Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Ron DeMarino: Personal Luthier to John Lennon




In my attempts to get this site back to how I used to do things, I will try again to share reprints of old articles on Tuesdays.   I don’t know of often I will be able to do this because it is time-consuming to find an interesting article in my files that I haven’t shared before and to type the entire thing.   I am taking graduate-level classes to further my education, so I don’t have much extra time after work to accomplish this goal, but I will try.

 

Today I have an article from the Summer of 1987 issue of the GoodDay Sunshine fanzine.  

 

Ron DeMarino:  Personal Luthier to John Lennon

By Paul C. Cuccinello

GoodDay Sunshine  Summer 1987

 

Back in 1976, an article appeared in the magazine International Musicians and Recording World written by a gentleman named Ron DeMarino.  The reason this article was so memorable was because Ron, a guitar technician, had written about his experience in refinishing and repairing John Lennon’s first Rickenbacker guitar.  As a musician, guitar collector, and avid Beatles fan since 1964, anything involving the Beatles’ musical instruments has always intrigued me (as I’m sure it does many of you).  So, after all these years, it was a pleasant surprise to see an ad in a New York City music trade paper advertising the services of professional luthier Ron DeMarino.  I contacted Ron and went to visit him at his showroom in Copiague, Long Island.  What follows I the fascinating story of this man and his notable past.

 

Since 1965, Ron DeMarino has held a position in the music business that many of us could only dream about:  being a musical instrument consultant and guitar technician to rock and roll’s biggest stars, including John Lennon.

Starting out as a guitarist, Ron played with the famous Lester Lanin Orchestra for over fifteen years.  In fact, Ron has played at every presidential inaugural ball since John F. Kennedy.  During the mid-60s, Ron turned his talents to guitar repair and collecting musical instruments.  Ron was one of those individuals to have the foresight to begin collecting early Fender Strats and Gibson Les Pauls long before they would become today’s most valued vintage guitars.  It was his expertise in vintage guitars and amps that eventually led to his meeting John Lennon.

As a repairman and technician, Ron’s reputation for quality workmanship spread quickly to New York studio scene in the sixties and seventies.  Working out of a small shop in Long Island, Ron and his assistants would travel into Manhattan to meet with musicians in some of the city’s hottest recording studios.  There, he would discuss special modifications or repairs needed for various guitars, basses, and amplifiers.  This “networking” exposed Ron to musicians who were also interested in acquiring vintage guitars and amps.

Over the years, Ron worked with such rock stars as Jeff Beck, Steven Sills, Alice Cooper, and someone not known for his guitar playing – Stevie Wonder.  Stevie’s guitar was a 1965 Guild Starfire III- cherry red – which Ron refretted because, at times, arrangements for guitar repairs were handled by the star’s road managers or personal assistants.   However, the high point of Ron DeMarino’s career, no doubt, was when he became John Lennon’s personal guitar technician and consultant, a relationship that continued through most of the 70s. 

Ron’s long and intimate relationship with John began in 1971.  It was one of those “being at the right place at the right time” situations that eventually started the “beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  The scene took place at Manny’s Musical Instruments on West 48th Street in Manhattan.  John’s road manager, a fellow by the name of Claude, walked into the store and asked a salesman if they had any of Fender “tweed twin” amps.  Manny never really specialized in vintage or, at that time, “old” equipment and was not in a position to help.  Overhearing the conversation was Fred Smith, one of Ron’s assistants, who quickly turned to Claude and said that he worked for someone who had exactly what he was looking for!  At this point, Ron’s assistant Fred (who later became the bass player for the group Television) was unaware of who Claude was and why he wanted this particular amp.  The two exchanged phone numbers and departed.  A few days later, Ron received a call from Claude inquiring about the amps.  Ron’s response was that although Fender “tweed twins” were very rare, he did have six to select from, as well as dozens of other vintage amps.  “Do you need a 2-power tube tweed or a 4-power tube tweed?” is what Ron asked him.  Initially, Claude was a bit confused with the question but suggested a meeting take place.  Claude then added that he worked for John Lennon and that the amps were for John personally.  Ron was somewhat suspect about this revelation but was certainly proven wrong when only a few days later, Claude called again and asked if Ron wouldn’t mind coming to Manhattan to meet with John.

From that point on, Ron became John’s personal guitar tech and consultant.  He accompanied John from his Bank Street apartment in Greenwich Village to Butterfly Rehearsal Studio on West 10th Street; to the recording studio, the Record Plant.  Ron was also on stage overseeing John’s guitars at the One-to-One concert in 1972.  In fact, part of Ron’s memorabilia collection included the yellow hardhats and tambourines used by John and Yoko and the band.

