Born in Memphis in the '70s, St. Blues guitars will now be made here
the Commercial Appeal | By Toby Sells
Tom "TK" Keckler, who designed the Bluesmaster in the 1970s, checks the action on a new St. Blues model recently as head of quality control for St. Blues Guitars. He also runs T.K.'s Guitar Services out of the St. Blues Guitar Workshop on Marshall.
The St. Blues Guitar Workshop story has everything a Memphis music story ought to have. It has a humble but precocious beginning, and a cast of characters from Elvis to Duck Dunn to MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden. It has failure, redemption and a new road to the future.In fact, that Memphis essence is what the boutique guitar maker hangs its hat on.
St. Blues is consolidating all domestic manufacturing of its guitars at its Marshall Avenue facility, which will bring 25-30 jobs to the city.
"Memphis is a powerful brand in the music world," said St. Blues CEO Bryan M. Eagle III. "I looked around ... and said we've got as much right as anybody to plant the flag in the ground and say that we're 'the' Memphis guitar company." That right came from the company's storied past. St. Blues' signature guitar design, the Bluesmaster, began with a local musician everyone still just calls "TK." Tom Keckler, whose band The Breakers once headlined a show opened by The Yardbirds, mixed two popular guitar designs to form the Bluesmaster in the 1970s.
After a stint at Mike Ladd's Guitar Center, where he built and customized guitars for Elvis Presley and Jimmy Page, Keckler joined Strings & Things in Memphis, where he built guitars for Little Milton and Jeff Beck. He then joined a group to found Schecter Guitar Research in California, which is still a popular guitar brand. But the Bluesmaster design and the St. Blues brand were all but defunct by the late 2000s. Eagle breathed new life into them when he bought the brand rights and guitar designs in 2007. Since then, the company has assembled, shipped and sold its guitars from a manufacturing facility and retail shop at 645 Marshall.
St. Blues is also looking ahead with a renovation project that will give tourists a new place to learn about Memphis music and will bring all of the company's domestic manufacturing in-house. Eagle said the company will transform the front of its Edge-district facility into a sort of Memphis music museum to attract some of the nearly 100,000 tourists who visit its neighbor, Sun Studio, each year. Eagle said he hopes to have the project complete by August. The back of the building will become a guitar manufacturing facility that will bring to Memphis over the next three years 25-30 jobs that are now farmed out to companies in Nashville and Bozeman, Mont., Eagle said.
Andy Kitsinger, vice president of planning and development for the Center City Commission, said the CCC has expanded its retail incentives to include The Edge district and expects more retail to fill in there as the district grows. "Part of the momentum that is occurring in The Edge is the reason we are trying to build on the retail synergies there and have labeled it as a target area," Kitsinger said. "(The Edge) supports the core of Downtown and it also supports the medical center, and it's reinforcing transit-oriented development along Madison as well."
St. Blues Guitar Workshop
Market: More than 50 retailers in 27 states and Puerto Rico
Retail prices: $994 to $2,395
Of note: U2's Bono played a Bluesmaster when the band recorded "Rattle and Hum" at Sun Studio