Doug and Ted
The cremation service was over for Dad and the five brothers stood on the back porch. Doug was smoking a cigarette and I looked over and said, "well if I'm going to take over Melobar what do you think about me building a 6-string version?"
Everyone looked at me for a moment. Doug took another drag on his cigarette and flicked it out onto the lawn, "I think you may actual start selling them if you do."
That was the start of a new era in Melobar.
The truth is it was extremely difficult. But after so many years in California and Nashville talking to guitar players; I believed Melobar had to change directions and stop trying to force players to use the 88 model. I believed it was time to listen to players and build what they needed.
My first order of business was to completely change the way the company ran. Dad had tried to raise capital and get investors (who turned out to be scum) and I had to start over. I had been studying what had - and had not - worked in small music manufacturers nearly all my life. With Gabe's words ringing in my ears at the Dobro factory I knew the first thing we needed was a good shop with low overhead and a way to support Mom.
Fifty miles North of Boise; just as the mountains rose to the Rocky's I found it in (of all places) Sweet Idaho.
My nephew Marc (Walt jr's oldest son) joined us and Smith Famliy Music was born.
We chose Smith Family because we represented three generations - and because so many musicians that played Melobar had called Mom - Moma Melobar, those musicians were a part of our music family (and still are). I also wanted to make a statement that the old Mosrite Melobar days with Jefferson Airplane was not what we were about.
And I started building those six strings we called the Skreemrs
guess what...we started selling them.
Not enough to make a living at first but more than we ever had before.
The Melobar's Basement Genius story released after Dad's death told the world of the buried guitars. I dug into the Mosrite pile buried behind the Rosacs through years of dust and found guitar after guitar that had not seen the light of day since 1967. Collectors bought almost every single one and with that money we were able to start the new Smith Family Music.
We had connections in the right places from Dad's years of working with people like Troy Klontz the Steel player for Roy Clark and then Brooks & Dunn
But the old 88 model was never built again
- the focus was on asking players what they wanted - and we would build it.
Just as a extra item I built a lap steel with some of the components from a Rosac Melobar and took it with me to the first NAMM show. Stan Werbin of Elderly instruments needs to be credited for that Lap Steel starting a new series in Melobar that lasted ten years. He was cutting through my corner booth (rudely I might add in humor now), stopped and looked at the Lap Steel just on the side table as a novelty. Pointed at it and said I'll take six of those, handed me a card and walked off. Elderly ended up being one of the best customers, and most helpful customers, we ever had. And that started the old LS model.
Jeff Peterson with Clint Black testing the first LS model Melobar Lap Steel
The LS model was not that great cosmetically, had the old keys from the Rosacs but we did use Dads patented phenolic bridge with the brass poles which made the pickup sound twice as good as it had on the old aluminum and zinc bridges. We used bronze on the nut and the guitars sang.
This inspired Lap Steel after Lap Steel model
S-Head 6, S-Head CC-8, Skreemr, SLS, RS(my right key Buck Rodgers guitar we sold 50 to Japan)
We even made a cassette and easy to follow jump start instructions for the standard guitar player to adapt to lap steel.
12 years of my life were spent in that room
Another huge help was a thing just getting going called ... the world wide web and the Steel Guitar Forum
Casey McMullen built us a fantastic web site that became our store front. And the Steel Guitar Forum became the most important way to finally be able to talk to the players every day. Ask them what they thought of an idea before we even started. The players on the Steel Guitar Forum were a part of that Smith Family Music and shaped everything we did. From the modular Super Steel below that allowed you to take each neck off and play it like a lap steel if you wanted to...
The VERY popular CC-8 model
And then things got a little crazy...somebody asked me to build a Melobar tilt neck onto a standard guitar body but they wanted it to be light and able to move around stage...this was on my production table for 7 months as a Tele and a Melobar on top of each other...then it worked.
We presumed Junior Brown would grab onto this because instead of going over the top of the upper neck the patented Melobar tilt neck on the bottom made it so it was mobile and much easier to play. Instead he sent attorneys and threatened to sue us. Well Melobar had been around a lot longer than Junior Brown and the Guitsteel was simply Leo's Tele and Lap steel glued together so we said whatever. In the thirty years of the company he's the only musician we ever ...well...disappointed us... But then other musicians since have said not to worry about it. He doesn't have a lot of friends in Nashville either. Too bad though because I think he would have made that guitar absolutely scream with the better ergo dynamics.
