Guitar-Maker Mark Erlewine: From Marty McFly to Johnny Winter

He has done luthier work for Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Albert King, Joe Walsh, Stevie Ray Vaughn and many other six-string legends. His “Chiquita” travel guitar was featured in the movie, “Back to the Future.” His headless “Lazer” axe is a favorite with renowned blues slinger Johnny Winter. You can hear Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits playing one of his “Automatic” models on the famous opening riff of “Money for Nothing.” He is Mark Erlewine, owner of Erlewine Guitars. Some call him luthier to the stars.

About Erlewine guitars

If you are talking about electric guitars, Mark Erlewine is the person with whom you should speak. A luthier with more than 40 years of experience, Erlewine’s philosophy is that he can “Create the guitar of your dreams!” But it is not just about building world-class custom instruments. For Austin, Texas-based Erlewine, guitar repairs are also an essential part of his business. He likes to say, “Whatever you need, we can do it and do it right.” Based on his clientele, it seems Erlewine’s formula is a success.

An interview with Mark Erlewine

Music Interview Magazine chatted with Mark Erlewine about his Lazer guitar, Johnny Winter, Michael J. Fox, Texas and much more.

You have done luthier work for so many top performers; how did you first get interested in the business?

I was at Earlham College in Indiana and realized it was not holding my interest. My cousins up in Ann Arbor were involved in many different ventures, including playing in bands and running a bookstore, so I decided to go up there to live and get to know them better. One of my cousins, Dan Erlewine, had started a guitar shop, and agreed to take me on as an apprentice. I enjoyed the work, and after a year we became partners. I bought him out of the business two years after that when he went to work for Herb David. I moved the shop to Austin in 1974 and I have been here ever since.

Next to the Erlewine Automatic, Chiquita travel and custom models, perhaps the most recognizable of your guitars is the Lazer, which has become closely associated with blues-rock legend, Johnny Winter. It is truly a unique design. What inspired you to build the Lazer?

Shortly after we came out with the Chiquita travel guitar, I wanted to design a full scale, lightweight guitar that would also be easy to travel with. Ned Steinberger had come out with his headless bass guitar and I wanted to apply that headless design to a regular guitar. My goal was to design a minimalist body with a headless tuning system that was ergonomically suited to be played comfortably standing or sitting.

How did you come up with the name?

I wanted something that sounded new and innovative to represent the guitar. I brainstormed different ideas until I landed on the Lazer.

Another distinctive Erlewine creation, the Chiquita, is a travel guitar so small it can be typically accepted as an airplane carry-on. You call it “The Original Travel Guitar” on your website. For those who don’t know, the Chiquita was featured in the blockbuster film, “Back to the Future” with Michael J. Fox. He certainly presented an iconic movie image with his aviator sunglasses and Chiquita guitar in hand. How is it that the Chiquita came to be used in “Back to the Future?”

Honestly, I had no idea until after the movie had been released. I was at my shop, planning to go see Mark Knopfler with Dire Straits play the Automatic I had made him at a concert that night, when a friend called to tell me that the Chiquita was in the opening scene of a movie that had just come out the night before. So I missed the concert and went to go see “Back to the Future” instead.

Having more than 30 years of luthier experience, what is the most unusual electric guitar you have ever worked on?

I’m 63 now, and started when I was 19, so it actually has been more than 40 years! I would say the most unusual guitar was one I built for a young shredder, Jeff Cullen. It was a one of a kind guitar he designed and had me build for him. There is a glass eye, a pocket watch and a tarot card – among other things – inlaid into the body.

Erlewine guitars are made in Austin, Texas. Would you agree that American-made electric guitars are generally regarded as being the industry benchmark among professional players?

Yes, I absolutely do.

Why do you think that is so?

I think the preference for American-made electric guitars comes out of our rich history of country, the blues and rock & roll here in the United States. My custom guitars are all made by me, here in Austin. When it comes to the non-custom manufacture of guitars, such as the Chiquita, I take advantage of the capabilities of some Asian manufacturers in order to keep the price down for my customers. For non-custom Lazers [the Lazer II], I have the body made in Asia, the custom designed bridge made in Germany and the custom head-piece made for me in Tennessee. I personally assemble and set up each Lazer II here in Austin, and I only sell direct, not through dealers, for all my guitars in order to control the quality.

Why do you think professional players and performers prefer custom electrics over ones that are mass-produced?

I think many professional players want a one-of-a-kind instrument that is an expression of them. Many times they want to combine different features of guitars that they like into one and that often requires a custom build.

Let’s talk about strings for a moment. What types and gauges are recommended with the Erlewine Automatic and Lazer guitars?

I’ve found that most people want a 46-10 set of nickel strings and those work great on the Automatic and Lazer. However, when someone orders a guitar and requests a specific set of strings, I accommodate their wishes and can set the guitar up to meet their specific needs.

This may be an odd question to ask a luthier, but what type of guitar amplifiers do you favor?

There are so many wonderful guitar amps being built right now, I would be hard pressed to pick one.

Finally, whether you are talking about Billy Gibbons, Albert King, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughn and a host of other six-string greats, it seems Texas is a guitar-friendly place like no other. Of course, Erlewine Guitars has been there to do the luthier work upon request for these renowned players. What is it about Texas that makes it so guitar-friendly?

Yes, Texas has such a rich history of guitar players, and being on the border with Mexico and Louisiana really adds to the multi-cultural influences. Dallas and Houston have produced many great guitar players. Austin, in particular since the 1960s, has been a wonderful and welcoming place for all types of musicians to experiment, create and be recognized for their art.

For questions about the Lazer, Automatic and Chiquita models, contact Mark at Erlewine Guitars.

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