Rock pioneer Don Wilson and son Tim engineer guitars to capture classic sound
February 21, 2012
By Caleb Heeringa
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.
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.”