Ron indicated that while John was very knowledgeable on the subject of guitars, he often called Ron in to evaluate the quality and integrity of a guitar John was interested in buying.  It seems there was always someone looking to sell something to John, and sometimes the guitars for sale were either deliberately or otherwise misrepresented.  On one occasion, John was rehearsing at Butterfly Studios when someone brought him a ’59 cherry-burst Les Paul to buy.  Ron was called in and instantly tagged the instrument as a clever but complete forgery.

Apart from his Beatles’ guitars, John’s collection was extensive.  It included a number of Martin acoustic guitars, a double-neck lap steel guitar, a true ’59 cherry sunburst Les Paul (sold to him by Ron), a Les Paul Custom Black Beauty with Alcino bar magnet pickups, plus, quite possibly his own favorite, a ’56 Les Paul Junior with a Charlie Christian pickup in the neck position which was installed by Ron.

Those of you who’ve admired John’s blond Epiphone Casino, as played in “Let it Be” should know that this guitar was originally sunburst in color as seen in the Tokyo concert film/Sgt. Pepper period.  The so-called “blond” Casino came about through John’s removing the sunburst finish and sanding the surface of the guitar down to the bare wood.  No lacquer, sealer, or tint was ever used to achieve the natural or “blond” effect.  Oftentimes, a customer would come to Ron looking for a blond Casino “just like John Lennon played,” but as Ron tells them, the guitar existed only through John’s handwork.   It’s possible that John’s decision to sand off the original finish was because he was bored with the spray-paint job he did to the back and neck of the instrument during the Sgt. Pepper period.

 

Ron’s next assignment was to have been extensive work on the Epiphone, including a proper refinishing.  Unfortunately, this never came to pass.

The most notable story Ron recounted was the work he did on John’s original Rickenbacker 325 with Bigsby vibrato.  Apparently, John wanted to very much begin using his beloved Rickenbacker once again, but the guitar had badly deteriorated over the years.  Ron was asked to breathe new life into it Ron’s analysis of the instrument was that the internal wiring had been badly tampered with, the gold pickguard was cracked and needed replacement, the Grover tuning machines needed to be replaced, and the black finish was chipped and faded.  Unknown to Ron was that this guitar was originally natural in color but painted black sometime after John’s first few trips to Hamburg.  Ron later was to comment that the black finish was certainly not a factory job.  Anyway, John asked Ron to refinish the guitar to a more natural color, but Ron, believing black was, in fact, the original color, recommended john stay with black to be historically correct.  Ron’s assumption here was understandable.  Most Beatles fans associate John with the black Rickenbacker as far back as the Ed Sullivan Show.  Strangely, John never disclosed to Ron that his Rickenbacker was originally black, as Ron surmised.  So Ron finally acquiesced and created a finish he described as honey brown.  John absolutely loved it! A new gold pickguard was actually made by Ron in his shop, a perfect copy including an almost perfect color to match.  John Hall, president of Rickenbacker Guitars, provided Ron with original pickup wiring diagrams, and tunes were released with an exact replacement set (Grover #98).  Ron used Fender 150 Regular gauge strings (.10-.38) in setting up the guitar.  When John first got hold of the guitar, John had a mixed set of round wound and flatwood strings on it.  Ron couldn’t recall what brand it was, and anyway, it probably wasn’t a standard set.  It is quite possible that John would, at some point, change to a heavier gauge string than the Fender 150s (since they tend to be a little too light for rhythm playing on a shorter scale neck, as the Rick 325 had).  It had been my contention that John used flatwood strings on his Rickenbacker in the early days of The Beatles.  Anyone out there have evidence to support me on this?

 

In an appreciation of a job well done, John gave Ron the original gold pickguard and the set of open-back Grover tuning keys that Ron had replaced.  Viewing these two pieces of Lennon/Beatle history is a true thrill.

I asked Ron his opinion of Rickenbacker’s new 325 V59 and 325 V63 reissues of the immortal Lennon guitars, and he indicated that while materials used on the originals were better, the overall workmanship on these guitars is quite good.

John Lennon’s relationship with Ron DeMarino went beyond guitars and amps.  Ron and his lovely wife Joann shared many personal moments with John and Yoko at home, in the studios, and over dinner.  Both Ron and Joann describe Yoko as a very warm and beautiful woman.  Conversations among the couples often centered around life in general, and Ron recalls a 3-hour conversation Joann had with John regarding John’s love for children.  Obviously, a strong business and personal bond existed between these two men.

 

 

 

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting indeed. There is a small error in the transcription: "flatwood" (strings) it was actually "flatwound"

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