It’s not unusual for men of a certain age to have a soft spot in their hearts for the look of vintage guitars and the sound of rock ’n’ roll. Some get as far as a high-school garage band, others might learn enough covers to tear it up at the neighborhood bar, but most guys with even a grain of common sense between their ears don’t go much further than that.
At the risk of suggesting Matt Eichen lacks good judgment, he started a guitar company and named it Musicvox. Okay, to be fair, he kept his nose to the grindstone long enough to become an oral surgeon, which gave him the wherewithal to pursue his quixotic passion. Still, have you seen his Spaceranger guitar? It looks like something an intoxicated animator for “The Jetsons” might have cooked up for the scene in which daughter Judy first lays eyes on the retro-future pop star, Jet Screamer.
“When Matt first started, I’m not sure he knew what he was doing.”
An orthodox Jew whose yarmulke would never be confused with Slash’s top hat or Buckethead’s inverted KFC container, Eichen got into music the same way most music lovers of his generation did. “I’d say it started with The Beatles,” he admits, immediately apologizing for sounding so trite. “I moved on to the Stones when I joined a Rolling Stones cover band in college in the 1970s. My own personal interests always included garage music and basic rock ’n’ roll. Chuck Berry was a major influence. Anything with a strong groove.”
A drummer before he got into the guitar at age 16 (“I picked it up pretty late”), Eichen remembers well the exacting standards of his band mates. “I was playing with people who were very skilled,” he says, “very good at their craft, and very interested in the tone of their equipment. Everything had to sound appropriate to the era we were playing.”
Though he ended up focusing on guitars, Eichen remembers an initial preoccupation with amplifiers. “We were using all vintage tube amps,” he recalls, “old Ampegs, Fenders, some Standells, things like that. Solid-state amps were becoming more affordable and prominent in the mid to late ’70s. Marshall amps were very popular with those who could afford them. We couldn’t, but we preferred the warm-sounding late-’50s, early-’60s, Ampegs and Fenders anyway. That was the tone we were looking for.”
Eventually, Eichen started paying serious attention to the tone of the guitars he was starting to play. “When I was a resident at Mount Sinai in Manhattan,” he says, “my guitar was an Ibanez Stratocaster copy. I couldn’t afford a Fender or a Gibson at the time—every dime I had went to either rent or Chinese food. When I first started buying guitars, I was looking for things like Harmonys. I really became attached to them because they were affordable and they had that sound, thanks to the DeArmond pickups.”
At first, his peers wondered why he didn’t save up for a Les Paul or Stratocaster like everybody else. “I was ridiculed because of their construction, that they were mass produced, cheap, et cetera. But they had an amazing, amazing sound.”
Like a lot of budding collectors of the inexpensive, entry-level guitars of the 1950s and ’60s, Eichen found himself in a lot of pawn shops. “During my residency and afterward, whenever I had some spare change I would go to a pawn shop wherever I could find one. If I was traveling to a conference in any state, when I get off the plane, the first thing I’d do is go to a pawn shop in the worst part of town and see what kind of guitars were available. Harmonys were always on my list, but then I spread out to Supros, Danelectros, Airlines, and Silvertones. Anything made by Valco or Kay. They had magical tones.”
Al Masocco knows exactly what Matt Eichen is talking about. A veteran of the marketing side of the music business for more than 35 years, Mascocco got to work with master musicians such as Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jeff Beck. Like Eichen, Masocco also took a shine to the offbeat guitar brands, many of which are described in detail on his PulseBeat Guitars website. “You can’t Pro Tools these guitars,” Masocco says, referring to the popular software used by amateur and professional recording engineers to replicate the tone of Les Pauls and Strats. “They have a different sound.”
While Eichen was amassing his collection in the late 1980s, he learned why finding examples of these guitars in good condition was so difficult, even though they had been sold in large volumes.
“The mass marketers were trying to get a younger audience,” says Michael Wright, a guitar historian who began writing a monthly column, “The Different Strummer,” for Vintage Guitar magazine in 1991. “They were selling a lot of guitars that would become beginner guitars.”
Not surprisingly, a lot of those guitars did not survive their first owners. “Many of the kids who got them for Christmas, birthday, or whatever couldn’t get a tone out of them,” Eichen says, “so they were cast aside and eventually tossed away by their parents. A lot of them were gone within the first five or so years after they were sold.”
