The Retablo

Retablo - /rəˈtāb(ə)l/ - noun – Small devotional paintings or sculpture given in gratitude for divine intercession, usually placed above and behind an altar.

Retablo Art Guitar – A humble gesture of gratitude and recognition to a tiny fraction of the great artists that have gained a level of musical sainthood for their contributions to the development of American Roots Music. In this case, Blues, Gospel, Jazz and Folk Blues.

I am not a religious person. My father was a minister, and to say that my childhood soured me on it would be an understatement. But that being said, I love religious art. I’m sure a lot of it is due to the fact that back hundreds of years ago, the only people who were able to afford to commission great works of art were either royalty or the church. Not only paintings and sculptures, but brilliant examples of architecture and furniture as well. My wife, Dana, collects a lot of religious art, of all religions, so I am constantly surrounded by it. I found myself drawn to some of its simplest representations, Retablo. These devotional paintings were sometimes painted by masters, but other times painted by followers who just wanted to show their devotion through art, even though their abilities were less than master level, remedial even. I loved it!

I’ve always been amazed at the beautiful altars in churches, with their stunningly high vaulted ceilings and their exquisite artwork, paintings and sculptures, and insanely detailed flourishes throughout. Grand columns of marble and moldings of fine carved wood, and Gold, lots and lots of Gold! I really liked the idea of trying to capture that impact in one of my art guitars, but not being religious, I couldn’t see myself creating paintings of traditional saints. I still did lots of research into them, looking into those who elevated art and music, looking into all women saints, it had to be something special. I just didn’t know.

I also didn’t know who I was going to have paint them. I’ve worked with lots of artists over the years, wonderful painters that I was sure would be happy to work with me on this. But I felt that it was important that this was MY art, not a collaborative effort, but a solo mission, a personal devotional of gratitude. Was I capable of it? Yet another thing I didn’t know. The only way to find out was to give it a try. So, I decided to attempt to paint a portrait in a style I call 14th Century Remedial (it’s not a real thing, I just made it up to feel better about myself). I chose to paint a portrait of my wife Dana, in a very traditional saintly pose. It was the first time I had ever attempted to paint a portrait, and it turned out okay. I was especially pleased because it was only 3” tall. If this piece was going to be a Retablo, then I decided that its creation must all be at my hands.

One day during this process I came upon an old film clip of Sister Rosetta Tharpe tearing it up in church with her ’63 SG Custom. That was the epiphanous moment! The saints recognized in this piece would be some of the foundation stones of American Roots Music! Now, how to select them. That decision making process would be too hard to write about in detail, because it was kind of random. I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a music historian. I spent years as a singer songwriter in bands, and even more years designing and building guitars. But I’ve always been about the action, the performance, the physical act of creating what’s in my thoughts. I would look into history for things as it applied to a particular project I was working on, not just for the sake of studying, but to learn from and to move forward from there. Some of the artists represented in this piece I’ve known of for decades. Others I learned about just recently through my research. All were selected due to their contribution or historical impact on American Roots Music.

The artists, and their musical genre, recognized on this piece are, Robert Johnson (Blues), Huddie William Ledbetter, aka “Lead Belly” (Blues/Folk), Mamie Smith (Jazz/Blues), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Gospel), Billie Holiday (Jazz/Swing), Mahalia Jackson (Gospel), Bessie Smith (Blues), Chester Arthur Burnett, aka “Howlin’ Wolf” (Blues), and Riley B. King, aka “B.B. King” (Blues). Every stoke of my brush while I painted these portraits was made in personal thanks and appreciation for the richness they added to our lives through their music.

The Retablo Art Guitar’s primary function is that of a work of art. It also happens to be a fully functional hand-built custom electric guitar. The goal is to blur the line between fine art and functional craft.

The neck and body of Retablo are made from roasted African Mahogany. The fretboard is African Ebony inlaid with Mother of Pearl and Honey Jasper TruStone, in an interpretive rendition of a Gothic cathedral’s steeple and spires. The peghead is overlaid with Ebony, recess routed with my signature, and gilded in 24K Gold. The tuning keys are customized Gotoh M6 minis, with Ebony buttons, inlaid with Honey Jasper TruStone, and engraved Mother of Pearl gear covers. The neck is fitted with 22 Gold EVO frets and 24K Gold plated strings. Both the body and neck are finished with multiple coats of Osmo Polyx-Oil, a satin hard wax finish made in Germany.