* PS Players have commented a lot about Brown doing what he did. The Junior Brown thing was the pits because I really admired where he could have taken steel but unlike Bill Monroe or David Lindley; he was about himself and not about the music. He made it difficult and at times near impossible for players to get a guitsteel and wanted it only to himself. Really sad because as Hendricks set the bar on rock and roll guitar he could have set the bar for Steel/Slide guitar. The world still hasn't really opened thier eyes to what steel/slide adds to music in it's ability to express. Bottle neck has touched it but the angle is not there for hammer-ons etc. Check out David Hamburgers training stuff on Dobro tunings and you'll hear an amazing world of what a guy armed with the over the top attack can do.
Didn't stop sales though, we built and sold 17 up to the day I stepped out. The thing that I'm the most proud of on this design is that three players stepped out on stage and played the guitar the DAY they got the guitar. To me that's an amazing testimony of how well it fits a player and is so easy to adjust to and get playing.
First production Steelgitr
Dean Black was one of the fathers of the double neck pushing me to build themHere is a video of him playing his on stage
The interesting thing about the Steelgitr is that is so playable.
I thing one of the reasons the original Melobar struggled was it just didn't put your hands in the right position to play it - that's why Dad created the soft body because you could push and shove it around until it was comfortable to play. I tried different neck angles and body's pushed out, foam on the back,you name it, but I was never satisfied trying to play the Melobar standing up - that's why I had it on a stand at the NAMM shows when I demo'ed - That and I could lean on the stand like a bar top and be comfortable...
HOWEVER - the Steelgitr made the Melobar neck lower and you could lay over the body which gave you great leverage - it makes the lower neck more playable for some reason and I love playing it standing up and cruising the stage.
The EnhancrAnd I patented the Enhancr for acoustic guitars. This was my all out attempt to use everything I'd learned in the music industry. I'd invented a way to put brass chips in neoprene behind the saddle of a guitar and a friend Jake Jacobsen worked out the mechanics. It did pretty well selling over 3,000 but the neoprene was not a good design. I came up with a new design and patented it. Got some investors behind it and Clint Black endorsed it.
I released it to some distributors and Kaman (Ovation,Takamine etc) asked for an exclusive. I gave it to them and they said they'd have it in 10,000 stores in 6 months and we'd be rich...
At the same time we had a review scheduled in Acoustic Guitar Magazine. I went down with a dozen guitars, we did the review and I came home. Then they informed me a guitar luthier was going to do the review. Well luthiers didn't like the idea of a $20 item making a better guitar and I wrote a letter asking them to not do that. They sent my letter to the reviewer...who...slammed me personally by saying the Enhancr worked great on his 1940 Martin...that's right, his $40,000 guitar, but not on cheap guitars. Which was a lie - we had over a hundred people review it on the Takamine and Montana guitars from Atlanta to Chicago to Austin to L.A. and 100% they were amazed at the sound difference.
That one review cost me the distributor and bankrupted me.
Welcome to the world of the Entrepreneur.
The sad thing is...it's a cool way to easily increase sustain and volume on your acoustic. Even that review admitted it.
That was a rough time. Marc left the company and I thought I was done. I called the distributors and told them I couldn't paint and build and do everything alone.
The distributors (including Elderly) asked me an interesting question. "can you build a simple stain model with really good components?"
I thought about it and came up with the Rattler series.
Simple body stained and hand rubbed then Grover keys, M213 pickup, vinyl fretboard, Strat bridge and our Bronze nut. Funny thing is - most players believe it was the best guitar we ever built. I was putting out nearly a hundred a month and it saved Melobar.
That led to Paul Franklin (Nashville Studio player who does most of the steel on albums asking for a Telecastor type of lap steel and we built the Teleratt for him that ended up on Albums from Faith Hill on...and that led the bands for those artist searching for the sound and ordering lap steels and Melobars. Video of Paul on Teleratt with Rosewood fretboard
Paul Franklin TelerattSo I was back up and running. But the Enhancr had opened a new doorway into the Bluegrass world. Gibson had just bought Dobro and suddenly the door was open. Dad had sworn we would never call Melobar the electric Dobro or compete with them in anyway. Now I felt it was time to experiment with that age old design. The first thing I wanted was the old slot style pull down on the string but not have to deal with those miserable reverse slots. Ned Steinberger had come up with something that looked like the old Stringmaster ash tray but far better in that it was easy to use Grovers and easy to get to the strings. I licensed that from Ned and built my first wood ...Melobro
From that I started talking to Paul Beard about trying to come up with a way to open the sound chamber and make it less expensive to build than wood. A man named Carl Neeley approached me at a Bluegrass festival about building him a fiberglass Dobro...well it sounded kind of odd but I'd seen something like that it seemed. Dad and Rudy had played around with fiberglass electric guitars and a few old proto-types were around. I went home and dug through that pile and found...a fiberglass resonator standard neck guitar. I have no idea what they were up to but they had experimented with it.
