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I started a quest to find terrific blues music and incredible musicianship when I was just a little kid. I also have a tremendous appreciation of fine musical instruments and equipment. One of my greatest joys all of my life was sharing my finds with my friends. I'm now publishing my journey. I hope that you come along!

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Who Was Charles LoBue

Charles LoBue was one of the fathers of the custom electric guitar business. Charles came to the industry after taking classes from Michael Gurian, first working in and around the guitar repair business in NYC in the mid 60's. Charles' interest in the business began by doing basic repairs on factory made guitars. These were primarily made by Gibson and Fender, the "Gold Standard" for electric guitars, as well as any guitar including acoustics which came through the door. As a professional player in the U.S. in the 60's, Gibson and Fender were the most likely choices if you wanted an electric guitar. It is well known that the Brits used European made guitars as well, primarily due to their accessibility. By the mid late 60's both companies had been sold to larger corporations which were not primarily in the guitar business. The basic perception even today is that the guitars made by these companies during this period were inferior in quality and also lacked many options. Jimi Hendrix was making all kinds of weird (wonderful) sounds and more adventurous players wanted alternatives. Charles was a guy in NYC who had a strong interest in guitars and experimentation. By luck or by design, Charles ended up in a circle of brilliant people such as "Dan Armstrong" and "Matt Umanov" (plexiglass guitar), Carl Thompson ( "CT Basses" ), Larry DiMarzio (DiMarzio Pickups), Steve Bleucher ( "DiMarzio Pickups"), Michael Gurian ("Gurian Guitars"), Sherwood Phifer ( "Phifer Designs" ), Ralph Novak ( "Novax Guitars"), "Bill Lawrence" (custom pickup inventor) among others, building custom designed electric guitars and basses. LoBue and Thompson started a repair shop in the village and quickly became known as the "go to" shop for anyone who wanted the best repairs and setup. After only about a year, LoBue and Thompson split, Thompson indicating that LoBue wanted to build guitars and he was happy with the repair business. (Thompson of course went on to make world renown basses for such players as "Les Claypool" and "Stanley Clarke").
LoBue attracted a small group of apprentices and began customizing and building standard guitars for sale, but also designed custom guitars for "Rick Derringer" (at the time with Johnny Winter), "Steve Khan" , "Paul Stanley", "Gene Simmons", "Steve Hunter" and "Alfonso Johnson" (then with Weather Report). The well recognized picture of Rick from Guitar Player magazine with his famous explorer was a LoBue Guitar. Derringer commissioned this and many other instruments initially to protect a split head explorer which had become too valuable to take on the road.

This is a short list of players who had guitars built by LoBue and his band of men. DiMarzio and Bleucher worked at Guitar Lab very early. DiMarzio was doing setups and fretwork at the shop and ventured to "Jimmy D'Aquisto's" shop learning from the master about the finer arts of fret dressing. DiMarzio had gone through an electronics course and found working with Charles was a good fit. Charles had the natural curiosity of what could be done and Larry had the practical skill. It wasn't long before DiMarzio wanted to work on the electrical components and LoBue gave him a box of "broken" pickups that they experimented with for new sounds. DiMarzio came up with some revolutionary ideas. Bill Lawrence told me that LoBue is responsible for the replacement pickup industry. Prior to this time, there weren't replacement pickups available. DiMarzio was starting to experiment in his basement and it wasn't long before he opened his own shop across town doing setups and selling pickups not only to LoBue, but other shops who were doing repairs. Woody Phifer was a college student and hobbyist wood carver who wandered into the shop by accident. What he saw excited him and he immediately asked if he could apprentice with LoBue. At the time the only builders were LoBue and college student (architecture/ sculptor) "Bob Sindorf" . Sindorf had experimented with building his own guitar in high school. These were of modeled after current styles, but he had the head start on the geometry.
Sindorf completed his work at Columbia and became a world renown sculptor prior to his passing a few years ago. Phifer brought to the shop the thought that different contours may work.
LoBue was already making custom shapes but this brought another dimension to the formula as Phifer started to learn LoBue's craft. After only a few years Phifer started his own shop and now builds custom guitars in upstate New York (Phifer Designs). Another significant builder who worked in the shop was student, Ralph Novak. Ralph chose to stay around for quite some time and eventually become LoBue's partner. An unfortunate tragedy was when LoBue Guitars (Guitar Lab) was broken in to and a number of celebrity guitars were lost. LoBue replaced the guitars from his own pocket but this put him into a substantial financial bind.

