by Dave Anderson
The path to becoming a guitar builder is one that is both organic and in flux. Meaning the variety of skills one must learn to have a successful guitar company ranges from designer, drafter, woodworker to finish expert, business manager, inventory manager, accountant, the list goes on. Not to mention, most builders start as musicians and most likely have 10,000 hours in practice before making the 90-degree turn to learn the art of building hand made guitars. I speak from experience. After performing and teaching for over ten years, I made a 90-degree turn and began a four-year apprenticeship building archtop guitars. At the end of my four years, one thing became clear to me. I’m not cut out to run a guitar company. Perhaps I had too many other interests and wanted to continue to perform at a professional level. The bottom line is, being an independent guitar builder in the modern age is a 24/7 commitment to your shop, your customers, and all aspects of your business. Even those few who choose to walk the path as an independent luthier are usually driven by a passion that inspires them to build their ultimate guitar concept.
Now imagine that the path chosen handed you the task of not creating your vision but to carry on the vision, passion, and legacy of another builder. A teacher and friend. A guitar builder who had limited time left on this earth. This is the path Jeff Smith had found himself on, manifested into his company, Newman Guitars.
Ted Newman Jones gained notoriety as a touring guitar tech for Keith Richards. He soon began building custom guitars for Richards and other stars like Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. Newman had his journey. The path of an eccentric artist, vs. traditional craftsman. His guitars were a product of form and function, with innovative features like offset body shapes that create a balance not found in other electric guitars and an asymmetrical neck profile that conforms to the player’s hand. Newman approached the design of his guitars with the perspective of the player first.
When Jeff Smith acquired his first Newman custom guitar (a used early model found by a friend at the Dallas Guitar show), it planted a seed in him that would in time germinate into an eventual work relationship and close friendship with Ted Newman Jones. By the time Smith crossed paths with Newman, he had a solid business background and experience in the manufacturing and technology field. The perfect background to help Newman revamp his approach and tool up to handle the current boutique guitar market’s demand. But Newman had been diagnosed with cancer, and time was of the essence. They had to get the build process to a level that consistently captured Newman’s hand-built instruments’ personality and artistic touch. Smith jumped into action, assembling a small team of luthiers that were versed in modern CNC technology. The race was on to prototype and build the Newman design and get the approval from Newman himself. A task Smith handled diligently, as well as eloquently. The result is a custom guitar line that holds the artistic vision of Ted Newman’s legacy.
Guitar Connoisseur: How did your interest evolve from player to player to the industry’s business and luthiery side?
Jeff Smith: I was on a flight with my day job career in 2007, and a guy said, “what do you want to do when you retire?” I said work with builders in the guitar industry. But, I said, I won’t be retiring for another 20 years. He said start now, and you’ll have 20 years’ experience. So, I did just that. I started working with Jeanfranco Gadotti, a modern contemporary guitar builder from Brazil, in 2007 while he was in Florida on an artist’s Visa. After several years of working together, Jeanfranco left the USA to return to Brazil, and my focus turned to Ted, whom I’ve known for several years. It was a natural transition, and Ted and I worked together for about 1 1/2 years before being diagnosed with lung cancer. I had acquired my first NEWMAN Guitar in 2008 and knew there were a great body shape and history intact.
GC: How did you first become aware of Ted Newman Jones?
JS: There was a Guitar World Magazine May 1981 issue I read as a high school kid about Ted building guitars for Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty. I also remember the stop dragging my heart around Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks video where Tom played in Newman, and it stuck with me all those years. Ted and I started working full force in March 2015.
GC: How did you meet Ted?
JS: Ted and I sat down in Dyersburg, Tennessee, in March 2015 to discuss what he wanted to do with the company and the guitars. I had communicated with Ted over the years but never sat down and seriously discussed making sure the business History would not be lost. I would put adequate resources forward to maintain the future of the company as Ted saw it. I was giving him a chance to have his voice in his legacy. Once we knew Ted had limited time, we needed as much transparency to get things lined out. We preserved the designs to Ted’s specs and approval and stored them digitally for recall. Ted knew his legacy was real, and things needed to be documented. Ted and I worked with another luthier named Jacob Harper in Boonville, Indiana, to get all Ted’s specifications correctly listed on the digital format for recall. Ted Jacob and I worked together for several months, getting everything stored to Ted’s approval.
