Grover Jackson is so much more than someone who simply builds guitars. Grover dreams guitars. Conjures guitars. Grover becomes his guitars.
Yes, this probably sounds fanciful, poetic, nostalgic and even a bit hyperbolic. Maybe I say these things because I’ve known this wood whisperer now for 35 years and I’m friends with him and though we may not talk to each other for years, he has always been there for me when I needed him. I should also mention I’m in awe of what he does. As someone who can’t even drive a nail, I am astounded by Grover’s talents with and knowledge of tools and woodworking machines and the way he can take a piece of wood and shape it and transform it into something beautiful.
From the very first time I met the whammy bard back on March 26, 1982, I had the sense that this cat from Chattanooga, Tennessee, had an abiding love for the guitar that ran deeper than blood. It wouldn’t have surprised me to find guitar strings snaking through his veins, whammy bars running the length of his limbs, neck and fretboard screwed to his spine and pickups embedded deep in his heart.
Grover was the Guitarman. He worked crafted things from wood and wire and made them flesh and bone. Where the rest of the world only saw a blank piece of wood—tabula rasa—when Grover eyeballed a slab of ash or mahogany or whatever you built guitars from, he was already envisioning neck widths, body contours, fret profiles, pickup placements, colors, shapes, and the sonic explosions that would eventually emanate from these unique works of art—which they were—once they fell into the hands of the gifted guitarists who would ultimately bring them to life.
When met Grover, Charvel Guitars was a name on the lips of a lot of musicians but it was still a company making its bones. I had certainly heard of them and had seen some of the guitars coming out of the factory and they were spectacular, but I didn’t know much about Grover personally. That would change when my friend Jimmy Waldo, who was then the keyboard player in Alcatrazz, introduced me. At the time, Steve Vai was playing guitar for them following the departure of Yngwie Malmsteen. Steve had just come off working with Frank Zappa and really didn’t have his guitar thing together.
In fact, Frank would gently chide Steve about his guitar tone and liken it to a hive of buzzing bees. Vai, a perfectionist in his own right and someone who would later fashion guitar sounds never heard before, was at a bit of a loss. Jimmy knew Grover and was sure his guitar-building friend could help Steve and build him the perfect beast. Waldo did indeed hook Steve up with Grover and in fact, Vai ended up borrowing Grover’s personal guitar and never returned it — but that’s another story.
Jimmy knew I was always looking for stories and interviews and not only arranged for an interview with Vai but also arranged for me to meet on a day back in March, 1982. The Charvel facility at that point was in a large industrial warehouse section in San Dimas, CA, a city 25 miles east of my house in West Hollywood. On the drive down, Jimmy told me that he had actually known Grover for years. Jackson had been playing the guitar long before he started designing them and going all the way back to the 1960s, his band used to play the same bars in North Carolina that Jimmy’s bands played. Their paths crossed and they became friends in the cover band bar circuit.
When Jimmy told me Grover was also a guitar player, the light bulb went on over my head. I thought, “That’s why guitarists love his instruments. He is one of them.” As a player, Grover understood the needs and requirements of a working rock musician. Jackson could rip out a blues riff or lay down the hippest jazz chords you ever heard. He knew how the fingers had to feel flying over a fretboard and he was tuned into the way a guitar needed to sound, playing some chugging rhythm groove and then cascading off into some burning solo meant to set the world on fire. A guitar had to be practical as well as stunningly beautiful. The instrument had to stay in tune and the whammy bar had to sit just so and it had to be durable enough to withstand the nightly beatings it would take when some guitar player in the throes of sonic passion tried to bend the strings off the neck in search of that one perfect note. Heaven forbid if that guitar went the least bit flat or sharp.
What was I expecting when we finally arrived at the Charvel factory and I was introduced to the wizard of wood? Some Da Vinci-looking cat with a long, long beard and piercing eyes? Maybe. I really didn’t know who I’d encounter but when I first shook Grover Jackson’s hand, I knew this was the person I had imagined. He had shoulder length brownish hair, a moustache and beard and resembled a young Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull.
“Hey, Steve. How you doing?” he said in greeting, his words drenched in a Tennessee twang so thick you could pour it over pancakes.
We walked to his office and everything was covered in sawdust: the floor, furniture, on the windowsills and on his desk. For a second, I thought he may have had some of his 20 employees bring in bags of the stuff to stage his office because what was more perfect than a guy who built guitars working in an office covered in sawdust? Of course he didn’t do that and the sawdust and residue from sanding and cutting wood all day was there simply as a by-product of what he did. It was perfect and what made it even better was that Grover didn’t seem to notice it. He’d sweep some wood shavings off his desk and think no more about it than he would swatting at a fly.
