Ian Schneller made his first guitar about eight years ago in a logical pairing of his abilities as a sculptor and a musician. He had come to Chicago from Memphis to attend graduate school at the Art Institute, and was a founding member of the band Shrimp Boat. He now fronts the group Falstaff.
After graduate school, Schneller showed his sculptures--playful constructions of rockets, optical toys, and clocks--at art galleries. "The way I was building things seemed to overly camouflage what the objects were about to the people who were looking at them," he recalls. "As actual crafting of objects fell out of favor in light of the postmodern art movement, it just seemed like an unwanted presence, so I dropped out."
He focused on building guitars, and found musicians to be more appreciative of his work. "For the first time in my career, there seemed to be an actual need for what I was doing," he says. "Instead of me imposing my own creations on an audience or a clientele, people were asking for guitars, which was a totally new experience for me." He worked out of Shrimp Boat's loft on the south side until he opened Specimen Products on West Madison three years ago. Later he moved the store to Division Street.
Over the years Schneller has made some 60 instruments. Most are guitars, many are fretless, and all have a uniqueness and visual charisma absent in mass-produced instruments. "All but several" are in the hands of other musicians, who have found Specimen Products by word of mouth. Schneller, who is a self-taught craftsman, says the first few instruments were "a shooting match" as he learned his technique.
"There's still a tremendous amount of room for creativity and innovation," he says, noting that he rarely makes the same guitar twice even though he has to follow the standard guidelines. "That's what seemed to be lacking in the art world. There were no staples, there was no classic repertoire. As undisciplined as I am, I think I was yearning for some sense of discipline."
He spends between two and six months on each guitar "unless someone is in a terrible hurry." They start at $1,000. Schneller has also created cellos, violins, churangos (made from an armadillo carcass), and quatros. He says he'd like to try his hand at "all the instruments that no one has ever seen before--including me."
Schneller, who lives with two cats in a "grimy little pad" in back of his store, says he's now ready to go beyond word-of-mouth business. The front of the store is filled with guitars, amplifiers, cords, and other music paraphernalia. He plans to stay open until midnight on weekends to accommodate working musicians who realize they're missing something during a sound check.
Schneller's holding an open house from noon to midnight Saturday with food, guitar playing, and other entertainment. His sculptures will also be on display. It's free. Specimen Products is located at 1728 W. Division. Call 489-4830 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.