Tone-lovers and gearheads rejoice! We’ve got a very special, super exclusive interview with the new kids in town, Dennis Fano’s Novo Guitars. The Novo Guitars gang just recently moved to Nashville to set up their state-of-the-art manufacturing facility and HQ and have been up to their knuckles in knotty pine, pumping out the most unique and delicious guitar hybrids we’ve ever seen. You may know Dennis Fano from Fano Guitars out of Pennsylvania, and if you do, you’ve loved his work. For those who don't, Fano has been building guitars for a long time, combining the styles of classics into one badass machine. Oh, he also hand-distresses each one, creating one-of-a-kind instruments that not only sound beautiful, but look good, too.
We had the pleasure of touring Fano's new endeavor, Novo Guitars, meeting the crew and seeing how the whole operation comes together. Read our interview with Matthew Timmons, GM for Novo, and Dennis Fano, owner, for a behind-the-scenes look at their new shop and all things Novo.
All photos by Emily Quirk. Written by Liz Earle.
How long have you guys been in this space—May?
Matthew: We moved in here in May. Dennis was down in Pennsylvania building these on his own. Then, he hired me and Jack, who you’ll meet, to come out there and help him out. We were working with him for about nine months just to get us prepared so we could come down to Nashville. The goal was to expand production and build things up. He had a previous line of guitars called Fano Guitars, which you’ve probably seen and heard of before. They got pretty big.
I love Fano!
Matthew: Exactly. Dennis designed all those guitars. He sold that company, and then worked with them as a design consultant for about five years, then decided that it was time to do something on his own—that’s us. We take a lot of the spirit of those guitars and are turning them into something brand new.
This makes a lot more sense why I like these. How long has he been doing Novo?
Matthew: He started October of 2015, and then [we] started talking last May. I knew him because I used to work for Lollar Pickups in Seattle—and I loved Fano guitars, just absolutely my favorite guitar in the world—then I heard that he was looking for a GM. I said, “Let’s talk.” Now, here I am. I moved out just to do this, because he’s the best guitar builder in the world.
I always liked how he mixes-and-matches ideas.
Matthew: That’s exactly what it is. This is a way of going past [well-known guitar makers] to where it’s not as identifiable.
It’s post-modern guitar design.
Matthew: I’ll just give you a tour of the place. Right here is pretty cool, this is Rivolta Guitars. This is Dennis designed. We partnered with Eastwood Guitars...as a way to do some different designs that we weren’t doing any more and be able to get a line out there with some more affordable products.
What do these retail at usually?
Matthew: They’re $1,199. Those are two prototypes of a new model that’s coming out, and this one is already out. It only came out last March, so it is similar to some of the other stuff that [Dennis] was doing, and we were able to, you know, just scratch another itch, if you will.
What’s the name for this style that you guys have?
Matthew: What we have here is our Serus line. Dennis likes to name everything after Latin words or Italian words, depending on which line we’re doing. Basically, the idea behind here was to take some familiar ideas behind electric guitars, the Telecaster, Jazzmaster, Strat-stuff and do our own thing. We really favor the offset-body style like the Jazzmaster. On this one, it’s a pretty typical offset-style shape but a little sharper on the horns. It’s got P-90s instead of regular Jazzmaster pickups, because that’s what we like better. We use a Mastery bridge and trim on there, and just go from there. If you want to take it down, go ahead. We got two of the same model right there, just different colors, because they’re both going to Guitars Rebellion in France. It’s their first order. We’re really excited about doing that.
Are all of these going to France?
Matthew: Just these two are France. This one is Japan. This is a pretty standard S-style guitar. We want to do our spin on it. It’s a pretty classic design, but we do things a little differently with the offset body shape and the sharper horns. And then, of course, the distressing, which is Dennis’ signature. He does every single one of them himself. Every single one is unique to the guitar. It’s just his vision on how he likes to do it. You can get in there and check it out.
How do you start with an initial concept? Are you sketching? Do you use certain software?
Dennis: I’m kind of computer illiterate when it comes to design stuff. I would like to know more. I would like to learn how to use Illustrator. I mostly still draw things with a pencil, kind of old-school, but I will start with some images of things that I like and start to cobble together a rough idea of what I’m looking for before I start drawing. I do that on the computer so it’s a combination of things. It didn’t start that way. I started designing stuff before I got into computers so it was always just drawing stuff out, working with forms, cutting templates, tweaking things until I got them how I wanted to. It’s kind of an old-school approach.
That’s how we design stuff too. Patterns. It’s way easier to go from a sketch directly to working with the medium that you are going to be ending up with. Did you go to school for art?
Dennis: No, but I’ve always had an interest in artistic things. My school was working at a repair shop in New York City. I worked at Matt Umanov Guitars on Bleecker Street.
Yes, I used to live there. That’s a great little shop.
Dennis: It’s a fantastic shop. I spent five years there. I had done some apprentice work prior to that. When I got to Umanov’s, it was literally five years of what would have been considered high education for me. Learning how to repair everything from ukuleles to banjos, to acoustic guitars, electric guitars, basses, and on-and-on.
