POSTED ON AUGUST 7, 2013:
The Doctor Is In
Repair gurus just want your axe to work like you
If you are a serious guitar player, then you likely need no introduction to the man known around town as Doc.
"He's been working in guitar repair for more than 40 years," said Jeff DiPesa of guitar repairman Steve "Doc" Hickerson. "People know him as Doc because he fixes guitars."
Four decades equals a hell of a lot of repaired axes, and Hickerson is eager to pass his knowledge on to others. As a result, after he had worked with DiPesa and Brad James at Tulsa Guitar and Electronics (TGE), he decided maybe he could kill two birds with one stone: hang his own shingle and make sure that his guitar repair knowledge gets passed on.
"We kind of shared ideas," James said of the trio's time working at TGE. "Something that someone has just learned that day on their bench is like, 'Hey guys, look at this.' We did that one night, and Doc said, 'Would you guys want to be partners rather than employees?'"
That was pretty much all it took for Guitar Technical Services to be born.
After finding a place on E. Admiral Boulevard, they opened their doors last month.
"The building itself is a pretty cool place," DiPesa said. "It's been around since this stretch of Admiral was part of old Route 66 -- some time in the '20s and '30s."
The former auto repair shop is now filled with clamps, random boxes, an old card catalogue from the University of Tulsa (used to store small parts for any number of guitar repair needs), and of course, lots of guitars in various states of disrepair.
"We're working on guitars right now, and we're totally operational, but we're just trying to make sure everything goes in its proper place," DiPesa said. "Doc's been working on guitars for a long time, so he's got a lot of tools."
In 40 years, Hickerson has learned a great deal, but his repair skills and knowledge of the luthier world is perhaps most impressive in light of the fact that he is self-taught.
"Jeff studied in Los Angeles at the Guitar Institute of Technology," he said. "There were a couple of good books available when I first started in the '70s. Back then, it was just a meter of carefully approaching the repair on people's guitars and trying to do the best job you can and learn as you go."
While DiPesa doesn't regret his time in school, he certainly has a great appreciation for Hickerson's tutelage.
"I went to a six-month program at luthier school, but I'd say the amount I've learned from Steve goes way past that," he said.
And that's exactly the way Hickerson likes it.
"I wanted to keep studying with Doc," James said. "He said, 'I might do this another two or three or seven or ten more years, but at some point, I'm going to be done, and you guys need to carry on.' I had worked for him a lot, but I thought I needed to still learn a few things. There were a few things I'd seen him do a lot, but I needed to get hands-on. So that was really exciting when he said do we want to have a place and be partners. I'd wanted my own shop anyway, but to be able to have my own shop and be partners and continue to study with him is great."
So yeah, two birds.
While the word "repair" comes up often, the truth is that the bulk of Guitar Technical Services' business does not revolve around smashed guitars or shorted-out electronics.
"Set-up and adjustment work is something that everybody needs to have done," Hickerson said. It's a real bread-and-butter job for us. That's a complete, comprehensive adjustment to the guitar to optimize the playability and the way it sounds. That's the most common thing we do, and it remains the most important thing we do in terms of good playability and being able to be happy with what you've purchased."
Steve "Doc" Hickerson
Setup involves several different adjustments to the instrument, ranging from the distance of the strings from the fretboard to the height of the pickups in an electric instrument and several other possible procedures in between.
"The factories have setups for shipping and being in the store and to accommodate all sorts of different playing styles, so people's brand new guitars need some adjustment to be personalized for what they like," James said.
"That was my job at Fender was the initial setup before the guitar got shipped out to the stores," DiPesa added. "I had to do 30 a day. When you have to do that many a day, you have to get to the point where it's close enough for rock and roll. So if you get a guitar at the store, if there's not a tech there to set it up before it gets hung on the wall, you really need some adjustments right out of the gate."
All three repairmen acknowledged that there are players out there who don't know that their guitar (or bass or banjo or mandolin) needs adjustment or even what kind of setup he or she would like to have in the first place.
But with nearly 70 years' worth of combined experience, the guys at Guitar Technical Services know how to get a player to tell them what he needs.
"There are standardized measurements that we start with," Hickerson said. "I've gotten in the habit of asking people, 'How do you like to have your guitar set up play?' Like, the harder you play, the more likelihood there is that you're going to have the strings rattling against the frets. So I kind of quiz them a little bit at the start."
This quizzing works, apparently, because people leave the shop happy. And they come back for more.
"I'd say eight out of ten people who come in here get their guitar and say, 'Man, that's exactly what I was looking for,'" said the good doctor. "Guitar setup is a very personal thing. Everybody wants to feel like they got it exactly to their standards."
