Making a City Strum

Prairiewood Guitars

In a nondescript Edina workshop in a quiet neighborhood, Robert Dixon builds custom electric guitars.

They’re flown to rockers in Australia, Japan, Central and South America, Europe and elsewhere. But they start here, at Prairiewood Guitars.

Inside his soundproof workshop, stacked templates for guitar necks sit tucked away on a high shelf. Amps stand ready to test guitar tones when Robert Dixon, after four to eight months of putting one together, is ready to plug it in.

In many ways, this Edina workspace symbolizes the Twin Cities music scene. Minnesota’s reputation as a haven for music education, with its above-average arts funding, somehow validates the notion that someone could set up an internationally regarded guitar workshop in a metropolitan suburb.

Musicians around the world emulate rock heroes of old, and for Dixon, this often determines business. He grew up in Canada listening to the Beatles. No surprise: guitars from that era have since surged in value. People want to sound like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Or, more often, they want to sound a bit like the Beatles if Jimi Hendrix had played early enough to influence them. People want Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster. They want a Gibson Les Paul from the 1950s—instruments that Dixon remembers passing off to his friends, who then passed them off to their friends. “Nobody wanted those,” he says. Now they go for upwards of $1,000. That nostalgic sound they create, captured on old records, informs much of Dixon’s process. His guitars range between $1,500–$5,000.

But tone is tricky. Almost everything counts, from wood to weight to whether the amp you use is the same kind the Beatles used in 1964. Hundreds of adjustable components on one electric guitar compound the hundreds of uniquely combined settings on an individual amp for thousands of nuances.

And what is tone? Dixon knows when it’s right or wrong, but it’s hard to describe. Adjectives range from clean to dirty, dark to light. When an amp is overdriving—when it’s heating up—you get a dirty, gritty, distorted sound. When it’s coming through crisp and clear, that’s a clean tone.

The biggest determining factor, though, is skill. Thus, practice.

Carefully aligning the fret board along the neck of a new guitar, Dixon glues it down, held in place with clamps. Every step in the process demands his full attention. Then comes the second hardest part: refining the look. He has to spray on a nitrocellulose lacquer for a finish that, while unimportant to sound, can make or break a deal. Some customers want cracks in the finish, to mimic the imperfect paint jobs that plagued famous guitarists in the past. In an ironic bid for authenticity, then, Dixon will manufacture cracks. But lacquer is finicky and cracks when it shouldn’t and doesn’t crack when it should.

The glue dries, for example, on a guitar that he calls a Midwesterner. A Honduras mahogany neck might slide into a body made of solid butternut—wood he sources from the U.S. and Canada, sometimes even the Minneapolis area. It could end up in Perth, Australia, where “Midwesterner” would mean something bigger than Edina. But for Dixon, a former cabinetmaker, the guitar’s name embraces this new life, from Canada, to the West Coast, to Minnesota—and from here to just about everywhere else.

Schmitt Music

Music instructors at Schmitt have been teaching private lessons in Edina for decades.

Of his students, guitar teacher Paul Krueger says, “You have to get them interested in enjoying it, because if they don’t have fun, if they’re not playing a song fairly quickly or playing something they know, they have a tendency to stop.”

Krueger grew up in Edina, riding his bike to private lessons at Schmitt in the summers with his cardboard guitar case balanced on his handlebars. He wanted to play songs by Eric Clapton and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. He listened to Peter, Paul and Mary. After studying guitar performance at Berklee College of Music in Boston and playing on the road, Krueger returned to Edina in the 1990s to teach at the place where it all started.

Today, a student might ask to learn the chords of a song written by young heartthrob and singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes. Certain guitar classics remain staples, such as “Stairway to Heaven.” And if Schmitt doesn’t stock the song in store, Krueger can buy a license online to print it. He never got to play Clapton when he took lessons in the 1960s. Back then, the teachers at Schmitt had such little material that Krueger had to bounce from instructor to instructor and soak up whatever each of them knew. Now, the Internet makes it impossible to run out of new songs. But committing down the wrong route in that abundance can make a student’s interest wane in no time. Tailoring lessons to pupils, then, has become more important than ever.

Jake Rowan, another guitar teacher at Schmitt, does this by letting his students set their own goals. One of his adult students, for example, decided to focus on memorizing songs by the Beatles.

Recently, in one of the Edina store’s many studios, which Rowan refers to as “little soundproof pods,” Rowan paid small tribute to those standard bearers. He started recording on his laptop. His student Aki Ito played through the Beatles’ “If I Fell” on his own. “We were harmonizing, we were both singing. It just felt really good,” Rowan says. “It kind of became a voice lesson.” That marked off one song in a great, white tome of Beatles music. Rowan also learned to play from a Beatles anthology his dad gave him when he was a kid.

Such a backwards-looking, model-seeking perspective on guitar playing is nothing new. For acoustic guitar, Rowan wanted to play a Taylor because Dave Matthews and Jason Mraz played Taylors.

Robert Sells teaches songwriting and guitar at Schmitt. He reminds his students that, regardless of a guitar’s nostalgic sound, innovation lies in the notes. “There are just 12 notes yet so many things you can do with them,” he says. “Every song you hear is some combination of those same 12 notes.” Newness comes in how you rearrange what you’ve already heard.

Students sometimes surprise Krueger with what they hear and reproduce. “There’s always times when I’ll think, ‘Oh, I’ve never thought to do that with those chords,’” he says.

Many of his beginner students pick up the ukulele—a modern trend that Krueger attributes not just to a lower learning curve but also, suitably enough, to ukulele superstar Jake Shimabukuro. Chord shapes are easier to form. It’s straightforward to strum and sing along to. And Shimabukuro has given it certain romanticism.

For someone like Sells, educated in music performance and composition at the University of Minnesota, the joy of playing lies in the guitar’s many styles. He plays, at turns, his Americana-twanging Gretsch, his “Black Beauty” Les Paul and, for classical, a Paulino Bernabe Especial made in Madrid.

Many of these instruments begin with scraps of wood stacked, shaped and assembled in places like a soundproofed Edina workshop.