They do a lot of acoustic guitars there. A lot of old Gibsons.
Dennis: Yes, absolutely, we were—and they still are, probably—an authorized repair shop for all the top brands. It was a really great place to learn, and to hang out, and to meet musicians. We had a great crew in the shop. It was a revolving door of salesmen, but seemed like everybody was always pretty chill. It was just a great place to be.
When did you start doing your own designs or putting together parts?
Dennis: While I was there. I did some partscaster-type stuff before I worked there. I built a few basses. I started out playing bass, so I was more interested in basses early on. I started doing repair work, I started getting more into guitars and I started doing some original designs. The first model I did was called the Satellite and I did that probably 1995-1996, somewhere around there. I had a couple of other designs that stemmed from that, and in 2000 I left Umanov’s and jumped out on my own and started doing this full-time.
How long from the process of doing your first design to feeling like you were established as a guitar maker?
Dennis: I’m still working on it.
I guess it never ends. Was there a point where you could feel like you made it to some level of stability and success?
Dennis: Probably not until I was approached by Premier Builders Guild and they wanted to purchase Fano Guitars. Up until that point, I was just a builder building guitars in my garage just trying to make a name for myself, giving instruments away, selling them for almost nothing. Just trying to get a foothold. At that point, at the end of 2009 when they reached out to me and wanted me to be a part of that, I thought, well maybe I’ve got something here and somebody is taking notice. We were able to grow the company.
What did you do in the beginning. You went from Umanov to going out on your own—did you go to NAMM or did you travel?
Dennis: No, I didn’t. Luckily, I had made enough guitars for players that it was more of a word-of-mouth.
Just a natural word-of-mouth?
Dennis: Yes. I made guitars and people found out about them, and then before I knew it I had a steady stream of orders. And that pretty much held me through until 2009 when I sold the company. So, I never really had to advertise which was a very fortunate thing. And I didn’t have to go looking for orders. I just always had a steady stream of orders.
How’s Nashville treating you?
Dennis: So far so good. It was a new city for all of us. We hadn’t really spent any time here. We were here a couple of trips just to look at some spaces, but it’s been fantastic.
It was just logistically a good spot for what you’re doing?
Dennis: Yeah. I guess it was about two years ago. My wife and I started talking about where we wanted to move and how we might be able to grow the company. We were thinking about places that would have not only a great music scene, but a talent pool that we could pull from, and Nashville just quickly rose to the top of that list. We were considering places like Portland and Austin and we wound up thinking, “Yeah, Nashville is the right place for us."
Matthew: [Pointing to a selection of guitars.] These are all cool. I think these are all going to the Chicago Music Exchange. They’re great. They do runs, we do six at a time and they let us spec them, which is really fun for us.
That’s a common thing now. We’ve got four dealers that just let us spec all of them, because Dennis’ sold right away. You don’t even advertise it, you can just tell, like Dennis...because he gets to get a little bit creative with it. So, we’ve got a long list, both of us, of stuff, ideas that we haven’t done yet. Combinations of colors, pickguards, woods, pickups. It’s really fun when we get to do that because we can come up with stuff that we hadn’t done, and whenever Dennis does it, people are blown away. Because a lot of time what we’ll do is we’ll find pieces of wood that don’t have a home and we’ll say, “What can we do with this?” It gets him to be creative and come up with something different.
Matthew: You can see on these two right here the knotty pine that we use. You can see the big knots in them, right there. A lot of the barn wood stuff that we use, you can see all the holes in it. When [Dennis] comes in and distresses them, he’ll highlight it too. He’ll do some stuff to make it really pop. He’s done some really neat stuff like that.
Why do you use pine?
Matthew: Like we were talking about earlier, trying to figure out a way to stand out and do something different. There’s so many builders out there that are doing basically parts guitars with all these pickups and all these bridges. So, it’s a way to do something different. He was working with Hans, our wood distributor, he does Temper Tonewoods. He tempers them, gets all the moisture out, gets them nice and aged and beautiful. The idea with the pine is that it’s really softwood. That’s the reason why they switched back in the early Fender days, a lot of the early Telecasters were pine, before they were ash and alder. It’s a really great tonewood. Part of the reason why nobody’s using them is because they ding really easy.
Yeah. That’s what I was seeing. I didn’t realize it was good tonewood. Back then they would have wanted it to be pristine.
Matthew: And we don’t care. So, we get this beautiful [wood]—it’s temper, so it sounds really good and it’s nice and structurally sound for us to use. We were like, “If it dings easy, then great.” Because that’s what we want to do in the first place. We’ll do clean guitars, or what we call extra-light distress. We’ll do them usually in a different wood, that way we can finish over them a little bit easier than that.
