Written By Kimberly Liddick-Byrnes
Carroll County could soon be on the map in a whole new way: as a place where some of the most unique guitars in the country are created. And not only that, but some of the country’s biggest music stars will be playing them. If Pat Murray and his fellow axegrinders have their way, this will be a reality sooner than later.
Axegrinder is a slang term for guitar player, and with a little luck, will be the name of a television show loosely modeled on the Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper” feature in which a father and son head a team that creates custom-built motorcycles. “Axegrinders,” would spotlight an eclectic crew of artists and musicians who build guitars for the stars.
Pat Murray grew up in Washington, D.C. and knew at an early age that he wanted to be a guitar player. And not just any guitar player. He wanted to be someone in the world of guitar playing.
Murray and a friend started AR-15, a rock band that toured the U.S. in the late 1980s. The band eventually dispersed, and nine years ago Murray and his wife and two children settled in Eldersburg.
With established connections in the music industry, a working knowledge of the music and recording business, experience playing on stages around the country, and a love of music and all things related to guitars, Murray opened Jams Music Store in Eldersburg in 2003.
Murray, who still writes and records music, said that Jams has opened up a lot of doors for the work he is doing now.
“I think we have a unique concept. In addition to giving one-on-one music lessons, we also have a group room where people can learn to play and practice playing together. We also have a complete stage set up so that local groups and bands can get professional advice to help them build a presence on stage, and to help them move to the next level in their playing. We literally teach kids how to play in a band,” Murray said.
Just as the body is the central piece of a guitar, Pat Murray is the central character in Axegrinders. Everything that happens with the guitar-building crew and the show starts and ends with Murray. Many of the connections to people they will be building guitars for are Murray’s. Most of the extraordinary ideas for original guitar design are Murray’s. The guitar line is Murray’s, and the ebb and flow of the process will likely be established by Murray.
But Murray is quick to point out that he is nothing without those who do the work to make his guitar dreams a reality. Enter the Axegrinder crew: David, Darren, Lee and Changa.
The artistic detail surrounding the sound hole of a guitar, called the rosette, is often tedious to produce because of its intricacy. Much of the guitar’s style and originality lie in the rosette.
Enter David Baker, who creates rosettes, as well as the concept of an entire instrument. Baker is vital to the Axegrinders. He is the one who takes ideas and turns them into art, designing the guitars on paper so that craftsman Darren Schillaci can build them. Also an Eldersburg resident, Baker met Murray when his son was taking drum lessons at Jams. Murray credits Baker with being able to transfer thoughts and outrageous ideas to images on paper.
“If I can think it, he can draw it,” Murray said. And he has. When Murray was charged with building a guitar for the man who designed the Bat-Mobile, Baker was on board and came up with an exciting and completely out-of-the-box design.
When not sketching crazy guitar designs, Baker works as a graphic designer and illustrator. Unlike most of the other Axegrinders, Baker is not a guitar player, and does not have a background in music.
“There are few limitations when I’m designing guitars for Pat. My challenge is to learn about guitar function from the other guys. Learning all the technical stuff is an ongoing process because I don’t know what I don’t know,” said Baker.
In addition to designing guitars for the Axegrinder show, Baker is also working with Murray to design guitars for his custom lines, which includes a unique neck system called the Invisabolt.
“Pat Murray Guitars will be built by hand. They are meant to be played; they are not simply for aesthetics. We will be looking for unique materials and to collaborate with different artisans to build unique custom guitars,” said Murray.
In fact, Murray plans to travel around the world in search of native woods and resources, as well the unique skills of local artisans, to build a line of custom guitars called The International Craftsmen Series. The first destination, Guatemala, is on his calendar for this spring.
The neck of the guitar is essential. Without it, the instrument cannot be played. It is the vital link that holds body and strings together.
Enter Darren Schillaci, the neck maker of Axegrinders, and perhaps one of the best guitar builders and finishers in the business. Schillaci, a guitar player at heart, said he got his start as a cabinetmaker and eventually moved into guitar making. He takes his craftsmanship seriously.
“Quality and construction are important in making a good guitar. But, giving someone the opportunity to choose what they want, to be involved with the minute construction details, is what makes a guitar right for an individual person,” said Schillaci.
Schillaci has been in the guitar-making business for more than a decade. He said he is looking forward to the projected television show because the guitar-building process will be documented on it from beginning to end; from purchasing a slab of wood to handing the finished guitar over to the client.
The tuners are one of the last pieces to be added to the guitar, they affect the sounds and they hold the guitar together. They are essential in both style and function.
Enter Lee Hirschmann, the baby of the crew and the finisher. A graduate of Century High school, 20-year-old Hirschmann attended guitar-making school in Phoenix, Arizona, to become a Luthier, someone who builds and repairs guitars, and has been teaching guitar at Jams for five years.
“I love the attention to detail in a hand-built guitar,” said Hirschmann. “When built by hand, a lot more passion goes into it. The builder starts to build a relationship with the guitar. What makes a guitar special is all the things under the surface that you don’t see. It’s all the blood, sweat and tears. It’s cool to start with a piece of wood and end up with this finished, functional guitar.”
With a collection of about 30 guitars, several of which he built himself, Hirschmann said that his part of the guitar building process – the set up and electronic work – can be stressful at times because he is the last one to work on the instrument.
“Sometimes my deadlines are really tight and each guitar is different and presents its own set of challenges,” said Hirschmann. “Right now we have a couple of really wild guitars in the works, like one that has a snow globe for the body and one that can change body styles with the touch of a button. What’s so great about this is we have 100 percent control over the guitars and the designs.”
The strings of a guitar are often overlooked and sometimes overworked, but they also make the instrument functional.
Enter Changa Onyango, Mr. Everything. Onyango, who describes himself as the “catch all guy,” said he met Murray nearly 20 years ago when they were both making music in the same studio.
A jack-of-all-trades, Onyango owns a home improvement company, plays in a rock hip-hop band, has a record company and manages a community dance and drum troupe. And that does not even include the time he spends with his wife and six children or in the studio writing songs.
Although he prefers playing drums to guitars, Onyango said that he is involved in Axegrinders to do whatever Murray needs him to. He is not a string specialist, but like those vital parts of a guitar, he often escapes recognition for his part in the grand scheme of things.
“Honestly, I’m there to assist my friend, to encourage him,” he said. “I’m the guy with the drills and the big trucks, I’m a woodworker, I brainstorm, I get details worked out, I’m a hands-on guy.”
THE BIG PICTURE
Neil Beller is the owner of Kit and Kaboodle Productions in Eldersburg. He is partnering with Murray to produce the proposed television show. Although they have had several ups and downs with the pitching process, Beller is optimistic that they are on the right track with Grenada Television, which is very interested in the show. Los Angeles-based Grenada produces “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Nanny 911” for Fox and the S.W.A.T. series for A&E. According to Beller, Grenada believes Axegrinders has great guy appeal and has meetings scheduled to discuss the show with several networks.
“This is the hardest part. Even with my connections from working in Hollywood, it’s hard to get in the door,” said Beller. “This show has what it takes so it’s not a matter of “if” but rather of “when” it will get picked up.”
Part of the show’s appeal is going to be watching this group of intelligent, artistic, passionate, and unique individuals come together to create art that is both funky and functional. Each brings a set of quirky personality traits to the table, and it will be interesting to see how they come into play when the pressure of decisions and looming deadlines are being filmed for the world to see.
“It’s funny,” Onyango said, “Because without the guitar, we never would have even looked at each other. It’s very interesting how the guitar has connected and bonded us, that is really the hook.”