The Making of Music

In Features, Non-fiction on March 5, 2015 at 7:57 pm

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By Alex Ashley

The story begins in a small town called Susanville, California, two hours due east of Redding.

The year was 1968.

Gene Cole, a California man who had grown tired of the doldrums and stagnation of the day to day, decided it was time for a change.

And so, in the same year bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Deep Purple and Crosby Stills & Nash were born; in the same year The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” and Otis Redding’s “(Sitting on) the Dock of the Bay” were hit singles; in a year that was a blur of burnt orange shag carpet and “free love” counterculture set to a Beatles album…

Cole Music Company was born.

I couple of years pass, and the Cole family heads 260 miles south to Sonora; Gene brings Cole Music Company with him.

Four years later, and Gene sells Cole Music Company, and the Coles head North to Colorado Springs.  There, he and a friend start The Old Folklore Center, which is still alive and well today, under the name Tejon Street Music.

Sonora, California’s Cole Music Company survived until 1995, when the owner closed up shop to work for the Sacramento Bee.

But as the 1970s began to wind down, the Coles made one last move.

Due West to the Lilac City

“My mom wanted to go to nursing school, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities in Colorado at that point,” says Gene’s son, Eben, who owns and operates a quaint, vintage guitar shop in Spokane’s Garland District.

So the Coles moved to Spokane, Washington — the Lilac City.

As the years passed, and Eben’s future — at this point, no more than an amorphous mass of abstract possibilities — began to sort itself out, he recalls proddings from his father.

“He used to say ‘Don’t you want to work on violins like your old man?’ and I’d say ‘No, I want to do something cool,’” Eben laughs.

Eben found himself in school, yet unable to find a program at Eastern Washington University that he felt good about, that beckoned his commitment.

“At that point,” he says, “I was working part-time at a music store, and I enjoyed that.  So I thought ‘maybe I should just do this.’”

He found a vacant retail spot on Spokane’s Garland street, and for the first time since 1995, in August of 2006 during the Garland Street Fair, Cole Music Company opened its doors.

Tools of the trade

For musicians, Cole Music Company is Spokane’s inner sanctum of vintage instruments.  For the collector, or even an everyday player looking for a quality tool of the trade, Eben’s operation is a vintage, tweed-covered oasis that smells of old wood and hot vacuum tubes — its walls lined with one rare or oddball instrument after the other.

“I feel very fortunate to have the calibre of instruments that have passed through this store,” Eben says.  “A lot of rare and highly collectible guitars or other instruments have hung on these walls.”

At one point, he says, an all-original 1952 Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul of the same year, found their home at Cole Music Company.  Instruments, he says, that most guys live entire lives without ever seeing or touching in person.

Guitars like those can fetch upwards of $30,000.

“It’s a piece of history you’re holding,” Eben says.  “You look at a guitar like that, and you know there’s a heck of a story there.  It’s sort of a visceral experience.”

Over the years, Eben has seen some interesting things — not just neat instruments, but things people have done to an instrument to make them different, better.

It’s inspired him to make his own guitars.

“In the violin world,” he says, “you have to be so tradition.  The same is true in many ways with acoustic guitars.  But with electric guitars, you can be more adventurous.  You have a wider palette to work with.”

The past six to nine months, he says, has been devoted to the design and prototyping process of what he is confident will be a quality line of new guitars that allow traditionalism and innovation to work in tandem.

The example he gives is of a Telecaster, originally produced by Leo Fender in the 1950s — one of guitar history’s most revolutionary instruments.

“If I ever lived in a world, God forbid, where there was only one guitar, that would be it,” Eben laughs.

But what do you change or modify on what many consider to be the perfect guitar?

“A lot of players never use their neck pickup,” he says.  I chambered out the wood underneath that top pickup, and I overlay it with a spruce top.  That gives the top pickup a fat, woody sound similar to a Gibson, like an ES-125T, that can be blended with the Tele’s traditional bridge pickup tone.”

With a simple modification, Eben boosted the tonal power of a simple instrument.

Eben says he’s trying to break players of bad habits by creating guitars that give them options.

