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A Finely Tuned Talent

October 17, 1994|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOPANGA CANYON — Tucked away in a sunlit corner, Rick Turner is balancing an exotic East Indian sitar-like instrument on his knee, quietly plucking its strings and awaiting inspiration.

It comes quickly and easily to Turner, a serene man with a ready smile, twinkling periwinkle eyes and a wisp of gray goatee to offset his long gray ponytail. For he is far more than an accomplished guitar player seeking new melodies. Turner knows musical instruments inside and out; as often as not, he plays instruments that he has made himself.

Turner is one of a small cadre of artisans who spend their days and nights keeping alive the centuries-old tradition of the luthier, or guitar maker. While guitars, basses and other stringed instruments are being mass-produced by the millions in factories from here to Korea, he is making them by hand, one by one.

He acquires such instruments as the Rudra Vina in an effort to incorporate into his work unusual guitar-making methods and sounds from around the world.

Soon, he finishes his plucking on the strange-looking Hindustani instrument and ambles back across the street to his studio to resume work on another guitar.

For 25 years, Turner has been designing, modifying and making instruments for musicians such as David Crosby and other former members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, blues legend Ry Cooder, studio master David Lindley and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac fame. Other clients included the musicians of Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana.

The current work in progress has a tag bearing another famous name: guitarist/singer Steve Miller, who plans to take the $1,650 nylon string fretless bass with him on his next tour.

Turner, 51, has been churning out guitars and refurbishing instruments for such internationally renown artists as Indian guitar legend Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

"He has blessed my being the only guy in the West to work on and measure his guitars," Turner says proudly.

In making the guitars, Turner does it all--the woodworking, the wiring, even assembling the machine parts that keep the guitar strings in tune and in place.

In recent years, Turner's interest in Eastern instruments has expanded along with his clientele. He has made a practice of restoring ornate pieces, and is even reworking a 1920s vintage Gibson guitar into an Indian classical guitar known as a Mohan Vina for ex-Beatle George Harrison. When finished, the guitar will have three melody strings on bottom for slide guitar, five "drone" strings for plucking and 12 "sympathetic" strings underneath, for harmony.

Turner, who frequently plays local coffeehouse gigs with another musician, says he has a leg up on the many guitar makers who don't know what it's like to play their finished products. "I don't know how they can do it," he says. "You need to know what musicians need."

Turner should know. He has been involved in every aspect of guitar making, and playing, for more than 30 years.

In the early 1960s, he "dropped out of Boston University and into coffeehouses," playing alongside Taj Mahal, Joan Baez, Jeff and Maria Muldaur and other stars of the emerging rock and blues scene.

As a touring musician with the folk duo Ian and Sylvia in the mid-60s, he played the Hollywood Bowl and Boston's Symphony Hall. Then there was a stint as a sound mixer for the Grateful Dead.

Later, Turner says, he joined other craftsmen to work at an idyllic music workshop in the Bay Area, initiated by countercultural icon and drug guru Augustus Owsley Stanley. By 1970, he and some other graduates of the Grateful Dead scene went into business for themselves, but later split in a bitter dispute.

When Turner first began making his own instruments, he advertised by hanging around with the entourages of famous guitarists and bassists when they came to San Francisco, where he was living. Soon he was asked to bring his instruments to studio sessions.

Before long, the instruments were in great demand. When bassist John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin came to his Sonoma County shop at the height of the super group's popularity in 1973, Turner knew he was onto something. By 1979, Fleetwood Mac decided to leave all its Gibsons and Fender Stratocasters at home, and bring just Turner instruments on a world tour, he says.

In 1981, however, financial setbacks forced Turner to abandon the business and make ends meets crafting wood cabinets.

"That was a terrible time in the music business," he said. "Things were really strange."

By 1987, Turner moved to Los Angeles to open a West Coast office for Gibson guitars, keeping an eye out for musicians to whom he could give guitars in return for endorsements. But even though he was an exclusively signed independent designer of guitars, basses and other instruments, Turner became frustrated by the corporate mentality.

"Dealing with big company politics," he said, "it was impossible to get anything done."

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