So we built the first Neeley model Melobro
They were HEAVY though because they were done with a chop gun mold. I talked to Neeley about changing that and he wouldn't so I abandon that manufacturing process and tried to figure out a way to change the way we molded them.
Fiberglass is basically fibers with resin (what is wood...fiber and resin) so taking that in mind we started trying to simulate how wood patterns itself with the rings and the sound was great. We reduced the weight in half but we lost a lot of strength. The first G model Melobros came apart at the seems or imploded. Paul sent me a box of parts back and said forget it.
I was stuck - until this guy walked into the shop and said "that's not the way you make wood and fiberglass work together. My father created airplane model kits with fiberglass and wood. Let me show you." he came back three days later with new molds and working models. His name was Bert Quenzar and he is the genius behind the Melobro. It still took 17 different molds to get it to work right. And it was the hardest work I had ever done in my life. Miserable to work with fiberglass and resin at that level.
The model 17 Raybay model (Banjo Slayer)
We also found we could run a neck through design - mold a 335 arch in the back so the neck through was suspended in the body - then put mahogany sound plates on the neck through that deflected the sound out of the upper bout better and added a wood tone. The tone, volume, sustain, everything was fantastic about this guitar - except it was murder to build. The body mold was never perfect so you had to prebuild the guitar entirely - then disassemble and paint it, then rebuild it again. Hours and hours of time in a guitar that originally had been thought to cost less to build.
In one of my conversations with Tim Sheerhorn he encouraged me to just stick it out. But I was painting, building, designing, sanding, assembling, shipping, doing all of it. And I still had to build Rattlers and Steelgitrs and CC-8's to pay the bills. It was overwhelming.
Marc showed up again in the summer. And guitar orders die in the summer so I sent him out to do some landscaping to keep busy until Fall. Surprisingly we got a few jobs and it was a blessed release for me from standing in paint booth fumes or fiberglass dust.
The next year I pushed the landscaping harder and all of a sudden it took off - within five years I was grossing $800,000 with a dozen trucks and up to 26 employees.
During this same time Mama Melobar was diagnosed with Cancer. I would work all day in the field with Smithyards then have to get back to the shop fifty miles away and work at night on Melobar.
The last straw was an order for three 7/8 (Melobros that could convert from 7 to 8 string by flipping the nut and moving the strings) The guitars were nearly impossible to build and took me 4 months. At the same time I was back ordered nearly two years with orders.
Mom died and with her went the Heart of Smith Family Music.
Jim Frost made me a small offer for the company and I took it.
The Landscape company probably saved my life. To this day I don't regret selling the company - I do regret the way the new owners dropped the ball. And I wish those guitars I put my sweat and life into birthing were still available for more players to use in the music world.
Jim Frost never found another builder. The person I trained ripped him off and in three months never built a single guitar. Jim jumped from "so called" builder to builder and never got them to do anything worthwhile.
I sold Smithyards.com, published a half dozen books http://www.christianacitonadventures.com/ , went back for my Certified Arborist, Master Gardner and Licensed Pest Control, then focused on helping companies with marketing
Finally Jim approached me after I sold Smithyards.com, I was working as the marketing manager for Rob Nelson or R&R hardwood floors. Jim asked me if I'd build. I took it to Rob because he had a great shop for it and Rob started Hardway guitars.
We got it up and going again in about two months and even built several new Melobros.
Then Rob's daughters boyfriend left an oily rag in the shop and caught it on fire.
They collected the insurance money and Jim and I were left with the parts that didn't burn.
Jim took a job in Texas and as of 01/01/2011 dropped out.
I have some parts and I guess will help players. That's what always mattered, the players and I'll always be connected to that family.
Well I am finally going to call it quits again and stop building...but I did an out and out blitz to build everything hanging on the walls etc to wrap it up.
These are just a few of them..4 of the double neck Tel-O-bars, Three CC8 style 8-strings, couple of Teleratts, bunch of different Rattlers, Skreemr and the last Hardway Melobro...it's funny, after 50 years and players from the Rollng Stones to hundreds of country albums, guys inform me I'm just a weird odd ball, well this weird odd ball is calling it quits, 50 years is long enough to try and help players be innovative and still be called that. So a slug of these I'm keeping. I told my wife when I die she can sell them to plant me in the ground :)
So that's the end of it...I'm own the Melobar trademark and for the family name, will protect it.
I've seen some copies of the designs like the popular Melobro, Teleratt, Rattler and SXL CC8 lap steels with my blessings as long as they don't call them Melobars, I hope they do well and all I can do is quote what Mom said; that they printed in Guitar Player magazines first article on us..."it's been quite a ride"
Time for me to disappear into the woodwork again,