Steampunk Guitar Building with Tony Cochran

Every guitar has stories to tell. Some were played by masters, many were destroyed, and all contain a secret history that only exposes its edges when pressed through the fire of an amp. Tony Cochran knows this, and builds guitars that look as legendary as they sound, which is one of the reasons his Boostercaster is currently featured in the National Guitar Museum’s traveling exhibition, Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World.

How long have you been making these guitars?

I started making guitars about a year and a half ago.

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Why do you build these guitars?

I like visual complexity. If it doesn’t interfere with the musicality, then why not? I mean, how many Telecasters can you look at, you know?

How did you start?

I was trained as a painter and artist and worked in a body shop for 15 years. So I was building a motorcycle for my brother but making it look different, using brass and rivets instead of flames and chrome like other bikes. After that my brother asked me to work on a guitar he had just gotten and that one turned out so well I wanted to do a second one, and that one turned out so well I wanted to a third one…

How do you conceive these guitars? Do you have a list of what you want to make or do you design each project based on what you have?

A combination of materials can be used to create a visual effect, and that’s what I do to the guitars. I don’t build guitars from scratch, I take guitars that have a history and give them a new history. So you find something that’s got good bones and plays well. I’m not trying to find a guitar to fit a preconceived idea. I see the guitar done when I see the guitar. So if I were going to buy a Les Paul clone I would see the guitar and know what it’s going to look like when it’s finished before I take it home.

It’s like a painting; you know how it’s going to look finished when you start otherwise you never know when you’re done. Some artists work until they’re fatigued, rather than until it’s done. When I start I know 90% of what it’s going to look like and leave 10% to chance – because that’s fun part.

Do you adjust the electronics?

It depends, when you’re buying used guitars not every piece always works. I always make sure everything works as expected. That’s about it. I know a player buying the guitar is probably going to change the pickups, just like if they were buying a new guitar.

Some of your guitars have little widgets you’ve added that create interesting sounds. How do those come about?

It becomes part of the history; who knows whether they ‘work’ or not. Anything you add to a guitar might change the tone, or might not. It’s all subjective, there’s nothing wrong with making a guitar look cooler. Most look cool already, but they’re all pretty similar after a while. I don’t see any reason to not add a device that may or may not work.

It seems like you could get some unique sounds and feedback with all the metal on these guitars.

It’s not necessarily going to make the guitar sound better or worse, but it could change it. I hope it affects the tone, but that’s all subjective. One guy’s beautiful tone is another’s buzz bomb.

How much do they weigh?

I try not to add weight, so about the same or less as when I start.

Take me through a build.

The typical build starts by disassembling the entire guitar, then I shape the body, head, and neck to how I picture. You can’t change one part without changing all the others; you’ve got to make sure the feel of the neck matches the body. Then I add color and start putting the guitar back together, assembling as I go along. Each step speaks to the next one. Like a painting, it has to come together as a whole. I think of these guitars as art first, and mechanical musical instruments second.

So the process is very fluid?

I never question what’s going to come next. Sometime I have to stop and figure out how to make that happen in the physical world. Eventually you have to pick up a tool and make everything fit. It’s a puzzle, but a puzzle I designed.

How long does a typical guitar take?

It depends on how many evenings I have because I have a full time job writing a comic strip. They’re a labor of love so I don’t want to rush it. They can take upwards of a month.

It’s inspiring to see every guitar you make is so different from the last.

We got a letter the other day from someone wanting me to copy another guitar they’d seen and I told them to ask the person who made the guitar to copy it. I won’t even copy myself.

Each guitar has a detailed story about where it was ‘found,’ – are you trying to create an alternate universe for these guitars?

You’d be surprised how many people ask if the stories are true. We’re just one generation away from a weird story becoming the ‘truth’ anyway. If I say I found this guitar in the attic of a haunted house, what will they remember when we’re dead?

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  1. Pingback: Steampunk Guitar Building with Tony Cochran :: Performer Magazine | Creative Audio Works llc

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