The artwork within the body is crafted with multiple species of wood, shell, and metal. The two large gallery panels are Western Maple gilded with 24K Gold, and fastened to the body shell with custom made decorative screws, made from Ebony, gilded with 23K Rose Gold, and fitted with a small disc of Pink Heart Abalone. The center cap assemblies are made from Mahogany with highly flamed Western Maple columns, and Ebony bases and capitals. The frames holding the portraits are made from ¼ sawn Eastern Maple, gilded in 24K Gold, and inlaid with Mother of Pearl Doves and Cubic Zirconia. The sconces are ¼ sawn Eastern Maple, gilded in 23K Rose Gold, inlaid in Mother of Pearl, and house a 1mm soft White LED. There is a second LED inset into the frame to highlight the Halo that each portrait features. The upper Rose Window is made from both ¼ sawn Maple and Ebony, selectively gilded in 24K Gold, and features a Japanese Awabi window. The wiring and electronics, both for the guitar and the lighting, are housed beneath the gallery panels and center caps.

The portraits are painted on reclaimed Yellow Pine “canvases”. The material was reclaimed from an old church, and originally purchased to make the Pinecasters in the Fender Custom Shop in the 1990s. I saved some of the cut offs for personal use. I thought the full circle of church beams to icon canvas seemed especially fitting for this piece. I hand-painted each portrait using Acrylic paints, tiny brushes, and magnifiers. I interpreted the original historic Black and White photographs in my own way, colorizing and imagining to the best of my ability. The additional art flourishes in the gallery include Ebony Rosettes and small trumpeting Angels, made of Ebony and inlaid with treble clefs made of Mother of Pearl. The entire sculptural assembly cavity is covered by a .118” sheet of non-glare Acrylic, and held in place via a rabbet in the side walls of the body by a custom-made solid brass, Gold plated trim ring, and 28 Gold plated #2 flat-head screws.

The tailpiece and bridge are original designs that I crafted out of 6061 Aluminum. They are Gold plated and Black anodized, and house the volume and tone controls for the pickup, actuated via custom-machined and Gold plated thumbwheels mounted in the tailpiece. The pickup is a Lollar Firebird with a Gold plated cover. The cable connection to the amplifier is made possible through the endpin jack, fastened to the hinge plate of the tailpiece. The tailpiece features an Ebony and Mother of Pearl Rose Window, and Mother of Pearl, and Paua Abalone inlays. The bridge utilizes a Black Tusq saddle and attaches to the body via 2 adjustable brass pins mounted in the Mahogany and Ebony bridge riser, which also features small inlaid Mother of Pearl Doves and a Gold gilded cross inlaid with Cubic Zirconia.

The nineteen 1mm Soft White LEDs are powered by a 3.7 volt LiPo battery, encased in the rear center cap. Located next to the tailpiece hinge plate and output jack is a USB charging port and on/off switch for the lighting network. They are housed in a custom designed and fabricated Aluminum connector assembly.

The Retablo Art Guitar also has its very own custom crafted wall hanger that utilizes a Hercules locking guitar hanging mechanism, housed in a sculptured, Genuine Mahogany plate, inlaid with Mother of Pearl and quilted Honduran Mahogany, which also make up the spires. In addition it features details of African Ebony and is topped off by a hand-carved roasted Mahogany Gargoyle, based on Stryga from Notre Dame Cathedral, over-looking the guitar for protection.

The serial number, 369, was chosen while I was doing research on the meaning of numbers. The number 3 was associated with creativity, 6 and 9 were multiples, and part of my life path number calculations. Then I found out how much these numbers meant to Nikola Tesla, who said “If you only knew the magnificence of the 3, 6 and 9, then you would have the key to the universe.” How could I argue with that?

This project took in excess of 2350 hours, over the course of two years, to complete.

Read More