By Dave Anderson
In the age of the gig economy and the revolving doors of almost every aspect of the current workforce, it’s hard to imagine a person spending their whole life honing a craft to the point of what their peers would refer to as “masterful.” Throw in the internet and tools like Masterclass or Youtube, and it seems like you can learn almost any skill you desire at an unprecedented speed, no less. So what is the point? Perhaps this is our destiny, our evolution as a species. That with so much information at our fingertips, allowing us to learn new things at light speed, comes the price of losing the nuance and true experiential foundation of what it is to master something truly.
Once in a while, a person comes along that is a lone wolf. An individual that can not be bothered by most of the distractions that engage our everyday lives. An individual with the drive and passion for learning something to the best of their ability. To work and grind, continuously striving to do a better job than the previous effort. An individual who spends a lifetime perfecting their skill is not because it is required of them, but because it is their passion and obsession—a mastery of both hand and mind. And the point is, you can tell the difference in the final result from a master craftsperson that has spent a lifetime perfecting their craft.
One of the critical factors in identifying this breed of individual is their consistent attitude of “How can I do better?” “How can I improve?” They obsess over their work details, like a master chess player, replaying each move and searching for a better way.
Danny O’Brien is one of those individuals. He’s one of the top artists specializing in hand engraving, and art is left primarily to the custom gun community. But O’Brien has worked with guitars as his canvas for over half a century. In the custom guitar world, he is a legend, and a true master craftsman, through and through.
You’ve most likely admired his work in the past. Zemaitis may be the name attached to some of the most famous guitars ever built, but their signature engraved metal appointments are all O’Brien. And without his beautiful artistry, those guitars would be far less memorable, regardless of whose hands they resided in.
There are a fair amount of boutique guitars available today that offer custom engraved appointments. Many are beautiful renditions of an artist’s vision, CNC machined, or laser cut to perfection. But remember the point? In the end, you can tell the difference in the final result when it comes to a CNC rendition of artistic engraving and the creation of a person sitting down with a hand tool and working the material into a beautiful piece of art. A three-dimensional work of art. A piece of art with a soul left there by the sweat and pain of the master craftsperson that created it.
It seems almost serendipitous that O’Brien would cross paths with Smith and the crew at Newman Guitars. The connection that Tony Zemaitis and Ted Newman separately had with such a roster of common artists like Keith Richards and Ron Wood, and at practically the same time in history, is the stuff of legend. There are few boutique guitar companies around today with such a lineage to the stars.
Now with O’Brien in the mix, Newman Guitars is offering “The Engraved Series.” Based on Newman’s guitar design and O’Brien’s engraved artistry, the result is an instrument that is a portal to the essence of the hand-built guitars that served as an inspiration to some of the greatest rock musicians in recent history.
We recently had the opportunity to ask Danny a few questions about his history and his newly founded relationship with Jeff Smith and Newman Guitars.
Guitar Connoisseur: The art of hand engraving is such a difficult skill to master; how did you learn such a rare art form ?
Danny O’Brien: When I left school, I was fortunate to be apprenticed as an engraver at James Purdey and Sons Gunmakers, under the tutelage of Ken Hunt (arguably the best gun engraver of all time)! I worked there for 25 years engraving on shotguns’ steel actions before setting up as a freelance engraver.
GC: Were you artistic as a child? Did you go through any formative training?
DOB: As a child, I always preferred drawing and painting to science and mathematics! Although the only formal art lessons I had were at school.
GC: What drew interest to focus on engraving guitars? Did it start with your relationship with Tony (Zemaitis), or had you been engraving guitars prior?
DOB: At about the age of 18, I bought a cheap acoustic guitar and proceeded to learn to play it (badly). I developed, along with some friends, an interest in folk and blues music. One of my friends discovered that Tony Zemaitis was building guitars, ordered one, and asked me if I would make him silver “Z” to put on the headstock, which I did. Shortly after this, Tony asked if I could make and engrave some more badges, and that was the beginning!
GC: What was it like in the early days of creating such unique guitars with Zemaitis? Especially for so many famous players. Did you know you were making history at the time?
DOB: At first, Tony was making only acoustic guitars, so there were only a handful of badges a year to complete and later some truss rod covers. Then the first electric models made an appearance, and after a while, Tony decided to experiment with a metal front to see what effect it would have as a shield for the electrics. I engraved the plate, and almost as soon as Tony hung it on the wall, Tony Macfee of the Groundhogs bought it. I believe that he still owns the guitar. Somehow Ron Wood and Ronnie Lane got to hear of it and quickly became two of Tony’s best customers. From then, it seemed that every guitar player wanted a metal front, and I suppose we realized that we were making history. Having a list of famous clients never impressed Tony; although many became his friends, he would only make the instruments he wanted. Apart from George Harrison and my cousin Gary Grainger I never met any of his clients; our paths never seemed to cross!
GC: Are you Exclusive with Newman Guitars, or do you collaborate with other makers, as well?
DOB: I don’t have a contract with Newman, but I am proud to be associated with them and look forward to a long relationship. I have done a few jobs for other makers, but the Covid 19 virus seems to have got in the way a bit recently.
GC: In regards to Newman, what is the process for designing a piece to complete an instrument? Do you work with the client to meet their vision, or is it producing the art as you see fit?
DOB: So far, the Newman guitars I have worked on have been designs on paper that I have submitted for approval and subsequently engraved! However, I am always open to ideas from clients.
GC: I envision you draw out the design on paper and then transfer that pattern to your material to be engraved, but walk us through your process when designing a pattern to engrave.
DOB: First, I work out the design on paper then trace it. Then lay the tracing onto the metal and transfer it using Trace down (a carbon paper type). Next, I scribe around the outlines using a sharp point to avoid erasing the design whilst engraving. Then comes engraving the outlines, followed by cutting away the background. The final process is the fine lines of shaving in the leaves and scroll, the blackening of the work with wax.
GC: Have you ever experimented with various metal alloys or gauges of metal to accentuate the visual effect, or is it more a passion for tradition in terms of process?
DOB: When I was engraving steel, I did inlay work with gold and silver, but the Duralumin of the guitar plate is a bit too soft for this!
GC: After so many decades of creating masterful art, what keeps you inspired to develop new ideas and breathtaking designs?
DOB: Most of the leaf work and scrollwork is based on the decoration used in gun engraving. I have engraved many dragons, skulls, and animals in the past, but not in the past couple of years. But who knows what is around the next corner.
GC: What is the future for a craft like hand engraving, considering modern CNC and laser technology? Do people approach you with an interest in learning traditional techniques?
DOB: I think there will always be a place for hand engraving; the CNC and laser technology is adequate for mass production, but if you compare the hand-cut work side by side with the machine produced work, you will see the difference. The machine has no soul! Finally, people have approached me about learning the trade, but my teaching apprentices’ days are back in the past. However, there are plenty of great engravers out there who still teach!