By Dan Epstein | Photo by Massimo Gammacurta
On a particularly grimy stretch of Glendale Boulevard in L.A.’s Echo Park, unnoticed by the thousands of commuters who drive past it every day, sits the Keystone Studios building, one of Hollywood’s oldest remaining landmarks. It was here that silent-film legends Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, and Fatty Arbuckle started their film careers under the direction of slapstick-comedy pioneer Mack Sennett. One century later, it’s where Gabriel Currie builds Echopark Guitars.
“This is the original Hollywood, right here,” Currie says, gazing up at the building’s vaulted wooden ceiling. “It’s a little surreal working here at times, knowing who paced these same floors. I love to work really late, and it gets really spooky, and kind of fun. Sometimes I feel like a mad scientist in my lab, creating my little monsters.”
If Currie’s a mad scientist, there’s definitely a method to his madness. In his words, Echopark Guitars are all about “solid build, amazing tone, amazing feel…and a vibe,” the result of expert craftsmanship combined with high-end components, carefully selected old woods, and a passion for pure classic-rock tones. And though it’s been only three years since he first hung out his shingle, Currie has already amassed an impressive list of high-profile clients, including Joe Perry and Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Jakob Dylan, Johnny Depp, and Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham of Social Distortion.
A lifelong Angeleno, Currie grew up in a household where classic rock was always on the turntable. “The Beatles and Stones, of course,” he says, “but also the Allman Brothers, Mountain, Foghat and Aerosmith. Get Your Wings and Toys in the Attic were it for me when I was eight.” Currie’s love for that music quickly led to a fascination with guitars and their inner workings.
Already doing repair and mod work for his friends by the time he was in high school, he landed a job at the G&L Guitar Company mill after graduation, eventually working his way up to running the body-making department under the expert guidance of Leo Fender himself. After Fender passed away, Currie built prototypes and neck-through models for Ibanez with Tak Hosono at Hosono Guitar Works, then took a hiatus from guitar making to play in bands and work in architectural restoration.
“I was doing carpentry in in all these public buildings and private homes where all sorts of architectural elements were being torn out, replaced, or restored,” he explains. “There was always a lot of old wood that was demoed, and I wound up taking pieces that I knew would be useful for two- and three- piece necks. When I got back into guitar making, I had a nice stash!”
Currie estimates that he’s used salvaged wood on at least 50 percent of the guitars that he’s built since starting Echopark Guitars in 2009. The Downtowner Custom Koa model shown here features a two-piece Honduran mahogany neck constructed from the remnants of a discarded 19th century armoire. “I had the idea to use old woods for the neck because I thought that would sound best,” he says. “This is the first guitar that I tried that with, and it just made a drastic difference.”
Inspired by the sound and feel of a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Junior and the aesthetics of a 1958 Supro Dual Tone, the Downtowner also features a one-piece slab Honduran mahogany body with a two-piece book-matched AAAAA koa top, and is finished with nitrocellulose lacquer. “I only use nitro, because it dries into the grain, and it resonates with the wood,” Currie says. “I don’t do sparkle finishes, inlays, binding, or any of that stuff, because it has nothing to do with tone. My guitars are bare bones, but they’re like the bare bones of a wooly mammoth!”
Likewise, the Downtowner’s AAAAA select South American rosewood fretboard, TonePros aged nickel wraparound bridge, hand-cut bison bone nut, pre-war-style open-backed Grover tuners, and hand-wound Curtis Novak pickups—a P90 in the bridge position and a mini-humbucker in the neck—are selected with tone foremost in mind. The end result is a rock-solid, butter-smooth ax with vintage looks and feel, and an impressively wide array of soulful, snarling, harmonically rich tones.
“Ultimately, I need my guitars to all represent that piece of wood, that tree that they came from, the best that they can,” Currie reflects. “For me, making a guitar is more than just strings and wood; it goes deeper than that. It’s a reminder of where we all come from, the dirt and roots. I’m trying to complete the cycle of life in a better-sounding way.”