GC: Was it your idea to reboot Newman guitars with Ted? Did it take convincing him?
JS: The idea was to rebuild NEWMAN Guitars with Ted as the builder. However, before the end of 2015, he had the cancer diagnosis that led us to preserve a NEWMAN’s essence rather than fretwork and finish. Ted and I discussed the body shape remaining the same forever. The changes that could be made, the Asymmetrical V shape neck carve known as a Ted trademark, neck radius, headstock pitch, and other technical things, he wanted to make sure we were dialed in. We also discussed the company’s legal aspects concerning logo, website, social media, and current publications that would be called upon for user reviews and interviews. Ted and I worked with Vintage Guitars Magazine and Premier Guitar Magazine to re-introduce the company to a new audience who wasn’t there to see it the first time around. Many people from the late 70s to the early 90s recall a Newman Guitar. But, for the most, they didn’t remember the shape or history. The process became retracing the past, working on the present, and forecasting the future of what we all thought Newman Guitars should be.
GC: It’s a delicate situation to retrieve and preserve not just the specs of Ted’s builds, but his essence and personal touch, and be considerate of his limited time. What was the time like for you?
JS: There was so much work going on in that first year. It went from being thrilled to be working together to realizing we were going to be working apart to me realizing I can’t do it alone. Ted was thrilled and upbeat through the last year and a half of his life, which helped transfer a lot of necessary information. Since Ted had lung cancer, his ability to speak and get things done we’re waning on him, and he understood the importance of working while we had a chance. I knew when I couldn’t let him talk any longer or when Ted would call me at 4:00 am asking me why I’m up. We talked whenever he felt good enough to get things done. Ted signed and approved the legacy Model and Prototype just a few weeks before he passed away. He was one of those great old-school Luthier’s who worked right up to the end.
GC: Taking that information and recreating it accurately and in such a short time requires a skillful CNC technician. How did you end up bringing on Jacob Harper to help with the project?
JS: Brian Sherman and Brick Briscoe, who were mutual guitars friends, introduced us. Jacob has his BS in Industrial Technology from MSU and is the right guy for our needs. When I caught up with him, he was building archtop jazz boxes with beautiful inlay. I knew then he was very capable of doing all the things we needed to get Newman lined out and secure. I was fortunate to put Ted and Jacob together, which sealed the deal for digitally storing the Newman essence and the ability to recall it at a moment’s notice.
GC: It seems that the Newman legacy is coming full circle with the help of Danny O’brien’s hand-engraved artistry, paying homage to Ziemitas and Newman, as well as legends like Keith Richards and George Harrison. How did your relationship start with Danny O’Brien?
JS: Ian Dickey was a friend of Danny’s and an owner of some original Zemaitis Guitars. He and I worked back and forth for about a year until he had his designs and Danny connection established to get 2 Newman guitars done by Danny. We cut plexiglass templates and sent them to England. The first person in the process was David Humphreys, who does the metalwork and prep for Danny. They are a team and trust each other’s work. Working with Danny and David has been a joy. I believe you get the best job from anyone if you let them do what they do best. If not for Ian and his interests and relationships, the NEWMAN Engraved Series would not have happened.
GC: Do you still offer custom-built Newman guitars?
JS: Offering custom-built guitars is what we do. We can build almost anything and have taken on some real challenges. Like Billy F. Gibbons saying, each guitar has a 5 lb limit. Or a new build 5 String Black Open G Keith Richards with matching Black painted fretboard and Cream outline binding. We are 50% down and about six months currently. If we have time to build what we want, we generally do that, and those are the ones that go to the open market. We have Robert Mindel doing a guest build for us with Legacy model #7 and Saul Koll, guest builder for Legacy #8 and #9. We have done names in the fretboard like a guitar we made for Sundance Head, The Voice winner from Season 11. Another great build was the Jesse Guitar Taylor Dice Model Tribute guitar honoring a great and deserving NEWMAN player. The company has many directions which help keep us fresh.
GC: What does the future hold for Newman Guitars?
JS: We are a build from scratch place. We design for people who like it, not for people who don’t. I am committed to turning out as many guitars as possible for the people who like them. We are a true master builder custom shop and do our best work to add to the buyer’s vision. Having a guitar custom built is different than buying a custom-built guitar. We have a great body design, and it is forever a NEWMAN. “We got our own thing.” Ted Newman Jones