So Long, Melody Burner

If you’ve been reading here a while, you know that a few years ago I partnered up with my friend Chris O’Dee to design, build, and market a unique guitar. It was called the MelodyBurner.

Two weeks ago, I sold the last of the Burners — my personal guitar, rosewood neck with two humbuckers — to a respected collector in the Heritage Guitar owners community. The production line is silent and the dream is officially dead.

What follows is the whole (not very long) story of MelodyBurner, from Day Zero to the final sale. I’m telling it because it’s a textbook example of how, as my old mentor Big Dog used to say, you can’t want something for someone that they don’t want for themselves.

Five years or so ago, I was introduced to Chris by a mutual friend who was a guitar tech for Sheryl Crow, Beck, and a variety of other people making a seven-figure living doing corporate rock parties. At the time, Chris was just getting started doing replicas of famous Gibson guitars from the Fifties. From the moment I saw the first example of his work, I knew that Chris was a major talent. Like Kris Derrig, the infamous builder of Saul “Slash” Hudson’s “Les Paul”, Chris O’Dee was a soft-spoken fellow who preferred to let his work speak for him, and his work was remarkably good.

There are a million replica-Les-Paul builders out there, including Gibson’s Nashville Custom Shop, but Chris just seemed to intrinsically know how to make a guitar feel, and play, like it had been around for sixty years. He also had a knack for meeting the right people and impressing them. Very few guitar builders can say that Billy Gibbons and Bruce Springsteen were playing their products on stage before they’d been in the business five years, but Chris could make those claims and more besides.

I bought a Moderne from Chris, then I commissioned him to do a few other projects for me. We hung out a lot and talked about music a lot and ate a lot of sandwiches. Probably ninety-nine out of a hundred people would have been satisfied with that arrangement. I had something else in mind, however. I knew that the replica business was a difficult and dangerous one, and it always winds up in one of two ways: either you can’t sell what you make, or you become so popular that Gibson’s legal department steps on your face and drives you out of business.

My idea was for Chris to establish himself as a builder of guitars under his own name and design, the same way everybody from Dennis Fano to Paul Reed Smith had done. The problem was in finding a niche that wasn’t already occupied by a dozen or more builders. The inspiration came for me over Christmas of 2012, when Chris stopped by the house to show off something he’d made for Billy Gibbons.

The guitar was a plain square of ash that had a maple neck attached. No truss rod, no fancy hardware. Chris has burned a variety of designs right into the ash body and then distressed all the metal components. The result was a guitar that looked like it was from the future and the distant past all at once. It hadn’t cost him much to build and his plan was to give it to Billy as a gift and a way of saying thanks for all the business that Billy, and Billy’s guitar tech, had thrown his way.

“You need to do something more with this,” I said. “This is the unique product you need.” I sprang into action. I had a friend of mine design a logo, and another friend take that logo and render it in 3-D CAD form. I hired a machine ship in New Jersey to make the logos from solid brass. I gave Chris specifications, materials lists, timelines.

I sent the initial prototype around and secured favorable reviews in WIRED and the print edition of Vintage Guitar. I registered a domain and built a website. I reached out to individual collectors I knew and I advertised the product in various guitar forums.

The interest came thick and fast — so much so that I worried we’d overwhelm Chris, who was still making guitars one at a time in his home shop. The first five prototypes were built and sold. I started to discuss the idea of fully “productionizing” the design, sourcing ash in bulk and hiring a well-known local shop to CNC-mill all the basic parts for us.

Meanwhile, Chris got remarried and decided to move his shop. He said that he couldn’t do any more Burners — but I soon realized that he was making more replicas than ever. He had another logo designed, for “Retro Guitars”, even though he didn’t own the trademark. He used Facebook to market his replicas. He would tell me that he didn’t have time to fill MelodyBurner orders on the same day that he would announce on Facebook that he was building a dozen Les Paul copies “on spec” with no firm orders in place.

I was simultaneously furious and bewildered. I’d created a brand that would turn him into a major builder, using his own name and designs that he couldn’t be sued for copying — but he didn’t want it. He wanted to build replicas. He stopped returning my emails or my phone calls even as he worked to drum up business for replica Bigsbys and Gibsons.

A few months ago, I returned the last of the MelodyBurner deposits and arranged to sell my personal MelodyBurner to one of those depositors, at my cost. I let the domain name expire. It made me sad. Partially because I’d envisioned myself as a long-time partner in MelodyBurner, finally making a mark in the music business despite not being an actual musician. I liked the idea of the product: it was well-made, it sounded great, it was unique, and it was affordable. I figured that there was every chance that we’d be bought out by a major maker and that one day I’d see Korean-made MelodyBurner “Tributes” lining the wall at Guitar Centers around the country.

All the hard work was done already. Most guitar builders can’t get the publicity and the customer momentum they need to get to that proverbial next level. We had that. What we didn’t have was somebody who actually wanted to make them. For a few months, I played around with the idea of making them myself, using the contractors and resources that are already in place around Central Ohio. I ordered up a few slabs of Michigan ash, glued and sized for MelodyBurner bodies. I found a source for the necks. I worked a deal with a pickup manufacturer.

In the end, however, I let it go. A MelodyBurner built without Chris wouldn’t really be a MelodyBurner. It wouldn’t be fair to the customers who thought they were getting something from the same hands that supplied their favorite musicians. It would be a good product, but it wouldn’t have “it”. Whatever “it” truly is.

The last time I talked to Chris, he seemed pretty content. He likes what he does. I wish I had his personal level of calmness, really. It frustrates me to have a conversation with him. All I can think of is this: if I approached writing the way he approaches his work, I’d never have gone any farther than Autofiends. The truth of the matter however, is that I can’t teach him how to be ambitious any more than he can teach me to build stunning ’59 Lesters.

