If you don't recognize the name, I bet you know the sounds of some his guitars. Samantha Fish, Mike Zito, Anders Osborne, Jeremiah Johnson, Albert Castiglia; these are just a few of the artists in the Delaney Family. Ever since the first time I caught Samantha Fish live I wondered who the Delaney was that had his or her name on the head stock of that beautiful, totally unique guitar. Well, it didn't take me long to find out, and back in April I had an in-depth, anything goes, phone conversation with the man himself. Guitar making is an art. An art behind the art of music. All handmade musical instruments are a form of art. From a tambourine to a grand piano, they are all beautiful in their own right, and that they can be used to create music, only adds to their beauty. For me, it doesn't get much better than guitars. I've loved guitar players, guitar sounds, dueling guitars, and guitars themselves since I was a kid. Recently I've developed a legitimate interest in the guitar artisans - the luthiers. Delaney Guitars has started to appear - with more and more frequency - on the head stocks of the guitars of players I see play live. In particular, Samantha Fish's "Fish-o-caster" with that one of a kind f-hole (see below), grabs and holds your attention. In addition to Ms. Fish's guitar, Mike Delaney has made guitars for numerous other blues rockers like Mike Zito, Albert Castiglia, Jeremiah Johnson, and Anders Osborne, just to name a few. He's begun making bass guitars as well. You should pop on over to Mike's webpage and see all the artists he has or is working with (www.delaneyguitars.com). These folks must know something. So it seemed like it would be a lot of fun, and educational, to interview Mike for Rock, Roots, & Blues - Live. I was right.
April 9, 2016
Phone Interview with Mike Delaney, Delaney Guitars
By: Steve Hefter
RRB: Hi Mike. Thanks a lot for taking time to give me a call.
MD: My pleasure. I’ve been a big fan of a lot of the stuff you’ve been putting online. It’s refreshing man,, it really is.
RRB: I really appreciate that Mike. We try hard.
MD: I’ve seen and read some of the other interviews you’ve done and I was impressed. I did a little homework to see what I was in for [laughing].
RRB: Thanks again. So let’s talk about you. What were you doing before you were building guitars?
MD: Well, I had a past life but I was a musician too. I played semi full time, and somewhat on the road. It was one of those things that I was so disgusted with trying to find instruments that I liked, that I didn’t have to do something major to make it my own. That’s kind of what drove me to wanting to do the building thing. I played in a bunch of bands, a hired gun for a while. It was fun, but I couldn’t really make a living doing it. And I was trying to do it with a day job, or, in some cases a night job, depending on what he circumstances were. I was in the airline industry for 22 years. I was the guy with a computer and a phone in a dungeon making sure that mechanics had parts they needed for their aircraft. I was just a really exciting job. Not.
RRB: One of those mind numbing deals, huh?
MD: Yeah. You went home every day and you didn’t feel fulfilled at all because you know you got planes up that needed to go out and were able to help people, but you really had nothing to show for it. So it was one of those things that I just did it [build guitars] and I could do it and I was pretty good at it and I finally said enough is enough. There were some other circumstances that led to that as well and I finally said I’ve had enough of this I’m going to go do something I want to do.
RRB: That must have been a scary leap.
MD: In a way it was…It was the best thing I ever did in my life. At the time I wasn’t sure it was going to be but it turned out to be. I was doing landscaping and odd jobs and construction, all stuff I knew how to do, and I always that on the side when I worked for the airlines. If you talk to guys who work for the airlines most of them had a second job or their own business on the side, because of the hours you could do that. So, I was doing remodels and other stuff like that and I had always been working on guitars and then I started leaning into more and more guitar work and I got to a point where I thought, ‘you know, I should just build the guitars instead of fixing everybody else’s stuff’, and that’s kind of what led me to taking that leap. It urned out really good. I was building them for myself and I was playing them and I had other guitar players come up to me and say ‘man. I love your guitar. Where did you get that?’ and I’d tell them that I built it and they say ‘man, can you build one for me?’ And all of a sudden I was a guitar builder and not a player anymore. I was building more than I was playing, and the rest is history as they say.
RRB: So, how do you move from just being a casual woodworker to building something like a guitar that is playable? How did you learn that?
