Sunday, June 25, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Why Dave Bunker Is Not Singing the Blues

TUCKED AWAY inside the doggedly hip Experience Music Project is a darkened gallery that reverently explores the evolution of guitars and bass guitars. The circular display begins with an old-world European acoustic guitar and, from there, the instruments get bigger and louder, more complex and better marketed.

The necks and bodies grow. Steel strings are introduced. When electric amplification arrives in the '30s, it changes everything. Now guitar players can be loud enough to lead the band. The gallery features Dobros, Rickenbackers, Martins, Gibsons, Audiovoxes and the 1954 Fender Stratocaster, which many consider mass-produceable perfection.

The gallery collection was amassed by curator Peter Blecha, who spent four years combing flea markets, antique shows, garages and Web pages and negotiating with dealers. He looked for firsts and revelations. He bought one of the earliest electric bass guitars for a couple of bucks and spent $485,000 for an Eric Clapton guitar at a Sotheby's auction.

He also acquired several rare guitars built in the Northwest that, while innovative and weird, weren't deemed relevant enough to make it into the museum's opening last Friday. At my request, he dug deep into the EMP vault to show off some of the also-rans.

First, he pulled a 1912 acoustic harp guitar that was made in Port Townsend and must have been 3 feet long. Then he opened a case and displayed an electric guitar with a shiny, metal-plated body shaped like a Maltese cross. It was invented by a guy who also built guitars shaped like toilet seats, battle axes and swastikas.

Finally, Blecha strapped on a 1962 Duo-Lectar, a nicked-up, double-necked spruce guitar that's about the size of a kid's sled. The upper neck, for melody, has slanted frets and is twice as wide as the four-string bass neck below. You play both necks at once and instead of strumming or picking the strings, you tap them like piano keys.

The first Duo-Lectar was made in 1955 in a Puyallup garage by an earnest 21-year-old with a flat-top named Dave Bunker. He invented not only the instrument, but the style required to play both necks at once.

Bunker was convinced it was going to be the next thing. In 1960, he demonstrated it on the national TV program "Jubilee U.S.A." and accompanied a 10-year-old Barbara Mandrell in Chicago. Electric guitar pioneer Leo Fender offered him $20,000 and 3 percent of sales for the rights to the guitar, but Bunker turned him down.

The instrument, however, proved too inventive for its own good. Bunker made and sold 50, built a few regular guitars and became a Las Vegas lounge act.

Blecha was clearly impressed with the mad-scientist thinking and creative use of spare parts that went into the Duo-Lectar. But in terms of guitar history, it hadn't made a lasting impact. Like the others he showed me, it struck him as a curiosity and a good try, but not a trendsetter.

Yet, to me, it was not only an example of musical innovation and technological know-how, which EMP seeks to embody, but the work of a stubborn Northwest free spirit. In fact, Bunker, I learned, is still working on his invention, now known as the Touch Guitar and in its seventh stage of evolution.

When I found him in his Mill Creek guitar shop, he said what he has been saying for four decades now: "I think it's going to be the next great instrument."

Over the years, Bunker collected a series of patents - for muting the strings, for a guitar without a conventional head and with tuning pegs on its body, for neck and bridge designs. He came up with ideas that others took and ran with.

He was left with underground cult status as an overlooked basement genius.

Dan Forte, who wrote a column for many years in Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines under the pseudonym of Teisco Del Rey, has kept tabs on Bunker's work. He says, as others do, that if Bunker had protected his patents he'd be wealthy, and if he knew how to market, he'd be famous.

"Dave's an oddball - and I mean that as the sincerest form of flattery," Forte said. "I've seen a lot of weird ideas, but if the music holds up on its own - and Bunker's does - it passes the test as far as I'm concerned. He saw himself not just as a builder and player, but an evangelist of a whole new way. He hasn't started a movement like he thought, but it takes a lot to be independent enough to follow your own path."