By the time I met Grover in 1982, he had already built instruments for Dave Jellison and Chris Hager, the guitar players in a band called Mickey Ratt. In 1981, the band would eventually become Ratt. Grover would also design guitars for the guitarists in that band including Warren DeMartini, Robben Crosby and Jake E. Lee, the trio of musicians Jackson affectionately dubbed “the San Diego Mafia” (all three guitarists hailed from that city). He had also put a custom instrument in the hands of KISS guitarist Vinnie Vincent and Tommy Asakawa from a Los Angeles-based metal band called Warrior. But Grover’s most important relationship at that time had been with Randy Rhoads. Tragically, Randy had passed away only one week prior to the interview, and that’s where I started our conversation.
Here are excerpts from that interview:
“Randy walked in a year-and-a-half ago with a drawing of this thing,” Grover said. “He conceived the idea himself. The only thing I added was a head design. Just like every other kid on the block he said, ‘Can you make this?’ and I said, ‘Yep, I can do it.’ I worked with Randy for a year on that shark fin guitar thing. We never talked endorsement and he played it when he felt like playing it and he didn’t play it when he didn’t feel like playing it. We worked towards that thing of a great guitar that he would play. He was playing what he called the Concord guitar with no advertisement and we were literally getting one to two requests a day to buy that guitar. There were only four in existence: he had two and I got the other two.”
How did Grover feel about Randy’s passing?
“Randy was the nicest, quietest little guy you could ever want to meet. Amazingly unaffected by the whole stardom thing. Real stupid way to die. Real dumb.”
What I found out during our first conversation was that this boy from Tennessee loved to talk and didn’t split hairs. He was all about the truth and nothing but and when I’d ask him a question he would go into infinite detail in framing his response. Grover never pulled his punches. He told me about how four-and-a-half years earlier he had come to own 10 percent of the company as a business manager and partner with Wayne Charvel. He explained that the first actual guitars coming out of Charvel were birthed around 1978 and 1979 and that they weren’t the greatest instruments on the planet.
“Crude, honestly,” he said. “ I think they were probably comparable to a lot of things on the market but I don’t have a real high esteem for a lot of stuff on the market. It’s like right now Charvel makes good guitars but we wanna make great guitars. I’m shootin’ you all this stuff straight from the hip the way I really believe, OK? [Inhalation of breath and a brief pause as he gathers his thoughts]. Charvel can make shitty instruments because we’re not big enough. There’s a lot of quality control but it’s people quality control. That doesn’t mean somethin’ can’t slip under the wire and we have in fact turned out shitty instruments. We do our best to catch ‘em and not let ‘em get out of here and we stand behind ‘em. If somebody has a problem and it really is a problem and not somebody’s egocentric paranoia, we’ll remake it from the ground up if necessary.”
What manufacturer would ever talk that way about his own products? None of them, but Grover did and that’s what made him so exceptional. There was no fiercer critic of what he did than the laser beam focus he brought to his own work. We talked for a long time and he regaled me with stories about all the blood, frets and tears that went into selling custom guitars. We knocked off for lunch and Grover took Jimmy and myself to his favorite sushi restaurant, a place we’d visit many times in the future.
Several years later I asked Grover to build me a guitar and he accepted my request without hesitation. I wasn’t a professional player and he had no reason to build me one but he did. I wanted it painted with the Japanese Rising Sun Flag of Japan design on it. He worked a very long time on it and when he presented it to me, I acted like an idiot and a child. I said the colors weren’t right and without blinking an eye he offered to take the guitar back to his shop and repaint it. When I think of that moment now, it makes me sick. Why Grover didn’t tell me to f—k off is beyond me. I forgot to mention that he built the guitar for free, which was something he never did. Everybody paid for guitars but somehow I thought I was above that and shouldn’t be charged.
More recently, back in 2012 I had written a book about Randy Rhoads. I was doing a reading at Book Soup, a local bookstore in West Hollywood. Grover graciously offered to donate one of his guitars to be raffled off. He didn’t have to do that. I hadn’t spoken to Grover for years but when he was approached to build an instrument as a giveaway, he never hesitated.
Grover Jackson would eventually continue building guitars for everybody from Jeff Beck, Dave Gilmour and Eric Johnson to Billy Gibbons, Gene Simmons and Phil Collen. His vision is a unique one in a world where finding your own voice can take a lifetime. He was and continues to be someone inextricably tied to the continuing development of the electric guitar—guitarchitecture—and it only remains to be seen what new and astonishing wood-and-wire creation he comes up with next.
I can see him now brushing the sawdust out of his hair, sweeping the shavings off his workbench and putting pen to paper in a moment of deep concentration—just like DaVinci would.