The Guitar Doctor

Originally published on September 23, 2008

Small pliers, wrenches, screwdrivers, a vise, chemicals and intensely bright lamps cover this working man’s table like confetti. Mark Erlewine is cradling a vintage Fender Jazzmaster .

“It’s certainly been altered. The finish is worn. The controls aren’t working properly,” he says. “The foam under the pickup needs to be replaced, and so will the strings. The frets, too.”

Every guitar that’s been played hard, busted over someone’s head or is just plain old needs the TLC, knowledge and craftsmanship of someone like Erlewine. People have doctors, horses their vets and guitar players depend on their luthiers to keep them strumming. The steel-guitar-playing Erlewine, 57, is that man, and he’s been doing it for almost 40 years.

Many remember him from his original shop on the Drag, 3004 Guadalupe St., where he started repairing and making guitars for musicians far and wide, including Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Ted Nugent, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bo Diddley and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“Willie once told me as long as I kept Trigger going, his career would keep going,” he says about the beloved Martin N-20 classical guitar distinguished by a hole Nelson has created with his heavy playing and frequent use. Erlewine has lost count of how many times he’s braced the wood to strengthen the wood around the hole.

On this morning at his workshop where Burnet Road and 45th Street meet, however, he’s working on a 1978 Jazzmaster owned by James Faron of Austin. To determine “where’s it’s been” he uses a 6-inch metal ruler to “measure the action,” that is, the height of a guitar string at the 12th fret. Then, he inspects the neck, using a straight edge.

For two weeks or so, he will work on and off with the guitar – that’s how it’s done, especially when he applies glue or lacquer to the finish that requires more than a day to dry. Faron’s guitar, which he found online, also will need the electronics (potentiometers) to be repaired or replaced, the foam on the pickup (the electric component that picks up the sound of the guitar strings) replaced, as well as the guitar strings and 21 frets (metal pieces across the fingerboard of the neck).

It’s an overhaul. “To make it play and be pretty again,” says Faron. Because the owner intends to sell it, Erlewine saves all the old parts of the guitar. A collector who will display it, not play it, will demand everything original.

All Erlewine’s ever known is music or guitars. He picked up his first guitar when he was 14 and joined his first band at 19.

He’s from Ann Arbor, Mich., where in 1969 he served as an apprentice for his cousin Dan Erlewine, who’d made a name for himself in the guitar repair industry. At the time, Mark Erlewine was playing at honky-tonks in the Detroit area. A fellow musician, James Machin, visited Austin in 1973 and called Erlewine. “You have to bring your shop here,” he told him. “This is the mecca of country music.”

Erlewine moved here in 1974 to find an eclectic music scene at places like the Armadillo World Headquarters, the Soap Creek Saloon in Westlake Hills and The Split Rail, which was near Barton Springs Road and Lamar Boulevard. He joined the New Oso Band that backed up the rockabilly Reynolds Sisters. “In those days a young guy could play music till midnight, because that’s when the bars closed, and run a guitar shop during the day,” he says.

His rent at his shop at on Guadalupe Street – next to a massage parlor that the vice squad visited often – was $135 a month. “Crazy, wonderful times. Austin was a small, home-grown community of music. Willie was just getting here. B.W. Stevenson, Plum Nelly, the Dixie Diesels and Freda & the Firedogs were playing around town.”

The hard life of a touring musician – the Reynolds Sisters gig took him around Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma – took its toll. “For my sanity and health, I realized that I had more control over my life in a shop that playing on the road,” he says.

His guitar playing days, however, were not over. In 1981, he played pedal steel guitar for the number “Leila” on ZZ Top’s “El Loco” album. For years, he’d been friends with the band’s Billy Gibbons and made several guitars for him.

That’s the other big part of Erlewine’s business ( . He’s made more than 1,000 guitars through the years, including his trademark “Chiquita” traveling guitar that he designed with Gibbons. Christopher Cross purchased a custom left-handed guitar for Paul McCartney. John Lennon ordered one a week before he was killed, but it was never made.

As you would expect from someone who works with musicians, Erlewine has stories to tell. A couple of years ago, a married couple walked in. The man was toting a black trash bag. Inside was his Martin in pieces, thanks to his wife, who used it on his head to make a point. “The couple was going through counseling and were trying to mend their relationship. That was touching. Part of the process was fixing the guitar that she broke over his head,” he says.

A West Texas family brought him a small Martin acoustic guitar made in 1853. “Their great, great grandfather was a Confederate officer. The guitar was his only companion in a prison camp. They wanted me to refurbish it. That’s the fun part of this job, doing the research on an old guitar and then applying what you know to fixing it,” he says.

Speaking of research, Erlewine often does work for collectors and insurance companies who want documentation on guitars. Once, he did an evaluation on a $75,000 1958 Gibson Les Paul, using several “blue” books and the Internet. “The work allows me to delve into my library to look at a guitar’s dimensions and the materials used to make it,” he says.

He prefers fixing them. “It’s an immediate, simple gratification for me, even a kind of therapy. The physical alteration of any instrument to play and sound better is a pleasure for the customer.

“For me, it’s worth a lot to being happy at something you like to do.”