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Guitar Month 2009

| April 1, 2009

Guitar Month Special:
Ax Men

Every guitarist has a dream. Sometimes, that dream is a custom-made instrument, an instrument of a certain quality or with a set of features that can’t be found on an off-the-rack guitar. Other times, the dream is to find the perfect repair person, one who instinctively understands what a client needs from his guitar and who can consistently deliver the goods, whether it be a simple set-up or a more substantial tasks such as a re-fret, headstock repair, or a complete restoration. And they don’t have to be celebrity luthiers and technicians like the late John English or René Martinez.

Dan Bowman is one of the more established guitar builders and repairmen in Chicagoland. Bowman Guitars ( has been in business since 1981, and he has worked with everyone from locals to artists like Stevie Nicks, Billy Gibbons, Martin Barre, and Peter Frampton. Bowman’s early interests in woodworking and guitar playing led to studying at the Roberto-Venn School Of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona and with archtop legend Jimmy D’Aquisto. Before opening his own shop, Bowman did a stint with Hamer Guitars and ran the guitar department at former Chicago repair facility, Music Dealer Service. These days, Bowman builds classicals, such as the Bowman BQ Custom (right), steel-string acoustics, electrics, and jazz boxes out of his Spring Grove shop. He also maintains a large amount of repair business that teaches him what design aspects to apply to his own guitars. “I had some pretty nice guitars as a teenager,” Bowman says, “and there were things I liked about all of them and things that I didn’t, and that kind of set me off on this quest for the perfect guitar.”

Bowman’s ultimate goal is to have a complete line, and he already makes the semi-hollow Fusion electrics, Concert and Crossover classicals, and Jumbo and Auditorium steel-strings. These models, however, are merely starting points, and Bowman refers to most of what he builds as “custom.” He strives to make guitars that are original but not bizarre. “I try to stay within the parameters of the guitar,” he says, “but I really am trying to make them my own.”

Another builder making his mark is Tully Thill, the owner and operator of Tully’s Shop ( in Bensenville and builder of Xrossbone guitars. Like Bowman, Thill is a product of Roberto-Venn. He was also the Head Of Production Repair at Washburn and handled all guitar repair for Sam Ash’s three area stores from 1998 to 2003. Tully’s started in his father’s garage when Dad graciously gave up his hot rod to help Son launch the business. Now Thill has a brand-new shop attached to his home, which was done to avoid the distractions of a retail store — he deals with clients one at a time and by appointment only to give each instrument (and player) full attention.

By his own estimation, Thill builds 10 to 12 custom guitars yearly. “I have one basic model that I make, kind of a jazzy Telecaster body,” he relates, “but I’ve got several others that I want to try out. Primarily, though, it’s made-to-order. Custom stuff. Got a dream guitar you want? I’ll do it. I don’t care how pointy it is [laughs].” Xrossbones are primarily solid-body electrics, but he has plans for a semi-hollow design. Thill has been independent of the corporate guitar world since opening his shop in 2003 and is much happier steering his own course. When asked about his future goals, he answers, “Just to keep on going, to stay afloat. More of the same. I’m not interested in taking this to a huge level. I’d rather stay small and do the best I can as opposed to trying to get big and then the whole thing goes crazy on you.”

A newer face in this scene is Scott Olson, owner and operator of Lee Guitar Werks ( in Elgin. Olson, unlike Tully and Bowman, learned his craft on the job rather than in the classroom. “I got started when I was a teenager,” he explains. “I was always the kind of person who took things apart and put them back together to see how they worked.”

His first effort at guitar building was a Mighty Mite Strat copy kit, which turned out to be great-sounding and playing. Soon after, Olson spotted a Hamer newspaper ad looking for workers. He applied and, after showing Hamer honcho Jol Dantzig his kit guitar, was hired on the spot. Olson worked for Hamer until the company moved to the East Coast in 1997, after which he handled quality control at Washburn. He also played in local bands and earned a reputation as the guy who can fix other players’ instruments, which turned into tech gigs for numerous bands.

Tiring of life on the road, though, Olson decided three years ago to launch his own guitar line and let the chips fall where they may. These days he works out of a shop in downtown Elgin and does all types of repair and restoration work and builds his own axes, which are largely rock-influenced but have been purchased by many different types of players. His three main models — the DB, DX, and RX — include design influences ranging from classic vintage instruments to the Charvel San Dimas guitars of the 1980s, all with Olson’s unique take on what will make each instrument better than its forefathers.

“I try to build with an eye on playability, affordability, and tone; those are my touchstones,” he says. “Plus I know what working musicians’ demands are for their instruments, and I try to incorporate that into what I build.”

Bowman, Thill, and Olson each says he has felt the effects of the current recession on his businesses, ranging from fewer custom builds to customers requesting repairs and modifications to their existing guitars rather than ordering new ones. Each luthier is still busy at his bench, though, and hopeful for the future. “Tough people survive tough times,” Olson says.

These three builders, and others like them, represent a unique opportunity for local guitarists: the chance to obtain instruments forged by small-shop craftsmen who strive to deliver a level of quality that exceeds even the best factory-built guitars. They’re making your life better, six strings at a time.

Mike O’Cull

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