A poplar wood apple crate from a small farm outside of Cleveland, a vintage vinyl "Sticky Fingers" album cover from the Rolling Stones and a box that formerly housed Punch Gran Puro cigars all seem like items you might find in the back of an old garage or from the bowels of your parent's attic. It might be a surprise then that all three have been unearthed from their erstwhile graves and turned into works of art that fetch hundreds of dollars. To top that, these three items can play the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and almost any other genre of music.
David Lackey, founder and driving force behind Lackey Road Guitars
, is a one-man operation that crafts custom guitars that are also functional works of art. Lackey uses repurposed items such as those listed above for the bodies of his electric guitars, which he builds entirely by hand. Since 2014, he's run Lackey Road Guitars out of a workshop in the basement of his Strongsville home, and then sells them at the Cleveland Flea
, In the 216
, and online at Etsy
. His efforts have garnered die-hard fans as well as a 2015 Best of Cleveland award
from Cleveland Magazine.
David Lackey playing one of his guitars at his home
Lackey first caught the music bug growing up in the 1960s outside of Washington D.C. where he was exposed to a full range of political demonstrations and the influential music that went along with them. At his first concert he watched Jimi Hendrix play the guitar behind his back and light it on fire. He was in the ninth grade.
“Growing up when I did we had pretty cool music to listen to – Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles – so music has just always been a part of me,” explains Lackey, adding that he spent summers at his grandparent’s farm in Delaware, Ohio, on (you guessed it) Lackey Road, where he picked up the skills of a craftsmen and a mantra that has stuck with him: “If it was made out of wood, you could do it yourself.”
His love for music stayed with him throughout his years at Ohio University and into his career as a high school English teacher in Strongsville. “I’ve always played guitar," says Lackey. "When I taught, I used to try to figure out ways to bring music into what we were doing. Then when I retired three years ago, my music side had more time to express itself.”
Lackey's inspiration was sparked during a vacation down South, where he first saw the simple construction of a cigar box guitar. They're a homemade variation of the popular instrument created by southern African Americans in order to keep musical traditions alive without having to pony up high dollars for store-bought guitars. He taught himself how to make these folk-art instruments from books, online resources, and with help from Blue Eagle Music
in Athens, Ohio.
Lackey currently makes three types of six-string electric guitars: cigar box, vinyl album cover, and classic Telecaster style. He uses real cigar boxes that still open to hold things (cigars included) even after they’ve been transformed into an instrument. For the album cover guitars, Lackey repurposes vintage vinyl album artwork by gluing the covers directly onto the handcrafted solid wood body of the guitar. He’s incorporated album cover artwork such as the "Cheap Thrills" from Big Brother & the Holding Company (with artwork from former Clevelander Robert Crumb
), Led Zeppelin's "Celebration Day" and Pearl Jam's "Lightning Bolt," just to name a few. He's even used an 1874 map of Cuyahoga County with the guitar strings traveling directly over Cleveland. Both styles of guitars have one pickup that goes straight to the amplifier with no control panel to change the tone, giving the instruments a raw, powerful, and overdriven sound.
Lackey says people typically like to play cigar box guitars using slide style, which involves moving a glass or metal tube up and down the strings of the instrument to create a bluesy sound. He explains “anything that effects your senses determines the quality of a guitar – the way the neck feels in your hand, how the strings feel against the frets, and of course, how it sounds.”
One of his guitars made with apple crate wood
His more classic Telecaster guitars also become works of art when he adds repurposed poplar wood to the body of the instrument, which comes from apple crates that were once used by Quarry Hill Orchard
in Berlin Heights, Ohio. The wood has become rough and grey after years of use, giving the guitar a raw and edgy appearance. Another version of Lackey’s unique Telecaster uses Swamp Ash wood from Charm, Ohio in the heart of Amish country, which gives the guitar an elegant golden hue. Lackey says he buys the neck and electric components from major guitar manufacturers, then he builds the body from a solid piece of wood and assembles everything by hand, a process that typically takes about 20 hours. Lackey estimates he’s made over 50 guitars.
Chase Ockuly playing one of David Lackey's guitars
Chase Ockuly is a local musician that plays on one of Lackey’s handmade apple crate Telecasters. Ockuly considers himself a “freelance guitarist” and is involved with multiple acts around Cleveland including The Avenue
and the Michelle Romary Band
Ockuly says his Lackey Road Guitar stacks up against any mid-level Gibson or Fender. “His guitars are comparable to something you’d get at a major music store like Guitar Center, but he built it in his basement. It sounds professional from an amateur builder,” he says, adding that the cigar box and vinyl album guitars are great for rock ‘n’ roll musicians because of their raw and powerful sound, while the Telecasters work for any style of music.
Ockuly says the best feature of a Lackey Road guitar is that “each one is a totally unique, one-of-a-kind instrument and it’s built by a guy in Cleveland. When I saw the guitar, then found out who built it, I had to buy it.”
Lackey has varying plans for the future of his boutique guitar business. He would like to have a bigger workshop and maybe a storefront someday, but would also be happy to take his guitars on the road, traveling around the country selling his functional works of art at music festivals. He’d like to start making acoustic guitars in the future as well.
You can find David Lackey and his unique guitars at the upcoming Cleveland Flea on August 13 as well as the Berea Arts Fest
on September 11. Whatever new ventures Lackey Road Guitars embarks on, however, the man behind the strings will continue to make his art sound - and look - great.
“It’s no fun to stick a neck on a hunk of wood if it doesn’t play," says Lackey. "It’s important to me that the guitar preforms as well as looks cool.”