1980 Turner Model 1


The 1960s and 1970s saw a wave of small-shop guitar builders experimenting with new designs. Often these companies had short life spans; even if they gained a high-profile fan or two, their designs (and business acumen) often lacked the ability to compete with major brands. Ironically, many of the more obscure brands from those decades are now being copied for reissues – though the copies are often cosmetic, while the sound and playability diverge widely from the originals. A few builders from that time have managed to stay in business and profit from their initial designs.

Such is the case with Rick Turner. After working as a guitarist and repairman, Turner joined Alembic around 1969. At that time, the company was mainly dedicated to modifying existing instruments; members of the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and other high-profile acts had their instruments overhauled by Alembic. Before long, the company was building its own guitars and basses: the original “hippie sandwich” designs with multi-laminated woods and onboard preamps. Turner left Alembic in 1978 over a business dispute, but he managed to secure the rights to a design he had been working on; this became his Model 1.

Two years earlier, Turner had been introduced to Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham via the group’s bassist, Alembic player John McVie. Turner modified Buckingham’s Stratocaster and built a custom Alembic for the guitarist, but Buckingham was apparently not blown away by the results. That changed in the middle of 1979, when Turner – now working on his own – completed the first prototypes of the Model 1. The guitar was intended to offer a wide range of tones, able to substitute for a Stratocaster or a Les Paul but also capable of sounds in between. Lindsey Buckingham instantly became an enthusiastic supporter of the new design, introducing the Model 1 to the world on the Tusk tour of 1979-80.

Some design elements of the Model 1 have clear antecedents at Alembic: the neck was made of laminated maple and purple heart, with the headstock attached by a scarf joint. The pickup (built by Bartolini) had a wide frequency range that was tunable using the onboard preamp. Other design elements were entirely new, such as the body built from sandwiched mahogany and with the front and back carved into arches. The compact body was inspired by an antique parlor-sized guitar. One of the most notable features was the rotating plastic disc that attached the pickup to the body; this allowed players to fine-tune the sound even further. Double-pickup instruments featured a 6-way selector knob that allowed for a variety of series/parallel and phase options.

By 1980, Turner Guitars, Ltd. was selling the Model 1 both directly and through dealers. A number of high-profile players were coming on board, including the Doobie Brothers’ John McFee. The first Model 1 bass went to Lee Sklar, at that time part of James Taylor’s band. However, Rick Turner dropped out of guitar building in 1981; his designs would not be built again until the early 1990s when he re-started his guitar company.

Turner also produced the Model 2 guitar and bass. The resurrected company identifies any instrument with a second pickup as a Model 2, but a brochure from the original run describes things differently: the Model 1 was available with one or two pickups, while the Model 2 had two pickups as standard equipment but was identified by fancy veneers. This plain mahogany bass is therefore a double-pickup Model 1; it listed for $1600 in 1980. Only 24 basses were made in the original run.