Let’s chat with…David Latchaw of www.unbrokenstring.com

Hi David!

Tell us a little about what brought you into the world of guitar and amp repair.  How long have you been doing it? How does it feel to have a schmancy name like “luthier?”

My entre’ was entirely supernatural.  My mother raised her children to play keyboard, band, and stringed instruments.  She passed away a few years ago.  Shortly after that, a very close friend, and leader of our Bible study where I work, lost her struggle with cancer.  Within a month, friends and co-workers (whom I had no idea were musicians) approached me EVERY DAY with music-related questions and inquiries about getting their stuff fixed (and one of them dared to call me a “luthier.”)  I did what I could to support them, and I am now powerless to stop.

Your site is easily one of the most fascinating gear pages I’ve seen. What gave you the idea of sharing your projects with such detailed photos and blow-by-blow breakdown of the work involved?

The initial motivation was to differentiate myself from poseurs and braggarts who ‘talk the talk’ of fixing musical instruments and electronic equipment, but who do not ‘walk the walk;’ The Web site was to clearly demonstrate that I could perform the work as described – “Don’t believe me, just watch!”

The second motivation was to enable me to shamelessly promote the business in a New Media space in such a way that would easily integrate into such online platforms as Facebook and Reddit using pictures and video, without any duplication of effort.  By managing content to one place I could easily enter other media spaces using a single HTML link.

What’s your advice for anyone interested in buying a used guitar or amp? What should they look for, what should they stay away from?

Each instrument should be evaluated on its own merits without regard to brand name or model.  My philosophy regarding the purchase of a guitar is discussed In my blog post http://unbrokenstring.com/engineers-tips-selecting-first-guitar/

That said, the choice of the rest of the gear is a different matter.  Cruise Craigslist or pawn shops for a pre-owned amp.  Musicians are always upgrading their gear, so buying something used, particularly older gear, is a good value.  Avoid the ‘Made in China’ stuff.  And if your ‘find’ doesn’t work, you KNOW who to call.

What’s the best way for someone to learn how to maintain their instrument or amplifier? What are some basic things everyone should know in order to get the most longevity and satisfaction out of their gear?

Owners’ manuals are available for almost everything.  Read the section of the manual that discusses ‘Care and Maintenance’ two or three times.

Wash your hands before playing, and wipe off your instrument afterwards.

Go to the car parts store and purchase some electrical contact cleaner.  Wipe down your cable connectors and jacks with a little contact cleaner from time to time.  Don’t use WD40 because it leaves an organic film of fish oil on everything.

Don’t smoke around your gear because it leaves a film of nicotinic acid on everything.

Use modern transient suppression equipment for AC line powered equipment.  I offer these: http://www.smartpowersystems.com/ which protects against arc flash transients per IEC2014 as well as more traditional electrical power surges.    I have seen an entire stage-worth’s of gear wiped out in an instant, due to old AC wiring in a venue.  Protect yourself.

When should someone call in a pro like yourself?

The time to call a pro is the time you realize your stuff has been in someone else’s shop for a year without being fixed.

Your site features a ton of unique, often “off-brand” and vintage gear. What do you think about the new stuff being made today? Who is making gear that really impresses you right now?

You won’t find much mass-produced electronic equipment from China on my blog, because it is designed and built to be sold and sent to the landfill, and not repaired.

I’m a huge Peavey fan, mainly because of the robust support ecosystem, availability of spare parts and factory phone support right here in the U.S.A.  Yeah, Peavey is the stuff our parents gave us when we were in high school, but it works surprisingly well.  I love to work on it.

Houston is a strange place in my opinion. One of the largest cities in the country but it is very much a mid-level market in a lot of ways. Places like Austin, Seattle, even a place like Athens Georgia…all are viewed as better “scenes” than Houston by many people. Yet, Houston can call some incredible musicians as its sons and daughters – ZZ Top, Kings X, Clint Black, the Geto Boys, Destiny’s Child, Robert Earl Keen, Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers, BJ Thomas, Ezra Charles, Lightning Hopkins.

That’s not a bad list!

So…here are the questions: Despite this amazing history, why does Houston lack a “thriving music scene?”

People come to Houston to work and make money.  The objective of making money is sometimes at best agnostic with respect to the arts, and at worst, at cross-purposes.

What makes a “scene” great?

A great scene is the result of a functional ecosystem of creators, facilitators, and consumers, who interact in such a way so that everyone benefits.

As someone who works with some of the best players around town, what do you think of the Houston music scene and the musicians, venues, retailers, services providers (such as yourself) who comprise it?

It’s very fragmented.  Part of that is geographic, due to Houston’s urban sprawl.  If we look at venues, where is Houston’s version of Austin’s 6th Street?  Washington Avenue?  Maybe… or Downtown. Kemah.  FM1960.  Mid-town. Pasadena.  You choose.

Culture fragments the scene.  Houston has an awesome rap scene and Tejano music scene, but, much to the chagrin of this Child of the Sixties, we, as a society, have made Negative Progress in unifying the cultures in the American melting pot.  The walls between us are higher than I’ve ever seen them…

Another source of fragmentation is the near-extinction of local music stores.  God Bless the local music stores that have weathered the enormous music market consolidation that occurred throughout the whole Internet/MARS/GC ordeal.  Visiting with the owners of these local stores, it’s my opinion that they are in ‘siege mode’ after decades of competing with the national chains and online retailers.

And don’t get me started on the venue business models.  OK, I get it; Exploiting musicians to sell alcohol is one thing.  But having the bands promote the venue they don’t own, sell the tickets and give all the proceeds to someone else, then scheduled for some free exposure based on how many of their friends they bring, is enormously cynical.  What’s next?  Maybe the bands could clean the bathrooms and fix the AC at their own expense.  Venue management needs a paradigm change and, in some cases, a regime change.

In response, the musician retreats into their bedroom, with an Internet connection, a good mic, and DI box to create their art, isolated from the rest of the world.  Technology empowers the individual, but fragments the scene.

What role does each individual player, venue etc play in ensuring a city has a thriving music (and artistic in general) community?

We need to maximize our gifts (musical talent, performance skill, technical chops, business acumen, etc.) through practice and performance, to be as good as we can be, to maximize the opportunity for success.  And we owe it to our audiences and customers to NOT suck.

We need to decide to have a little humility and consider how we can be of service to those of us in the community…  just as you are doing with Cathedral Records.

A careful balance between the determination to be successful and the humility necessary to serve others is enormously difficult.  This difficulty is compounded in our society where we celebrate the Bono-class egos that dominate the music business.  But, if we were to take ourselves down a notch and work a little bit toward the common good, the music community will more likely thrive.

The alternative is, we all doggedly work towards our own individual self-interests, and nothing changes.

Alright…word association…what’s the first thing that pops into your head?

Gibson – my first real guitar

Paul Reed Smith – Carlos Santana

Stratocaster – Jeff Beck

Twin Reverb – Fender combo

Stack – Slash

Jim Marshall – Lord of Loud, RIP

Finally…last question, and you know I have to ask:

Beatles or Stones? – Of these two, Beatles.