Sadie isn’t bothered by the noise. Maybe her ears are just used to it. Walk in the door to DiPinto’s Guitars on Girard Avenue in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood and the friendly dog will come greet you before your own ears have even had a chance to fully process the guitar strumming Sadie seems to tune out in favor of the sound of the front door bell.
In a cramped back office where the first guitar Chris DiPinto ever built back in the ‘80s still hangs on the wall, alongside framed advertisements his wife Sophy made for later iterations of DiPinto gits, Chris eventually gets Sadie to lay down and nap right through the guitar notes. He suggests closing the door to deaden the noise but admits it might not do much. (It doesn’t.) Long-haired and laid-back, Chris seems more seasoned rocker than seasoned instrument crafter. As it so happens, he’s both.
His band, Creem Circus, opens for both local and classic rock acts. They seem as likely to pop off the stage as DiPinto’s first made-from-scratch guitar—slapped together with odds and ends from Home Depot and Radio Shack along with oak floorboards leftover from a flooring project of his dad’s—is to pop off the wall.
“It’s like, I make wild-looking retro guitars, and this is a wild-looking retro band,” he says of Creem Circus. “It’s in the style of David Bowie or T-Rex. Big floppy shoes and bug-eyed glasses. It’s crazy.”
Indeed, in music videos, the band looks like ‘80s glam rockers fronted by a guy who frequents Elton John’s eyewear merchant of choice. But don’t let the novelty sunglasses, platform shoes or feather boas fool you; Creem Circus isn’t all about goofing off. It’s actually only partly about that.
“It rides the line of being not too serious but very serious music too,” explains DiPinto. I went to Temple as a performance major. A lot of people who graduated from music college are very serious musicians, so I am a very serious musician, but it’s also a fun joke too. I think that’s why people really like it. Too much of a joke can be stupid, but also too stiff is no good.”
Coming off as too silly used to be a problem for DiPinto, but not for his band. He confused potential customers when he first started selling guitars he wanted to look cartoonish, “like toys.” Most guitarists got one look at his early models and thought they were pieces of junk hobbled together on a lark.
Even before then, when DiPinto was still learning how to build a proper guitar in the ‘80s, he bewildered more seasoned independent makers around the city when he’d wander from shop to shop asking them to sell him fret wires. Suspecting him of wanting to bring them to their competitors they assumed he’d commissioned to build him a guitar, most turned him away at first. He eventually won them over when they realized this young kid was trying to learn the art of guitar making himself. Little did they know at the time that he’d end up becoming their competition and outlast most of them.
“Those shops are almost all gone,” DiPinto says of Philly’s independent guitar shops. “People can’t believe there’s one here. I hope they’re excited to help keep [me] alive when they come in.”
But while the shops were more plentiful back in the ‘80s, the type of guitar DiPinto needed wasn’t. The blame for that appears shared between manufacturers, stores, DiPinto’s uncle and even human genetics. “I’m left-handed, and my uncle gave me my first guitar,” explains DiPinto, “and he flipped it.”
It’s estimated that only about 10 percent of the world’s population is born left-handed. Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Tony Iommi are perhaps the rock world’s most famous southpaw guitarists. There’s another group of famous lefties who play guitar, however, but this group doesn’t play the guitar left-handed. If that seems counterintuitive, go back to DiPinto’s statement about his uncle flipping a right-handed guitar for him. The overwhelming majority of guitars are made for righties, so left-handed rock stars like Billy Corgan, Duane Allman and Noel Gallagher went with what was available and played right-handed.
“Technically, if you’re left-handed you should play a guitar left-handed,” says DiPinto. “But the guitar’s not made that way, so you just play it how it’s made until someone actually flips it for you, they change the strings.
“So, that’s what somebody did for me. They flipped the strings. But that put me in a world of limited choices. Very few left-handed guitars out there. It’s like one percent or something. You walk into a guitar store, and there’s like nothing for you, maybe like one in the back. So I spent my whole life looking for left-handed guitars, and I realized I’d have to start making things if I wanted what I wanted.”
