The Buddy Holly “RT-43-45” Guitar Project

written by Rick Turner

Buddy Holly Guitar_BIt’s official:  we are building 18 guitars for the Buddy Holly Guitar Foundation, a new non-profit organization dedicated to furthering Buddy Holly’s legacy as a singer/songwriter/guitarist and the cause of music education.

The story starts for us in 1990 when I restored Buddy’s 1943 Gibson J-45 for actor/performer Gary Busey who had bought the guitar at a Sotheby’s auction for $275,000.00 after playing the title role in the movie, “The Buddy Holly Story.” The guitar was in rough shape; there was a side crack going completely around the guitar body from upper bout of the treble side, through the end block, and back up to the upper bout of the bass side. Complicating the repair was the tooled leather cover that Buddy himself had made and sewed onto the body of the guitar in emulation of Hank Snow’s guitar…or was it Elvis’ guitar? Reports conflict! But Buddy was a dedicated amateur leather worker, did all the work himself, and Gary would not let me remove the cover to fix the damage, so I had to do all the gluing and crack reinforcement working through the soundhole. Luckily, I was still svelt enough to get my arm all the way into the guitar to get the glue all the way around and deep enough into the crack, though I cannot vouch for how the guitar sides look on the outside. Somehow I don’t think anyone will ever see that, so I hope it doesn’t matter!

Part of the restoration process was refretting the guitar as Gary wanted to be able to play the guitar out on club gigs. I offered to help facilitate getting a couple of copies of the guitar made, but no dice…Gary wanted to play the real thing out to have Buddy’s vibe on stage with him. When the job was done, Gary let me keep the old frets…19 frets upon which Buddy had literally written many of his hit songs. The bits of metal stayed in an old string envelope in various drawers in various workshops for twenty years. Every now and then I’d come across them and wonder what to do with the frets…put each on a silver chain necklace? Frame them with the story? One went to a lady friend of mine in Tasmania, so the collection was down to 18…

Buddy Holly_Trade SecretsV5

In December of 2009, the guitar, now owned by another person (I don’t know who) went up for auction at Christie’s Auction House with an expected sale price in excess of $500,000.00. I happened to mention on an on-line blog that I had the original frets, and in January I was contacted by Peter Bradley, a Buddy Holly fan in England. Would I be interested in selling the frets? Yes, and the transaction was completed. Then Peter ordered three guitars from us: a Model 1; a high end Renaissance RS-6; and a Compass Rose acoustic asking that I do “my thing” on the acoustic, but keep Buddy’s spirit in mind.

And then came the big one…would I be interested in making 18 replicas of the original 1943 J-45? Well, sure! Building guitars is what we do here at Turner/Renaissance guitars. This coincided with our increasing commitment to making acoustic instruments as well as my interest in combining the best of the tradition of acoustic guitar building with modern materials and knowledge. I’d been wanting to try combining some of my ideas on improving the weak structural areas of traditionally built steel string guitars with the use of old materials like using hot hide glue, Adirondack spruce, and light mahogany sides and backs.

A number of serendipitous things fell into place: A friend, John Thomas, is finishing up a book on Gibson “Banner Era” flattop guitars made between 1942 and 1946, and he is THE US expert on these instruments having interviewed a dozen of the women who made them…yes, most of the Gibson workforce at that time were women, and he has all the available factory information on the guitars and has gone way beyond the beyond with X rays and MRI scans of many of the originals. John was able to confirm that Buddy’s guitar did indeed have a laminated five piece maple and walnut laminated neck; the original had no truss rod (though we will put them in); purfling and rosette specs were somewhat different on the earliest J-45s, and the originals had Adirondack spruce tops…some two piece, some four piece, as well as taller but scalloped top bracing than subsequent models. And interestingly, these guitars were build to significantly higher standards of crafts(woman)ship than the guitars built before or after that era. The Banner Gibsons have truly earned their reputation.

What we…Peter, John, and I…settled upon was that I would build what might be called an “Enhanced J-45” to be designated the “RT 43-45”. They will have the original style maple/walnut laminated necks, but with a two way acting truss rod and two 1/8” x ½” carbon fiber rods running from the nut to just under the 19th fret carrying right through the critical neck joint area. Further reinforcement of the top and fingerboard extension over the top will be provided by topping the upper bout transverse brace with carbon fiber. These modern touches will, if anything, improve tone and sustain while keeping the guitars playable through virtually any playing or touring conditions. As a balance to the modern materials, 98% of the body construction will be done in original materials…mahogany for back, sides, and kerfed linings with Adirondack spruce for the top and all braces, mahogany for the neck block…yet Baltic birch for the vulnerable tail block. All body glue joints are being done with traditional hot hide glue which many luthiers believe makes for a better sounding guitar as the glue dries crystalline hard.

In February, Peter asked me if I could get one of these new guitars to Graham Nash and also asked if there were other musicians I might think of who would like to receive one of the instruments. It dawned on me that this was not to be a money making project for Peter; but rather he was interested in furthering Buddy’s legacy, and that there might be an opportunity to use the guitars to raise money for non-profit organizations dedicated to encouraging music education and the participation in music as and everyday activity rather than just being a product that people “consume”.

And so was born the idea of creating the Buddy Holly Guitar Foundation, and organization that would LOAN out the guitars to worthy musicians for two year periods of time with the understanding that the musicians use the instruments in various fund-raising events, on CDs, or videos.

More on the Buddy Holly Guitar Foundation in the next chapter of News and Views…

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