story: Jim Dyar photos: Brent Van Auken
James Russell and Jason Schroeder Build Beautiful Guitars
Anyone can view the guitars made by Jason Schroeder or James Russell and see that they’re gorgeous. But the assessment gets really interesting when expert players and serious guitar aficionados get their hands on them.
Here’s what Neale Heywood of Fleetwood Mac had to say about the Schroeder guitar he plays in concert: “This guitar definitely resonates with something inside me… it’s a feeling of no matter what I do now, it’s going to be good.”
World-class fingerstyle guitarist Eric Schoenberg not only plays guitars that Russell builds, but puts his name on Russell-built instruments made to his specifications.
“James has the unusual tendencies to be open and caring toward the people he is dealing with as well as his art of lutherie,” Schoenberg says. “He’s exacting and honest and clear about his work and himself. I’ve worked with many luthiers and James rises high above the crowd in these characteristics.”
Schroeder and Russell own separate guitar building businesses in Redding, but they’re friends who often consult with one another and sometimes work together. Schroeder, 37, builds electric guitars with stunning colors and finishes, including his mesmerizing quilted and flame maple tops. Russell, 54, builds mostly acoustic guitars with amazing details like abalone inlays and rich finishes on bodies made from Brazilian, Indian or Madagascar rosewood.
Both men work to perfect three basic elements with their creations – tone, feel and look. The guitars must entice the eye, feel comfortable in a player’s hands and sound amazing.
“I’m constantly going over the design of a guitar in my head – how to make it play better, look better and feel good,” says Schroeder. “My brain is always thinking about new designs.”
The motto on Russell’s website (www.russellguitars.com) is: “Voice, feel, beauty.”
“That’s the order of priority for me,” he says.
Russell built his first guitar in 1979 in his carport in Costa Mesa. It’s a warm-sounding jumbo acoustic that he still owns and plays. He sporadically built them as a hobbyist until 1991, when he started working for Santa Rosa guitar maker Michael Dolan. After two years of building and repairing guitars for others, he knew he had to branch out and do it on his own.
“I consider it a living process, guitar making, because the materials kind of co-create with me,” says Russell. “Every guitar has a destiny. Part of the process for me is being flexible enough to listen and follow it.”
Schroeder made his first instrument, an electric bass, while attending Santa Teresa High School in San Jose in the late 1980s. He built at a rate of about one guitar a year for more than a decade, but started ramping it up about five years ago. His guitars gained a reputation through online forums, and soon he was taking orders from customers across the globe.
He has sold guitars to clients throughout Europe and Asia, and now produces about 50 guitars a year (a number which will likely increase to 75 next year). Two years ago, he quit his job as a geologist to pursue the trade full time. His company (visit www.schroederguitars.com) now includes his wife Elizabeth and employee Jim Cook (who happens to share a name with another well-known guitar maker and repairman in Redding).
After attending the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show in Nashville in July, the buzz spread even more about Schroeder’s guitars. Premier Guitar magazine reviewed his Radio Lane guitar in its November issue and Vintage Guitar magazine published a feature on the company in October. Schroeder recently shipped a guitar to Fleetwood Mac’s icon guitarist Lindsey Buckingham.
“It was definitely a leap of faith, but we’re surviving in an economy where a lot of businesses are struggling,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to build something that’s functional art. My mission statement is to build the highest quality guitars out of the best available materials.”
In addition to making great guitars, both Schroeder and Russell are exceptional players themselves, which enhances their abilities as builders. Schroeder has performed all over Northern California with the popular Redding band Clear Cut, and in acoustic settings with musician Mark McAbee.
Russell, who started playing at age 11, performs as a solo guitarist in a variety of special events and still finds time to teach guitar to about 20 students.
“When you play a lot you become familiar with the more subtle aspects of good tone,” says Russell. “You know what a good guitar should sound like. It’s a blend of science and technique, but it’s almost intuitive as well. There’s 40 years of me playing guitar that goes into it.”
The superior hand craftsmanship doesn’t come without a cost, but it almost seems a bargain considering the hours and expertise that goes into making instruments of this caliber. The base price on Russell guitars ranges from $3,500 to $6,800. Schroeder’s base price is $3,750, but he’s currently making a guitar with 2,000 pieces of inlay on the fretboard (a cobra wrapped around a sword) that has pushed its price to $10,000. Both men find a deep satisfaction in knowing their artistic creations are transferred to others who use them to make art.
“Guitar making is doubly satisfying because I get to make creative designs that live on as someone else’s creative tool,” says Russell, whose wife, Layne, is a professional website designer and photographer.
“I know what the guitar did for me growing up,” Schroeder adds. “I needed the escape and it was a positive thing.”