After years of fending off Alex Musical's offer to add custom guitars to his line of factory guitars LoBue finally caved and sold the business to Alex. LoBue signed a 1 year contract and at the end of the period, he and Novax moved to San Francisco... another music capital at the time. After only a few years, loneliness for NYC got to Charles and he returned. Novak became a partner at Subway Guitars in San Francisco and shortly thereafter patented fanned fret technology for guitars starting his own company, Novax Guitars in Eugene Oregon. In 1985 Charles died after a short illness.


  1. LoBue was the man. He let young players in his shop to watch and learn when everyone else would dismiss us . I know I was one of them. I still have one of his Long Horns.

    Carl Thompson was a jerk. I also have one of his basses

    1. Thanks for your comments. I believe that I have any photos that you have but if not please let me know.



  2. Carl may been a jerk sometimes but he let me hang at his shop at his house in Brooklyn numerous times. I was 17. He didn't really know me at all. He pulled out a Johnny Smith book first time I came over and put on a record of 'Moonlight in Vermont'. He said here's the transcription bet you don't know those chords or something like that. I immediately picked up a guitar and played it back to him like it was on the record. He left me alone after that. He sold me a guitar finally for pennies. Just gave it to me. I left him alone after that. Haven't seen him since. Cool dude though......if not misunderstood. Ken Smith surely owes some kudos to Carl for "his" so-called neck through bass design. Chuck Corbisiero

  3. Thank you for the wonderful time line of Charles' success....He was a master craftsman, I know because I am his sister....Had my brother lived he would be celebrating his 82nd birthday on Memorial Day 2017...

  4. Do any of the above posters know if there still exist templates or drawings? I have one particular famous bass in mind. that I would very much like to build a replica of.

    Henrik S

  5. Henrik S. There are none. I have a headstock template for one of the models. It is the only known template piece.

  6. I am very happy to now own Charlie's Rolls Royce Silver Shadow dated 1972 and the car is proudly presenting itself in my Garage in the Netherlands (Europe)

  7. For what it's worth,. I played for a time with Bill Chinnock, in the early 70s. Bill was very excited because he had ordered a custom LoBue guitar. Bill had specified a guitar shaped like a Gibson ES 335, but made of solid maple, not semi-hollow. It had two DiMarzio humbuckers in it. I remember looking the guitar over closely when Bill received it. The craftsmanship was very fine. I could tell it was handmade from observing little details, such as a spot on one of high points of the carved top where the stain had just been sanded slightly away before finishing. The point of my story is that Bill told me if he didn't like the guitar he could return it for a full refund. I thought that was a noble but dangerous promise for LoBue to have made, since he (LoBue) had not designed the guitar himself, but built according to the customer's specifications. Bill played the guitar for a couple of gigs, and then returned it, saying it was too heavy, and shrill sounding. Just what one would expect of a solid maple behemoth like that. Eventually I built a few guitars for people, but I never forgot what happened to LoBue that time. He took responsibility for the flaws in someone else's design. I never met LoBue, but he must have been a warm-hearted guy.

    1. Thank you for your story. I’ve never seen a lobue guitar like the one you have described. Would love to. I have owned quite a few and each one felt and sounded completely different. The one that i still have was built lefty. A solid body les paul with a maple cap. It had been converted (bridge and nut alterations but guitar intact). It is not only beautiful but the sound is outrageous. Woody “restored” it for me years ago. Even he remarked that it was an exceptional example. Thanks again!

    2. I have inherited a LoBue guitar which appears to be a mahogany solid body. My friend was in a band that also ran a cafe on Bleeker street during the 1970s, so I assume they knew each other. However, the case contained a hand-printed page about LoBue guitar repairs from the time that LoBue was in San Francisco.

    3. That's great. If you'd like to send me a photo that would be terrific. I have been cataloging the finds and buy one now and again when the opportunity arrises

  8. Bman ,wonderful article and you've captured the essence of what the Guitar Lab represented as on of the only shops of it's kind in that time period.
    There are quite a few time line gaps and missing important fact that must be addressed to keep the story on point.
    I would appreciate if you would correctly list Sherwood (Woody)Phifers current company name Phifer Guitars ( NOT Phifer Designs) and is located in Kingston New York the web site is
    I would love to contribute some missing info form 1971 -1975 about the day to day operation and other individuals that were part of Guitar Lab that have been omitted who were part of this story.
    Give me a call and I'll fill in some crucial facts that are missing.
    All the best to you
    Sherwood Phifer