North American Guitars were first conceived as an alternative to “factory” or “production” instruments, by craftsmen and musicians who were, in some way, involved in, or fans of, the Fender movement. One of the most influential was R.S. Armstrong, a friend of Leo Fender, who had some fantastic ideas on pickup electronics of a unique nature. Ron later co-founded Sierra Guitars of California, with expert luthier, Michael Tobias. Another was Jerry Davis, a cabinetmaker/guitarist with a knack for innovative woodworking. Still another came from a background of fiddle and banjo makers, but was totally passionate about electric guitars. One of the first instruments crafted by one of the founders was carved at a military wood shop in Millington Tennessee in 1961. The company had not even been organized yet and was just a “good idea to work on”, as one of the guys put it. When asked why he wanted to build guitars, Jonathan reportedly said, “Well . . . You can only build so many model boats and airplanes, before you get bored. So, if you play guitar, and have access to a wood shop, why not build your own?’
When the company was first, officially organized, they called it “The Guitar Shop” . . . Then, since there were other “Guitar Shops” around, they added “American”, and became “ The American Guitar Shop”. (Famed bass luthier, Michael Tobias, later on had a shop in Florida that he named, “The Guitar Shop”.)
The first prototypes were single cut-away, solid cherrywood, blues guitars and were called “American Eagle” Series. The very first successful instrument of this style was nicknamed “Big Bossman” and was made for the late, great, Jimmy Reed.
Off To The Races
Summer of 1966, the operation was moved to a re-fitted “race car barn” in Imperial Missouri and guitars made there actually incorporated some minor elements of race car parts and hardware, obtained from a company called “Top Performance”. These limited production guitars – called “Hot Rod Performance Models” – were started in about 1968 or 1969 and were made for about 4 or 5 years, changing when the supply of surplus racecar hardware ran out. The “Eagle” portion of the brand was dropped to avoid a lawsuit which would have been necessary to contest the right to use it. The brand then became simply “American Instrument Company”.
The next generation utilized some variations of a motorcycle theme, with custom made parts and were sold by the ABC Choppers chain, in St. Louis, Missouri, and a few independent music stores. Most of these guitars were in shapes, styles, and colors that appealed to hard rocking bikers and the musicians that followed them. Production of these “Chopper” models stopped in about the middle of 1976 and were never made again.
The more conventional and best quality to that point were guitars that the company built after moving, once again, about 1978, to San Francisco, California. Association with people from Alymbic Guitars, Stars Guitars, Guitar Player Magazine, The Grateful Dead, and other factions from that area and time period had a strong effect on the direction of the company. Even greater emphasis on quality and detail became the focus for every instrument. Fewer repairs and restorations were done during this period.
Way Out West
The guitars made in California had various shapes and styles but were all hand made to order. No standard model production was ever done in the California shop. Michael Tobias and Ron Armstrong had teamed up to create Sierra Guitars of California and the magnificent mastery of wood selection and joinery expertise that Tobias had perfected was a very strong influence on us, as we observed him working his magic for his and Armstrong’s company. Our guys had never seen such expertise in joining and shaping wood and we were determined to learn to achieve that high degree of quality. It didn’t come easy and nearly 5 years was spent trying to simply become more efficient and precise at wood selection and joinery.
On The Road Again
In mid 1983, the operation was closed, packed up, and moved to Clearwater, Florida where the entire operation remained in storage until about the spring of 1992. It was during this down time that we practiced the art of wood selection and joinery, prior to re-opening the guitar shop. The shop was re-opened as North American Instrument Company and remains to this day, but relocated to St. Petersburg, Florida. The website reflects the type and style of the standard models but, as is the history of the company, most guitars are one-of-a-kind and are built to order. It normally takes from 6 to 8 months for the top-end, hand-made, American Legend Series, and the cost runs from about $5800.00 U.S. to just over $8,000.00 U.S., depending upon design and the customer’s choices of everything that goes into making a unique instrument. Standard models are less expensive and run from about $2850.00 U.S. to $5,700.00 U.S., again, depending upon model and customer choices.
Prominence in The Press
North American Guitars are proudly listed in The Blue Book of Electric Guitars, published out of Minneapolis Minnesota. This publishing company has many years of experience, having produced the Blue Book of Guns for a very long time. In the mid to late nineties, they began publishing the guitar books, which many refer to as “The industry Bible”. They offer large, soft cover books as well as a superb online subscription research and reference service.