Can you expect to be surprised? Can you, perhaps, get used to being surprised? There have been two Fretboard Summits, both chock full o’ surprises–from stumbling on Bill Frisell taking a knee on a garden path to play an attendee’s Gurian to lingering overlong at an afternoon session that turns into heavenly duets by Courtney Hartman and Anthony Wilson.
Packed in along with all the serendipitous beauty folks found at the Rancho Bernardo Inn at the second Summit was one of the more low-key product unveilings in the history of lutherie: First came the Instagram post, then there was TK Smith with a couple of prototypes of his new RoadMaster guitars. Curiosity piqued, we picked one up, pondered a deposit and asked a few questions…
Fretboard Journal: We haven’t really thought of the Fretboard Summit as a springboard for new product announcements, but you surprised a few folks when you brought along a couple of your new “RoadMaster” guitars. What inspired the new additions to the family?
TK Smith: I wanted to offer a guitar that still had that small shop look and feel, but one that I could offer to a wider audience by using some modern building techniques.
FJ: Can you run down the RoadMaster models? You’re offering three variants?
TK: Right now two variants, both pancakes–a semi-hollow with binding top and back and a solid body.
[Per TK’s website, “I used to work with a grouchy old timer who referred to all flat-type guitars as pancakes. So until I come up with a better name, I’m calling these pancakes.”]
FJ: What differentiates the RoadMaster from your other guitars?
TK: Removable [bolt-on] neck rather than neck through the body like the Specials. Single binding, dot fret markers and a decal for the headstock vs inlay. Not as ornate but highly functional for the musician on the road.
FJ: Did I hear you say that these are 25″ scale instruments? What steered you away from a more conventional Gibson- or Fender-style scale?
TK: I bought a bunch of ebony and rosewood at a Joshua Tree yard sale; the boards are a hair too short for 25.5″ scale so I went with 25″ and 21 frets. I figured the chances of finding them at a yard sale are pretty slim, so I felt must be some kind of sign. Also, I had the chance to play the “Butterball” Bigsby owned by Deke Dickerson which is 25″ scale and it has a really nice feel to it.
FJ: That’s a nice bit of serendipity with the yard sale find–did it affect the design (e.g. did you need to adjust the bridge)?
TK: The bridge is in the same spot, the nut is 1/2″ closer to the body (neck is shorter). I do the Specials in 25-1/2″ and have done a couple that are 24-3/4″. It’s the same thing.
FJ: All these guitars come with your new “Summertone” pickups, which you’ve been working on for a while now–we’ve seen on a few of your “American Made Vintage” and Tele conversions; what’s the story behind these pickups?
TK: They’re basically a mini-Bigsby pickup, wound a bit hotter, without the aluminum cover on top of the bobbin and magnets. They’re more open sounding than my CAR pickups. I think they’ll appeal to more players, and they fit in a P-90 rout. I’m having the aluminum base and bakelite top CNC’d to cut down on some of the labor.
FJ: How long was the RoadMaster in development?
TK: I’ve been thinking about doing a guitar with a removable neck for more than a year. At the same time, I’ve wanted to create a unique pickup that would fit into a P-90 route to stand alone and be standard on the guitar.
FJ: Are you offering a choice of ebony or rosewood, or are the boards earmarked for specific versions of the RoadMaster? Any other options?
TK: The plan with the RoadMasters is to make small batches and make them available in a few stores in New York, Nashville and L.A.. Players will be able to see them in person. We’ll save the options and customizing for the Smith Specials. So normally, no, there will not be the choice on RoadMasters.
BONUS VIDEO: Matt Codina plays “Lover Come Back To Me” on a RoadMaster prototype.