BUNKER'S GUITAR SHOP sits in the middle of a low-slung strip mall and next to an aerobics academy, which holds tap-dance workouts that send sounds of clumping happy-feet rattling through the walls.

He is tall, lean and, at 65, graying. His features have softened with age; he's no longer the dark-haired hipster who shared the stage with Merle Haggard, the Everly Brothers and led an all-female band in Las Vegas.

He sat on a stool between a glass display case and, hanging on the wall, a row of conventional and not-so-conventional guitars he builds: solid-body and hollow-body archtops, a headless guitar (with the tuners at the base of the body), one of his Pro-star models from the '70s, a custom red Les Paul look-alike.

Bunker played "St. Louis Blues" on the Touch Guitar, which still has the same fundamental design. Although sleeker than the Duo-Lectar, it is the antithesis of conventional guitars. Instead of sensuous curves, it is angular.

He played a bass rhythm with his left hand curled around the bottom neck while his right hand played melody by moving up and down the length of the top neck. He tapped the strings, occasionally letting his fingers, worn and rough from decades of woodworking, linger, slide or pull.

By flipping switches and pressing pedals, he created sounds that flitted between country steel, jazz, Hawaiian whine, rock fuzz. The instrument produced a full, clean sound and Bunker made it look effortless.

I had heard that the Touch Guitar never took off because it requires guitar players to fundamentally change their style, and Bunker has been unable to build one cheap enough for a learner.

On a standard guitar, you play with two hands working together. The fingers of one hand fret (hold down) strings on the guitar's fretboard. The fingers on the other pick, pluck or strum the strings, sounding the fretted notes.

On the Touch Guitar, only one hand is required to both fret and sound notes. A note rings out as soon as a string is fretted and stops when it is released.

Bunker plays electric guitar and electric bass on the Touch Guitar simultaneously, with technique more like a virtuoso pianist's than a conventional guitarist's.

Over the decades, he has built thousands of standard guitars, including a popular bass for Ibanez, which used his tension-free neck design. All the while, he told me, he was dreaming of how to make the Touch Guitar work.

In fact, he said, he was about to build his "21st-century" prototype with vastly improved circuitry and muting.

"I'm probably considered in the too-far-out category," he said, "but I won't compromise my ideas. I am very close. Especially with the new technology that allows me to finally make it sound the way I want. People ask me why do I want to change the guitar. I say why not? Besides, it's not a guitar. It's a Touch Guitar."

A number of people who know him and his work say Bunker is the Touch Guitar: brilliant and baffling, original and unknown.

"Ninety-nine percent of the guitar players I talk to don't know who Dave Bunker is, but every one of them should," says Larry Broido, a Pennsylvania guitar dealer. "If he would just focus on playing the thing, he'd be famous. He's that good. If he would have defended his patents, he'd be a rich man by now, but Dave's not the kind of guy who sues anybody."

Jay Wolfe, the owner of Wolfe Guitars in Florida, has sold many of Bunker's basses.

"Most guitar makers copy what those before them did, but Dave's work is always innovative and his own," Wolfe says. "He's is a real thinker and unlike many `innovations,' his work."

When I asked why Bunker wasn't famous, Wolfe laughed, "he's a builder and inventor and musician. Not a salesman."

BUNKER IS a product of his bloodlines. His great-grandfather, James, spent much of his life panning for gold. His grandfather, Elijah, owned a freighting business before settling, in 1877, a 16-mile-long valley west of Chehalis that came to be known as Bunker Creek.

Elijah was also an accomplished violin maker who showed his son, Joseph, the trade. Elijah would move from cedar to maple to spruce, rap his knuckles on the trunks and listen for the proper ring.

Joseph logged and drove trucks but also made violins, clocks, cabinets and whirligigs of all kinds. He had hip surgery when he was in his 80s and found the brace doctors had him wear too uncomfortable. He went out to the shop and made his own and wore it for the last decade of his life.

