This year’s trip to NAMM 2017 revealed more than just the latest in new cool gear. We found Sarah Gallenberger who custom paints guitars (and other instruments) with unique and compelling designs. She’s in the business of making some of the coolest guitars even cooler. Some gig.
A self-taught artist and fine crafter from Milwaukee, WI., she began crafting at the age of 6 with her mother, and continued the hobby into adulthood, as she earned a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During college, Gallenberger worked at Cream City Music as a marketing and special events coordinator, where the shop’s owner Joe Gallenberger (also her uncle) suggested that Sarah try her hand at painting some of the unfinished guitar bodies in the shop. Excited for the opportunity to blend her passion for music with her talent for art, Gallenberger painted a Fender Stratocaster and a telecaster, which sold to buyers in Texas and the UK. She quickly garnered attention for her designs and requests for more custom pieces began coming in.
“Rock and roll has a heavy influence on all of my work,” says Gallenberger, who also spent 3 years as an A&R rep for a music publisher, “Whether I’m painting skulls on a pepper grinder or paisley swoops on a Les Paul, I am always looking for an excuse to bring music and art together. My experience working in the music industry has helped me establish a strong network of musicians and professionals that have helped me along the way.
When she’s not painting, Gallenberger can be found working on special events with the non-profit organization Guitars for Vets, a Milwaukee-based national program that provides free guitars and guitar lessons to injured and traumatized military veterans.
We took a few minutes at NAMM to chat with Sarah about her unique occupation.
Chuck Schiele: Hello Sarah. Thank you for taking some time to tell us about your craft. How are you enjoying your 2017 NAMM experience, so far.
Sarah Gallenberger: Hi Chuck. So far so good. NAMM is always the funnest hard work there is. Thank you for the opportunity to share!
CS: As I understand it, you went to school—earned an anthropology degree and wound up digging into the music business. Not the usual music path…. How did you get into the business of arting guitars?
SG: I worked at my uncle’s guitar shop while going to college and he suggested that I try painting some of the unfinished guitar bodies we had at the store. I’d always been a hobby artist and crafter, and painting guitars was something that appealed to me as a music fan. Connections I made while working at Cream City Music opened the door to Gretsch, Fender, and other music clients. I painted a lot of other things back then too, like furniture and household accessories, but guitars became my niche.
CS: The designs are a blast to look at. To me, guitars are already their own art. What you do to a guitar is a double-bonus. How do you go about inspiring your designs?
SG: I love intricate repetitive patterns and I draw a lot of inspiration from architecture, folk art, and mosaics. Sometimes clients give me a theme to work with and I’ll find a way to incorporate it into my style.
CS: How long does it take to typically render your designs?
SG: All projects are different, but most guitars take between 30 and 50 hours to paint. Sometimes it takes much longer for me to work up sketches and settle on the color palette before I can really get going on a piece. That’s usually the hardest part.
CS: What mediums and techniques are you inclined to use?
SG: I use high-quality acrylic paint and the tiniest paint brushes I can find. Sometimes sponges for texture too. I’ve tried paint pens for speed, but I like the way brush strokes reflect light and always end up coming back to them, even though it takes more time. It’s worth it.
CS: It most definitely is worth it. These are super, super cool. Your work is more than just a way to make some scratch. You obviously love what you do and it shows. What do you get most out of doing this?
SG: Seeing my work onstage making noise with a band is a thrill that never gets old. I’m a rock girl at heart and painting guitars is my way of engaging with the music community, especially since I’m a terrible player. I’ve gotten to travel a bit and meet a lot of interesting people along the way.
CS: Are you a musician?
SG: I took guitar lessons for a while during college, but I felt my creative time was better spent painting so I didn’t pursue it very long. I can still play a few chords but nothing very impressive. I’m also a terrible singer, but I never let that stop me from an energetic karaoke performance. No one should.
CS: Right. One of the best advices I ever heard about singing came from a 7-year old girl. A man had asked her if she was scared while singing at a school play. She said, “no.”
“Why not?” replied the man.
“Because songs are for singing, silly!” was her retort. To her, singing was about the joy if it. She hadn’t yet learned about artistic criticism applied to singing — which begets the fear of singing. And she is right. Sing just to sing. Anyway, what’s in your near future with making cool guitars cooler?
SG: I’m working on a painted bass right now as well as a couple of guitar effects pedals. Also rendering some sketches of new ideas that may turn into projects later this year.
CS: With all this, you are also able to wage acts of benevolence. Namely, your work with Guitar for Vets.
SG: I have done a few pieces that were auctioned for the non-profit organization Guitars for Vets. They provide free guitars and guitar lessons to veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in over 50 locations across the US. I’ve worked with Guitars for Vets since they got started in 2007 and hope to do another piece for them to auction later this year.
CS: Keep us posted with that. Thank you again for taking time to talk with us at Making Music. Enjoy the rest of the NAMM show.
SG: Thank you, so much, Chuck. I sure will!
Visit Sarah Gallenberger to learn more about the craft of customizing instruments.