MD: Well, I’ve been doing woodworking of some sort since I was a little kid. So I was learning about woods, what different woods did, why one wood was heavier or denser than another. I was one of those kids that if I found something I had a passion for I learned everything I could about it. If I got something I’d take it apart and put it back together before I ever used it. You know, my dad would walk in, and I’d have something like a new little radio and I would have taken it all apart, it would be in a million pieces on the bed, and my Dad would walk in a say, “You’re going to put that back together, right?” And so that was my passion, that’s what I loved to do was build things and understand things, and why they did what they did. And so I gained a real knowledge of wood and of course when I started playing I wanted to know why a guitar sounded like it did and why this guitar had an F hole and why another one was solid, so I started learning about Leo Fender and Les Paul and people like that who were real innovators and did things and why they did them. Sometimes they didn’t even know why they did some things, but it turned out that it worked out very well for them. So, I knew that when I decided I was going to try and build my own guitar – a lot of it is just math – the bridge has to be a certain distance from the nut, and the pickups have to be somewhere in between. So if you understand the math and scale, it was a matter of ‘what can I do to make this so I’m going to want to play it?’ and that went into, ‘what can I do so Mike Zito is going to want to play it?’ or Samantha Fish, or whomever, and that’s when we started making guitars for other people. They guys that would come to us were guys that might have been endorsed by other guitar makers, and they would say, ‘I love their guitars but I just wanted them to do this’, and they would tell them, ‘We don’t do that’. So I’d say ‘I’ll do that for you, sure, let’s do that’. Or if someone would want a certain type of neck profile, like Zito, he loves these real fat necks, so we tailored it to what he wanted. And it became his guitar. That’s what he plays and that’s what he loves. And I decided that’s what I want to do, find these musicians that are unhappy with what they’re playing and make them happy. The most important thing was making it do what the musician wanted it to do, feel good, and if we can make them look cool too, that’d be great.
RRB: That’s sort of your business model isn’t it? I was chatting with Jeremiah Johnson yesterday and told him I was interviewing you. I asked him to tell me what it is about your guitars that he likes so much. He said to me:
“When you have Mike Delaney make you a guitar, you get a true custom work of art. He expertly walks you through selecting the wood, neck electronics for the guitar. You end up with a "one of a kind" perfectly hand crafted instrument. My experience with Delaney has been nothing short of amazing. I have two Delaney Guitars we call the "twins" and two more being delivered today. A Delaney "Wedge" and a "S" style (strat). Each one will have the same necks dimensions, which makes them feel exactly the same, but with different tone. I will have him build more guitars next year. I am going at about two a year with him now.”
RRB: This seems to be the way you operate, right? The artists come to you.
MD: Wow. Yeah, we’ve never been the type to go, “lets see if we can get Joe Bonomasa to play our guitar or somebody like that. Let’s just go see. It’s just got to be kind of a mutual happening, where we just happen to meet somebody and they say something that sparks the conversation, and we talk about it, and that’s how things have always started. Once we know one person, then they may say, ‘I know somebody else who is on the road and could really benefit from this. Would you mind if I talked with them and told them about you?’ Absolutely not. And that’s kind of how things slowly started happening with our artists, which is an organic, natural way to do things. We don’t do free guitars. We don’t give guitars away. So not like, ‘I’m a guitar builder and will you play my guitar…and it will only cost you…” [laughing]. It has to be a mutual passion, a mutual friendship, a mutual understanding that we’re doing this to help each other, ya know what I mean?. It’s never been about making a ton of money, it’s not about getting the most famous guitar player in the world to play our guitars, although if Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck or someone [like that] called, we’d certainly oblige them. We’d love to do that. I would love it if everybody played our guitars. It’s not just, ‘I build a guitar and you’re going to play it’, we call it The Delaney Family. We become kind of family and it’s an investment in the individual as well.
RRB: That’s what drew me to you and your work. It’s apparent – if you follow you and the players out there now – that for you it’s more than a business. You can see the mutual admiration on both sides. And just how important that is to you, maybe second only to the music and building these killer guitars.