James then began speaking of adjustments many players want done that have nothing to do with initial setup.
"It seems like guitar players are a lot like golfers and hot rodders -- they've seen something new in a magazine or online or their buddy got it, they've got to have that kind of pickup or something," he said. "We have a lot of customers who change out their pickups almost seasonally. They'll hear these, and then the'll get a new idea in their head and go, 'Well now I gotta have those pickups to really sound like I want to sound.'"
So there's not exactly a shortage of work, and while that's a good problem to have, it can be a problem if it's not handled efficiently.
"For the guy who's got one or two guitars he has to go to rehearsal or go to a show with, and he has a setup or some fretwork that he needs done, we try to get that out in a week," DiPesa said. "Or people will come in and say, 'Hey, I have a gig on this day.' I don't think we've ever missed a date."
"It pays to pay attention to your customer in this business," Hickerson said.
That goes for more than just setup work, though, or quick turnaround. Musicians can be particular about their instruments. Maybe it's the guitar you played on your first paying gig, or it was a gift from your father, or it's got what you hear as a particularly perfect tone. So when that instrument that is as much a part of you as your own arm needs help, you want it done right, because it's your baby. Just like you wouldn't tell the doctor, "Well, I have three other daughters, so if she can't be fixed, I guess we'll just move on," a musician is going to fight tooth and nail and be in denial about a ruined axe.
"A customer had a nice little Martin D28 that he'd had for years, and he took really good care of it and he had it in an ATA-approved fiberglass flight case," Hickerson said. "He took it on an airplane, and when he got the guitar back, the headstock was completely separated from the neck. It was just splintered up there. He brought it in to me. Most places -- even the Martin factory -- would probably say, 'Look, let's just take this neck off and replace it.' He begged me to try to fix it, so I did. And he's still playing it to this day. It involved not only gluing it back on there, but also doing special reinforcement work where the break occurred -- embedding new wood in there and refinishing the headstock to kind of hide all that work."
Horror stories like that one (especially ones that have a happy ending like that one did) come in from time to time. But like car repair, there are often times when the damn thing should just be totaled.
"We get a lot of guitars in here that you have to kind of educate the person that owns it as to the wisdom of trying to repair something that's going to be worth less than the cost of repairing it," Hickerson continued. "It can easily go well over the actual value of the guitar. And some people don't care because it has sentimental value and they'll want it repaired anyway. But we always bring that up -- 'You know, you could go buy a new guitar for what you're going to spend on this repair.'"
But like he said, there are people who don't care. You don't ask how much your son's appendectomy is going to cost before you decide whether to do it.
And as long as the customer is satisfied, that's all that really matters.
"We want to make them happy so they've got that guitar to play for that gig," DiPesa said.
Seeing as how the trio had guitars to work on before the store was even open, it would seem that those customers are happy with the work.
Guitar Technical Services is located at 2207 E. Admiral Blvd and is open weekdays from 10am-6pm. Got a guit-fiddle that needs fixin'? Doc's got you covered.
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It's been reported on in the past, right in this very column. When Sara Phoenix became artistic director of Theatre Tulsa, the longest continuously-operating community theatre west of the Mississippi River, the company was in trouble.
Last year, she came in to TT along with a completely new board of directors. She inherited $18,000 of debt and a checkbook balance of $45. The company was looking down the barrel of its 90th season without even any arts grants or sponsorships to help.
"It scared me," Phoenix said. "I grew up doing some shows with Theatre Tulsa. I was in them and I saw them. I couldn't sit back and let it just happen this way."
Phoenix and friends quickly set out a path to save the company. They laid out 30-day, 90-day, and one-year goals regarding money, staffing, marketing, and artistic quality.
"It's a lot of people who don't do theater, but people who have experience in grant-writing and governing and things like that. The old way, with actors and things like that, it just wasn't working," she said.
After achieving all of the goals put forth in 2012, TT has a successful 90th season in the books, is debt-free, and even won two TATE Awards this year. And now it's being further recognized for its efforts, receiving the Oklahoma Community Theatre Association's Octavision Award.
The biennial award goes to the company that has done exactly what TT has done: successfully established, executed and accomplished substantial long-range goals.
"This is a huge honor for Theatre Tulsa and a great recognition of all the hard work our new board of directors donated over the past year," Phoenix said.
As the representative organization for community theatres in Oklahoma with a membership of more than 35 amateur and professional theatres, five college and university theatre departments and more than 80 individual members, OCTA was the first statewide association of community theatres to be incorporated in the United States and continues to work toward supporting community theater.
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