“A lot of guys you see play have a beautiful guitar, but they use one pickup.  Then they have an array of pedals in front of them.  They’re searching for a tone by using effects pedals, when they already have the tone they want right in their hands, right in the guitar itself.  They just don’t always know how to find it.”

Guitars are expressive instruments.  He wants his to be intuitive.

“All my guitars are familiar,” he says.  “You know the genesis of them, but they’re still unique.”

ColeCraft, Eben’s fledgling new company (a website is soon to come), operates on some core principles and philosophies that make it unique.  For example, Cole wants to use only USA sourced woods.

“The wood business is a shady business,” he says.  “You don’t know if a company had to burn down a village to get that mahogany, or clear cut a forest to get that rosewood.  And there are a lot of woods indigenous to North America , FSC certified, that many haven’t even heard of, because major companies don’t use them. Yet, they make great instruments.”

Eben’s rule on that is “Environmentally sound.  Conscientiously sourced.”

He has also tapped into the local market when it comes to the parts that make his guitars work.  The more local stuff he can get, he says, the better.

“Basically every component that goes into these guitars,” Eben says, “I’ve put a lot of thought into them.

It’s all mapped out in his mind.

Although Cole is excited to produce these unique guitars (he says a few prototypes have already been built), he says he’s not stopping there.  He wants to develop ColeCraft into a nationally recognized brand based on the quality of the instruments.  He is confident his model is scalable without taking on extra debt.

He’ll stay local for now, allowing the quality of the guitars he produces to speak for themselves.

A top of the line guitar, such as the chamber-bodied electric guitars he is so passionate about, will be in the $2,200 range.

“Other guitars in this price range are made by a CNC machine.  These guitars, each one, will be hand-built by me,” Eben says.  “Every piece of wood on these guitars will be done by hand.”

In the meantime, he wants to make sure he’s providing his customers with plenty to keep them busy, and interested.
He has designs for accessories – not just T-shirts and ball caps, but proprietary truss rods, guitar bridge saddles, unique effects pedal designs and something as simple as vintage-style coil guitar cords that were popular in the 60s and 70s, but fell out of fashion of late.

Eben says ColeCraft is expected to go into full production in March.

By the time the Garland Street Fair rolls around again, Eben expects to have his entire shop modeled around ColeCraft with a small line of guitars and accessories ready for purchase.

“It’s about the music”

Still, aside from Eben Cole’s innovative line of instruments, an important part of his operation is the impact it is hoped to have on the community.

Spokane is a strange ecosystem for creative people, but Cole is blazing the trail for an artistic community that is, as some would say, on life support.

“This city used to be alive,” Eben says.  “There used to be quite a music scene.”

Cole observes that a lot of major bands skip over Spokane these days; they head for Seattle and then down to Portland.

“Even Sandpoint, Idaho gets better touring acts,” he says. “At some point, word got out and we’re not really even on the circuit anymore.”

He says he’s felt it too as a business owner.
“My best compliments always come from people out of town,” he continues.  “Someone will stroll in and they’ll see the guitars hanging on the wall, really unique stuff, and they’ll say ‘we don’t have anything like this where I come from.’”

Cole says 90 percent of the guitars he sells leave town; the majority of his serious buyers don’t even live in Washington.

He stops himself for a minute, weighing his words carefully.
“Look,” he says, “ I don’t mean to be negative, but anymore it’s like places in town think they’re doing musicians a favor by letting them play in their establishment, and that’s so the opposite.  That’s not the way it used to be.  Guys here in Spokane used to support their families as full-time musicians, and they did quite well at it.  At least in this town, those days are gone.”

As we speak over the phone, I laugh at the amount of times I’ve entered Eben’s shop on a hot summer day, or to pass the time on a dull, winter day.

“Maybe one day I’ll actually buy something,” I chuckle.

He laughs.

“But that’s the thing,” he replies, “it’s not about the money.  It’s about the music.  It’s about exchanging ideas.  It’s about being open minded, adventurous and creative.”

The framework is there for Inland Northwest to once again thrive artistically.

Eben Cole is doing his part to make that happen.

This piece was written for Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living magazine, March 2015:

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