never seen anything like it.”
Sometimes people have a request that pushes Riegel’s limits. Recently a local musician asked him to make a guitar out of a Jeep grill. “He loves his Jeep. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I always do. It’s always a challenge.”
It was important to Riegel’s creative process to expand on some of the traditional approaches used by European luthiers. No idea is turned away in his shed. The equipment evolves as the sound requirements evolve. That’s Riegel’s comfort zone.
However, he admits he’s reserved about the Steampunk movement. “I’ve made some Steampunk guitars. They started on the coast, and showed the in fluence of steam generators, brass, copper gauges. I sold a few at Rocky Mountain One Stop, some in Cali and Vegas, but today lots of the Steampunk are covered in useless gears and just about anything to make it suggest the Victorian era, steam power, Jules Verne, anything.”
Steampunk has been around since the ’80s. Some critics contend that the genre is only a fantasy of recycled culture, mash-up history and design, the antithesis of “form follows function,” or purpose beyond decoration.
“The extra stuff ’s just not there for any reason,” adds Riegel, “It’s not me.”
The human hand plays the instrument. Riegel says he never forgets that. “The musician makes the music. I don’t think a guy has to have a million-dollar guitar to make good music.
“A lot of the luthiers have no respect for the work I do. Besides doing classic repair work I really like just going back to the old days when the instruments were mass-produced and available to everyone through department stores.”
Inclusiveness, equality and accessibility are key to the genres he loves. His guitars have that rock ’n’ roll and blues energy built in.
Talbot describes Riegel as more than a technical artist. “He’s an enigma. You go over to his shed with something that needs fixing and the talk can turn to anything. His depth of understanding of any subject is always there.”
Riegel disappears into a side room of his shed, returning with the inside wheels of a slot machine.
“I repaired them in Vegas. See these notches? They determine your odds, in multiples – ten here, a hundred here and thousands in the last wheel. The guy that invented them didn’t intend for them to have more notches, or the odds banked against the player by adding more notches, but it happened.”
With that thought, Riegel plants the seeds of change. What music will come from his guitars? Who will play them as they get passed along? Will musicians be seeking craftspeople to repair his body of work?
In any of these scenarios, musicians in the Four Corners will be able to say, as he has said, “I was there when he made this. Here’s what he did.”