On June 13, 1978, Tony and I drove down to Santa Cruz to pick up the first Tony Rice Model guitar from the Santa Cruz Guitar Company (SCGC), founded in 1976 by Richard Hoover, Will Davis, and Bruce Ross. This Dreadnought-sized instrument picked up one distinguishing feature of the 1935 Clarence White Martin, its oversized sound hole — the circular cutout in the guitar’s top. But otherwise, SCGC’s Tony Rice Model guitar is not a Clarence White Martin copy. It is its own dreadnought.
There are multiple stories abut this enlarged O-hole, but Harry Sparks’ explanation, sent to me in an email, seems the most credible. “Either Tony or Clarence White said that there had been pick wear just above the pickguard that had chewed out the wood to the first line of purfling. To make the hole round again, someone carved or filed out the rest of the wood all the way around. I’m not sure who did it.”
But another thing: there’s a pellet gunshot hole in the Clarence White Martin on the upper bout, below the nineteenth fret. Roland said that Clarence and LeRoy McNees (a.k.a. “Mack”), the Kentucky Colonels’ dobroist, were in a cabin at Big Bear Lake, California, one night, hanging out, drinking beer.
The guitar was standing up against a wall. A pellet gun was in Clarence’s hand. He said, “I hate that guitar,” took aim, and shot it.
Roland White gave me Mack’s phone number. I called him and asked, “Why did Clarence say he hated the guitar?”
He laughed and said, “I know it was hard to play. That’s probably why.”
This is another example of the instrument’s high action, first noted by Kenney Music Company, following it around. In any case, the gunshot hole in the Clarence White Martin was not replicated in the SCGC Tony Rice Model guitar.
When we got back to Tee’s home in Kentfield, Tony started playing the new instrument, and right away he heard something wrong. “It don’t sound right. It don’t feel right,” he said. “Something’s off.”
It sounded fine to me, although like Sam Bush, I believe Tony could make any Dreadnought sing.
He reached to fret some first position notes with his left hand, and said, “Something’s the matter; the notes ain’t there.”
Tony made them sound “there” to me.
He measured the string length from nut to bridge on the Clarence White Martin, and then he measured it on the SCGC Tony Rice model.
The string length was 1/8th inch longer on the Santa Cruz than on the Martin. Tony could feel the 1/8th inch and the string tension it added; he could hear the tonal difference.
The folks at the Santa Cruz Guitar Company made the changes Tee wanted, and continued to evolve the instrument to his tone specifications and changing physical needs over the years, creating a dozen personal custom guitars for him between 1978 and 2015. The midrange and treble in particular were fine-tuned to Tee’s liking. The Tony Rice Model is SCGC’s bestselling Signature Model guitar, I believe.
Every year SCGC’s Richard Hoover generously donates one of their guitars to the California Bluegrass Association (CBA), which in turn raffles it off to its members, providing funds for this much-deserving group. Thank you, Richard.