Posted by: Bruce Proctor | June 5, 2008

New piece on Eric Miller, my old guitar-player friend

. . . He has done repair work for names such as Ray Charles, Aerosmith and the Allman Brothers. Most celebrities never set foot in his repair shop, and instead send their precious instruments with a stage manager. These repair requests are often stressful, some even in the middle of the night, and rushed, he said. Add to that, most of the jobs come with very vague instructions on what they want different such as “action down a little.” Miller said to really understand what musicians need from him, he has to study their playing style. With celebrities, he has often resorted to watching clips of them performing.

“When I study a player I watch their hands to know what they like,” Miller said. “That way I can interpret their interaction with the frets in a number form. . . ”

Into Guitars / Hands on Guitars: Local Artisan Has Catered to Rich and Famous

Posted May 19, 10:29 am. / By Carrina Stanton / For The Chronicle

To the untrained eye, a guitar is a mere musical instrument.

To those who bring their guitars to Eric Miller, they’re companions, soul mates, pieces of art worthy of the highest respect. “I call it my ministry because that’s what it’s like,” Miller said of his business repairing and creating custom guitars.

Miller, the owner of Hands On Guitars in downtown Chehalis has been making waves in the musical community for more than two decades. He began with a guitar repair business in Boston in 1984 and seven years later, opened his repair and custom instrument shop in the back of The Matrix coffeehouse in 1991. The move from East to West coast was spurred by a trip to visit friends in which Miller fell in love with Washington.

“But the truth is it was part of a spiritual journey,” Miller said.

Miller’s work in guitars has also been a spiritual affair. He first “caught the bug” for the instrument when his father brought him home his first guitar at the age of about 6. He was a musician first and his work started out of necessity. As a musician, he had to learn to fix his own guitars and modify them to make the sound he wanted. To this day, he believes this base is one of his strengths as a craftsman of guitars.

“You can teach an artisan to make a guitar but you can’t necessarily teach them what a player needs. If I just thought every instrument was the same I’d be missing a lot and if I thought I knew best what a player needed, I’d also be missing a lot.”

Most guitar makers apprentice under one teacher and therefore learn to build after one style of guitar. Miller said he learned his art taking apart old guitars he would buy at garage sales and on his own instruments. In this manner, he got to experience the nuances of many different makers.

“When you’re a repair person every instrument that comes across your table has a different character so you’re learning the cause and effect of each maker, so when you start building you’re starting from a wide palette of knowledge,” Miller said.

Miller crafted his first custom guitar in 1985. Because of his detailed history with the instrument, he said his first attempt was a knockout, though that’s not to say there were not a lot of stumbles along the way to learning the craft. Miller’s specialty in customs is electric guitars with both solid and semi-solid bases. Each job is unique in the amount of time and effort it takes but he said he usually finishes one or two guitars each year. Still, what he builds takes less time than custom acoustic guitars, especially considering he does repair work amid his custom jobs.

“I’ll probably build an acoustic in my retirement,” Miller said. “When you build an acoustic that’s all you can do.”

Miller’s craftsmanship has gained him a following among some very big names in music. He has done repair work for names such as Ray Charles, Aerosmith and the Allman Brothers. Most celebrities never set foot in his repair shop, and instead send their precious instruments with a stage manager. These repair requests are often stressful, some even in the middle of the night, and rushed, he said. Add to that, most of the jobs come with very vague instructions on what they want different such as “action down a little.” Miller said to really understand what musicians need from him, he has to study their playing style. With celebrities, he has often resorted to watching clips of them performing.

“When I study a player I watch their hands to know what they like,” Miller said. “That way I can interpret their interaction with the frets in a number form.”

Centralia College professor and local musician Mark Brosz has known Miller for a couple of years and often plays music with him. Brosz is another musician who is a big fan of Miller’s work. He said Miller’s attention to detail and insistence on knowing the musician’s style is what makes him so special. His most recent purchase from Miller was a Larrivee, which Miller then modified to Brosz’s specifications. Brosz said after playing the instrument, he’d never trust anyone other than Miller to work on it.

“He’s pretty passionate about everything he does,” Brosz said. “He doesn’t do anything halfway. It has to be just perfect.”

Miller said he counts himself lucky to be someone who has the ability to do something he is passionate about for a living. He said the countless hours spent mending people’s beloved instruments or crafting a fine guitar are worth seeing the delight of a musician the first time they play. He said he considers his work art, but not the kind of art that should be hung on a wall.

“It’s like giving your daughter’s hand in marriage,” Miller said with a laugh of handing a newly made guitar to its new owner. “But I always tell people if they bring it back a year and a half later and it looks like they haven’t touched it I’ll take a screwdriver and put the first dent in it for them for free. These guitars are meant to be played.”

The Chronicle Newspaper, owned by Lafromboise Newspapers Inc., serves readers in Lewis County, Washington and portions of south Thurston and north Cowlitz counties. At http://www.chronline.com

Carrina Stanton is a freelance writer who lives in Centralia. She can be reached at carrinastanton@yahoo.com.

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