Rock pioneer Don Wilson and son Tim engineer guitars to capture classic sound

February 21, 2012

By Caleb Heeringa

Don Wilson, a founding member of The Ventures, shows off gold records and memorabilia from a long career in music. By Tom Corrigan

Little did Don Wilson know that the $15 electric guitar he bought from a pawnshop in Tacoma in 1958 would lead to worldwide fame, more than 100 million albums sold and now his own line of custom-made guitars.

Wilson, a Sammamish resident and the sole surviving original member of seminal rock and roll band The Ventures, has partnered with his son, Issaquah resident Tim Wilson, to translate his band’s rabid international following into a signature line of Ventures guitars.

The story of Wilson Brothers Guitars is closely intertwined with the story of The Ventures — the meteoric rise of two 20-something Tacoma-area construction workers to superstardom in the pre-British Invasion 1960s, their influence on countless later bands, and enduring popularity in Japan and the rest of Asia, where The Ventures still perform to thousands of adoring fans.

Tired of working construction, Wilson and friend Bob Bogle picked up a pair of beat-up old electric guitars and set to practicing and playing club shows around the area. The band’s modest goals were quickly surpassed when they reworked Chet Atkins’ “Walk Don’t Run” into an instrumental surf-rock anthem. The song was a hit, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Singles charts and turning The Ventures into worldwide stars.

“We had aspirations that we could get out of heavy lifting and not pick up anything heavier than a guitar,” Don Wilson said. “We hadn’t even played guitar before.”

The band would spend the ensuing decades touring relentlessly behind many other hits, including the theme to the television show “Hawaii Five-O.” By the time The Ventures were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 — becoming only the second Washington state-based artist in the hall after Jimi Hendrix — The Ventures’ legacy was undeniable.

The band was credited with pioneering the “surf-rock” genre, though Wilson and the rest of the band are still lukewarm about being called a surf-rock band. The list of musicians and bands that cite The Ventures as an influence spans genres and generations — George Harrison, Jimmy Page, John Fogerty, The Ramones and thrash-metal band Anthrax are just a handful.

And nothing is more central to the ethos of The Ventures than their guitar tones — full of reverb, a bit of fuzz and the round, warm sound commonly associated with surf rock. After beginning their career with a trio of Fenders — a Jazzmaster, a Stratocaster and a Precision Bass — the band adopted the guitars of Los Angeles-based Semie Moseley, who had been working for Rickenbacker International Corp. — a seminal American guitar maker.

As The Ventures became a household name throughout the 1960s, Moseley’s “Mosrite” brand guitar became a hot commodity among players eager to piggyback on the band’s unique sound. During their heyday, The Ventures would carry five or six extra Mosrites with them on tour and sell them after their shows.

“Whatever The Ventures were playing, people went out and bought,” Tim Wilson said.

The band’s distribution deal and sponsorship of Mosrites came to an end in 1968 due to disagreements over money, Tim Wilson said. That was bad news for the Mosrite Co., which ended up filing for bankruptcy a year later.

The band was quickly courted again by Fender and would continue to play the guitars for much of the rest of their career. The Ventures would go on to endorse a custom-made line of guitars for Fender and Aria guitars.

It wasn’t until 2003, though, that Don and Tim decided they would try to capture “The Ventures sound” themselves. The two founded Wilson Brothers Guitars and set to designing a line of guitars that encapsulated the long story of the band.

Though they are father and son, The Wilsons elected to name the company Wilson Brothers, partly in honor of Tim’s brother Kelly Wilson, who died in a horse riding accident at the age of 4 in 1966 while Don was touring Japan. The name also speaks to Tim and Don’s relationship over the years, which was stunted at times due to Don’s constant touring.

“As I got to know him better over the years … we really became more like brothers rather than dad and son,” Tim Wilson said.

Don and Tim Wilson helped design the guitars, though they are actually produced and assembled by Aria Guitars in Asia, because it would be cost-prohibitive to have it done domestically.

Don said Wilson Brothers Guitars have a body design similar to the Mosrites the band used to play, with a playing feel along the lines of a Fender Jazzmaster. The guitars are also designed to be light and feel natural on a player’s shoulders.

“I know what I like and what I don’t like in a guitar,” Don Wilson said. “I wanted them to be as light as possible.”

The guitars are designed for players of all experience levels and financial fortitude. Entry-level guitars start at $200, while deluxe custom-designed versions — modeled after the vintage Mosrites that collectors pay $4,000 or more for — start at about $2,000.

