Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Newman Guitars Lives

... in this chapter on the legacy of the late guitar genius, Ted Newman Jones, we tilt toward the future of Newman Guitars

"Ted left a lot of work to do so we're doing it," says Jeff Smith, the current proprietor of Newman Guitars. Smith was Newman's sous chef and Keeper of the Flame for the past nine years, with the intention of updating the guitar maker's craft for the 21st Century. And now, he is sailing the ship that is Newman Guitars through 21st Century waters. He made the pilgrimage to Ted's mom's home in Dyersberg, Tennessee bringing with him the Newman guitar he'd acquired and cherished – and that, like it says at the end of Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. You can see the fruits of that relationship on the company's website.

I have detailed in the first three chapters of this story how Ted Newman Jones toured with the Rolling Stones, Tracy Nelson and Isaac Hayes made guitars for Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Tom Petty. And how his work on Clapton's Stratocaster named "Blackie" was his calling card to meeting his employer, Richards. This story is not that.

While there was plenty of anecdotal pickins in their regular visits, with Newman's cancer diagnosis a couple of years ago, says Smith, "... in the last years of his life I didn't feel like we needed to waste his energy talking about old Rolling Stones stories. We had lots to discuss about how we would build the future rather than reliving the past. I had one interview with him two weeks before he passed. But usually our conversations in the last year-and-a-half were all about guitar design, pickups, woods, materials – and about how we needed to create standardizations to his innovations in order to continue building them."

Here's Newman in the final interview. Asked to comment on on the passing of the torch, he says: "I've watched this transition, I've taken the Newman Guitar to its fullest extent, five-string, six-string, neck-through, bolt-on, and then I met Jeff Smith and he enhanced everything that I have accomplished and created some stuff to go along with it."

'I want to bring awareness to the fact that Newman Guitars has been a company for the last 35 years and has been reestablished as a vital guitar to the guitar world. The five-string should be a milestone in that history – part of the evolution of the electric guitar. In all these years, Keith Richards can't be wrong.'
– Jeff Smith


Smith: It's unique. It's not a Fender ripoff, not a Gibson ripoff, it's a new state of the art of guitar.

TNJ: No man, I got my own deal.

"It is a great American shape. A unique design," says Smith of the process whereby he and luthier Jacob Harper worked on a prototype Newman guitar until they were able to present it to the master and have him say, "It's a Newman!"

"He was a great pioneer, and it was humbling to me to see what we could do on a consistent basis. Do we concentrate on five-strings, on neck-through-bodies? Is it a thick neck, is it a thin neck? The aesthetics of the guitar's shape with relation to the feel and the player's relationship with the guitar.

"When his illness started getting worse, we needed to concentrate on refining the design and find somebody who could help us make them and that was Jacob Harper."

The process was a painstaking one of putting all the whimsicality and genius of Newman's creation into  a computer model. "You can replicate history in this modern age. Ted knew that and we agreed – let's build one right and we can replicate that. During the last nine months of his life we – with reverse-engineering – recreated the turqouise guitar. It had to be whimsical, how do you build whimsical? It had to be unique.

"I said, 'We could sign a contract, but your signature on the guitar is like Picasso's seal of approval. The only approval I ever sought was Ted's.

"When I took the white one back to him, he spun it around , looked at the finish, the neck, certain things he was looking for and felt it and said, 'It's a Newman.' And for him to say, "It's a Newman." that was it. It was his r&d and not a walk down memory lane. "


OK, a little memory lane is understandable when you're paying homage to a genius like Newman, who has spread his legend to so many legends. But seriously, the mission of Newman Guitars is all about the future.

"I want to bring awareness to the fact that Newman Guitars has been a company for the last 35 years and has been reestablished and is a vital guitar to the guitar world. The five-string guitar should be a milestone in that history – part of the evolution of the electric guitar. In all these years, Keith Richards can't be wrong. What I am looking for is that Ted's body design, Made in USA, his name and his memory live on through this beautiful instrument. And that is Ted's legacy. His body style is gonna stay the body style; headstock is going to be the same. Everything was agreed upon prior to his passing, and everything is nailed down. He left me enough information and feedback to make sure his legacy would continue. 

"There's only one body style. You can get it in five-string or six-string with different colors and woods, but that is the Newman guitar."


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