In 1949, Joseph and wife, Ella, bought a black Epiphone guitar for 14-year-old Dave, the middle of their five children. Their son became absorbed with music - especially the guitar. He took lessons and taught at an Olympia music store after graduating from Puyallup High School. While there, he bought one of the first three Fender Telecasters ever produced and one day found himself jamming with guitar pioneer Les Paul, banjo great Eddie Peabody and legendary singer Mary Ford.

In 1955, he went to see a guitarist from England named Jimmy Webster play at the University of Washington. Webster played by tapping fingers from both hands on a guitar neck, like jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan does today. Bunker was mesmerized by Webster, but having been raised by tinkerers, he wondered what it would be like to play that way on two necks at once. Seemed to him, two necks would offer freer movement and more versatile sound.

With Dad's help, he built one. They didn't have money to buy proper fret wire, so they used an old chain-saw blade. As crude as the first effort was, it shaped the rest of Bunker's life. (In fact, Bunker passed the trade onto his son, David Lawrence Bunker, who owns Treker Guitars in Utah).

Irby Mandrell, Barbara's father, heard about Bunker, visited his Puyallup garage and convinced him to change his six-string bass to a four-string. Later, Bunker appeared on stage in Chicago with Irby's daughter, Barbara, and, according to Irby, turned the heads of Chet Atkins and Joe Maphis.

"If I could do what Dave can on that thing, there wouldn't be enough money in Texas to get me to drop it," Mandrell said.

Bunker received a patent in 1961 for the double-necked tapping instrument, known as the Duo-Lectar, and a manual muting system that keeps each string quiet until it is tapped. It was an important and emulated innovation, but Bunker kept working until he'd invented the even-better electronic mute.

In 1964, Bunker started a band known as the "The Dave Bunker Show," which consisted of him and the Wilkinsons, three sisters and their mother, from Sumner. He not only taught two of them how to play, but built their single-neck guitars. Between the pretty Wilkinsons and Bunker's newfangled guitar, the band got steady work in Las Vegas for a decade and toured the West Coast.

In the mid-'60s, Bunker built several hundred guitars in his Astral series, a radical Jetson-style line that sported detachable body wings so players could mix and match colors and wood grains. In the mid-'70s, he developed the fairly successful Pro-star line with rear-body tuners. Nancy Wilson of Heart and Waylon Jennings each had one. EMP has two of them.

Then he started another band - called The Dave Bunker Affair - and his guitar-making company went out of business.

In the '80s, he was part of a group that came up with a big idea and a big failure: the organ guitar, which added keyboard sounds to the Touch Guitar. He has the only model hanging in his workshop like the albatross that it was.

"It was a monster," he said. "It was a success in technology, but a failure in manufacturing. It would have cost $12,000 to buy with all that stuff in it. And for an instrument that no one knew how to play? I put the Touch Guitar away for five years after that."

As always, he picked it up again and made a splash playing at a national trade show in Los Angeles in 1989. Rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen came by the booth twice, the second time to toy with the Touch Guitar, Bunker said. All a fringe instrument needs to become popular is a popular entertainer playing it. But Van Halen told Bunker what many did: An established guitarist would be reluctant to change his playing style so drastically.

Bunker was entertaining on an Alaskan cruise ship when he got an offer to become a partner in a start-up guitar-manufacturing company, called PBC Technologies, near Philadelphia. He devoted much of the first couple of years developing the latest Touch Guitar - and patented its electronic muting system - but had to again set it aside to fill a contract with Ibanez and make other standard guitars.

PBC went under in 1996 when its financial backer pulled out. Bunker moved back to Seattle and, with the help of Denny Renando of Circuits Engineering in Mill Creek, bought what was left of the company and renamed it Bunker Guitar Technology. Half of the equipment is still in storage. He's basically a one-man operation now, eking out a living by selling inventory and building custom guitars.

A COUPLE WEEKS after we met, Bunker was ready to assemble his new prototype. Laid out on a work table inside the workshop behind the retail space were the components - the necks, brass knobs, bridges, fret wire and tiny circuit boards made by Circuits Engineering.

