Spotlight: God Gave Rock and Roll to Me!
Russ Ballard - the legendary guitarist, singer and songwriter for Argent and also as a solo artist. Many other artists who have covered his songs and had hits with them.
Russ has an equally famous, distinctive guitar, which is the subject of this article.
My own love of Russ' songwriting started when I was maybe 7 or 8, and we had an album in the house called 20 Dynamic hits, (on K-Tel records,) which opened with Argent's song "Hold your Head Up".
Later as a music obsessed teen I would play this track over and over, along with Deep Purple's "Fireball" and "Black Night" and Redbone's Witch Queen Of New Orleans" from that same compilation album.
I was aware that Russ had penned New York Groove, that Kiss' Ace Frehley had covered so well, and also "Since you've Been Gone" and "I Surrender" covered by Rainbow, so I was somewhat in awe of Russ' songwriting skills.
Fast forward to about 1999, and I had a hardtail strat body that weighed more than a family car.
This was left over from a restoration project, where I put a much nicer and lighter body on a late '70s strat.
I needed to lighten that guitar body, if I was going to get to use it at all.
So firstly I routed out for a vintage tremolo to remove some heavy ash, but it was still very heavy, and then I thought, "Why not go the Russ Ballard inspired route, and drill out some holes to remove more wood?"
So that is what I did and this was the result, with a new neck made for it, and all new electronics installed.
Now fast forward once agin to 2016, and a chap called Ian who was a fan and a friend of Russ Ballard, asked Russ if anyone had made copies of his guitar.
I was surprised to find out that Russ had seen the "inspired-by guitar" and suggested to Ian that maybe I could be the man to make him one.
Quizzed by Ian, he was pleased to find that I was not churning them out but was willing to work to get the essence of Russ' guitar just right.
We went to see Russ playing live a couple of times during the next few weeks.
On the second time, I went prepared with paper, pencils and strat templates, as Ian said that I might be able to get my hands on Russ' guitar to take some details down, under the careful watch of Russ' guitar tech.
Well, that was a dream come true for me, (maybe second only to getting my hands on Brian May's Red Special as I did in 1998.)
Here I am making good use of my time, with access to Russ' guitar:
I wanted to get the hole sizes and locations just right, as well as copying the cut-down upper body horn's dimensions.
I had my vernier callipers out too, to get things perfectly to size.
Here is the guitar body up close and personal, snapped by my phone's camera.
Armed with my stash of measurements and pictures, I set about making a template and then a first version of the guitar for Ian.
We went with the tele-style neck that Russ has had for the last 45 years, since the original strat one was damaged on tour.
Here is the bare-wood version of the guitar.
A rear view - we have yet to carve a sculpted heel around the modified neck plate.
We decided to keep things fairly classic, with a Bare Knuckle Mule humbucker and two Mothers Milk single coils, a Gotoh vintage bridge, and some classic Kluson tuners.
We used an Earvana compensated tuning nut to make the guitar more in tune with itself. We went with a brighter silver colour scheme too.
Ian was very pleased with the completed guitar, and through his friendship with Russ, we got to see the two guitars side-by-side.
Ian had Russ sign the pick-guard and backplate, and planned to have it on display in a case in his home.
However, things do take a funny twist - more of that in a second .
In the meantime we got to build a second version for a Ballard fan in Texas...this one had a slightly different silver colour, one of our Fatcat Hardware bridges, and some enclosed Gotoh tuners.
Lockdown kept a lot of bands off the road, and Russ had to reschedule his tour dates. It wasn't until 2022 that he got to resume his tour.
Imagine my surprise to see the guitar he was using on this tour: the one we made for Ian!!
Apparently, he just loves how it plays and sounds, and is keeping his original axe safe and sound at home.
So, to round things off, here is Russ playing the song that started my love affair with his music, on a guitar I built - Hold Your Head Up!
We have now completed another version of this unique guitar, and we went for a relic-d version this time.
I keep meaning to show this one to Russ, in case he would like first dibs on it, and let Ian have his guitar back.
However, if you take a fancy to it, there is a link to our online shop below the picture.