Known as “the father of boutique guitars” whose path intertwined with the Grateful Dead and Fleetwood Mac, among many others, Rick Turner rocked the world from his Westside Santa Cruz shop. Turner died at 78 in April after a stroke.
As the year draws to a close, Lookout Santa Cruz looks back at the prominent people Santa Cruz County lost during the year in “Remembrance 2022.” Our series began with longtime Watsonville teacher and civil rights activist Mas Hashimoto, and former bookseller and community activist Gwen Marcum. It continues with master guitar maker Rick Turner.
Zachary Jones grew up in Marin County as an aspiring guitar maker, fascinated by the guitars of the Grateful Dead and similar instruments from the Alembic line of guitars and basses. Even as a high schooler, Jones was drawn to the mystique of guitar artisan Rick Turner, who was part of the Dead’s inner circle and a co-founder of Alembic.
Jones credits much of his consuming interest in the craftsmanship of guitars to Turner’s work. “I’m in this industry because of what Rick did,” he said.
He attended a luthiery school in Arizona, eventually settling in Atlanta, three time zones away, where he ran a guitar repair shop for several years. “I had this kind of running joke that I’d move back to California if Rick Turner ever wanted to hire me in Santa Cruz,” he said.
And that’s exactly what happened.
“When the opportunity came up for me to kind of just give Rick everything I had, I took it,” he said. So in the summer of 2018, Jones “dropped everything” for a chance to work at Renaissance Guitars, Turner’s shop on the Westside of Santa Cruz. He only had four years to work alongside Turner, one of the West Coast’s most influential guitar designers. In April 2022, Turner died at the age of 78 after a stroke.
Since Turner’s death, Jones and a staff of about half a dozen luthiers, craftsmen who make and repair stringed instruments, have worked feverishly to continue Turner’s work at Renaissance and to reckon with his enormous legacy as an innovator, inventor, electronics wizard and craftsman.
“Rick meant a lot to me,” said Jones, the head of production at Renaissance. “And, in my shoes now, I have something to ask him every single day. And I don’t get to.”
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Turner’s influence in the guitar-making world is much deeper and wider than his fame, at least in the mainstream. But in luthiery circles, his name is foundational. Premier Guitar magazine, for instance, called him “the father of boutique guitars.” As a technician, he helped create the Grateful Dead’s innovative concert sound system known as the “Wall of Sound” in the early 1970s. He was an essential part of the design of Alembic guitars — an iconic brand in the Dead world — especially the engineering of the electronics of Alembic instruments.
“There’s not a bass player alive who doesn’t know what an Alembic bass is,” said Turner’s son Ethan Turner, who now serves on the board of directors of Renaissance/Rick Turner Guitars. “And everything on an Alembic bass was designed by my dad.”
And Turner’s own groundbreaking Model 1 guitar shaped the sound of 1970s rock, largely in the hands of his most famous customer, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham.
Turner arrived in Santa Cruz long after those career achievements. But for close to 30 years, he was a tent pole figure in the robust guitar-making community in Santa Cruz, an approachable, down-to-earth craftsman who was an open book to anyone with an interest in the art of making fine stringed instruments.
Turner’s life story coincides closely with the rise in both the technology and the artistry of the electric guitar, especially as it flowered in the 1960s. Born a couple of years before the post-war baby boom, Turner was a native New Englander, and as a musician, played with the famed folk duo Ian & Sylvia in the mid ’60s, in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even then, he was interested in the craft of musical instruments, and designed a fret pattern on a dulcimer owned by another iconic duo, Richard & Mimi Fariña, that became part of how dulcimers are built to this day.
After a stint in New York playing in the band Autosalvage, Turner relocated to the West Coast, settling in western Marin County in 1968. It was there he first met Dead bass player Phil Lesh and did some inlay and electronics work for Lesh. With a couple of other Dead guitar techs, Turner went on to found Alembic, which, through its work with Lesh’s basses and Jerry Garcia’s guitars, was critical in developing the Dead’s unique sound. It was while at Alembic that Turner first encountered Fleetwood Mac as the band was recording its landmark “Rumours” album in Sausalito, beginning a lifelong association with Buckingham.
“He’s always grown as an artist,” said Ethan Turner of his father. “But his most massive growth was probably between 1967 and the mid ’70s. That’s when he invented everything. Just about anything you see on an electric instrument — visible wood, neck-through body. There’s just so many things he invented that every modern luthier uses.”
Eventually, Turner left both the Dead inner circle and Alembic. He worked for Gibson guitars for a while, but eventually decided to strike out on his own. He lived in Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles for a few years, designing pickups and working as a guitar tech for such luminary figures as Jackson Browne and David Crosby. Turner’s solid-body Model 1 guitar, the blueprint of which hung on Turner’s workshop wall in Santa Cruz for years, was a pioneering design in the electronics of electric guitars. And after establishing himself in Santa Cruz, he began to explore a variety of avenues, not only in the electronics and design of the electric guitar, but in acoustic instruments as well.
Santa Cruz had long been home to Santa Cruz Guitar Company, founded by Richard Hoover to produce high-end acoustic steel-string guitars. Though Turner was not formally connected to Santa Cruz Guitar, once in Santa Cruz, he began indulging his love for design of acoustics and even participated in the burgeoning ukulele community locally by manufacturing ukes.
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Even while overseeing his own boutique guitar company, Turner was open to anyone who wanted to know or learn about instrument building, whether it was the realm of electrics or acoustics. Musician and journalist David Gans had a relationship with Turner going back decades. Gans said he would regularly visit Turner in Santa Cruz. Shortly before Turner’s death, Gans brought a friend and fellow guitar tech with him on a visit to Renaissance Guitars.
“Rick just opened up to him,” remembered Gans. “And three hours later, we left that place and [my friend] was infinitely wiser, because Rick had just been teaching him and imparting wisdom. It was just a wonderful day and a perfect illustration of how generous Rick was with his time and what he knew.”
“He was in the right place at the right time,” said Zachary Jones. “He had the right ideas and the right charisma.”
Jones was with Turner in the final weeks of his life when he reconnected with the Grateful Dead community in a meaningful way. Last spring, the two attended the annual Skull & Roses festival in Ventura County. Turner was at Skull & Roses, in fact, when he first fell ill with what would eventually kill him.
“As unfortunate as the weekend turned out,” said Jones. “I gotta say, he was just beaming. He was so happy to suddenly be part of this crowd that he’d kinda left behind for 40 years. He was seeing instruments that he built as a young man played on stage again in front of a fervent and passionate audience. Rick was genuinely surprised. I don’t think that he really knew five years ago what his legacy was. And in the last year, he really got in touch with it.”
Those close to him said Turner rarely thought of himself as the kind of giant that others in the luthiery field believed him to be.
“I certainly know guitar makers that think of themselves primarily as artists, but I don’t,” said Turner in a 2010 interview with Premier Guitar magazine. “The musician is the artist. On the best of evenings, the instrument disappears and the mind, soul, and heart of the musician communicate directly with the audience. My job is to stay the hell out of the way.”