“I can do better.” That was Sam Radding’s reaction on first encounter with the campfire-friendly Backpacker guitar introduced by Martin in 1993. He announced this to other guitar makers, some of whom just smirked. They clearly didn’t know Sam.
You get a sense of both Sam’s `can-do’ spirit and his place in West Coast guitar history in an online interview celebrating his role in launching Taylor Guitars. Sam once made guitars in a Lemon Grove, CA shop that became a magnet for aspiring guitar builders. Three would eventually buy Sam’s business and instrument-making gear. Kurt Listug, Bob Taylor, and Steve Schimmer used them to start Taylor Guitars.
Does Sam envy their phenomenal success? Not really. He’d chafe at the demands of being a corporate CEO. Sam’s idea of fun is panning for gold in a remote river or scouting deserts for instrument-worthy wood that’s been dried by nature. (Sam’s passion for panning has led him to write popular manuals on building your own gold mining equipment!) But most of the time he’s in his San Diego workshop, making both custom instruments and his response to the Backpacker, Go Guitars.
Is there’s another hand-crafted American guitar you can get for just over $200? Unlikely. Many `travel guitars’ carry high-end price tags equal to full-size models, making the Go’s value-for-money remarkable. The craftsmanship is what you’d hope for in a hand-built instrument, sturdy (you don’t want a fragile traveler) but surprisingly responsive in sound and playability. Sam made a Go Grande Walnut model for me in 2004 with a wider-than-standard fingerboard. It’s endured three trips to Central Asia and, at age tenplus, rings like a bell! The sound is exceptionally balanced, and, like any quality instrument, just keeps sounding better over time.
The unusual shape of the Gos may not be for everyone. Sam also makes petite standardshaped parlor guitars which could also serve as travel instruments. Though more expensive, they’re still very reasonably priced, compared to any like-sized hand-crafted guitars. Sam’s up for challenges, so he’s open to building “completely customized traveling guitars.”
Sam’s Go models are the latest in a long line of guitar innovations made in Southern California. In the 1920s, the L.A.-based Dopyera brothers responded to the need for a guitar that could compete with the volume of a tenor banjo. They built guitars with metal resonators under the National and Dobro brands. In the era of amplification, Fullerton-based Leo Fender launched a line of solid body guitars which have played key roles in popular music since the dawn of rock. Go Guitars may never have the iconic status of Nationals or Fenders, but if you ever have to fit a guitar into an airline overhead bin, you’ll be glad you’ve gone with a Go!