In the early 1970s, when the Grateful Dead were giving concerts with their famous Wall of Sound sound system, featuring 450 loudspeakers, Rick Turner went for a walk in Santa Barbara, California. He and his colleagues on the sound team went further and further, until they found themselves a mile from the stage – and the sound remained perfect. “We were off to a good start!” Turner said in a 2007 NAMM oral history, “People, to this day, will say it’s the best live sound they’ve ever heard.”
Turner, 78, who died Sunday in Pasadena, Calif., of complications from heart failure and a stroke, was a concert sound mixer and pioneering guitar luthier who built instruments for the Dead, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Fleetwood Mac and many more. The Model 1 guitar he built for Lindsey Buckinghamamong other instruments, prompted Premier Guitar to call him “the father of boutique guitar making”.
“Rick was not just an innovator and inventor, but he had a constant curiosity about everything. He would learn something and feel compelled to share it with everyone,” says Jason Kostal, a luthier and owner of Kostal Guitars, who worked closely with Turner. “I can’t tell you how many times I called him late at night with a question no one else could answer, and not only would he have an answer, he would have three or four potential solutions.”
Growing up in New York and then Marblehead, Massachusetts, Turner’s stepfather was an amateur artist, painter, and guitarist and his mother a poet. They played 78s by Pete Seeger, Lead Belly and Burl Ives, and Turner absorbed the music as well as the tools in his father’s basement workshop and the surrounding shipyards with “lots of wood”. He started taking banjos apart and putting them back together, and “working with my hands and making stuff”.
He told NAMM: “There’s nothing wrong with what I’m doing. If you go back to my childhood, working with wood and making guitar music, it’s probably very inevitable.
After briefly enrolling at Boston University in the early ’60s, he watched Joan Baez, the Reverend Gary Davis, and others perform on the local coffeehouse scene, then collaborated and lived with future members. of the Youngbloods. In 1964 a friend invited him to tour with the folk duo Ian and Sylvia, and he was earning $125 a week, all expenses paid; eventually he joined an electric psychedelic rock band called Autosalvage while rebuilding electric guitars.
Autosalvage signed with RCA Records, briefly, before going their separate ways, and Turner took a different direction, opening a luthier business in Marin County, California, painstakingly “hand-winding” guitar pickups as a means of reducing the frequency response and improve the sound. Through a connection, he befriended the Grateful Dead, working on an inlay for one of Phil Lesh’s basses. He traveled with the band on several tours, innovating the sound of concerts by placing the PA system behind the band – this approach evolved into the Wall of Sound.
“There was this phenomenal amount of money around. I didn’t even know where it came from,” he told NAMM. “The dead had a lot of fun spending their money on gear. We also had a lot of fun spending their money on gear!
One of Turner’s best-known early instruments was the Alembic #1, a bass he made for Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane, which became the basis for his pioneering company, Alembic, and later exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 1972, Turner moved to a factory in Cotati, California, and word spread to the point that top jazz and rock stars were ordering Turner’s state-of-the-art instruments.
“It was a very heady time,” Turner said of the 1970s, when David Crosby, John Paul Jones, Stanley Clarke and John Entwistle visited his factory. “We were adding constructively to the music. . . . It was really a very collaborative thing that we were doing. We were clearly trying to make their musical expression easier and better. In the late 70s he had met Fleetwood Mac, working on basses for John McVie and guitars, including the iconic Model 1, for Buckingham; he was part of the group Rumors album sessions.
In his later career, after working as an executive at Gibson in the 80s, Turner focused on acoustic instruments. He was playing a Martin D-28, and Crosby once said to him, “Turner, if you design a better way to amplify an acoustic guitar, and I don’t have it first, I’ll cut your balls off.” .
About 11 years ago, when Kostal had to bend a “high-end, very rare piece of wood” and shape it into a guitar, he was nervous and called Turner for advice. The luthier suggested his own plating technique, involving a sprayed liquid that stabilizes the wood against cracking under intense heat. “With that recommendation alone, it probably saved me tens of thousands of dollars of cracked wood that I would have had to replace,” Kostal says. “It was something I thought was insurmountable, and his response was, ‘Oh sure, I have an answer to that. “”
Turner is survived by his children, Ethan, Shasta, Bret and Juniper Turner.