MD: We’ve been approached by a couple of artists who were very amazing guitar players but it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t a good fit. You know when somebody’s out there playing a guitar with my name on the head stock, we want them to be good representatives of our instruments as well as badass guitar players. Jeremiah Johnson is a good example of that. Jeremiah is an up and coming guy. He has amassing potential and has already done some really great things, and when you talk to somebody like him, you understand that they’re just decent people too. Samantha Fish is one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Mike Zito is one of the best guys on Earth. I mean, he’s just a super great human being, and you know, what more could you ask for? They walk out there and play amazing and then when they talk to people, people fall in love with them just because they’re good people. [14:53]
RRB: There is this community of musicians that you’re working with and that we’re following, and I think a lot of others are following, it’s such a tight-knit group of people. They all know each other – you know – Mike Zito, Samantha Fish, Jeremiah Johnson, Anders Osborne, the list goes on and on…
MD: It was Mike Zito that told me about Anders. He said, ‘You know, I was talking to Anders the other day and he’s interested in talking with you. Would you mind if I gave him you’re phone number?’ and I said, ‘Let me think about it. Ok.” Absolutely, we’d love to talk to Anders! And then other people come in. Bobby Messano, who’s one of the greatest rock guitar players of all time that nobody knows, and went into the blues world. He didn’t know Samantha Fish or Mike Zito and now they all know each other. All of a sudden they are connected with each other. I’ll get a phone call from one of them and they let me know they met so-and-so and it’s just so much fun for me, they have something in common now. It’s such a great feeling to know these people are hooking up, in part, because they are playing our guitars.
RRB: So, I originally came to know you and your guitars through Samantha Fish. You can’t escape that guitar!
MD: That guitar is a phenomenon. That fish, the f-hole, Samantha wanted to do something unique and we talked about a few things, and Samantha and my wife Val – who is the backbone of Delaney guitars, keeps us honest, makes sure I don’t do anything silly and stupid, she and Samantha went back and forth with phone calls and emails about the fish and what we could do, and how we could make it work and be really cool. They came up with a final design and Samantha called back and said, “Listen, can you put lips on it?” So that was the final little thing was putting lips on the fish. We are blessed, because people see Samantha, and they see that guitar and we are tied into it automatically because they know it’s a Delaney, so by proxy we can reach a lot of people and it’s also become a real brand for Samantha. It’s been great.
RRB: I talked with Samantha not too long ago and she said you and her were in the process of building another guitar for her.
MD: We are. We are in the middle of doing a third guitar for her. Very different than the fish guitars. She wanted something different I think when she was playing with Luther she got to play some arch tops and other types of guitars that she really liked. We’re not building an arch top, but we are going to do something different than what you’re used to seeing her with, maybe a little more traditional looking, but definitely something she’ll be able to do some really great things with. It’s one thing to build a guitar for somebody, but when they come back and want you to build more guitars for them, that’s an amazing thing. We love Jeremiah [Johnson]. Jeremiah orders two at a time. It’s hard to argue with that – I just think it’s great. Of couse, when we did the first two for him, they were the same guitar with different finishes and different pick-ups but they were basically the same guitar. It’s oue Big Sky model. We put Jeremiah’s brand on the head stocks and did a few other things to make sure he was comfortable playing them. The second two, which were just delivered yesterday, one of them is our wedge model and one of them is very strat-like. He played a gig with Mike Zito earlier in the summer and Mike had his Delaney S-Style, which is very similar to a strat, and Jeremiah called me right after that and said, “Man, I gotta have one of those” which is great. Now he has one. And Zito, I don’t even know how many of our guitars he has, he has a lot of them.
RRB: Well, you know what else Jeremiah told me yesterday? He said that these two new guitars are completely different instruments, but what they did have in common is they both have exactly the same necks. He said, where else can you get that? I can’t go to Gibson or Fender and get the same necks on two different guitars. That’s one of the things you can do for people that I think they really appreciate.
MD: Well, you know every guitar player’s hand is a different size, so some people like a skinny nexk, like a strat, and others don’t. Mike Zito is a great example of that, the necks on his guitars are huge, like a baseball bat, but that’s what he loves to play. So we make sure we do every guitar for Mike with that neck on it. It makes it personal. It makes it their own. The idea is that we want to make a guitar where they aren’t going to want to play any other guitars. We don’t have contracts with anybody, unlike a lot of the big guys used to do. It’s on us to build a guitar they are going to want to play. If I can do that, I don’t have to worry about it – They’re going to play it. It’s one of those things, if I do it right, I don’t have to worry about contracts, they just want to play the guitar. Id I don’t do it right, I should be doing something else.
RRB: And you get the satisfaction of knowing it was their choice and not a mandate.
MD: Right. When I talked to Anders [Osborne], he said, “You know, I play a lot of guitars.” I said that I knew that and I’m not expecting anything, but if you like the guitar I hope you play it. And he said, “If you get me the guitar by this date, it’s going on tour with me.” He’d never played one of my guitars before. We got that guitar to him two days before he left to go on the tour he’s on now, and he took that guitar and is playing it every night on stage.