Portland Guitar – An Interview with Jay and Max Dickinson

Jay and Max Dickinson of Portland Guitar aim to build guitars where sustainable sourcing and quality craftsmanship are the vital ingredients.

How did you get into crafting guitars?

I bought myself a book! Studied it for about ten years or so then bought a kit (it looked like firewood) and then bought another kit and then I was off.  I have been a wood worker for as long as I can remember. When I was 3 years old, maybe a little younger, my family was living in Heidelberg, Germany and my father and I found a piece of wood from a fence, it was red, and we made toy boat out of it. My dad was quite an accomplished wood carver and I watched and emulated him over the years, then adopted him as one of my heroes. I started puttering around in his shop; wood working and carving for the next 45 years or so until I decided that the corporate world and I did not agree with one another. In the meantime I had started thinking about building guitars having played one since I was fifteen. The first kit I bought looked like a couple of pieces of firewood where I had expected something more like the model airplane kits I built as a kid. My first attempt was serviceable and I was definitely infected with the guitar building bug. After building the first and then the second kit, I made an offer to my friends that if they paid for the materials I would build them a guitar. I got five orders in a few days and was set. I essentially got my friends to pay for me to learn how to build a guitar.  They got nice guitars out of the deal, I gained loads of experience, and everyone was happy. My next gambit was to make the offer of a guitar for twice the price of materials. Once again I was set, and with ten guitars under my belt I was feeling confident. I am now up to a hundred or so guitars. I have lost count.

Why did you choose the guitar over other instruments? 

Guitars are easy to build and I am lazy. Violins are hard and the customers are picky, pianos are really heavy, and I don’t play trumpet…so. The guitar is a cultural artifact above all else. It embodies the ethos of free and easy music that is easy to play and is accessible to the common person while having the potential of eliciting virtuosic performances from the uncommonly talented. It sounds good, is easy to carry (ever see a piano at a beach party?) easy to play, easy to acquire (serviceable guitars can be had for a couple of hundred dollars). I also play the guitar myself, so I have an inside connection with the instrument. I am my most critical customer. I love wood and what you can do with it. It comes with a certain spirit to it that if you are careful the guitar embodies. This stuff was a living being once; standing in a forest perhaps for a hundred years or more and then some jerk comes along and cuts it down. I think about the tree and its environment and what we are doing and its viability. Well, I can rescue some of that wood and give it a new life that will bring enduring happiness and joy to many people. In the future we are anticipating what new materials we will be using, looking into alternatives such as bamboo and hemp. But in the end, it must still be a guitar.  

Is there a specific sound your guitars have over others?  How do you achieve that sound?

If you will, we are striving to build guitars with a modern sound that is loud, responsive, harmonious, and articulate. We work to create something new while maintaining the spirit of the guitar. To build a better guitar I looked for where the problems were.  

The first is called intonation. A fancy way to say that the notes from the upper frets are around 5% out of tune due to the tempered scale the guitar plays in. I’ve found a way to fix the intonation in a way that is nearly perfect. This creates a sound that is crisp all the way up and down the fretboard. This is great for audio engineers and musicians who need every note to be on target. 

The second is in the mass and stiffness of the top. We’ve created an optimized system where they can both can be tuned. This means in large guitars we can craft big bass heavy low frequencies and in a smaller guitar we can craft delicate high frequencies. This creates for a sound that is unmatched to the other high-end brand name guitars we have tried. 

The Portland Guitar Shop in SW Portland

Do you both play guitar?

Jay: I have been playing for about 48 years and am fond of saying that next year I will learn how. This year I am practicing playing without looking at the fretboard. I started out playing violin in my grade school orchestra, but that ended when I broke my arm. I picked up the guitar when I was fifteen and have been playing ever since. I have never taken lessons, but have studied music theory so I understand the mechanics more or less. Unfortunately in the past I tended to play very technically. In the last few years I have been striving to play more intuitively, by ear if you will, (no, I don’t read music, ack, next year for sure) and to let my expressiveness come out. I think I am making progress; at least I am having a good time. I am not a musician, I am a guy that plays guitar for fun and can make a few sounds that don’t annoy too many people, but if you aren’t paying, you can’t complain. My main thrust in playing is blues based rhythmic progressions; I like to set up a rhythm and then jam to it.

Max: I’ve played guitar on and off form a long time. It’s a hobby that I’ll spend my life slowly getting better at. I played my first chords in middle school in a lesson from my dad. Then I started playing again in college then put it down for awhile and picked it back up when I joined Portland Guitar.  

What sort of music are you tuning into these days?

This is so trite, but I really enjoy most types of music, but some more than others. My go-to tunes includes a lot of jam band centered music, Grateful Dead et.al., Phish, Allman Bros., Beethoven, Dylan, Zappa, JJ Cale, Beatles, Marley etc.. On the radio I have been listening to a lot of jazz these days. It confused me for so long, so I decided to immerse myself in jazz until I got a handle on it (a fool’s errand I suppose). We saw Herbie Hancock play at the zoo and he was fantastic, but I couldn’t figure out what he was doing… that dude is out there. Nonetheless I decided to teach myself some jazz skills and have been making a little progress. I can pick out a few chord progressions these days. What’s more important though is the music we make ourselves. We don’t have to be virtuosos or anything to have fun. A couple of people, a drum kit, a few guitars and amps, a song or two and you can have a real good time. I call it electric parlor music. Music is the best!

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