They didn’t really have a choice. After Huntsville couple Danny and Susan Davis decided to shut down the music venue component of Tangled String Studios in July 2020 amid the devastating early phase of the pandemic, they had to expand the guitar-making side of their multi-faceted business. Or stop working completely.
“Susan and I were going to lose this space, which means we’d sell everything and go home, so we said, ‘Okay, let’s make this space,'” says Danny. “
Tall, blond and friendly, Danny is a rocket science turned luthier. His acoustic instruments include Rich Robinson of Black Cruz and Dave Anderson of Atlanta Rhythm.
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After Tangled String Studios began hosting live shows in 2013, it quickly gained a reputation as an intimate “listening room”-style music venue. Robinson of Black Cruz, singer-songwriter Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers, and Grammy Award-winning band SteelDrivers. Americana titles like Amanda Sherris, John Paul White and Secret Sisters too, as well as top local talent, including Kelvin Wootten, Ingrid Marie and Microwave Dave.
The place became a deep passion for Susan. She often prepared home-cooked meals, including lasagna, to meet the requirements of a jockey artist. It strives to make the experience special for both musicians and fans. Tangled String and former Jason Isbell Roadie partner Todd Haller booked entertainers and often directed the sound. The backdrop for the stage was a reclaimed barn wood wall with low lighting. To the right, Davis’ guitar making equipment is in full view. Seating capacity started at 60, then increased to 100 and finally around 150. It created a unique place to watch the hand music being played up close.
After the Tangled Strange place days were over, Susan, stunning, silver-haired and sweet, was understandably sad. The concert industry was within just two months of a shutdown that will last much of 2020. At the time, Susan told AL.com, “We recognize that small venues like our auditoriums are not likely to reopen responsibly anytime soon. We love our community. We do not want to contribute to the spread of this current health crisis.”
Susan was in tears as she canceled shows scheduled for later in 2020, featuring the likes of Drive-By Truckers guitarist Mike Cooley, Huntsville alternative pop singer DeQn Sue, and jam band Tuscaloosa CBDB. During the 2020 lockdown, Tangled String has hosted streaming shows of local acts like Rob Aldridge & The Proponents and Ingrid Marie, to help raise funds for the performers. But live streaming wasn’t a sustainable solution for musicians or Tangled String. Over the years Tangled String has also had music festival and recording studio components, but amid the ongoing pandemic, these aren’t the answers to make the entire project viable either.
Up until that point, Danny had made every part of every Danny Davis guitar himself. About 200 guitars in the decades he’s been making, dating back to before the Tangled String opened in 2012. But ramping production up to the level needed now for the Tangled String means he’ll need to enlist help. And the new builders learned the magic of guitar making.
First, Danny built new workstations for different stages of guitar making. He then brought in Susan’s brother, Jake Wambsganss, Valve’s Supply Chain Manager, to help set up the store as efficiently as possible. “We got the machine flowing, and we built the room so it kind of has a feel to it. You do necks here, bodies there, sides there and all of that,” says Danny.
He found his two technicians, Anna Ruth Bennett and Sean Webster, to be completely organic. Webster had previously done carpentry work for Tangled String. Bennett had worked at Happy Tummy, a sandwich shop-turned-pizzeria located in Lowe Mill, the sprawling arts center in Huntsville Tangled String that also called home. Bennett’s father, Doug Bennett, a former KS prog rock band roadster who went to work in industrial lighting/sound creation, frequently attended Tangled String shows. When Doug heard that Danny was looking to hire guitar workers, he stopped to suggest Anna Ruth for the job.
Both employees have been clicked. Anna Ruth had a natural talent for detailed mother-of-pearl work of guitar inlays, embellishments that could make a guitar’s look even more special and personal. Danny Davis’ commissioned guitar may have rosette inlays, crown of thorns, etc. Anna Ruth also helps fit 12 or so brackets inside a guitar that is important to get the best sound. Her tools include chisels, jewelry saws, and glue.
