Handsome Work

Lex Luthier: When it comes to building electric guitars, he’s Superman.

Kurt Nelson is a luthier—a guy who makes stringed instruments. He also fixes all kinds of instruments, mostly for artists on Twin Town Records. But from scratch, he builds electric guitars. “I figure I’ll try conquering acoustic before I’m old,” the fifty-year-old Nelson says. He’s been repairing guitars on and off for thirty years, but he began building about six years ago. His very first commission was for another Nelson—Prince Rogers Nelson. Or rather, it was for Prince’s people. They wanted twelve guitars just like the one Prince plays in Purple Rain to give away to fans on tour. Nelson made two, the very first two he’d ever built, and no more. Prince’s people bailed on the deal. In the end, Nelson received five hundred dollars for two custom-made guitars.

It was a lousy way to begin, but Nelson is the sort of person who doesn’t get too worked up about things like that. A high-school dropout who ran away when he was fourteen, he’s spent most of his life playing rock and roll, working odd jobs, and living on the fringe. He got his start in guitar repair in 1974, when a friend called him from California to tell him about a job opening at Hohner’s, the famous harmonica and guitar maker. His know-how and experience came from the College of Real Life at Rock U; as someone who rocked hard but earned little, Nelson had to repair the results of the previous night’s aggression on a regular basis. “Smashing guitars is fun,” he says, joking that he keeps some of his twenty-odd guitars around in case he ever has a need for spontaneous therapy. Today Nelson still occasionally destroys the merchandise while onstage with several local bands.

Nelson makes his custom guitars in a filthy, cluttered shop connected to a house in Prior Lake. Other than work, he has nothing but the television and his cigarettes for distraction. “I’ve got radio Kurt on all the time,” he says, gesturing to his temple. “The stuff I do hear on the radio, well, it makes me want to turn it off—either because it’s so good and then I wonder why I’m bothering to make music, or because it’s so awful.”

If it’s a style of guitar he’s made before, Nelson places a plexiglass pattern on a block of maple, grabs the router and begins to cut. For new styles, Nelson must first cut a pattern, which means he essentially eyeballs a design and lets her loose. He makes either semi-hollow or solid bodies and sandwiches the semi-hollow ones inside masonite panels. Then he cuts the neck, nice and straight, sands it down, inserts the frets and screws it onto the body. The part he hates the most is the painting and finishing, and he doesn’t do the wiring because, he says, “I don’t have a head for electronics.”

Nelson estimates he’s made about twenty-five guitars, keeping some and selling others for anywhere between nine hundred and twelve hundred dollars. He’s currently working on a five-string guitar like the one Keith Richards plays. An audience member approached Nelson to make him one after he saw Nelson play his five-string at a show. It’s specialty items such as this that keep Nelson interested. There are a lot of guitar builders around the country, he says, but there aren’t many doing anything new or innovative. Nelson recently finished what he calls an “in-betweenie,” a guitar that has some qualities of a bass guitar. He’s also lined up a potential buyer for a twelve-string guitar that can be easily converted, at the touch of a button, into a sitar.

Next: Dresses for Success…

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