The fact that something about him is different set Chris DiPinto down the path of guitar building. "I'm left-handed," he said. "And I've always been into weird ol' pawn shop guitars, but could never find anything left-handed."So it was that in his parents' garage, DiPinto began building guitars using leftover oak floorboards, plastic, and Radio Shack parts. "The first instruments I made were a matching guitars and bass for the band I was in," he added. "They resemble Burns guitars, and after a few gigs, people began asking me to make them something similar." By something similar, DiPinto knew they meant "not so whacked out." So, instead of the crazy 10-string/five course-with-built-in-laser-gun-effects guitars his band was staging, for paying customers he devised something a bit more sedate. "Those guitars became the three basic models we still have today," he said.
We recently spoke with DiPinto to find out more about history as a builder.
VG: Was guitar making a full-time venture initially, or something you did on the side?
CD: It was a side thing for a year; I opened a repair shop first, and a vintage shop shortly after. The used gear and repair business paid the bills while I made guitars in the back. Both are still alive today.
VG: How large was your initial product line, and which models did it include?
CD: The Mach IV, Belvedere, and the Satellite were the first three I designed for production in the '95. They're still in production, but now the Satellite model goes by the name Galaxie.
VG: At what point did the line begin to expand?
CD: The line changed when Philly jazz bass legend Jamaaladeen Tacuma (former member of Ornette Coleman's band) walked into the store in 1996. Jamaal is really into retro clothing and furniture, and he flipped out when he saw the guitars and our store, which is kind decorated like the set of the Dick Van Dyke show.
He asked if I could make him a bass version of the Belvedere. I ended up making him two, and he has been a devoted DiPinto advocate ever since. Thanks to Jamaal, the bass has become one of our top sellers. Jamaal is one of the best I've ever seen playing the instrument, and I'm honored to have him playing our basses.
And we've since made guitars for Dick Dale, White Stripes, Luna, Rocket from the Crypt, Jimmy Vivino, Conan O'Brien and many others. The Vintage Guitar cover story with the Los Straitjackets (December 03) was a real boost also. We rely on artists, word of mouth, and a small ad campaign.
VG: What do you think sets your product apart?
CD: Being different has never been a problem for me. If anything, it has caused problems! when I started this in '95, many people thought I was completely insane. My guitars resemble '60's Japanese and European guitars, and mostly people had no respect for those instruments. Granted those old pawnshop guitars were cheaply made, but to me, their body designs were genius. So, I wasn't striving to be different as much as I was striving to design things that were bizarre-looking while not being unattractive. This is a problem many companies fall prey to when designing a retro guitar. Most of them solve this problem by just reissuing an old model that is now collectable - like Italia or Metropolitan. All of my designs are original shapes inspired by old models.
VG: When did your hire your first employee(s)?
CD: My wife, Sophy, played drums in the band that spawned the original guitars I made. We went into the guitar business as partners. When we went into production, Sophy did the web and ad design and has become an irreplaceable partner in the business. In 2002 we hired Joe Lotito, who learned guitarmaking from Ed Lual. We also have one or two apprentices at any given time. We kind of consider ourselves the microbrewery of the guitar world.
VG: What are your hopes fro the future of the industry?
CD: My hope is to be noted and accepted as a small player in pioneering "modern retro" guitars. My expectation is that most people will be too busy buying Fenders and Gibsons to really care very much. However, I am forever grateful to the small but passionate group of DiPinto supporters, and to anyone who gets up everyday and proudly "waves their freak flag." To all of you who dare to be different, I salute you!
VG: What are your goals for your own line?
CD: I have a line of pointy heavy metal axes that we will soon unveil. Stay tuned!