Tim Wilson displays a Wilson Brothers Guitars offering in a memorabilia-lined room at his father's Sammamish home. By Caleb Heeringa

J.C. McCormick, the nephew of long-time Ventures band member Nokie Edwards, sells the guitars at his Puyallup music store, J.C.’s Music. Though much of the market for Ventures memorabilia and guitars comes from a small group of rabid Ventures fans, McCormick said he’s surprised by how well the entry-level Wilson Brothers Guitars play.

“We get kids that come in here that have never heard of The Ventures that pick these up and start playing and say, ‘Wow this sounds good,’” McCormick said. “I’ve sold so many of these guitars — I didn’t think it was going to go quite so phenomenally.”

Tim Wilson said they’ve made a conscious effort not to turn the company into a large-scale mass production — they distribute through “mom and pop” guitar stores as well as on their website.

“A lot of the people that run those mom and pop stores are ex-guitar players and band members that can really appreciate” the guitars, Tim Wilson said. “We felt like they would get lost in the shuffle at Guitar Center.”

Wilson said the recession has taken a toll on sales in recent years, but the company still moves several hundred guitars a year.

Tom Ott, a Poulsbo resident and self-described Ventures nut, owns three Wilson Brothers guitars along with several of the vintage Ventures models. He said he’s impressed by the Wilsons’ ability to approximate the distinct Ventures sound of the old Mosrites in the new line.

“The finish is nice, the look is nice and it plays real well,” Ott said, adding that the sound “feels completely controlled when you’re playing.

“I’m really pleased” with them, he added of the company’s guitars. “It’s a lot of value for the buck.”

Ott said the fact that The Ventures are able to sustain their own line of guitars more than 50 years after the band burst onto the scene speaks to the band’s timelessness. Ott recalls first hearing the band while driving around with friends in high school.

“I was driving around with one of my buddies that could afford a car and I heard The Ventures on the stereo,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was but it affected my soul … I’m 67 years old now and I still love this stuff.”

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Comments

10 Responses to “Rock pioneer Don Wilson and son Tim engineer guitars to capture classic sound”

  1. dick smith on March 22nd, 2012 8:15 am

    I own a vm110 venture guitar and I think it plays easier than my fender strat. It sounds great and has great sustain. It has been a very enjoyable experience doing business with Wilson Brothers guitars.

  2. STEPHEN MARENDA on April 13th, 2012 8:18 pm

    HI MY NAME IS STEPHEN I LOVED THE VENTURES SINCE I WAS A KID I AM 65 YEARS OLD NOW .I OWN 2 WILSON BROTHERS GUITARS VM 110 AND A VM 75.BEAUTIFUL GUITARS THEY PLAY LIKE BUTTER &THE SOUND IS JUST LIKE A MOSRITE I KNOW BECAUSE I OWN TWO VENTURE MODELS.I WOULD HIGHLY RECOMEND THE WISON BROTHERS GUITAR TO ANYONE WHO IS LOOKING FOR THAT SPECIAL SURF SOUND,AND TO SEE THE VENTURES NAME ON THE HEADSTOCK IS BEAUTIFUL THANK YOU STEPHEN

  3. Jeff Green on April 24th, 2012 11:51 am

    I own 3 beautiful VM-110s; each one a different finish: Black, Sunburst and Blue.
    Also I have a VB-100 Bass in Sunburst and I’m most fortunate also to have one of the very rare Bob Bogle Model guitars in Sunburst.
    My Bandmates have also have Wilson Bros. guitars in their instrument arsenals.
    Drummer John Ramski also plays bass and he owns 5 Wilson Bros. basses!
    Bob Kenney has 2 VM-110s; one is Red and the other is Sunburst.
    It’s very appealing when we play out with our matching Sunburst Wilson Bros!
    All told, this figures out to 12 Wilson Bros, guitars. I’m quite sure that we have the monopoly on Wilson Bros, guitars in Ohio!
    These are terrific guitars! – just as stated in the article, “A lot of value for the buck.”
    Way to go Wilson Bros!

    Jeff G. The Pickniks – Cleveland Ohio

  4. Gary Wertz on October 25th, 2012 2:21 pm

    I’ve been a Ventures Fan since the release of Walk Don’t Run in 1960. I own 16 Ventures’ model guitars some bought in Japan. Ranging from a 64 Mosrite, set of Fender models to the Arias and Wilson Bros. Models.
    The Wilson Brothers Guitars are excellent instruments as are the Japanese Aria models I own. The Aria Diamond 380 sold in Japan and now the US is virtually a Wilson Ventures Model VM65. Looking forward to the new model.
    Gary Wertz – Olympia, WA

  5. mike sparrow on November 10th, 2012 4:58 pm

    Great article, I’ll never be able to afford one of your beauty’s, well maybe in 20 yrs when all the kids are out of the house. I am that long haired guy that used to come by and pick up your guitar shipment for fedex. I remember picking up the Hall of fame guitar. Thanks again for the Christmas CD and the Ventures pics. I use a couple of the pics when I play, so the logo is burnt into my memory. Thanks again and Long live the Ventures.