As Eichen’s dental career took off, he was unwittingly edging closer to the founding of Musicvox. “In 1994,” he remembers, “I went to San Diego for a sinus-surgery conference. Naturally I went to a local pawn shop where I found a Supro Ozark with a floating bridge and pickups. All of the electronics were mounted in a box under the pick guard on the body. The body was not routed, it was a very rudimentary type of design, with a mother-of-toilet-seat finish on it. I just loved it.
“That was really the core of the design of the Spaceranger,” Eichen continues. “The body didn’t look like it, but the proportions were the same. The headstock, though, was my idea. It was just something that would’ve caught my eye, had I seen it in a store.”
“The electric guitar is the voice of rock ’n’ roll.”
Eichen’s guitar education really accelerated in 1995, when a collection of Michael Wright’s Different Strummer columns were published as a book. “His book influenced me quite a bit, especially the European guitars like EKO and Hagstrom. It seemed like everything he wrote about I had to buy.”
And, of course, closer to home, there was Danelectro. “The Danelectro is an amazing instrument,” says Eichen. “I took a lot of inspiration from Nat Daniel, who was the company’s owner and designer. When I first had this desire to design an instrument, I was worried that I wasn’t a good enough guitarist. I could play blues and rock, but I wasn’t a lead guitarist and I had never learned to read music—to this day I play strictly by ear. But when I read about Nat Daniel, I learned that he could only play three chords. He played just well enough to test out his instruments. I thought, if he can do it, I can do it.”
According to a summary of the company’s history written by Wright, in 1996 Eichen created the first sketches for what would become the Spaceranger. Moving from a drawing on an index card to a scale cutout in cardboard, he eventually found his way to Gulab Gidwani of Exotic Woods, who digitized Eichen’s designs to produce about 10 necks and bodies on a computer-numerical-control (CNC) carving machine. The blanks were finished in nitrocellulose lacquer by a Philadelphia-area luthier, after which the instrument’s hardware was added, including new-old-stock Kay trapeze tailpieces.
Eichen took his prototypes to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) trade show in January of 1997. There he met a Korean manufacturer who was contracted to produce the first full run of Spacerangers, which were ready for the next NAMM show in July.
“When Matt first started,” says Wright affectionately, “I’m not sure he knew what he was doing.” Indeed, that first batch of production Spacerangers, Wright recalls, “was not particularly well received. Have you seen a picture of the Spaceranger? That’s one ugly guitar, there’s no way around it. His guitars were laughed at back then, but I don’t think they’re laughed at anymore.”
A change in the guitar’s finish and a new manufacturer improved their appearance, but the growing respect for Eichen’s instruments had as much to do with their distinctive look as their singular sound. “He was very influenced by pickups that look and sound like DeArmond pickups,” says Wright. “DeArmond, which was in Toledo, Ohio, was famous for making a lot of the pickups for a lot of the cheaper guitars like Harmony, but they also made them for Gretsch, the toaster-top pickups. With older pickups, the sound is subtler than that of modern, high-output pickups. By picking a ’50s/’60s pickup, combined with a retro look, he ended up with something that had a vintage vibe.”
The comparatively more conservative Space Cadet followed in 1999, and Musicvox created bass and 12-string versions of both. But it was a mirrored Spaceranger bass (see photo at top) that Eichen ran as an ad in a number of guitar magazines that caught the eye of a few key musicians, who would become some of the fledgling firm’s biggest boosters.
“One day I was in my office,” Eichen recalls. “I had just treated a patient and there was a message that Allen Woody had called. At the time I had no idea who he was, but I knew about the Allman Brothers, who he played bass for. That ad also prompted Tom Petersson from Cheap Trick to phone me. I was amazed. I had been a huge fan of Cheap Trick when I was 16 years old, and years later, here he is tracking me down.”
Another musician who was prompted to reach out Eichen was Matthew Sweet, who, in 2002, was working on the third Austin Powers movie, Goldmember (Sweet plays bass in the film-series’ house band, Ming Tea, whose lead guitarist is Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles). “He had acquired some of my guitars,” says Eichen, “and told me that the Spaceranger looked like it had been designed for the film. After an extensive series of emails, he showed one to Mike Myers at a band practice. Apparently everybody had a great laugh; they thought it was wonderful. Myers eventually got one for himself.”
“The unique thing about a guitar is that it’s art that you can create another type of art with.”
More importantly for Eichen, his Spaceranger was chosen for the movie, although it was not at all a foregone conclusion that the instrument would make the final cut. “They decided they were going to use the instruments in the movie because they felt they couldn’t get anything custom for the film that would’ve looked more appropriate,” Eichen says. “But it went all the way up to the shooting of the scene before we knew whether they were going to use the guitars. The director of photography, as well as the film’s director, Jay Roach, made the final decision when the actors were in costume. According to Matthew, they had other guitars sitting by, waiting, just in case. They very easily could’ve pulled my guitars off the set and replaced them with something else. But everyone had a great reaction to them. I was very, very fortunate; it gave the guitar a permanent place in pop culture.”
