The Local Luthier
Little do the humble denizens of the comfortably nestled suburban shire of West Hills know, but lo: a wizard resides among them.
His name is Steve Novelli, and inside the garage of his family’s charming, warm, mid-century ranch house is a mad scientist’s laboratory, from which he produces both electric and acoustic creations that sound simultaneously clean, modest and pure in aesthetic sensibilities, as well as wildly innovative in sound design.
Novelli’s guitars have been in the hands of icons like John Oates and Rodney Crowell, as well as in those of several respected working musicians in touring bands based out of Knoxville, Nashville and Austin, Texas. He also maintains a thriving repair and customization aspect to his business.
Novelli’s story started in the 1980s in Syracuse, New York, where his college bands would play the bar circuits. (One of them he left went on to open for Van Halen on a tour. He says that he toured at one point, too, with the Stray Cats.) In the ‘90s, he hit Austin for several years, running his own sausage cart business called The Best ‘Wurst – “basically to make a living,” he says – and slowing down on gigging but becoming enamored with the technical side of gear and instrument repair.
Novelli moved to Knoxville in 1997. “This was kind of a nice halfway mark [between Texas and New York],” he says, and the cost of living was cheap. He liked the local scene and the musicians’ attitudes and style.
“Things really started exploding with the repairs,” Novelli says, for folks like Tim Lee. He explained recent work for Will Carter, George Middlebrooks and plans to do guitar tech work for Erick Baker at his next Bijou show. “These are people with supersonic ears,” he says.
Novelli’s specialty is giving creative care to rare or delicate instruments. For example, a player recently brought a limited-edition run of a type of Danelectro hollow-body electric to him, wanting a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece installed; it pained him too much to imagine drilling holes through the beautiful finish and wood of that instrument, so he found a way to engineer and leverage against other parts of the guitar to mount it without making any drills or cuts necessary.
“With the repair business,” he says, “I’m not gonna drill holes in that guitar. It’s very historic and worth money, so I figured out a way to mount it … the solution pops in my brain.”
Novelli describes an early mentor named Ted Davis. Novelli first heard of him when he was entertaining the idea of getting into the world of guitar-making, and a rare event occurred: Word got out that an Adirondack Red Spruce tree had fallen across a road in the Smokies, and Davis had harvested the tree. Novelli says that, according to conservation laws and/or the fact that many of these trees might be in national parks where it is illegal to remove plant and animal life, the only way to “harvest” the wood – as Davis did in this case – would be if it were to fall across a public road.
Davis actually had his own “softwood sanctuary” where he had compiled quite a collection. They either had been harvested that way or had been salvaged from landfills or other similar places over the years, and he stored them in his workshop and would sell the pieces to other builders. Novelli approached Davis for that first purchase and sought his expertise in hopes of figuring out how to use the wood in making his first guitar.
“I was so intimidated by the beauty of the wood that I was like, ‘I can’t screw this up.’ So I would go to Ted’s shop,” Novelli recalls. In doing so, he dispels a myth that he can describe a quick demonstration of the process (as others have requested). There is none; Novelli couldn’t give BLANK a quick rundown any more than Davis was willing and able to provide him. Suffice it to say that it’s a lengthy, delicate activity.
“He was kind of cantankerous and would shoo basically anyone out of his shop,” Novelli says, “but [he] would share little nuggets of wisdom.” It’s done in stages. Certain parts, such as setting the body of acoustic guitars, must happen all at once over a few days in the same climatic conditions for the wood to set correctly. Some of the work is extremely tedious.
“I asked if I could come clean his windows,” Novelli says of his ploy to gain access into Davis’ shop more often. (Another of his trades is window-washing.) It worked, and it initiated a back-and-forth between Novelli and his mentor. He would bring Davis a partially messed-up fretboard job and ask if he could reset it. The response always was, “No, you do it yourself!”
But that type of approach, while perhaps aloof on the surface, had its own Zen-like quality to it. “He always said, ‘It’ll be fine’ … I wouldn’t have learned anything if he did it,” Novelli says. Ultimately, it empowered him to find his own style as a luthier.
Novelli also developed a long-distance mentor/mentee relationship with a Californian named John Greven, who Novelli says can impart “10 years’ worth of stuff in five minutes … little clues,” like a tidbit about how to bind using a different type of adhesive for better results. Greven has been in the luthier game for more than 40 years and worked with Rock and Roll Hall of Famers like Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash and George Harrison.
Novelli’s acoustics mimic a pre-war style in that they embody a smaller-scale auditorium style with dark finishes and narrow “hips.” With these, he avoids adding fancy pearl inlays or other such frills. He designed his own logo, which he embosses on the headstocks of his guitars. Other than that, though, very few superfluous design touches adorn the guitars; they feature just smooth, clean finishes on fine woods, constructed to produce the purest tones possible.
Novelli’s electric guitars have a few signature elements. They are super light; he shoots for less than three pounds. He keeps the holes in the back for the insertion of electronics a minimal size – no matter how difficult that might make the installation of said electronics – because he hates disturbing the beauty of the wood any more than he must. He bolts the neck deeper in on the body than other guitars, allowing for more tension to resonate throughout the neck and body when notes are played. He slightly enhances the curvature of the fretboard near the nut and headstock (where he says optimal chording will take place) and optimizes the flatness of the neck higher up where notes will more freely bend on solos.
Would Novelli ever expand his brand to take on apprentices? Or can he envision ever going really big into the world of mass production and handing over his plans to an automated format if a bigger imprint wanted to buy him out?
“I think I would prefer to be myself,” he says. “My goal is to morph from what I do now during the day – if I got to do it – to morph into doing this. I would consider myself extremely lucky. My goal is to be the number-one repair guy … and the guys that are the real players, give them what they want … and build guitars and get a separate building to do it in … maybe sell some sausages from a cart out front.”