There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Jay Montrose’s shop is a small affair, plastered with pictures of hot rods, guitar advertisements, and Danny Gatton memorabilia. Amplifiers and speaker cabinets seem to occupy every nook and cranny of the narrow room. On a workbench waits the first patient of the day, a Gibson hollow-body guitar.
Montrose is the proprietor and sole employee of Vintique, a custom guitar-part business that he operates out of Berwyn Heights, Md. Son of jazz saxophonist J.R. Montrose, who played with Teddy Charles, Charles Mingus, and others, Montrose picked up the guitar at age 14. Yet he didn’t initially choose a career as a musician. Instead, he worked in welding and metal-fabrication shops, where his avid interest in cars brought him into contact with another local guitarist.
“I guess Danny [Gatton] and I officially met in 1977,” Montrose recalls. “We didn’t talk about guitars and music—all we could talk about was cars.” As the two modified hot rods, they also constructed parts for the Telecaster, a guitar they both favored.
In 1984, Montrose established a welding shop in Waldorf, Md., and hired Gatton. “He couldn’t get a gig at the time,” Montrose explains. “Nobody seemed to care about his career, we both needed a regular job, so we went to work every day and beat metal stuff.” Their early work was diverse: “Aerospace and defense, early V-8 Fords, dresser handles, anything in the neighborhood that needed welding,” Montrose remembers, “ “Will weld for cash.’ ” As Montrose’s business took off, so did Gatton’s career, and he soon retired his blowtorch in favor of a six-string.
A family accident in 1988 forced Montrose to close his welding business and relocate to Florida. In the four years following the move, he repaired guitars and amps on the side—until he received a phone call from Gatton, who had just been signed by Elektra. Montrose recalls, “Gatton called me up and said, “You know, when I didn’t have a job, couldn’t make a dime and bring groceries home for my family, you hired me and we built cars. Now I’m paying you back—I need you as a guitar tech to come on the road with me as my right-hand man.’ ” Montrose accepted Gatton’s offer, returned to Maryland and ultimately founded Vintique.
It is here that Montrose hand-fabricates a particular piece of guitar hardware: a stainless-steel bridge for the Telecaster that he says took over 15 years to research and develop. To make a generic bridge-plate, machines stamp the steel, plate the part, and package the result—a process that takes 10 minutes at most. Jay estimates that his process takes “over 50 times longer.” The parts are stamped at a local machine shop, and the real labor begins at Vintique, where each item is hand-welded, sanded, polished, and assembled.
Gatton had long contemplated constructing guitar bridge plates—and other, traditionally steel-guitar parts—from stainless steel. Steel is prone to rusting and pitting, while stainless resists corrosion and retains its luster. “It was a lot of experimenting, but we wanted to have the best stuff on our guitars,” says Montrose, “We knew there was a better way to do some of this stuff and perfect it.” Gatton also devised a way to alter the angle of the Telecaster’s bridge saddles so that each string is in true tune. In combining the stainless bridge and the angled saddle design, the duo accomplished what many had considered an impossible task.
In 1990, Gatton’s legendary virtuosity inspired Fender to produce a Gatton-model Telecaster through its California-based custom shop. According to John Grunder of the Fender Custom Shop, “Gatton had specific criteria that Fender had to include before he would endorse the guitar.” These include inclusion of the stainless bridge with angled saddles, special knurled knobs, bodies made from swamp ash, a vintage neck shape, pickups made by local craftsman Joe Barden, and cubic zirconium position markers. Although Fender and Gatton reached an agreement on the signature model, Fender chose not to include the bridge and knobs made by Montrose, preferring to manufacture its own copies of his work.
Such is the lot of the independent craftsman. (Montrose’s components can be used as Gatton-model replacement parts, but since only 250 of the guitars have been produced, it’s an extremely limited market.) In addition to crafting custom parts, Montrose occasionally builds guitars. He has most of the specialty hardware in stock, and plans to begin milling his own bodies and necks. As a former welder, he feels he has an advantage: “Nobody wants to get in the hardware side of it—all these guitars and instrument builders are wood guys,” he says. “I just happen to be a metallurgical expert.”
Given Montrose’s labor-intensive product, the inevitable question arises—does he expect to turn a profit? He explains that it’s a labor of love. “I’m never going to make money doing what I’m doing because there are not enough people who care,” he explains. “But the people who do gotta have this stuff.”