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Austin luthier makes, repairs guitars for greats, everyday musicians

The man with the droopy moustache and flowing locks wears a spattered duster, hat and gloves. He holds up a pristine guitar against a desert background as a coyote howls at his feet.

“The coyote was stuffed,” Mark Erlewine says about the silvery image that hangs in his crowded but neat guitar studio on Burnet Road. “I played pedal steel guitar for ‘Leila’ on ZZ Top’s ‘El Loco’ album in the very early 1980s. They flew me up to Memphis to lay down that part of the song. The promotional photos were shot in West Texas. I guess we were supposed to be gunslingers.”

Although a musician for most of his life, Erlewine is better known in Austin and elsewhere as a master of making and repairing guitars. Early on, as an apprentice, he helped build instruments for Jerry Garcia, Albert King and Otis Rush. He has since created or repaired custom guitars for John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Elvis Costello, Bo Diddley, Johnny Winter, Joe Walsh, Don Felder, John Fogerty, Bob Dylan and countless Austin musicians.

Along the way, the soft-spoken man with a gentle smile relished a front-row view of Austin’s musical history. He hosted the Cars — the new wave band — at his Austin house after they played Club Foot, attended Stevie Ray Vaughan’s wedding and embarked on misadventures with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

In the late 1970s, he started working on Willie Nelson’s guitar, nicknamed “Trigger,” and he continues to do so.

“When I first met Willie, at the Austin Opry House bar, he told me: ‘Just keep Trigger going,’” Erlewine, 65, says. “‘I’ll keep going as long as Trigger keeps going.’”

The accidental luthier

Born in Augusta, Ga., Erlewine made the first of many family moves when he was just 2 weeks old.

His father, John A. Erlewine, served in the Army and then went to work for the Atomic Energy Commission after the Korean War. At one point, he was deputy ambassador to the European Atomic Energy Community in Brussels, Belgium.

His mother, Millicent W. Erlewine, was a social worker and professional singer.

“She was a prolific artist, too, in her later years,” Erlewine says. “She took up painting and drawing in her 60s when she and Dad contracted Legionnaire’s disease and she was confined to bed.”

Reflecting the generational division of family talents, one of his brothers became a creative chef, the other a general counsel for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Erlewine found himself bored in school after school.

“That really got to me,” he says about the frequent moves. “I think that’s one reason I’ve stayed here in Austin since 1974.”

At a Quaker college, he discovered transcendental meditation and took a weeklong workshop with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who advised the Beatles.

“He arrived in a Rolls Royce, and his followers flung flower petals in his path,” he says. “Quite the experience! Prudence Farrow — of ‘Dear Prudence’ Beatles fame — was there as a part of his entourage.”

Erlewine grew accustomed to being around celebrities, major and minor. A college friend’s brother worked as manager for the Grateful Dead, so they hung around backstage.

While playing in a country-and-swing group in Ann Arbor, Mich., he apprenticed with his cousin, Dan Erlewine, a luthier of some renown who made and repaired all sorts of stringed instruments. Later, the Gibson Co., based in Kalamazoo, Mich., tapped Mark for a nationwide warranty guitar repair system.

They wanted him to move somewhere in the Southwest. Fortuitously, his band’s bass player, James Machin, accepted an engineering job in Austin. (Machin still lives here.)

“He called me up and said: ‘This place is a mecca for people like us,’” Erlewine remembers. “There’s this place called the Armadillo … and all that.”

The Austin years

After renting for a while, Erlewine spotted a listing in the Greensheet under “Miscellaneous.”

“Five Chihuahuas, two mynas and a house for sale,” it read. “I ended up buying the house on Jinx Avenue for $8,000.”

Back then, Aquafest — not South by Southwest or the Austin City Limits Music Festival — was the city’s big musical shindig.

“Willie had just moved to town,” Erlewine says. “A lot of interesting stuff was going on. I played pedal steel with the Reynolds Sisters and with Al Dressen and the Sunset Riders at the Broken Spoke, Soap Creek Saloon, Armadillo World Headquarters and at Jay’s Lounge and Cockpit. You’d play a set between cock fights and get served chicken gumbo at the end of the night — made from the losers in the fights.”

His first guitar shop was at 3004 Guadalupe St. next to an eatery called English’s, close enough to the KLRU-TV studios that he often made emergency calls for visiting musicians.

“Bill English owned the whole block,” Erlewine says. “I rented that spot for 20 years. It was $135 a month to start. By 1994, they wanted $1,350, plus the right to evict. It had been sold to a developer.”

Vicki’s Massage Parlor occupied the same building as his shop.

“One day, as my customer was leaving the shop, a man with his arm in a sling ran out from Vicki’s and knocked him down,” Erlewine says. “I took off after him, and the girls from Vicki’s yelled that he had just robbed them. I caught up to him in the alley behind El Patio restaurant. He turned around and pulled out a huge pistol from the sling. I raised my hands and said: ‘Whoa, never mind!’”

Like many a wise — or lucky — Austinite, his experience with renting convinced Erlewine to purchase his next shop, at 4402 Burnet Road, which had served as home to Triple A Filters for years. He rents out the front building to Kiss & Make Up, an eyebrow and makeup salon, and works out of the 3,200-square foot structure out back.

His wife, Dianne, who served as a chief financial officer for years, helps out with the books. They live in the Deep Eddy area. He has one son from a previous marriage, and Dianne has a son and a daughter, also from a previous marriage.

The tiny details

His studio is jammed with fantastic tools: lamps, vices, brushes, dental picks, files, pliers, fret wire benders, fret wire crimpers, tapes, truss rod wrenches, hole punches, very long needle-nose pliers, a crescent-topped thing for cleaning out fret slots on a finger board.

He builds guitars from scratch. He also sells his production model guitars, such as the Lazer and the Chiquita.

“As I’ve gotten older, the arthritis has gotten to me,” he says. “So I’m not building like a used to, but I’ve always done both.”

Erlewine estimates that he has built 200-300 custom guitars and more than 1,000 production models of his patented designs. Custom versions go for $4,500 and up. His customers come in all forms.

“Serious musicians, unless they are well known, often don’t have money for custom guitars,” he says. “Many of my clients are people with a day job who get to indulge themselves behind a custom guitar at night.”

By the time that they sit down with Erlewine, his customers already have a clue about the desired outcome.

“Generally, a client knows what sound they are looking for, such as a Les Paul-type sound, so it make sense to use certain kinds of woods and configurations,” he says. “Sometimes they want wider than normal neck, sometimes narrower, or thinner, odder shapes. Some are already signature designs, but this is the finish that they want, say, or this kind of beautiful maple on top.”

Once, Lone Star Beer asked him to build a functional guitar for Jody Payne in the shape of the company’s logo shield, for a TV ad. Several people asked for copies of it.

“Their tastes go all over the place,” he says. “New things are designed. It becomes a hit for a while. Then everybody wants to go back to tried-and-true stuff. There are certain classic designs — Les Paul, Telecaster, Stratocaster.”

Johnny Winter recorded many an album with Erlewine’s headless Lazer.

“He wanted to come by and talk about a custom Lazer, so his manager called me and said I had to be at the shop at 1 a.m. and to be sure to have vodka, orange juice and ice for him,” Erlewine says. “He never asked for the drink. Johnny always seemed authentic with me and was very supportive of my Lazer design.”

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