Fairhope’s image as a haven for major-talent artisans went up a notch recently, when master luthier Roger Fritz left Mendocino, Calif., to set up shop near Fish River. He’s no stranger to the area. Roger first moved to Mobile in 1966, graduated from Murphy High School in 1969, and bought his first car (a 1964½ Mustang) at Crichton Motors.
The Ford ’Stang wasn’t the only legend in the making to arrive in ’64. Roger built his first functional electric guitar that year, and on Feb. 9, Ed Sullivan introduced The Beatles to America. Yes, the then 13-year-old Roger was amongst the 73 million people who viewed the live broadcast that evening. And no, he didn’t have a clue that George Harrison would one day be playing a guitar that he had built in the nascent Fritz Brothers Guitars’ Mobile shop, near the intersection of Airport and University.
THE BIRTH OF A PASSION
Roger didn’t set out to make guitars. But he has always wanted to play them, ever since he and brother, John, received Mickey Mouse “Mousegetars” as kids. “We did a lot of pantomiming, ” Roger recalls. “When I got to be a little older, I started thinking, ‘I need an electric guitar’ — because we were really into music and playing like we were in a band.”
His request for a store-bought electric guitar went nowhere. So he made one. “I traced it out on a cardboard box, and then I took it to plywood, ” he recalls. “Using my dad’s Craftsman jigsaw, I cut the whole thing out. It was just one big flat piece. Then I took my crayon set and did a three-color sunburst. It didn’t work, of course, but it was something I could play with.”
Not satisfied with just another toy, Roger next utilized mail-order hardware and a used Fender neck from a guitar store parts bin to build one that did work. “That was really my first guitar, ” he says. “It was an electric Stratocaster style guitar, painted white, like the ones the Beach Boys used to play.”
Roger’s initiation into modifications and repair work came soon afterwards. His parents bought a classical guitar and arranged for a local priest to give him lessons. “Classical guitar really wasn’t my bag. So I cut the arm off my turntable and taped it to the top of the guitar. I put a longer wire on it so it would reach, and started playing it through my supposed amp, ” he explains, laughing at the memory. “Then I said, ‘Man, I want to take it one step up.’ I got some really cool flat wound electric strings and put them on there. It was sounding really good for a few minutes.”
The guitar’s bridge, designed to anchor plastic and nylon strings to the soundboard, succumbed to the pressure of six taut steel strings. “I guess that was when I started repairing guitars, when that one trashed itself, ” he laughs.
Such antics didn’t fade with age. Whenever band mates left their equipment at his house after practices, he’d “take all their stuff apart to see what was inside and try to make it sound better — without telling them. A few of them didn’t notice. Some would come back and say, ‘Man this thing is playing good.’ Then somebody would come back asking, ‘What happened to my guitar? It’s all screwed up!’”
STRIKING UP THE BRAND
After playing in bands in Mobile and Birmingham, Fritz moved to Nashville in ’78. He augmented his income and self-taught luthier skills with a job at Rose Guitars in Hendersonville. Gibson Guitar Corp. had recently moved operations to Nashville and was shopping out service work and warranty repairs. Much of it went to Rose. “We were doing pretty well, ” says Fritz, “we made guitars, serviced the country music industry, and did the Gibson thing.”
Then a phone call from fellow musician Marc Fisher sparked a major career shift for Roger. “He said, ‘Roy Buchanan is in town to play a gig, and he wants to meet you, ’” Roger recalls. “He hooked us up, and we hit it off. Roy had some guitars that he had problems with, and one thing led to another, ” he continues. “Finally I said to him, ‘I’m making guitars for a living. Why don’t we make you a custom one?’” Roger’s collaboration with the legendary bluesman, below left, yielded the Roy Buchanan signature model Bluesmaster guitar. In 1988, Roger and John partnered with Buchanan to open Fritz Brothers Guitars in Mobile.
Photos courtesy of Fritz Brothers and Olivia Harrison
FRITZ'S FAMOUS FANS
Buchanan’s reputation and the exquisite quality of the instrument got things started. Positive reviews in music magazines helped, but capturing the mainstream market’s attention with a new guitar produced by an unknown, independent company with no real advertising budget takes imagination. “Roy said, ‘Lets get one to George Harrison, ’ because he had met The Beatles. It wasn’t long until we got a letter from Harrison, saying, ‘I love this guitar.’” The former Beatle not only took to playing the guitar, top right, he also began showing it to friends, like fellow guitar legend and next-door neighbor Gary Moore, who soon ordered his own Bluesmaster. (He showcased it on his 1993 “Blues Alive” album.)
Buchanan’s death soon after the guitar’s debut muted the upstart company’s prospects. Roger closed the Mobile shop in 1990, and returned to Nashville where he eventually landed at Gibson as head of the custom shop, warranty repairs and Bluegrass division. One day, Les Paul’s personal Les Paul signature model guitar came in for a neck repair. True to form, Roger dismantled the whole guitar, just to peek inside.
One reason Roger is so successful at building guitars is that he is equally adept at playing them. It was as a guitarist in Shelby Lynne’s band that Roger met Bill Bottrell, the famed music engineer and record producer who cowrote and produced Shelby Lynne’s breakout album.
