Electric vision

No matter how many guitars Mark Kidd added to his collection, there was something missing.

Perhaps it was the neck, the tone, the action — something short of the Plato-like vision of a perfect guitar rattling around Kidd's mind.

Driven by a musician's version of the need for speed and a diversion from long hours at his tattoo parlor, Kidd pursued his objective.

"I would call it sleek, sexy and comparable to what a Lamborghini would be in the car world," Kidd said.

The owner of Epic Ink in Medford possessed a stockpile of 18 or more guitars suited for various moments.

It's one thing to own a veritable showroom of guitars, but it's quite another to possess that one-of-a-kind masterpiece formulated in the depths of your soul. For a decade or more, Kidd, who has alternately rocked and jammed across a wide swath of genres, brainstormed with Rogue Valley luthier Steve Spalding to perfect the elements of an electric guitar built for his ear and physique.

"It's ergonomically precise to fit my body contours," said the 5-foot-3, 160-pound Kidd. "The neck is profiled for my hands and allows me to reach octaves and sweeps."

Spalding handles restoration and repair for some of the biggest names in the industry, but he has also built 80 custom guitars during his 33-year career.

Depending on the intricacies of the project, instruments take between three months to a year to build.

"This one took over a year," Spalding said. "Some of that had to do with the pace we chose to work at."

Although the idea was broached a decade earlier, it wasn't until the demand of his job and health issues cornered Kidd, and he decided it was time to make it happen.

"After 14 years of giving 110 percent to tattooing and body art, I needed an outlet," Kidd said. "I needed to expand my artistic medium."

Kidd has somewhere around $5,000 in the project.

"At some point, I stopped counting," he said. "The numbers drifted a lot because there was a lot of hand-made custom stuff and one-off stuff. Those kinds of things get pricey and I didn't really sharpen my pencil. Once it went over my budget, I stopped counting — it wasn't about money, it was about the end product."

Before delving into such a high-end project, Spalding wanted to be of one mind with his customer.

"At this point in my career, I save my abilities and skill sets for people who really understand the quality of my work," he said.

The trust was there from the beginning on Kidd's end. He regularly takes his guitars to Spalding's shop above the Beau Club on East Main Street in Ashland, so he understood his counterpart's perspective.

It was one thing for Kidd to spout out the intricate details of what he envisioned. It's another to craft that vision into reality.

The danger in such an undertaking, Spalding said, is there is no guarantee that after hundreds of hours, the customer will be satisfied.

"My first thought when we talked is that this is the kind of work I really like to do," Spalding said. "At the same time, if a person is too particular, then all of a sudden it becomes a challenge of meeting their needs; I'm only human."

The element working in both the builder's and buyer's favor was their artistic bent.

"Mark had high expectations," Spalding said. "But we saw each other's perspective and we bridged the gaps very nicely. I was able to give him what he wanted and it turned out fabulous. Because he understands how to laser designs, we were able to produce a world-class instrument in our own backyard, without sparing expense or taking shortcuts in quality."

Collecting raw materials and components required more than a quick trip to the hardware store or Craigslist.

It meant ordering hardware from Schaller Electronic, a Bavarian maker of tuning machines, bridges and pickups; scouring private reserves of specialized wood such as African limba and quilted western big-leaf maple.

"It started out as chunks of lumber, looking like firewood one moment and then magically hand-sculpted into a piece of art," Kidd said. "It's an old-world craft; you just don't see anything like it anymore."

Once a rocker, Kidd now prefers Americana music, playing traditional harmonies alongside a fiddle, banjo and mandolin.

"The spectrum runs from purist Americana to bluegrass, black grass and modern variants," he said.

As the weeks turned into months and then a year, Kidd became all the more eager to shred a few bars.

"The hardest thing was the wait, the anticipation," Kidd admitted. "I was like a kid at Christmas and couldn't get to the gift until a year later. Then there's the uncertainty. With all the specs I gave Steve, it was like putting 30 of your favorite ice cream flavors into a bowl. You love all the flavors, but when you mix them together, it just might give you a stomachache."

The final product, he said, is elegant.

"I'm used to something brighter, crisper, with more attack," Kidd said. "But this is more mellow — like fine wine; it's like dark chocolate."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

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