The Chicago School of Guitar Making at Specimen Products
Using skills he’s happy to teach you and your kid, Ian Schneller builds a “Sonic Arboretum” for the MCA.
As a kid growing up in Memphis, Ian Schneller loved hanging out with his grandfather, a master auto mechanic who “thought everything had to be engineered, up to and including how he kept squirrels out of his pecan tree. His shop off the garage, with all of his tools, was a real haven for me.”
Schneller created his own tinkerer’s wonderland in Chicago in 2000. During our recent visit to Specimen Products in Humboldt Park, guitars in various states of completion lie on custom-built work tables. An eight-sided, corkscrewed horn shape, framed in wood and about four feet long, hangs from the ceiling, spinning as a fan blows. This is where musical instruments are lovingly created and repaired, and where teens and grown-ups learn to build their own in classes. (Middle schoolers are welcome, too, with an adult. For details, visit specimenproducts.com.)
In neat rows in an adjacent room sit dozens more horns in three sizes: hornlets, hornlings and leader horns. By December 6, they’ll be dispersed throughout the Museum of Contemporary Art’s lobby and central atrium, playing music by Andrew Bird composed specifically for the “Sonic Arboretum.” “It’s not mono, it’s not stereo, it’s not quadraphonic,” Schneller explains. “It’s 48 tracks and upwards of 72 horns,” a symphony orchestra that little ones can roam, using their ears to hunt down which horns create which sounds.
Schneller’s eight-year-old daughter “has been privy to a lot of the R&D,” he says, including the mingling of unusual materials to build the horns: recycled newsprint and dryer lint, “impregnated” with natural dyes and shellac. She helps out with the speakers’ mechanicals as well.
“She’s been drawing tube-amplifier schematics right alongside me for just about her entire life,” says the soft-spoken artisan—and he starts beaming. “There probably aren’t many children in Chicago who can identify resistors, capacitors, diodes and various types of switches.”
Holding up his black iPhone and calling it “black magic,” he explains that his students “come in not knowing what end of a soldering iron to pick up, and leave with the most amazing hi-fi they’ve ever heard.… There was a time when your average 11-year-old knew how to make a radio out of a Quaker Oats can. My school is really just a matter of trying to get the message out, and the Arboretum embodies that to some level. Technology is accessible.”