For a while, the future looked very bright for Eichen’s retro-looking guitars. The ginormous musical-instruments retailer, Guitar Center, placed a large order of Spacerangers to capitalize on the guitar’s prominence in the film. “It looked things were really going to take off,” Eichen remembers.
Then, overnight, everything changed. “My then-two-and-a-half-year-old daughter got thyroid cancer,” he says. “It really knocked me off the whole guitar thing. The movie had just come out and there was the order from Guitar Center, but when she got sick, I just stopped everything cold.” Fortunately this story has a happy ending. “She’s fine today,” Eichen says, “she’s a healthy, 13-year-old kid.”
By 2008, Eichen’s turn-of-the-century fling with Musicvox seemed exactly that. He even started selling off pieces from the collection he’d been building since his Mount Sinai days. “I had stopped buying instruments and wasn’t involved with manufacturing or anything. I sold handfuls of Supros and Airlines to people all over Europe, all over the world.”
Recently, though, Eichen has gotten back in the guitar game. “We have four children, three girls, ages 11, 13, and 18, and one boy, 15. Our three oldest wanted to know why no one else’s home revolved around guitars. They had grown up with guitars all around them; everywhere they turned they saw guitars. They rummaged through articles in Guitar World, Vintage Guitar, Guitar Player, and other guitar magazines and read about me and Musicvox. They had seen the music videos of Devo 2.0 and Ming Tea from Goldmember. Finally they said, ‘Look, what was this all about? Why don’t you do it again?’ Initially I refused but when I reviewed the press and materials with them, I saw their interest growing and it got me excited to do it again. It was very inspirational.”
Eichen says it took a lot to get Musicvox back in motion in 2010, to line up the factories, register for the trade shows, and secure new trademarks. And without a Guitar Center order in his back pocket, he had to tweak his business model. “I decided to make rare, limited, custom runs for collectors, and cut them off at four numbered pieces per unique design. I changed features, pickups, finishes, and finish accents. As a result, our guitar prices have been rising steadily in the aftermarket. Most folks never knew that almost everything we do, even in production, is very limited and boutique. That’s started to catch on with some insiders.”
Kevin Smith is one such insider. With a collection that numbers 1,200 guitars and is still climbing, Smith has more Musicvox guitars (around 70) than any other brand except Dean. “I didn’t catch on to Musicvox stuff until last year or the year before,” he says. “I got hooked on them, especially when he was offering a lot of the prototypes and early models that were made in 1996. I picked up a few of those, including a triple pickup model that was never put in production.”
The timing, it seems, is right for Eichen to carve out a niche for himself as a specialty maker. “The factories he’s dealing with,” says Wright, “will take relatively small orders now. There was a while when they weren’t doing that, but then the recession hit.”
“We had our first new products ready for the NAMM show in July 2011,” Eichen adds. “We’ve been to every show since.”
Among the new guitars in the Musicvox stable are the M1-5 and the Space-inator, both introduced in 2011. If his original Spaceranger raised the eyebrows of guitar purists who objected to its cartoony appearance, the Space-inator raised the ire of Fender, which objected to its original name, the Strataspear.
Eichen won’t discuss the Fender situation, although you can read the full text of Fender’s objection on the Musicvox website, but Masocco finds Fender’s complaint more than a little ironic. “In the 1950s, there was a company called S.S. Stewart,” he says, “whose Model 44 was ripped off by Harmony for its H44 Stratotone. And then Harmony got ripped off by Leo Fender when the name Stratotone was turned into Stratocaster. This sort of thing has been going on for years.”
Which brings to mind that priceless quote by Hunter S. Thompson, who once observed that “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
Matt Eichen has managed to avoid such corridors because he’s stayed focused on the things that drew him to guitars in the first place—their sound and their beauty. Certainly that’s what’s kept Wright interested all these years. “I like guitars because they are art,” Wright says. “The unique thing about a guitar is that it’s art that you can create another type of art with. The object itself is beautiful as a piece of sculpture, but its primary beauty is the sound it makes when you make music. Matt’s guitars live in that nexus.”
“Guitars are meant to be played,” agrees Masocco. “You want to preserve them as pieces of history, but it’s also about the sound and what they represent. The electric guitar is the voice of rock ’n’ roll,” he concludes. “That’s what it is.”