“The way we make guitars, the top of the guitar isn’t flat,” Davis says. “It has a very slight curve to it. Well, that curve should be called perfect.” Any gaps between the strut and the top of the guitar, says Davis, “will be places where sound energy can be lost.” However, the seamless construction is how “you get an echo and kind of guitar fullness,” he says.
In fact, Danny Davis’s guitar, when he plays loops like a bell. The tone is crystalline yet warm. It descends from the surround sound of classic Martin Guitars, but with their own character. In 2019, Black Cruz guitarist Robinson described Davis Lee’s guitars this way: “They play well, and resonate well. The design is spot-on and beautiful. It seems like everything he did was done with such care and attention.”
Before starting the Tangled String series, Davis spent about 30 years as an engineer at NASA, working on projects ranging from propulsion systems to a space telescope. With missiles, it is necessary to know the frequencies that vibrate so that they can be removed/decreased to prevent the missile from shaking itself upon launch. When making guitars, it’s the opposite. You want to exploit frequencies to achieve optimal sound.
The airy interior of Tangled String Studios is a daydream of the absurd. There are all kinds of cool woodworking machines and tools and multiple work tables with guitars in different stages on top of them. Wooden blanks are stacked on a weathered brick wall. Danny Davis’ guitars are made from a variety of woods including mahogany, maple, rosewood and catalox. The day I stopped by Tangled String this summer, they had some funky jazz playing on the shop’s stereo. There is a faint smell of sawdust in the air.
At a workstation equipped with a green vise, Webster sands down the neck of the guitar. He uses chisels and stripes to get the overall shape, then turns into a finer rasp and sandpaper for the final smoothing and tapering. Although Webster had experience in carpentry and woodworking, making guitars is an entirely different beast.
“The challenge of that is really what makes it satisfying,” Webster told me. He pulled his hair back in a ponytail. “It feels so exciting to think that this is going to end up in the world in the hands of someone making music.”
At another workbench yards away, Bennett installs guitar back brackets. Its focus is like a laser. “It’s really satisfying when everything fits together perfectly,” says Bennett, who wears round glasses. She adds, “I’ve always been interested in art and music, and so I think[making guitars]is just one thing that converges.”
Since Bennett and Webster started Tangled String, they’ve been making three or so guitars a month. They work on “player string” guitars, which cost about $2,850. These guitars have the same high-quality construction but are less ornate than the guitars commissioned from Davis, which were generally built by Davis and cost about $5,500. Each guitar takes about 80 to 85 hours to work. Before a player string guitar is ready for sale, Davis completes a quality check and if something needs tightening, it will be tightened. “The joy to me is building the instrument, and I love seeing them go to a client, especially after I worked on guitar design with someone, and that means something to them,” Davis says.
Currently, 20 or so Danny Davis guitars, including dreadnought, grand auditorium and saloon-sized models, are in stock at Tangled String, Address 2211 Seminole Drive, and local retailer Fret Shop, at 309 Jordan Lane NW (more Information at dannydavisguitars.com.) Susan has switched from live place operations to focus on Tangled String’s social media, posting sharply productive videos and photos. “Susan has been very supportive,” says Danny. “She’s great at getting out (on social media) what’s coming up.”
Webster, who grew up playing drums and started learning guitar in recent years, says Davis is a patient teacher. One of the first things he taught them was how to glue the top of a guitar. “Danny gives a lot of instructions, but also leaves plenty of room for interpretation,” Webster says. “And he is open to new ideas in the process as well. So it’s not like this whole process has been set in stone and you have to do it that way.”
In fact, Davis says Webster and Bennett have made suggestions on how to improve things in Tangled String. These ideas have inspired some new tools and practices for guitar making. “Now we can do it better and faster,” Davis says. In the past, David always liked building guitars and took pleasure in the solitude that he does alone. But he became very fond of having Webster and Bennet around, to share work, listen to music together while they work and enjoy each other’s company.
“You really don’t know something until you teach it,” Davis says. “Working with Anna Ruth and Sean, I’m learning a lot about the process and trying to make it easy and repeatable. Fortunately, these great guys came along and got along with them. The first step was making sure we could deliver the product and we feel good about it. We’re really good at making guitars.” Now we’re trying to sell well. That’s the next big step.”