Given that he’s now been selling guitars for about 22 years, DiPinto’s exaggerating a bit by describing his failed quest for the type of left-handed guitars he wanted as having lasted a lifetime. Still, about a decade passed between his uncle’s fateful flip and when DiPinto started making guitars for people other than himself around 1992.
He was in a different band then, and people started asking him after shows where he got his distinctive guitars, and, upon learning he had made them himself, if he’d make more for them. Guitars were back in vogue in a big way in those days, and one of those famous lefties was the man most responsible for it.
While DiPinto credits Paul McCartney and the Beatles as creating the first big guitar boom in the ‘60s, it was Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana that created a renaissance for the instrument in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Ironically, the late Cobain once famously riffed on “Beatlemania” by describing his own band’s explosive popularity as “Nirvanamania.” Perhaps even more ironically, the band effectively banished the type of rock produced by guitar heroes of DiPinto’s youth like Eddie Van Halen with 1991’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But just as the limitation of having his first guitar flipped unexpectedly set him up for guitar making, so, too, did grunge flipping rock itself set DiPinto up for guitar selling.
But that first guitar people saw him playing on stage wasn’t quite production quality. DiPinto lacked the confidence to make a good neck, which he says is the most challenging part of the instrument to craft. Inspired by the idea of making a living selling guitars, however, he kept at it.
“If you can play it on stage and people like it, you’re pretty good, but it’d be tough to sell that to somebody,” he says of that first model hanging on his office wall, “because it’s not up to snuff. But that’s the thing, you have to make more than one. You have to make five guitars. People make guitars and they think it has to be perfect the first time, and they take too long. They wind up sitting there and it never happens. Make one. Make another one. Make another one. If you like making guitars, which I do, it’s no problem.”
DiPinto loves making guitars, but he’s not the only one. Fender and Gibson love doing that too. Or, at least, they love selling guitars. DiPinto describes even trying to sell the exponentially fewer guitars than the big brands do to stay in business as “extremely difficult.” But even that might be selling it short. He goes so far as to call it “the hardest thing.”
Luckily, DiPinto Guitars got the breakout moment it needed in just its first year. DiPinto went to a trade show for the National Association of Music Merchandisers, or NAMM, “just for the experience.” It turned into quite the experience, all right.
“Guitar Player Magazine takes a picture of my guitar and puts it into the issue. They have five guitars that year in their NAMM show issue, and mine’s one of them. I’m like, ‘Whoa, there are thousands of guitars there, a lot of them didn’t get in.’ Mine just made such a splash because they were so different. It’s making guitars that look like they were made in 1965, but they worked like a new guitar. No one was doing that. It turned a lot of heads.”
In the years since, DiPinto has had to supplement his income from making and selling his own guitars with doing repairs, selling vintage instruments and even renting out the four apartments of his shop after relocating to Fishtown from his original Old City location. Oh and then there’s Creem Circus gigs too. Going all-in on making guitars means that DiPinto can’t be an internationally touring rock star like those that inspired him to pick up that flipped guitar in his youth. He sounds unsure himself if he regrets that missed opportunity.
Despite wistful thinking, DiPinto doesn’t fully believe the life of a full-time rock star would have been better than that of a guitar maker.
“I get to work with the bands that are on tour, and I get to see the flip side where they’re not making money,” he says with a note of sympathy. “Now they’re selling all their instruments because they have to pay back the record label. That could be me. That’s a horrible spot to be in.”
As it stands, DiPinto is unable to pick out one aspect of his career that’s more rewarding than any other. “It’s all great,” he says of playing on stage, making and selling guitars and seeing local kids and big rock stars alike using his instruments. So, maybe he made the right decision. After all, there’s no telling if Sadie would have made peace with non-stop touring the way she has with guitar demos.
Photos by Jamie Dunek
Creem Circus photo by Ben Wong