One evening last fall, Tim Duffy, my wife and I were chatting at an event featuring bluesman John Dee Holeman. I mentioned that I liked to build, troubleshoot and repair electric guitars, and Tim told me about Freeman Vines, a self-taught luthier from Eastern, NC, who had come to the attention of Music Makers in the past year. They were helping him out with his rent and diabetes medication and he had a treasure trove of guitars that he had built or was in the process of building, but that he had been unable to maintain or complete due to his illness. Tim told me that they were falling into disrepair and that he and Freeman were interested in seeing them restored to playable condition.
For me, this was something of a dream come true, to be a guitar tech to traditional musicians who represented the blues and roots music heritage of the South. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to help out and the following week drove up to Hillsborough to see what I could do. Well, Tim took me down into the “Grotto,” a cavernous storage building that could easily have served as a wine cave. He started taking guitars down off the racks and pointing out others that were leaning against the wall, showing me some of the unique things that Freeman had done, both in the design of the body shapes and in the collection of parts and materials. You see, Freeman is not just a creative and independent luthier, he is a repurposer and scavenger extraordinaire. There were Fender parts, Danelectro parts, 1960’s-vintage Teisco pickups, Gibson bridges, bodies made from table tops and things I could not identify without further research. And he had mixed and matched these objects to create his own unique sights and sounds. Before I knew if, I was driving home with some dozen or so instruments to start work on.
I started disassembling these puppies one at a time, inspecting and cleaning as I went. It quickly occurred to me that in replacing nonfunctional or missing parts, it would not do for me to start purchasing new parts that would stand out like a sore thumb and would violate one of the basic principles of Freeman’s method. After consulting with Tim, we decided I should try to find and install used parts wherever possible to be faithful to Freeman’s legacy. Well, have you ever tried to find 2 saddles to replace the missing ones on a vintage Accutune tremolo bridge (which Freeman had locked in place in his own unique fashion)? Or find a 1966 double rocker switch from a Teisco Spectrum guitar? Tuners for the various guitar necks were less of an issue, as Freeman had mixed and matched them with all manner of parts. Still, I had to try to do this with reliable used parts at low cost.
With all of these guitars, my first steps were to disassemble and inspect them, cleaning the switches, volume and tone controls and treating the moving parts, such as tuners, with dry silicone or Teflon lubricants. I tested each of the controls and the pickups for electrical continuity and measured the outputs to see whether they were fully functional and how they matched up with one another. After replacing missing or broken parts and repairing others, fixing or replacing broken wiring, I strung each one up, adjusted the string height and intonation, and fired them up on my amplifier to see if they worked and how they sounded. While I cleaned up each instrument as best I could and removed rust and dirt where I could, we agreed that it was important not to change the appearance or original function of any of these guitars, so as to preserve Freeman’s original designs and execution. In searching for parts to repair or complete the instruments, I would sometimes strike gold, as when I found a sack of Fender-style volume and control knobs (many of the guitars were missing knobs and switch tips) for about 15 cents apiece. Other times, I had to search high and low for a direct replacement or something that would approximate one.
Each of these guitars has its own distinctive voice and playing characteristics and it has been a learning experience for me to see how he has assembled, set up and wired these various guitars in unusual but fully functional ways.