Jack Grassel and Dan Smocke Interview: Building the Perfect Guitar
May 1, 2011
By: Matt Warnock
Photos: Courtesy of J. Grassel
With the decline of Gibson and Fender over the years, two things have happened to the guitar industry, there has been a dramatic rise in more affordable, foreign-made guitars, and the private, small luthier market has also grown in leaps and bounds. There is something about working one-on-one with a master maker that turns a normal guitar into a piece of treasured art. Jazz guitar virtuoso Jack Grassel recently teamed up with luthier Dan Smocke to build Jackʼs perfect guitar, and the resulting instrument is absolutely first rate.
Guitar International sat down with Jack Grassel and Dan Smoke to talk about this unique, one of a kind guitar and just what went into building such a stellar instrument.
Matt Warnock: Can you give us a quick rundown of how you two met and how this project initially came about?
Jack Grassel: I met Dan about 30 years ago, he took a couple guitar lessons from me. Then, we didnʼt see each other for about 28 years.
Dan Smocke: I had moved around the country for my day job for many years, then my wife and I relocated back to Milwaukee. We went to see Jack play a concert in Kenosha with his wife Jill Jenson, and thatʼs how I got back together with Jack. I reminded him who I was, he vaguely remembered me, [Both Laugh], and we took it from there.
Jack Grassel: I caught a local player on one of Danʼs 8-string guitars one night, and I didnʼt know Dan built guitars. Dan asked if I would like him to build a guitar for me, and I thought it would be a great idea. I have about eight guitars and not one of them does everything I want a guitar to do. I took eight guitars over to Danʼs house and told him what I liked and didnʼt like about each instrument. I also took over my Grandfatherʼs mandolin from1900 and Dan ended up copying the inlays from that instrument and using it on the new guitar.
Matt: Was the design inspired only by these eight guitars, or did you also have other ideas come to you after you started working on the instrument?
Dan Smocke: Initially, because of my background with Jack, I knew what kind of sound he wanted to get to some degree. I take that into consideration, what kind of tone and sound the player wants. Then I took notes about what Jack liked and didnʼt like from each guitar and came up with a master list of items that I felt needed to go into the instrument. Jack wanted the body shape to be like a Fender Jaguar because that was the most comfortable guitar for him, so thatʼs where it started, with the shape of the Jaguar. Then we incorporated all of those other elements along the way.
Jack Grassel: Weʼd get together night after night to work on the body shape. I would go over to his place, put the guitar on and then get a sense for how it felt. Where the guitar felt uncomfortable, Dan would carve a little piece of wood out until it was perfectly formed to my body shape. Itʼs carved exactly to my ribcage and right harm. Then, after I brought it home I realized that my right leg was touching the guitar a bit so I brought it back and Dan carved that section out a little bit as well.
Matt: So you canʼt grow anymore Jack, thatʼs it. [All Laughing]
Jack Grassel: Everybody wears different sized shoes, different sized shirts and pants, so why not have a guitar carved out to match your body like any other custom designed product? After that we worked on balancing the guitar by moving around the strap buttons until we found the perfect place so that my left hand wasnʼt holding up the guitar at all, itʼs perfectly balanced in my hands.
Dan Smocke: That was critical, where we took those cuts off the wood in the back and the front. It was like building a tailored suit for someone, it was a very cool and unique experience.
Matt: What was the inspiration behind putting the tuning pegs facing the floor on the headstock?
Jack Grassel: When you go down with your left hand to tune the bottom three strings on a Strat for example, it results in a big, unflattering arm movement thatʼs really unnecessary. If you want to make a quick tuning adjustment, say in one beat of music, you can only do that with all the tuning pegs on the bottom of the headstock.
Dan Smocke: This is the first time Iʼve tried to build a headstock this way. I asked Jack the same thing, and he explained it just like that and it made perfect sense. Itʼs so easy to tune, you can do it so quickly, that I think my next guitars will have that same headstock design going forward.
Matt: From the pictures Iʼve seen of the guitar, it looks like you have a wooden pickguard and a wooden bridge. Why did you choose to go with wood for these parts of the guitar?
Dan Smocke: There are two reasons. The first is that Jack wanted as little metal and plastic on the guitar as possible. The second reason is aesthetics. We both like the look of wood, to keep things simple, minimalized. Jack didnʼt want it to stand out too much, just to be very functional and beautiful. We used the same piece of Bubinga wood to build those parts, so that they would match as close as possible to the body.
Matt: Thereʼs also a small switch right next to the volume knob, what is that?
Jack Grassel: The reason I did that is the same reason the tuning pegs are on the bottom of the headstock. Where the toggle switch is now, I can go back and forth between pickups, for harmonics and normal notes, so fast that in the same phrase I can go between the two without any catches. The whole guitar was designed so that I can play with as little effort as possible.
Matt: The input jack is also in a unique place. Why did you choose to put it up on the guitar, rather than on the front like a Gibson or underneath like a Tele?