  6. betty on June 9th, 2013 8:05 am

    Good morning Don,You don’t need to include this comment on your page. I’m just asking you a couple of questions to help me with some family history. Bob(our family always knew him as Robert) is my 1st cousin on the Hutton side(my dad is Herbert, if Bob ever shared any family info with you).
    I remember reading somewhere that you & Bob or perhaps all of your early members had a favorite place in the Seattle/Tacoma area where you would get together and play. A small local club or diner. I have been searching to find that info again and haven’t been thus far. I wanted to know,because our Son recently has moved to the Seattle area and I know he would enjoy going to the place and taking his boys there ,as part of our family history ,so to speak. My Dad always thought a lot of Bob and Bob came to his memorial service.I was deeply touched. Bob taught him how to play the guitar, I think he said the 1st song they were working together on was the song was My Wild Irish Rose. Did you ever hear Bob mention that? I hope you are doing well and thanks so much for your friendship with Bob, I’m sure it meant a lot. many blessings, Betty

  7. zach jansen on August 29th, 2013 3:50 pm

    Don wilson is the only original member but nokie Edwards
    Has been with the band of and on since 1960 and gerry mcgee since 1968 mcgee also still preforms with the ventures

  8. Michel Perillard on September 6th, 2013 9:35 am

    Hi. I am the Surf-Riders lead guitarist, a canadian Ventures tribute band. We play with several guitars on our shows and I can say that my Sunburst VM-110 is a marvelous guitar to play, I like the finish, the neck, the pickups sound so good with lots of dynamics. For the price, is the best guitar ever!. You can check that by going to see our videos at:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZksjNwdn-w

    Michel Perillard, St-Hubert, P.Québec, Canada

  9. Bruce Duncan on September 6th, 2013 10:18 am

    I first heard “Walk Don’t Run” on the AM radio in my dad’s ’59 Olds, in September 1960, when I was just 8 years old. That one listen, hooked me into a lifetime of being an avid fan of The Ventures, and everything they ever recorded.

    Out of that fanship, I owned and played both an early 1960′s Fender Jazzmaster and a 1965 Ventures Model Mosrite guitar. Both guitars were deficient in certain aspects of their design.

    In 2003 I acquired my first Wilson Brothers Ventures Model VCM guitar. WOW! One of the best playing and sounding guitars I have EVER played. Derivative in design and specs, of both the old Jazzmaster and the Mosrite, but dramatically superior in every way that matters to me, as a guitarist.

    I’ve owned other Wilson Bros models, including the bottom-end VM-10, VM-65, and VM 110. All excellent products. The VM-10 is a $200 copy of the Fender Stratocaster, which in my opinion, rivals the $800 American-Standard Strat.

    Bravo to Don Wilson, and The Ventures for 53 years of creating fan-pleasing music. And Bravo to Don and Tim Wilson for the outstanding job they’ve done in bringing a truly superior line of affordable guitars to guitar players everywhere.

  10. Daryl Gaertner on September 18th, 2013 8:44 pm

    HI , DON DO YOU REMEMBER ME ? MY LATE WIFE (LAURIE) , AND YOU WOULD HANG -OUT ALOT , YOU EVEN VISITED “US” IN TEXAS , IN OUR MOBILE HOME THERE….I SURE MISS YOU , WE HAD ALOT OF TREASURED , MEMORABLE TIMES , WHEN I LIVED UP IN SYLMAR , CA ….I STILL REMEMBER YOUR BLAK-BOTTOM POOL , WE EVEN STAYED IN YOUR GUEST HOUSE SOMETIMES , STILL GOT THAT OLD CLASSIC CADDY….I SURE HOPE YOU GET THIS NOTE , TO A GUY I LOVE AND ADMIRE …ALWAYS …I LIVE IN HOLLYWOOD , IN A STUDIO APT. MY ADDRESS IS… 1924 ARGYLE AVE. #105 HOLLYWOOD , CA 90068 AND IF YOU WANT TO CALL ME , 323-871-0293 HOME , 323-440-6373 CELL ….SO JUST ..”WALK DON’T RUN TO CALL ME 24-7 .YOUR FRIEND ALWAYS , DARYL(BUDDY)

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