Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Rickenbacker—anyone who’s strummed a guitar knows these giants of the industry. Many can tell you all about Hendrix’s Stratocaster, Slash’s Les Paul, Brian Setzer’s 6120, and John Lennon’s 325 Capri. But what about the Teisco Del Rey ET-460, whose edgy cutaways and complex array of controls make you wonder if the “ET” stands for “extraterrestrial”? Or Mosrite, whose distinctive body shape suggests a cresting wave about to roll into a pipeline? Or the Valco Map, made of Res-O-Glas and molded to evoke the Lower Forty-Eight? Largely lost to history, these guitars are prized by collectors of the strange, and only occasionally do they resurface in the hands of big-time musos like Jack White or David Bowie or Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys or the late Ricky Wilson of the B-52s.
For years, only guitarists willing to part with serious cash could bag one of these rare , he founded Eastwood Guitars, Inc., in 2001. Robinson and Eastwood burrow through the strata of originals. Enter Mike Robinson. A lifelong collector of the offbeat models of yesteryearguitar history, exhume its wildest artifacts, and re-create them for the modern guitarist.
“We want to make top-quality replicas that cost less and play better than the originals,” says Robinson, “so the average musician can experience the excitement of playing one of these beautiful vintage guitars.”
The Eastwood story began in the 1990s at the nexus of emerging Internet technologies, growing nostalgia for Space Age pop culture and design, and the burgeoning global economy. But according to Robinson, starting a guitar company was the last thing on his mind. Rather, the Toronto entrepreneur got his start in high tech, founding a company, acquiring its main competitor, and doing a tour of duty in Silicon Valley that lasted until he sold the business in 1998.
Along the way, Robinson stoked his passion for eccentric guitars and rocked out in a punk-inspired outfit that rattled the rafters once or twice a month in the local clubs.
“I was always playing and collecting weird guitars,” says the fifty-five-year-old, “but during that period in California I ramped up my interest in weird Japanese and European models.” His collection, which started with a 1967 Mosrite, today numbers somewhere just south of 200 pieces, and it inspires much of Eastwood’s catalog. Among Robinson’s favorites are the flamboyant vintage models manufactured by Italian firm Eko. “The more knobs and pickups and switches, the better,” he says, only half joking.
On the hunch others might groove on his collection, Robinson launched MyRareGuitars.com in 1997. “I don’t think blogs really existed back then,” he says, “but MyRareGuitars.com was the first bizarre guitar blog anywhere.” It wasn’t long before a large community of interest developed around the site. “All of a sudden,” he recalls, “there were people just like me in France and England and Australia and, well, all over the world talking about how this Mosrite or that Eko was the coolest thing we’d ever seen.”
About the same time, another website began to take off. “I integrated MyRareGuitars.com with eBay,” explains Robinson, “and it quickly became the venue for buying, selling, and trading weird stuff. Our fan base and mailing list grew, and people started asking, ‘Why don’t you make a copy of these old Mosrites, or these old Airlines?’ That was really the whole catalyst for Eastwood.”
Robinson launched Eastwood in 2001 with the Sidejack (pictured above), a tribute to his first love: the Mosrite. From the start, the company took advantage of emerging overseas manufacturing resources and adopted a direct-sales approach made possible by then-new e-commerce technologies. This business model spurred rapid growth and let Eastwood bypass the industry’s traditional distribution model—a significant barrier to entry. And as Eastwood’s flashy resurrections garnered attention and accolades, local dealers who “got it” started carrying the Sidejack, the Airline ’59, and other stalwarts of the company’s growing line, which today features more than fifty models and embraces such specialty items as tenor, baritone, and resonator guitars; six-string basses; and mandolas.
The company markets models under two vintage trademarks: Airline and Eastwood. The Airline badge traces back to the 1950s. Favoring a roots-rock and blues vibe, models in this family, such as the Coronado and Town & Country, remain fairly true to their ancestors. Eastwood, a freethinker’s garden of surf, psychedelia, garage, and even punk gear, gives Robinson room to play.
“With the Eastwoods,” he says, “we can take on anything from the ’50s and ’60s we find weird and wacky and cool.”