Jack Grassel: I donʼt sit down when I play, and I move around. I stand all the time when I play, and as a result there must be 50 times in the middle of a solo I stepped on my cord and pulled it out of my guitar. So now, the cord is as far from my right foot as possible. [Laughs] If you think about it, the first thing a guitarist does when they plug in is wrap the cord around their strap so they donʼt step on it, this eliminates that hassle.
Matt: Which pickups did you end up using in the guitar?
Jack Grassel: That choice goes back to the ‘60s Guild Bluesbird that I have with the old humbuckers in it. Thatʼs my favorite sounding guitar. When I took that guitar over to Dan I told him I wanted those pickups. I had a hard time finding those pickups, one I bought from a guy in England, so it was hard to find those ʼ62 Guild pickups to go in this guitar.
Dan Smocke: These pickups posed a problem when we went to put them in. I found that the screws were all different sizes, so we ended up locking them in, so you canʼt adjust them, and did a direct mount right into the body.
Jack Grassel: The first guy to do this was Eddie Van Halen, that I know of, where he just screwed his pickups right into the body. There were no springs, just the pickups going right into the wood.
Matt: The guitar has 22 frets. Why did you go with 22 and not 23 or 24?
Jack Grassel: It has to do with where the pickup is mounted. I really donʼt think you can get a good jazz sound if you mount the pickup where it would need be on a 23 or 24 fret guitar. Fender and Gibson mount their pickups where they do for a reason, right under a very specific harmonic. The Gibson Barney Kessel model went even more the other way, I think there are 18 frets on it and the pickup is on the other side of the E harmonic, so that has a totally different sound as well.
Dan Smocke: The 8-string I built has 22 frets and the 7-string has 23 frets, which was an experiment. I donʼt really think that you get the sound you need with that extra fret. I think Jackʼs got a good point here.
Matt: What woods did you use for the guitar?
Jack Grassel: Iʼve got a Warwick bass that has the same wood scheme, itʼs got a Wenge neck and a Bubinga body. I thought it would be great to have a guitar like that, however my Guild has a Rosewood fingerboard and I think that Rosewood has a better sound than Maple or Ebony. It wears quicker but I think it sounds better. I love the feel of the Wenge neck, there is no finish on the guitar anywhere. When you touch the guitar youʼre touching wood.
Dan Smocke: When Jack brought the wood to me it was just beautiful. The Wenge was really interesting to work with. It cuts like Pine, it reminded me of very old Pine wood thatʼs 50 or 60 years old. It was easy to cut, smelled wonderful, but it was rock hard. Thatʼs the difference between that and Pine. When I was doing the inlay it was like cutting butter, so I had to be very careful. The Bubinga is a harder wood and it sustains very well, which is another reason why Jack likes that wood, the sustain. Jack has perfect pitch so he was able to tell me that the wood rang an E when we rapped on it. [Both Laughing]
Matt: What kind of frets did you choose to go with on the guitar?
Jack Grassel: The frets are very small, stainless steel frets. One thing that bothers me is when I get a guitar working well and then the frets start buzzing. These frets are hard to work with, but now that theyʼre set up and working perfectly theyʼll never wear down. So that was another practical choice when it came to which parts I went with for the guitar.
Matt: Have you had a chance to bring it out on a gig and really test it out yet?
Jack Grassel: Itʼs pretty new, so I just took it out to one gig. I only had it for one week before the gig. Thatʼs something I wouldnʼt normally do, I normally play a guitar for 6 months before I work with it. I noticed a few small things, so Dan tweaked it a bit and now itʼs absolutely perfect. I canʼt wait to get it out on another gig.
Matt: Is this guitar going to replace all of your other guitars?
Jack Grassel: Yeah, I think this is my go to guitar going forward. I actually sold a guitar since I got this one, so itʼs time to reduce my inventory. [Laughs]
View more of the interview at: http://guitarinternational.com/?s=Dan+Smocke
Jack Grassel JG-1 Guitar Specs
• Hand carved solid one piece bubinga body based on Jaguar shape.
• Wenge neck
• Rosewood fingerboard
• 10-16” fingerboard radius
• 24-¾” scale neck
• Hand carved compensated bubinga bridge
• Custom abalone inlay based on 1920ʼs Gibson format.
• Pickups-1960ʼs Guild Humbuckers
• All wooden parts made from same piece of Bubinga; knobs, pickguard, bridge.
• Bubinga Dual Concentric Stacked Volume and Tone Control
• Bridge pickup placed directly under second harmonic
• Miniature toggle switch
• Body from a 20”x14”x2” piece of Bubinga
• Finger rest set 5/16” below top E string, glued to body.
• Control knob and switch strategically placed at upper bout to diminish arm movement to expedite playing.
• Natural Velvit Oil Finish
• Body Thickness 1-15/16”
• Body weight 9lb.
• Weight of guitar 14lbs
• Patent Pending “Tail Less String Mount System” with strings placed at 11 degree angle.
• The distance of the pickguard to the top of the fingerboard: .409”.
• The distance of the left edge of the pickguard to the right edge of the top E string: 427”.
• The height of the pickup had to be slightly below the top of the finger-rest.