By Steven Wilke | Photography by David Lewinski
Charles Hackley is a Michigan logging legend. But trees from the late 1800s-era
Muskegon lumber baron’s mill are being used in ways today he couldn’t have imagined. In 2015, “sink logs” — timber that fell to river bottoms or lakes when floating en route to mills — were dredged from Muskegon Lake. Perfectly preserved specimens of this prized lumber found their way to Gabriel Currie, the brains and hands behind Echopark Guitars.
Currie — who relocated from Los Angeles to Detroit — doesn’t make instruments for garage-band hacks. His boutique instruments cost $10,000 or more, ending up in able hands like Jackson Browne and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry.
His custom creations are variations on 1950s and ’60s instruments. “Everything that was awesome had already been built when I came around,” Currie said. “I go on instinct based on what I consider great guitars and great guitar tones.
“We knew it was a badass piece of wood,” Currie said of the logs. “But what about its tonal qualities?”
He also pondered personality. “If the tree had its druthers, would it be a table, or a toilet seat or a guitar?”
Time and experimentation would tell. But the logs’ journey — and Currie’s — is yet another notch in Michigan’s reputation as a place that inspires “makers.”
A Love Affair With Lumber
Abundant fresh water is just one Michigan resource that fueled the country’s economic engine. Early colonists logged verdant forests for forts and missions, and later, British and American manufacturers used native hardwoods to build ships for war and commerce.
Profitable trees from Michigan’s north — white pines 300-600 hundred years old and up to 200 feet high — were in huge demand.
According to The Center for Michigan History Studies, the state became an important source once the northeast supply diminished. By 1880, Michigan’s lumber production outpaced that of the three other leading states combined.
Loggers often shipped their wares on sleds down icy roads to river landings, then floated them to mills after the spring thaw. Some 30% of the logs sunk, but the supply seemed endless. Trees are a renewable resource but take time to replenish. Most
native forests were leveled between 1870 and 1900, but old-growth stands are
preserved at Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling and other places.
The Muskegon Millionaire
Logging profits created “lumber barons,” including Wellington R. Burt in Saginaw and David Whitney Jr. in Detroit, who moved to Michigan in 1857 after making millions from Massachusetts lumber.
In Muskegon, it was Charles Hackley. Born in Michigan City, Indiana, his father was commissioned to build a sawmill along Lake Muskegon. At age 19, Hackley joined his father.
Hackley and Sons later formed a partnership called Hackley and Hume. The mill was wildly successful; its pine helped rebuild Chicago after its 1871 fire.
It became one of the country’s largest mills — at its peak in 1894, cutting 30 million feet of lumber annually. Hackley’s fortune reportedly topped $18 million; he gave about one-third to Muskegon, including money for constructing the Hackley Public Library before he died in 1905.
Gibson’s Golden Era
Lumber barons weren’t the only ones to benefit. Logging led to growing cities, spurring immigration and widespread farming since land was easily cleared once the forests were gone.
In 1894, Orville Gibson began producing acoustic guitars and mandolins in a
Kalamazoo woodshop. By 1902, demand led Gibson to join forces with financiers, forming Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co., which thrived long after his death in 1918. Rock ’n’ roll cemented Gibson lore — especially the advent of “humbucker” pickups in 1957. In 1969, Gibson’s parent company went international, merging with an Ecuadoran brewery. The music division included Moog synthesizers and Lowrey keyboards. Gibson opened a Nashville plant in 1974.
Michigan’s Gibson connection ended in 1983, when owners sold the music division, shuttering the Kalamazoo plant and making Nashville its headquarters.
The Making of a Maker
A Gibson SG model — played by top-notch guitarists like Frank Zappa, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Eric Clapton — was one instrument that fascinated Los Angeles teen
“I used to ditch school and go to guitar shops,” Currie said. “I grew up watching some guy (make) frets.”
In the late 1980s, Currie landed a job at G&L. The “G” was for George Fullerton. But the “L” tugs guitar lovers’ heartstrings. It stood for Leo Fender. Iconic brands Fender and Gibson are to rock ’n’ roll what Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet are to autos.
When Leo Fender died in 1991, Currie visited his cubbyhole to “have a moment,” he said. “I read his notes. Sat in his chair. …” In a dusty crawl space, he found a guitar body template.