“Rog and I have been friends since ’98, when I met him in Mobile while working on ‘I Am Shelby Lynne.’ He came out to the north coast of California for a visit and never left — until 2013, ” says Bottrell, whose client list includes Michael Jackson, Elton John, Madonna and Sheryl Crow. “Our best project was the most funnest garage band in the world, The Stokemen. Somehow, Rog and I can sing harmonies like siblings. It was magic, like the Everly Brothers.”
“Recently, I took my cherished, favorite guitar in the world, a 1946 Gibson LG-2, to Roger to have the sound hole rebuilt, as I had knocked it out. Roger did a beautiful job reconstructing the sound hole. He fixed some braces, dressed up the guitar with some love and had it back to me on the day he said he would. I found him to be a wonderful, reliable luthier. It’s a blessing to have him in the neighborhood!” says local musician Grayson Capps.
REINVENTING THE LEGEND
Bottrell had long used classic Kay 162 basses in his recording studio. They had been out of production since Kay folded in ’68, and keeping his vintage models in good working condition was problematic. So he suggested that Fritz try making replicas. “The Kay Pro Bass was the first hollow-body electric bass: first produced in 1952. It was really famous for sounding a certain way, ” Fritz explains. “So, I started making a copy.” Roger soon introduced a new and improved version of the Kay 161 Thin Twin guitar. The two instruments shared many design elements, and both had loyal followings.
Bottrell wasn’t alone in his affection for the Kay’s unique sound. Word quickly spread in both mainstream guitar magazines and music blogs that an authentic sounding but far more reliable alternative was available. Initial orders came mostly from studio musicians — including former Journey bass player and American Idol judge Randy Jackson. Jackson sported one of his Fritz Brothers Guitars in a Bass Guitar Magazine cover story and has now purchased five instruments (two basses and three different guitars) from the company. Other famous customers include T Bone Burnett and Rolling Stones’ bassist Darryl Jones, pictured below, (who played with Miles Davis before joining the Stones in ’94). “Long walkin' and deep talkin'!” is how he describes his favorite Fritz Brothers bass. “Touring with the Stones I need an instrument that widens my sound palette but also has the advantages of being well crafted and road worthy. My Fritz Bros bass is the perfect choice. I can cover anything from that classic sixties picked sound to a smooth, round, acoustic bass like thump, ” he continues. “It's even great for reggae.” Having such recognizable customers helped boost the company’s public profile. But sales volume was driven by journeyman musicians, such as Tom Howland. You might not know the name, but he’s been playing bass professionally for 25 years.
Fritz Brothers Guitars was again on the ascent. Then, an email from Dan Erlewine, a 50-year veteran guitar maker and author of several books and a video series explaining guitar repair, sparked new changes for Roger. Erlewine offered an introduction of sorts to guitar enthusiast Tony Blair (not to be confused with the former British Prime Minister), who’d bought rights to the Kay Guitar trade name in the ’70s. He was interested in returning the company to its manufacturing roots, but he didn’t know how to go about it. Blair had purchased the company in name only: no inventory, equipment, facilities or product specs. He needed someone with specialized skills to make the project a reality.
Roger and Blair met in Los Angeles in late 2007 and formed a partnership. The Fritz Brothers-designed, official Kay reissues would start with the two instruments with which Roger was already intimately familiar — the Pro Bass and Thin Twin guitars. Eight to 10 other models would eventually be added to the catalogue.
Roger purchased, dismantled and restored dozens of old Kays. He drew detailed schematics. Templates
were made from original pick-guards, knobs, tailpieces and baseball-bat-style toggle switch caps. Special molds were made to reproduce parts authentically. Then Roger built a couple of samples and flew to China to oversee factory preparations for the new manufacturing line that produces “Street Series” reissues.
“The China plant does use Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) machines to automate processing of quite a few of the wood parts that I craft by hand. But the guitars are basically all built by hand. And they are made very well, ” Roger says.
Today, Roger creates all of the topline “Custom Shop U.S.A.” reissues in Fairhope. And Kay-branded instruments now account for about half of his annual production of new instruments. He also builds Parsons-White Stringbender guitars and occasionally accepts special orders based on a buyer’s specifications. “I’ll do one or two a year based on a customer’s design, ” Roger says. “But between Kay and Fritz Brothers, we offer 12 different models. Normally, I try to steer people to one of them, and I’ll modify that — adjust the neck size or the width, or maybe design the pickup a little differently.”
“The woods, finish, playability and tone, are to die for, exceeding my expectations, ” musician Howland says. “Don’t tell Roger, but I would have paid more.” To learn more, visit fritzbrothersguitars.com.
ABOVE LEFT Roger with Rolling Stones’ bassist Darryl Jones. What appears to be a mountain scene painted on Jones’ Fritz-built bass, is actually a reflection in its glossy black finish. Photo courtesy of Christy Fritz
ABOVE RIGHT A bass Fritz built for Jones — this one with a classic Roger Fritz sunburst finish. Photo courtesy of Fritz Brothers Guitars
ABOVE LEFT A copy of the letter written and sent by George Harrison shortly after he received his Roy Buchanan signature model Fritz Bros. guitar.
ABOVE RIGHT Roger and his son show off a guitar the younger Fritz helped to design and build. He named it King Kong. The version available in the Fritz Bros. catalogue is listed as the Fritz Kids “V” Model guitar. Photo courtesy of Christy Fritz
text and photos by Adrian Hoff