According to Dan

Photo by Garrett McCafferty

Photo by Garrett McCafferty

Michaela Fath

It’s an organized, chaotic mess: smooth wood, metal strings and all things guitar-related fill the small workspace, each placed around the shop with a purpose. Every day, employees at the Dan Erlewine’s Guitar Shop work diligently to repair cracks, chips and broken strings on guitars sent to them from around the world while maintaining the distinctive quality and spirit of the instruments.

For over 32 years, owner Dan Erlewine has constructed a prestigious reputation in the world of guitar repair through his shop in Athens.

“I’d say go ahead and add some more color to that,” Erlewine says to one of his employees as he points to the freshly painted guitar frame. “Add some black or some brown as it’s still wet and maybe we’ll get something good out of it.”

A number of damaged instruments are displayed on the walls, some covered with scrapes, chipped wood and marks certain to make any musician cringe. Each day, Erlewine and a few of his employees can be found in the small white guitar shop on Columbia Avenue on the north side of Athens, hunched over their latest projects and focused on their work.

Raised by a woodworker father and an artist mother in Ann Arbour, Michigan, Erlewine’s early interest in music and guitar repair stemmed from his parents’ work and his hometown’s hip music scene. In the 1970s, Erlewine’s handcrafted guitars attracted a number of artists, some of whom are legends in the industry.

After meeting iconic blues singer and guitarist Albert King during an Ann Arbour Blues and Jazz Festival in the early 1970s, Erlewine received a request for a custom-built guitar for King.

“I had told him that I had that wood that looked just like his skin,” he says. “He was dark and I was planning to use a rich black walnut wood. He came over and checked it out, and he brought over his Flying V that he was famous for. He wanted one– he wanted it to be fancier.”

The Flying V became one of King’s trademark looks, as the V-shaped, left-handed guitar was strapped on his body during nearly every performance throughout his career. Today, King’s Flying V is owned by actor and guitar collector Steven Seagal, who bought the guitar for nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

Around the same time he constructed the original Flying V, Erlewine made guitars for other notable artists, including a one-of-a-kind guitar for the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia in 1971.

Erlewine’s abundance of black walnut wood became useful after his decision to create a number of clones of the famous Flying V, one of which belongs to Erlewine’s close friend Frank McDermott, who owns Blue Eagle Music in Athens.

“The black walnut was big enough that he’s made about eight clones of the original,” McDermott says. “He contacted me because I’m left-handed just like Albert King. He asked me if I knew anyone that would be interested in buying this guitar and I said, ‘Dan, really?’ so it’s mine.”

Years later, Erlewine felt the need to move to a smaller town and settled in Big Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and daughter. Erlewine stuck with his passion for music and incorporated the newest technology, creating one of the first instructional guitar repair videotapes. Knowing that his videos could change the guitar world forever, he took them to the National Association of Musical Merchants (NAMM) show in 1985.

“It’s a huge show; from fiddles to pianos to everything...” he says. “There were about 11,000 music stores in the U.S. at that time. The owners go and come from all over the world.”

While at the NAMM show, a representative from the Stewart-MacDonald company noticed Erlewine’s videotapes and instantly offered him a job at the company’s music shop in Athens. Since then, Erlewine has helped transform the Stewart-MacDonald company into a leading guitar supplier.

“It was a big move, but I’m glad we did it,” Erlewine says. “We left a big family behind in Michigan, but I’ve been here for 32 years and have definitely taken [Stewart-MacDonald] into the guitar world.”

Erlewine’s success led him to construct his own shop years later, conveniently located directly next to his home. He has no shortage of work to do, in part because of his willingness to spend hundreds of hours on a single project. Some such projects can cost thousands of dollars, he says.

“Athens is lucky to have Dan. He’s still around and doing research and development, trying to find new ways on how to fix guitars,” McDermott says. “The man is crazy. If he has some repair he wants to do, he sits, stares and studies it for days before he decides how he wants to approach the repair itself. He’s really a pioneer in guitar repair.”

Over the years, Erlewine’s impressive, non-invasive repair strategies have piqued the interests of members of the surrounding community. Since opening his Athens shop in 1986, Erlewine has trained about 20 students in guitar repair and plans to continue his path of teaching students the craft. He even decided to turn a portion of his home into a small apartment for those wishing to work for him full-time.

As for the future, Erlewine will keep repairing instruments, producing how-to videos, helping the Stewart-MacDonald company and growing his business to the best of his ability.

“We have more work in here than we should have,” Erlewine says. “I take on a lot of odd guitars that are rare and other people can’t fix. Sometimes I shouldn’t take them on, but I do because I’m dying to see them. I love the entire process.”