Company owners didn’t want it. Currie did and used random parts to fashion a guitar. “I still have it,” he said. “I pawned it a couple times.” A saleable version would wait.
Currie worked with guitar guru Tak Hosono, but the magic was gone. He drifted into historical renovation. Adulthood set in, then marriage, then a child. Construction provided a decent paycheck, but after falling off some scaffolding, Currie pondered his future. Work through the pain? Become a general contractor?
A light went on. With a credit card and encouragement from spouse Dawn Howdershell, Echopark Guitars was born (named after his L.A. childhood neighborhood). The first model was dubbed “Clarence” — honoring Clarence Leo Fender’s birth name.
The 2008 economy wasn’t rocking, but Currie persisted, sharing prototypes with musicians and asking for feedback. He fiddled and tweaked. Word of mouth spread. Jonny Wickersham from Social Distortion used an Echopark model on a Direct TV session. Then Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford got interested.
Currie wrangled an invite to an Aerosmith recording session and met famed producer Jack Douglas. After playing a prototype, Douglas told Currie, “It makes every other guitar in this place sound like firewood.”
Echopark was on its way.
The Draw of Detroit
So why leave California’s glamour?
Partially, the cost of living. “I didn’t want to put $400,000 into a box in the suburbs and still deal with traffic and (crappy) air,” Currie said.
They checked out Texas, New Mexico, then Colorado.
“I’d been hearing for years about Detroit … it’s a rock town, (but) I didn’t want it to make sense because I’m from Los Angeles.”
A geologist friend originally from Flint showed him around. Then a listing for an Old Redford home appeared. With (mostly false) legends of getting Detroit houses for a “song,” they wondered: Is this place real?
It was, at around $200,000. Once inside, Currie noticed that like his guitars, this house was custom made.
Currie rented a shop minutes away and brought along colleagues — master luthier Jim Duggan and amp expert Eric Bernstorff.
One might say fate — or another force — led Currie here. In logging days, cooks called hungry workers for meals with a horn called a “Gabriel.” Was something calling this Gabriel to Michigan? Currie began making connections — some intentional, some by chance.
He met someone whose business partner had a stash of wood. “I hear that all the time,” Currie said.
Then the “wood guy” sent a text.
Brian Mooney knows lumber. His Integrity Building Group specializes in historic restorations and helped repurpose Detroit’s castle-like Grand Army of the Republic Building. The redo netted Integrity a 2019 Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.
Chance drew Mooney to the logs. During a vacation visit at a logging museum, he saw a posting about wood dredged from Muskegon Lake.
“I knew it was gold,” Mooney said. He immediately bought all 800 logs, shipping them to his Detroit warehouse and leaving them outside to dry. Mooney heard about Currie and wondered if his stash might serve a purpose.
Currie visited Mooney’s warehouse and was astonished. “I had no idea I would run into a batch of this stuff!”
A Guitar is Born
Rather than cranking out cookie-cutter, mass-produced guitars, Currie said he prefers working with artists to create the instrument of their dreams.
“Guys I work with usually, I’m a big fan,” he said. The goal is to make a tool fit what they play or write. “How can I serve (them) in creating a unique thing?” he asked.
A Hackley log guitar certainly would be unique. Another Michigan connection: The prototype’s neck is old-growth maple from Mooney’s stash.
One of the first “test drivers” was Neil Giraldo, a Grammy award-winning musician/producer/composer whose catalog includes hits with Pat Benatar, John Waite and Rick Springfield.
They hit it off when Giraldo’s Michigan-based Three Chord Bourbon brand sponsored an Ann Arbor blues event. After all, they both love working with wood (in Giraldo’s case, barrels for aging bourbon) and music.
“Guitars are a living thing,” Giraldo said. “When you pick up an instrument, it talks to you or it doesn’t.”
The verdict on Hackley? “This thing is beautiful,” Giraldo said. “Feels great and sounds phenomenal. It’s got spirit.”
The plan for the remaining wood? “We’ll do a short run and see how it goes,” Currie said. “Maybe someone uses one to make a song or two.”
If fate intervenes, that’s highly likely. ≈
Steven Wilke is a freelance writer living in northwest Detroit. He plays guitar and bass but claims he isn’t worthy of an Echopark Guitar.