Born to Build Guitars
Master guitar craftsman Roger Fritz revives a brand, Kay Guitars, and continues his custom work for a lineage of master musicians that has included Roy Buchanan and George Harrison.
Roger Fritz, left, and record producer Bill Bottrell, producer of “I Am Shelby Lynne.”
Photo by Christy Fritz
When Roger Fritz recently relocated to Alabama — to Fairhope, on Mobile Bay — the state reclaimed the business of a master luthier — a guitar maker, that is.
Fritz says he didn’t set out to make guitars. He’s just always wanted to play them — ever since he and brother John received Mickey Mouse “Mousegetars” as kids. “We did a lot of pantomiming,” Fritz recalls. “Then, when I got to be a little older, I started thinking, ‘I need an electric guitar.’”
Requests for a Fender or Gibson went nowhere. So he made one. “I traced it out on a cardboard box and took it to plywood,” he continues. “Using my dad’s Craftsman jigsaw, I cut the whole thing out. Then I took my crayon set and did a three-color sunburst.” His plywood cutout with fishing line strings didn’t work, of course. Fritz was 13 by the time he made one that did — not long before his family moved to Mobile in 1966.
A gift from his parents inadvertently added modifications and repairs to his repertoire. “Classical guitar really wasn’t my bag. So I cut the arm off of my turntable and taped it to the top of the guitar. I put a longer wire on it so it would reach and started playing the guitar through my supposed amp,” he explains. “Then I said, ‘Man, I want to take it one step up.’ I got some really cool flat wound electric strings and put them on there. It was sounding really good for a few minutes.”
Bridge and soundboard (designed for nylon strings) succumbed to the pressure of six taut steel strings. “I guess that was when I started repairing guitars,” he laughs, “when that one trashed itself.”
Fritz worked his way through several bands playing in Alabama in the ’70s. He moved from Birmingham to Nashville in 1978, and 10 years later, while working at Rose Guitars in Nashville, fellow musician Marc Fisher introduced him to legendary bluesman Roy Buchanan. “Marc kind of hooked us up, and we just hit it off. Roy had some guitars that he had problems with, and one thing led to another,” Fritz recalls. “Finally, I said to him, ‘I’m making guitars for a living. Why don’t we make you a custom guitar?’ He said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Their collaboration yielded the Roy Buchanan signature model Bluesmaster, and a partnership among Buchanan and Roger and John Fritz. The trio launched Fritz Brothers Guitars in 1988, first in Mobile and later moving to Mendocino, Calif. Buchanan’s reputation within music circles and Fritz’s craftsmanship garnered positive reviews in the major guitar magazines. But cracking the mainstream market takes something extra.
“Roy said, ‘Let’s get one to George Harrison,’ because he had met the Beatles,” Fritz recalls. Soon after receiving the guitar, Harrison responded with a letter extolling its quality. He even took to playing the guitar publicly and showing it to his friends.
Buchanan’s death muted the upstart company’s trajectory, eventually relegating it to more sideline activity than full-time business.
Fritz maintains dual careers: making and playing guitars. He was a member of Shelby Lynne’s band, when Bill Bottrell co-wrote and produced her breakout CD, “I Am Shelby Lynne.”
Bottrell used the distinct sound of a classic Kay 162 Pro Bass in the studio. The 162 had been out of production since Kay folded in ’68. Maintaining vintage models was problematic. At Bottrell’s suggestion, Fritz began making updated versions of the 162 and the similarly designed Kay 161 Thin Twin guitar. The authentic sounding but far more reliable alternatives drew accolades from guitar magazines and bloggers — and orders from top-shelf musicians like Darryl Jones, who had played with Miles Davis before joining the Rolling Stones in ’94. “Long walkin’ and deep talkin’” is how Jones describes his favorite Fritz Brothers bass. “I need an instrument that widens my sound palette but also has the advantages of being well crafted and road worthy,” he says. “I can cover anything from that classic sixties picked sound to a smooth, round, acoustic bass like thump. It’s even great for reggae.”
Celebrity clients boost sales by elevating the company’s public profile. But it’s lesser known, journeyman musicians and advanced hobbyists who buy most of Fritz’s guitars. “A lot of them are just people who’ve played a long time,” he says. “Maybe they used to be in a band, but now they’re doctors or lawyers who can afford the guitar that they always wanted.”
In late ’07, Fritz met Tony Blair, who decades earlier had purchased the Kay Guitars trade name. Blair wanted to return the once iconic company to its manufacturing roots. But he had no original inventory, parts, equipment or product specs. Nor was he knowledgeable about the inner workings of electric guitars. The two men formed a partnership to build official Kay-branded re-issues: a budget Street Series line to be mass-produced in China and pricier Custom Shop USA models that Fritz would build in his Mendocino shop.
Fritz drew detailed schematics for the Pro Bass and the Thin Twin. They made templates from original parts and ordered special molds to reproduce them authentically. Fritz made samples and flew to China to oversee preparations for the new manufacturing lines.
His involvement with import operations now is limited to design work, as new models are added to the catalog. But Custom Shop USA re-issues account for nearly as many new-guitar builds as Fritz-branded instruments. He occasionally accepts orders based on a buyer’s specifications. “Money does talk,” he says. “But if I did too many of them, I wouldn’t have time to make a living. Between Kay and Fritz Brothers, we offer 12 different models. Normally I try to steer customers into one of them.”
Fritz introduced an entry-level guitar in January that sells for about $900. Most models cost between $3,000 and $4,500. Custom inlays and other extras add to that. His most expensive thus far topped $8,000.
Annual production of new instruments once topped 40 in Mendocino, but averaged closer to 30. Fritz expects those numbers to improve as the economy recovers. Fully staffed, his 4,000-square-foot Fairhope shop could produce some 200 guitars per year. For now, it’s a mom-and-pop operation. He and wife, Christy Wells Fritz, work with a pair of young apprentices. Once they’re trained, he’ll likely add others. Fritz excels at making guitars, in part because he is equally adept at playing them. When hiring, he seeks skilled guitarists that are comfortable in a woodshop and are willing to be trained.
Many shops that produce fine furniture could also make attractive guitars. But beauty here runs more than skin deep. Fritz mills his own wood from stumps that he has collected over the past 40 years. Backs and soundboards are individually crafted from wood that’s tested for proper resonance: hanging from a piece of string in front of a stroke tuner. He shapes curvilinear sides on homemade molds, in a set-up Christy calls “Roger’s Easy Bake Oven.” Everything is hand-sanded, although new polymers do allow the use of electric sanders on certain base coats. Fritz even makes the magnets at the core of his hand-wound pickups. Metal plating is done in-house — as is all electronics work and wiring. His explosion-proof spray booth meets modern safety standards; sophisticated ventilation prevents overspray from settling on the instrument. But it’s not automated. Fritz applies base coats and finish layers by hand.
“The guy was born to build guitars. He is probably the best man in the business for doing sunbursts,” says an admittedly biased Christy. “He loves to do them because he really likes to show the wood. Someone just requested a hot pink, blingy guitar with the most metal flake ever. I said, ‘Let’s use toenail polish!’ And that’s what she wants. But Roger is like, ‘Ahhhh, I can’t cover up the wood like that.’ So he’s looking for some ugly wood that sounds really good.”
Adrian Hoff is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Mobile.