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Guitar design is not brain surgery

Posted by on Tuesday, November 2, 2010 in Features, November 2010.

In 2002, having recently undergone board certification as a neurosurgeon, Robert J. Singer, M.D., sat down at his kitchen table with some butcher paper and a few drafting instruments and began designing electric guitars.

Once he had completed a dozen designs, he engaged a factory in Korea to make the prototypes.

That’s how Waterstone Music Instruments was launched. The company has since brought out several lines of guitars and bass guitars, all designed or co-designed by Singer, the founder and CEO.

Singer’s subspecialty is neurovascular surgery, mainly interventions for stroke. He joined Vanderbilt in 2008, after residency at Vanderbilt, fellowships at Stanford and Harvard and a number of years in private practice in Nashville. He loves neurosurgery.

“I’m really lucky. It’s a lot of work, but I get to do something that I always really wanted to do and I always feel very fortunate.”

His entry into the guitar business was an outgrowth of lifelong interests in music, art and design. Singer started out as a drummer, age 6, on his older brother’s trap set; he played saxophone in elementary school, picked up trombone and tuba, then moved to bass guitar in his junior high’s jazz ensemble. In junior high he listened to progressive rock and jazz, admiring bassists like Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report and Chris Squire of Yes.

On the advent of punk and the Walking Sprinklers

In 1978, punk broke. Singer was in ninth grade.

“What I liked in musicianship, punk was antithetic to. I suppose, at that age, it fit. It was so rudimentary and rebellious. I was captivated by the spirit and intensity of it all right down to the shaved head. ”

Throughout school, “Instead of just going to the party I got to play, which I always preferred. It gave me something to do.”

In chronological order, the names of Singer’s bands were: Power Test, the Ernie Douglas Project (his first punk band), The Walking Sprinklers (“that one was pretty popular”), The Antidotes, The Nylon Choir, The Fertile Crescent, and, with fellow medical students, The Bezoars.

“Then that was it. No more playing out because it got too busy.”

Singer has an abiding interest in art history, particularly abstract expressionism and its offshoots. (He took art history and studio art classes at Iowa, thinking he might end up as an art historian or curator. But then he got deeply into biochem and followed a family tradition when he opted for medical school.) There are no diplomas on the walls of Singers’ office in Medical Center North. “I don’t like to look at a bunch of certificates with my name on them. My neurosurgical training was about a lot of dedicated people and institutions.” Instead, there are photographs of building facades, one from each campus where Singer took medical training.

About 10 years ago, Singer began frequenting the Gibson custom shop here in Nashville, learning more about guitar design and construction. He had never stopped collecting guitars (his collection now numbers some 85 instruments). When guitars by one of the designers represented in Singer’s collection showed up in an Austin Powers movie, Singer e-mailed his congratulations and he wound up making friends with the designer, who happened to be an oral surgeon in Philadelphia. This friend encouraged Singer to take the plunge and launch his own company.

Singer works with makers at factories in Korea and China. During a design phase, after rounds in the hospital, he’ll return to his office and hop on Skype for videoconferences with factory foremen across the Pacific.

“Everything is of course derivative.,” he says, and offers an example from his design portfolio: “Gibson, for example — the L5, the Country Gentleman; I’ve taken that basic shape then rounded it here, shortened the lower bout a little here. You look at it and say that balance doesn’t seem right, so I’ll redraw it.

“What is it about a guitar that makes it beautiful — it’s a matter of your interpretation, it’s not anything else. So I look at it and say, that appeals to me. And then you just hope that it appeals to someone else.”

Singer also experiments with different finishes and with the placement of electronic pick-ups. “Then you make a prototype and decide if it works or not. We hand them to artists, they play them, and we decide.”

Different from surgery

Waterstone sells around 200 instruments per year. The warehouse is in Marathon Village, near downtown Nashville. Singer employs a staff to handle marketing, sales, artists relations and instrument set-up. The marketing strategy is based on getting instruments into the hands of touring musicians.

“You’ve got to be cognizant of the fact that you’re often selling to a young demographic, and they can fixate on whatever so-and-so is playing on stage. That’s what sells instruments. It works out well; we get to meet a lot of young bands, a lot of people who are very, very talented.

“I’m definitely not making a lot of money at it. I’d love for that to happen—who wouldn’t?—but what I like is the opportunity to explore and think about all these things that, in the surgical world, I don’t have the opportunity to think about.

“I have a great job as a neurosurgeon and I love it. The basic rule about Waterstone is that it’s about fun. If it’s not fun then it’s not going to happen. That’s liberating to me.”


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