The ripple-patterned body came from Maple Valley Tonewoods, a small Port Angeles mill that supplies major guitar makers across the world and artists like Carlos Santana.

He talked as he worked, his voice rising above the rap-Rap-rap-rap-Rap of the tap dancers next door and their accompanying lounge tunes, "Proud Mary" and "Joy to the World (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog)."

He went through the entire process, step-by-step. He could have put the pieces together in 20 minutes, but it took an hour to explain everything. It felt like high-school biology class: He was the teacher, dissecting the frog and seeing how muscle and tissue related, while I just saw blood.

"Each string has its own pickup, its own bridge, its own volume control, so it can be isolated," he said. "So when you touch a string, nothing else is on and you only hear that sound. Couldn't do it without the vertical bridge. I was trying to make it simple, but couldn't compromise. What the vertical bridge does is give you almost perfect oscillation. When you pick a regular guitar you pull it way out and it must bounce back . . . that's all distortion. That's noise. The solution was the vertical bridge so the string you push down would be countered by the bridge. I'm trying to perfect the tone. Standard frets, probably only thing conventional . . ."

He did a lot of explaining three days later when he demonstrated the prototype at the Greater Seattle Vintage Guitar Show in Georgetown. The annual show, set up in the Eagles Club, is essentially a flea market for used guitars, nicked classics like a '63 Strat or '67 Telecaster.

Bunker's booth, set up in a corner, was out of place. His guitars were new, polished and cost roughly $2,000 apiece. One was a custom-made black rock-'n'-roll guitar with pearl inlays that cost about $10,000.

Smiling continually, Bunker sat on a Peavey amp and played country, blues, a little surfer music, light '70s rock. His 21st-century Touch Guitar resonated loud and clear.

The ringing guitar notes drew a steady stream of gawkers and questions. What is that? How do you do it? How long does it take to learn? What is it called? How much is it?

He said it should cost around $3,000 when production begins.

One guy joked, "You're not supposed to play the guitar like that! What's the matter with you?" He was interested enough to take a business card and immediately recognized the name, "My dad has a Galaxy!"

TEN MILES across town and an aesthetic world away from the blue-collar reality of the guitar meet sits the EMP guitar gallery, which has the feel of a shrine. The guitars and basses are walled behind glass and bathed in warm lighting. Patrons listen through headsets to recordings of each instrument as well as explanations of its history and significance.

There is a special place in the display for Seattle's Paul Tutmarc and his 1936 Audiovox, which Blecha says was the first electric bass guitar. Blecha found it cheap at the Midway Swap Meet along South Highway 99.

Audiovox went out of business around 1950 and Tutmarc, who died many years ago, never got the credit he deserved. He couldn't compete with well-financed and well-marketed companies. Blecha did a lot of research work to make the case for Tutmarc as a neglected revolutionary with a profound impact on modern music.

"The Audiovox is special because it was overlooked, possibly because it was just regional and not mass marketed," Belcha said. "We're always thought of as the outpost on the West Coast, so it was a personal pleasure putting our guy in the mix."

Blecha, who played in a series of bands in Seattle over the years, sees Bunker as a different case. He's an innovator to be sure, but you don't see many people playing the Touch Guitar. As amazing as it is, it has been, so far, an evolutionary dead end.

Bunker's guitars will be exhibited in EMP someday as part of a Northwest instrument-design collection and he'll likely be invited to demonstrate his Touch Guitar as part of the museum's rotating performance program. That's good enough for him. He doesn't feel his instrument has gotten the respect it deserves but he has more important things on his mind than history.

"It would be nice to be recognized," he told me, "but I've had a good life. I'm not rich or famous, but I have the major new instrument for the 21st century. I'm doing now what I did at 15 because I don't think the Touch Guitar has had its shot."

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is staff photographer for the magazine.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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