Corporate Guitars Still Suck
“People meet me, and they’re like, ‘I thought you’d be a rockabilly guy!’” said Chris DiPinto, the soft-spoken namesake of DiPinto Guitars (407 E. Girard Ave). “But I’m not really a rockabilly guy.”
We’re sitting on a pair of stools in the middle of the music shop’s comfortably lit floorspace as the December morning slowly warms, surrounded on all sides by decades’ worth of guitars, dust-ridden amplifiers and haphazard musical gear. Unlike so many of today’s chain stores, they’re instruments vividly laced with a history– with stories– waiting to pass to new generations.
It’s hard to reconcile the image of DiPinto with that of his guitars. His instruments live and die by their abstract flashiness, bubblegum colors and campy angles (just look at the recently released 2014 Galaxie 4 models). But their designer is something entirely different– long-haired, quiet, warm. During our nearly hour-long conversation, he proved that his revered presence in Philadelphia music has been rightfully earned by a winning personality that somehow both contrasts and complements his unrestrained creativity.
As a ten-year-old in Bucks County, DiPinto was unsatisfied with what corporate guitars had to offer. Restricted to the confines of playing left-handed in 1980, he began ripping his instruments apart, flipping them over and reinventing them to suit his own needs. A fan of Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads, he quickly saw the benefit in making “custom” creations and tried to harmonize the general weirdness of 1960s foreign instruments with a more modern, metal-based sound.
Describing the initial process as “terrifying,” DiPinto gathered up the courage to build his own guitar, despite being turned down for apprenticeships from several luthiers in the city– Bluebond and Zeidler included. He found inspiration in simple construction, citing the time his father was installing a hardwood floor, seeing patterns and possibilities in the wood. Spliced together from wood, plastic, and electronics from Home Depot and RadioShack, DiPinto was quick to defend the playability of his creations, which were used by himself and his bandmates.
“Everyone was like, ‘how do I get one of these,’” he recalled wistfully. “I’ll quit my job and make you a guitar…if this is what people want. That would be my dream, to have a guitar factory.”
It wouldn’t be a dream deferred.
In the early 1990’s, Chris and his wife Sophy (the couple had played music together in various bands) rented a warehouse space with a storefront at 2nd and Market. At the time rent was cheap and the DiPintos found themselves in a location where they could spearhead a new business movement. The couple would rent out the space to bands and host self-described “very illegal” shows to make rent, documenting the events with disposable cameras bought from the neighborhood convenience store- all this while DiPinto designed and made his guitars by hand.
It wasn’t long before the area boomed and the business was ousted due to a sharp increase in property value. DiPinto relocated to an art space in Northern Liberties, which lasted four to five years before succumbing to the same fate.
DiPinto then knew he was headed to Fishtown.
“That’s it, we’re going to Girard Avenue,” he recalled, “we don’t care what it is or where it is, just on Girard!”
Surprised at the lack of property available on the strip, he was quick to make an offer on the current building without even taking a full tour. The gamble paid off– nestled on the corner of Columbia and Girard, across the street from the Milkcrate Café, the shop is primed for commerce.
This also helped begin the transition to large-scale manufacturing; DiPinto knew his designs were becoming desired in a big way and he needed to shirk the time-consuming process of making his guitars by hand for something more cost-effective.
Today, DiPinto guitars are sold worldwide via a large array of dealerships and web-based auction sites, such as Reverb.com, despite retaining a core four-person operation in Fishtown. A big hand in this expansion is a factory in Korea, with whom DiPinto negotiated a deal.
“They’re so great at making guitars, I’ll never leave (the Korean factory) as long as they will have me,” DiPinto raved. “With their quality, and my designs…and then me setting them up properly…it’s amazing.”.
You could easily expect the craftsman to rave about the number of high-profile musicians who have played his guitars; the roster includes David Bowie, Conan O’Brien, Jack White, Elvis Costello, Kurt Vile, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Man Man, and Los Straightjackets, just to name a few. But, with a bashful smile, he instead recounts the experience of selling to the everyday amateur:
“People who I would expect to be shocked by my guitars buy the one I wouldn’t expect them to,” he said. “I thought I was kinda making guitars for artists, art rockers at the beginning, but now it’s like an everyday person who buys [my guitars]. An older guy who I just thought would never pick up a pink sparkle guitar will buy it… I think it’s amazing, actually.”
He has a right to be satisfied. It’s a sense of humility that even small-town celebrities can rarely come to terms with and, without a doubt, one that has lent itself to the “DIY” ethics of small business.
2014 has been quite the year for the recognition of Philly music. Countless articles from major-city publications have praised the growth and expanse of talent that has made its home here. DiPinto realizes how lucky he is to be planted firmly in the midst of that – especially in a neighborhood that has reached a pivotal point in the transition from “up-and-coming” to “flourishing.” From the humble beginnings in the Old City warehouse and into the hands of countless musicians of every caliber, DiPinto has embraced a community that wholeheartedly returns the affection.
When I asked him for some insight on exactly what it was that continues to draw musicians to his work, DiPinto readily shared his theories:
“It has to be a little off, you know, for people to really fall in love with it,” he said. “If you just romance the image of the guitar and you see one of my guitars, you’ll get it.”
Don’t worry, Chris. Rockabilly, metalhead, murder balladeer, or jazz aficionado– Fishtown certainly gets it.