Twice bitten by the bug: Harvey Citron & Harvey Citron Guitars

July / August 2012
Jason Upchurch / Photos by Michael Bloom
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When Harvey Citron helped his college buddy pick out a Gibson acoustic, he didn’t know that his encouragement would prove to be the sine qua non of two careers in cutting-edge guitar building. See, that friend was fellow Woodstock guitar builder Joe Veillette, and when he broke the headstock off that Gibson it was his quest to see it properly repaired, which led both men into the life of the luthier.

Veillette took a New York City YMCA course in guitar making and repaired the Gibson himself. That was the bite of the guitar-building bug; he quit his job to build instruments full time. Citron would soon make the same move. It was 1974.

When Veillette began building, Citron made it one of his first projects to wire up an early, unfinished Veillette electric. He took a learn-while-you-do approach, gathering knowledge in the art and science of pickup-making from Sal Palazolla, an associate of pioneering pickup-maker Bill Lawrence. Veillette and Citron got together over a Friday and Saturday in Veillette’s shop (then in Grahamsville) and completed the wood-working together. With Citron’s electronics onboard, the pair finally strung the guitar up and plugged it in. Citron recalls: “I was blown away.”

The bug had bitten again, and Citron bought wood from Veillette to begin shaping his first neck that very Sunday; he even took Monday off to keep working. As he learned the “wood” side of things, he married it to his unique ideas for the “wire” side. Before long, Citron had turned his design concepts into the early instruments that would affect the course of two highly regarded brands on the boutique market: Veillette-Citron (1975-1983), and his own acclaimed Citron line.

His pre-guitar building life? Although he attended City College School of Architecture and had subsequent work in the field, Citron shares his personal career history as though he were born at the luthier’s bench. Indeed, he got into pickup-making early, and it does seem to have marked a no-going-back point for him. Players quickly caught onto the sonic magic of Citron’s pickups, and he found himself customizing a lot of their guitars with his electronics.

Citron’s goal is to inspire players with his designs. He aims to give artists entirely new sonic palettes with which to create, and everything from materials to pickup and body design is paid the strictest attention to that end. Playability, craftsmanship and tone are paramount.

Citron’s flagship model is the AE5 Swallow Signature bass guitar. This singularly handsome and velvety-voiced entry in the acoustic/electric bass guitar market is fitted with an adjustable wooden bridge of Citron’s design, six piezo pickups, three buffer circuits and an active EQ (equalizer) that enhances and expresses the bass’ natural rich and musical sound. Its design borrows from traditional double-cut aesthetics, while spruce and Honduras mahogany not only add to its visual impact, but are also superb tone woods.

Renowned jazz bassist Steve Swallow is Citron’s leading endorser. Swallow can be heard plucking his Citron AE5 on recent recordings by John Scofield and the Impossible Gentlemen. John Sebastian plays one of Citron’s baritone guitars, and Mike Merritt (Basic Cable Band) and Doug Wimbish (Living Colour), both have Citron basses.

Ulster County has been home to Citron for more than 30 years. Even though he is someone whose life’s work is creating sounds, he enjoys the peacefulness the area provides and the physical beauty all around. Of course, he also digs the fact that there’s such a large population of amazing musicians nearby. He says he loves the “tremendous amount of creativity in this area.”

Citron played his first gig at age 12 and has never stopped performing. He recently played with Christine Spero, and you can find him performing in various ensembles at venues such as the Bearsville Theater, Skytop Steakhouse, Hyde Park Brewing Company and Last Chance Antiques & Cheese Cafe in Tannersville, to name a few. He used to book a 10-piece big band called Soul Patrol, and still gigs with his Harvey Citron Band.

Just off his shop, in a part-office-part-solarium, a high shelf is home to a neat assortment of CDs. Which ones are in the player lately? A little Steely Dan, some Clapton, Sting, the Beatles, Orleans, Toto, Todd Rundgren, the Doobie Brothers, Michael McDonald, Stevie Wonder and Motown. Something is always playing.

They play a Citron

It is the Citron AE5 Swallow signature model. When I designed my first acoustic/electric bass, I thought it would be a match for Steve. He was on the road so much that he didn’t get to try one until the third inversion, which was very good. The bass is a concept I’ve been refining for over 18 years. I have built five basses for Steve, each one is an improvement for him – he travels with only one bass. The bass in the photo is 3 inches thick, hollow, and has six piezo elements under an intonation-adjustable wooden bridge with bone saddles. Here is a link to my web site and that model. The model on the site has more traditional neck dimensions. Steve’s bass has a very narrow neck as he plays with a pick in his own unique style. Also, Steve’s current neck is a lamination of Honduras mahogany/East Indian rosewood/Honduras mahogany.