We’ll go our separate ways. I’ll continue to give money to Paul Reed Smith. The Private Stock team and I have similar ideas about punctuality and adherence to the original spec sheet and quality control and whatnot. Chris will continue to build his replicas as time and his inclination permits. I can’t turn him into the next major boutique builder. That’s not who he wants to be.

So: If you were one of the lucky few to get a MelodyBurner, congratulations. You have something that will, I think, eventually be worth a lot of money. In the meantime, you have a guitar that was made to the same standards demanded by any number of platinum-selling artists. If you want a guitar built by Chris but you don’t want to deal with his two-year wait time, contact me; I have a ’59 V and a ’59 Junior, both built for major names in the business.

If, on the other hand, you’re really good at building something but you don’t know how to get to a wider audience, contact me. I have a bit of an unscratched itch, you could say. I want to make someone else famous. But make sure you’re ready for the ride, alright?

11 Replies to “So Long, Melody Burner”

  1. Ronnie Schreiber

    I’ve been working on an idea for an electric harmonica. I made a proof-of-concept prototype in my woodshop that played and worked well enough to show to some local players and a couple of world-class players and they’ve encouraged me to go forward with it. Jack’s heard it work and he thinks it’s a cool idea. We even joked about sharing a booth at the NAAM show.

    I arranged for manufacturer’s pricing on the components. I needed something that looked more like a finished product and decided to go with 3D printing – since that’s also suitable for small scale manufacturing. I found a 3D print shop that was only going to charge me $20/hr for design time and they had a designer who really got my idea. Very bright guy, personable too. He came up with some very clever solutions to some of the points on the design brief. I’d say that on the first printed prototype he got about 80% of it 110% right. The remaining 20%, though needed some revisions before I could let players try it out. It worked fine as a mock-up, and feedback from players let me know that we were on the right path in terms of look and feel. I took delivery of those parts last February.

    I met with the designer a couple of times soon after that and thought that we were on the right path and then he went incommunicado. Now and then he’d answer a text message or phone call and say we’d meet the following week, but it never happened. Went to his house, but he wouldn’t answer the door. Finally, since he still had the first printed parts as well as some other components to take measurements, I sent him and the 3D print shop (he was working as a subcontractor to them) an email explaining that the stuff was worth hundreds of dollars and that though I didn’t want to, I’d go to the police if I had to.

    That got me my parts back. Last month. As far as I know he never supplied the 3D print shop with a copy of the design files. I’ve met with the shop’s new designer and she should work out, but if she doesn’t have those files, she has to start from scratch. Having those files will save her time and me money. I don’t want to have to pay for the same stuff twice so there will have to be some discussions with the guy that owns the shop if that’s how it comes down.

    When I walk into Guitar Center and see a Fender or Epiphone branded started kit with an electric guitar, practice amp, gig bag and accessories that retails for $119, I just have to shake my head. If I had the resources of a big company, by now I’d have product in stores.

    On the other hand, considering that every middleman has to get their beak wet, I might be able to make just as much money selling smaller numbers directly to musicians.

    • Kvndoom

      I hope you get that sorted out! I wish I knew what made people not only change their minds like that but then get hostile or cold-shouldered towards the people who put their trust in them.

      • everybodyhatesscott

        That’s why they do it. Letting down a random is easy. Letting down someone you’re close to makes you ashamed and the cold shoukder shows up

  2. rwb

    The music or audio industries are no place to be unless you’re obsessively compelled. extremely wealthy, or you have acoustic knowledge that can also be applied beyond music (i.e. medicine or science.) It’s possible to make a living making musical instruments sound great, but suffice to say it wasn’t worth it for me. I’ve seen enough brilliant people produce incredible products for a non-existent market that I have a personal attachment to that it’s significantly informed my willingness to do creative work on my own.

  3. Harry

    Its possible that deep down Chris hates the guitar he designed. One of my hobbies is that my buddy and I make skis. About 10 years ago we were bored and under employed and decided we would make our own skis, and having made that decision we decided if we were going to go through the trouble, our goal was to make the best skis ever made. All this despite the fact that we didn’t know one end of a hammer from another, or what epoxy vs. polyester resin was, or that you don’t have much use for a hammer when building skis.

    Many of the people we have sold our skis to, mostly ski professionals, think we have achieved our goal and they voted with their dollars that our skis are the best.

    I hate every ski we have ever made. There is always something I am disappointed in, something I want to improve or change, some flaw that makes me think it is unsaleable. When I am skiing with others and they are telling me how much they love them, I have to smile and agree even though inside I know something could have made their experience better. The idea of locking in the design and making it production ready gives me hives. My buddy and I almost break even on our hobby, we don’t have an LLC, and as a hobby our homeowners insurance would cover our equipment if something burned down. The idea of making the leap to an official “micro-brew ski company” terrifies us because we already have good careers we don’t hate.

    I can think of a lot of reasons why Chris wouldn’t want to produce his own designs, I just wish he could have been more honest with himself, with Jack, and with those who gave a deposit.

  4. Don Curton

    “you can’t want something for someone that they don’t want for themselves.”

    This is a constant conversational topic between me and my wife concerning our children. Very true words. You cannot instill the necessary motivation to someone who simply doesn’t care or share the same goals. It’s even more difficult when dealing with your own children, seeing their talent, and seeing that same talent go to waste. Until they want it enough to strive for it on their own, all your help is worse than useless. It is actively resented, and serves to drive them away from the goals you wish they had.

  5. galactagog

    That’s a real drag it never panned out. Chris does fantastic work

    Oh well.

    I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin


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