The Axe Architect! Guitar-Building With Neil V. Thompson

Originally published in the Green Mountain Outlook, April 2002

ORMOND BEACH, FLORIDA - Neil V. Thompson has one of the coolest hobbies (dare it be called a job?) a rock-and-roll fan could imagine. For over 40 years running Neil has been a guitar builder, having created custom axes for such Boston rockers as Aerosmith, Charlie Farren, Rupert Webster and Billy Lossigian, as well as having toured the world as a guitar tech for Aerosmith and he even co-owned a vintage guitar shop in Boston.

Article by Joe Milliken * Photos 1.Custom painted "Princess Diana" headstock (courtesy of Charlie Farren) 2. 1988 Klingon Stratocaster guitar (courtesy of Neil V. Thompson 3. "Prince Charles" Teardrop guitar (courtesy of Charlie Farren 4. Neil with Precision bass built for Aerosmith's Tom Hamilton (courtesy of Neil V. Thompson)

Originally from Burtonsville, Maryland and as a youngster in the late 1950s, Thompson first fell in love with the rock-and-roll guitar sounds of Scotty Moore, James Burton, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy, Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers.

This would mark the beginning of Neil's passion for guitars and a few years later, in 1962, Thompson would borrow an acoustic guitar from a neighbor; but when the neck-action was too high, he somehow managed to open-tune the guitar and started playing slide on it.

"In 1964, and I was getting more and more into music, I was hanging out with a good friend who lived in a larger neighborhood and we started learning songs from others in that neighborhood who were taking lessons," Neil Thompson remembered. "Soon we were playing at parties and not long after, I joined my first real band called The Turncoats. I started out as the lead singer, but soon took over on bass as well."

However, it was the following year that Neil would truly discover his calling when he built his first guitar from scratch in his high school wood shop class - a precision bass guitar. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to fill in on guitar in a friend's band. "I borrowed a '65 Stratocaster from a friend's older brother and spent roughly four hours tinkering with it. I figured out a lot about Strats that afternoon."

In 1973 Thompson joined a band called Gravity, a very popular group which played the Washington, D.C. club circuit, but the band dissolved when the guitar player left to join another band. "So, to make money, I started fixing guitars and after showing my work to Danny Gatton's vintage guitar store, I was hired and worked there for a couple years."

While Neil was working at the guitar store, rock legends Aerosmith came to town to perform at the Capitol Center, and called to have Gatton come to the arena the afternoon of the show to fix some guitars. "The band had been sending guitars to Danny for a while, but Danny had not gotten along with his partner at the store and was rarely there," Thompson said.

"So I grabbed a couple of helpers from the store and went to the arena, but when the band arrived we had to leave the backstage area, so I went out to the soundboard. One of the band's roadies (Dick 'Rabbit' Hanson) came out to get me because Joe Perry wanted to meet me. At that point in time, Aerosmith didn't have a full-time guitar tech, but they had accumulated a huge collection of mostly vintage guitars... I had my foot in the door."

The following year, with his interest in building guitars growing, Neil began his quest for the holy grail of guitar-building wood (curly maple). "I scoured the entire Maryland area and came up empty. But I did find some birdseye maple and built a custom precision bass in sunburst, with a maple fret board neck. When Aerosmith was back at the Capital Center later that year, I showed it to Tom Hamilton and he bought it."

In 1978, Aerosmith finally made the call for Neil to fly to Boston and audition for a full-time position as guitar tech. "After maybe three or four weeks, they're crew hired me," Thompson said. "I would tour the world with Aerosmith for the next five years and had a great time. Then, in 1983, while on tour in San Diego, the band announced that the rest of the tour was cancelled due to poor ticket sales... I was never called back.

"The last couple years on the road with Aeromith, I had become rather disenchanted working with the replacement guitarists. I then went on hiatus and partnered with Mike Aronson in taking over Jack Griffin's The Record Garage on Harvard Square, which we re-named East Coast Guitars. I believe it was the only vintage guitar store in the Boston area."

Neil continued his work of fixing and building guitars,and also did some stage work for a few local Boston bands. Then one day, a music store "job-racker" came in to store with some Fender-style bodies and necks built by Phil Kubicki, who worked at Fender in the 60s. "They were probably the first company to offer Fender knock-offs, and I made roughly 10 Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars, selling them to a few local musician-friends. I do have one Kubicki Telecaster in my collection, that I bought back from a friend."

In the early 80s, Thompson wanted to build a "best of both worlds" guitar, that being attributes of both Gibson and Fender. "I had finally found some nice flame maple and started building the Klingon Strat, which had a more radical body shape, using the maple for the top and mahogany or alder for the back... similar to a Gibson. I made quite a few of these models for several Boston-area guitarists."

In the mid-90s Thompson started playing bass for a Boston blues band called Sonny Shades and the Blues Nationalists and switched to guitar a year later. He remained with the band until moving to Florida in 1998. A few years after that, Neil started another band.

"I started using a Strat and a 335, but I also wanted to start using a Les Paul again. Of the three I owned, however, two were bought from Gibson while on tour with Aerosmith, and the third was a '55 gold-top given to me by Aerosmith's Brad Whitford. All three are too collectable to take out of the house.

"So, I decided to build a new hybrid Les Paul, with many new features including a chambered mahogany body, a re-aligned head stock for straighter string alignment, a contoured neck heel and a Stratocaster input jack on the side of the body."

More recently, Thompson restored two Vox-style Teardrop guitars that he had originally built in the early 80s (dubbed "Prince Charles" and 'Princess Diana") for Boston rocker Charlie Farren.

"Neil was working with Aerosmith, but when Joe left the band and started The Joe Perry Project, we'd rehearse at Aerosmith's facility in Waltham," Charlie Farren said in a recent interview. "The Aerosmith crew guys were always there working on gear, and that's where I met Neil.

"At the time I was using a Vox Super Beatle and Royal Guardsman amps, and Neil and I were talking about how cool they were, especially the old Brian Jones white Vox Teardrop. I remember saying that I wish I had a guitar that looked like a Teardrop, but played like a Strat... and Neil said 'I can do that!' He eventually made me two - and they were great! They weren't ready until after I left The Perry Project and formed The Enemy, a precursor to FARRENHEIT. The guitars are very much like a Strat in playability and functionality."

Neil has also worked on the '68 Telecaster that Farren bought when he joined Joe Perry's band, adding a third pickup and splitting the bridge to reduce squeal at high volumes. "He also worked on my Strat, getting it ready for recording and touring... Neil is a great tech and also a great guy!"

As mentioned, Thompson also recently restored the original Teardrops he had built. "I played them both a lot... maybe 1,000 shows between 1982 and 1987, and by the mid-point of the '87 FARRENHEIT tour in support of Boston, they had begun to fail," Farren said. "I put them in storage thinking I'd either have them fixed or try to fix them myself. So, who better to work on a custom guitar, than the very hands that built it!

"I was lucky enough to re-connect with Neil on Facebook, and asked if he'd work on my former number-one Teardrop. Neil had to re-build the body, re-line the control and pick-up cavities, put a compound radius on the fretboard, re-fretted the neck, replaced the pickups and tuners, replaced the tone control with a variable boost, painted the fingerboard and re-finished the guitar white... and what a re-finish!

We then shipped the second teardrop guitar to a Western Massachusetts artist, Linda Jacque, who hand-painted an original design. Both of these Neil V. Thompson original creations are excellent compliments to my self-designed, Campbell-American made, F-Man guitar...Boom!" File under: Axe-ology

This article originally appeared in the Green Mountain Outlook, April, 2002