You can see the difference in the species. Like this is pine, and then this is pine, right? There’s red pine, there’s white pine, there’s stuff that they’re harvesting that’s modern and brand new, there’s stuff that’s from hundred-year-old barn wood. It comes from all over. And Hans gets us the best stuff, and then he really lets us know what he thinks it’d be good for. Some of it is a little bit too heavy, and we can use it for certain things. We want it to be, obviously, light-weight, get those guitars seven pounds or under. As you know, as a strap maker, you want to have a nice light guitar, so you’re not dragged down with that. We also use tempered maple for all our necks, so it’s the same idea. One of the cool things about using tempered maple, too, is that it’s got a nice baked, dark color, and a lot of brand new guitars that have maple, they’re bright and shiny. And it just looks too new, and we don’t like anything to look too new, even our clean guitars.
This is the stuff that we’ve got coming through next, right here. Over here is fret dressing. That’s what Jack does over here. He’s a fret dress master. Part of the thing that’s really important to us is not only to have them look amazing, but to play amazing. It seems like a simple thing, but the level of detail that Jack puts into these things to make sure they’re perfect is intense. It’s a big part of what we do and I think just as important as anything is to get them to play perfect and feel perfect. Especially when you’ve got a guitar that’s supposed to be broken in, like that. A lot of them, you can do distressing cosmetically, but if you don’t make the neck feel like that, too—not just look broken in but feel broken in—then it doesn’t mean anything, because it’s got to all match.
Do you distress the neck?
Matthew: Yes. Yeah, so we’ll do a full lacquer job, just like normal, on here. Then he’ll distress it all the way back down, so you can see it’s finished like that. Then he’ll get down here and then he’ll peel it all off. What’s one of the secrets, I guess, is, instead of just doing it up to a certain point and saying, “We don’t really need to do that because it’s going to get distressed,” he does the full bore and then does it. That helps it feel and look more realistic versus just not going through one of the steps, because you know you’re going to ding it. We make sure these are perfect and then we distress them. Some people, I don’t know if they do that or not, but I don’t think it’s going to look right if you don’t do that, so that’s a big part of it.
This one is a good example of what Dennis does or his ideas. This is what we call ‘64 3-Tone Sunburst. So, we have a regular one here too. This is a regular 3-Tone Sunburst, classic ‘50s, ‘60s Fender. Then back in the mid-’60s they started using crappier wood and it would look crappy in the center. So, what they did was they started painting over—if you know this I apologize, I just like telling the story—they started painting it yellow, to paint over all the crappy wood. If you look at the mid-’60s Sunburst Fenders, this is what they look like. Not a lot of people ever do this, they get nice wood and they do classic Sunburst. This is cool because the Jazzmasters, the Musicmasters, Broncos, Mustangs, all those guitars would look like that in the mid-’60s. If you do that instead, it just gives it a little bit of a...just more of a pawn-shop-y, funky look to it. And that’s Dennis’ style, is to find those little edges that no one is doing, and so we did that with this one, even though it’s a beautiful piece. I get so excited, I know.
Yeah. No, I completely agree. This might be a question for Dennis, but one thing I’ve never understood is why—I mean, we make straps and then just have the little strap button. Why...? It just seems so ridiculous that you have to have a strap lock over your strap. Why isn’t it just a simple D-ring on both sides so that they can click into something like you guys have here?
Matthew: Well, I think that it’s an interesting thing. One of the things that we’re fighting against is, how do you design a guitar that speaks to this wide swath of people that like vintage guitars and there’s only one way to do it and that’s it? Then improving things and then making them updated, it’s really hard. That’s one of the things that people just...that’s how you do it and that’s what the guitar is supposed to look like and you can’t get away from that.
I can’t figure how it evolved. All I can guess is that maybe people put a screw in the end of their instrument, back in the day, to tie a strap around it.
Matthew: That’s a really good question for him. We do offer strap locks, and we’ll install them in the guitar for people that want that. But it’s one of those uphill battles, trying to figure out where can you innovate, to where people are going to be like, “Oh, that’s actually really good." Guitars have always had strap buttons like that and that’s it. So, we do it that way because that’s the way you do it and that’s what everybody’s straps are like, and so it’s a funky thing. But I agree, it’s kind of a weird deal.
[Distressing guitars by hand] is a way to give us a little bit of a leg up on something that no one’s doing anything like that. Just give it a little bit more—that texture. People are like, “Wow.” It just makes the guitar a little bit more interesting to look at, overall. So, that’s a huge part of what we do. The reason why we think people like the guitar so much—and we’ve heard it from a lot of people, they’re, “I don’t like distressed guitars, but I like what you do.” And that’s a really important thing for us. People that normally don’t like this kind of thing, would never do it, will buy and like our stuff. And we think it’s because of the detail that Dennis puts in.
Thanks Matthew and Dennis for giving us a memorable tour. Novo guitars is a really cool place. If you dig what you see, check out their list of dealers to get a Dennis Fano designed Novo guitar of your own. As Novo continues to build-up their facility with the best machinery and a showroom, you’ll be able to tour and play their guitars anytime you want. We’ll let you know when their doors are open to the public. For now, keep up with the gang on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @novoguitars.
All photos by Emily Quirk.
This interview is brought to you by Original Fuzz Magazine, check out more articles from this month’s issue, here.