Monday, March 4, 2024

Meet Robert Brownwell, the Long Beach artist that crafts guitars tailored for other artists

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Robert Brownwell—the Long Beach artist perched on the eighth floor of a downtown, old-school high-rise—has a deep love of guitars, one which stretches to the man’s teen years.

But little did the man know—even after an accident that eventually forced him into bass playing—that he would eventually be customizing guitars for artists around the world with his own company, the Quarter Panel Guitar Company.

Robert Brownwell learns to lose in order to gain when it comes to music—and incorporates a part of his artistry that supersedes music

“I started out messing around on guitar and the band I was in also needed a bass player—so I kinda played both fronts in that sense,” Brownwell. “But when I was 19, I was in a car accident that made me lose movement in my left pinky and ring finger. You can play bass well without those fingers but not really guitar—and that really shifted my love to bass because I was forced to do so. But I’ve always had a guitar both in my heart and to write music for the band.”

Flash forward to 2017: Brownwell puts down the bass to rediscover songwriting—and he had to get a six-string because he didn’t have one at the time. Perusing online, he sees a guitar with routed out cavities, an innovation from Fender in 1967 to make the guitar lighter that didn’t really work and was eventually abandoned. But this replica—where the cavities were actually exposed, unlike the Fender attempt which had the cavities covered where players strum with their pick—inspired something within his own artistic vision.

“I’ve always been an artist—and not just as a musician,” Brownwell. “And I see this shadowbox and thought how cool it would be to create art in it.”

And that he did: Inspired by a meteorite fragment given to him by his girlfriend, Brownwell uses the space to tell the story through a paper sculpture, reflection the meteorite falling to earth to eventually land in his own hands.

“When I found this body style that I could meld my artistry into guitars,” Brownwell said. “And it started this entire journey of not only taking what I know about guitars—knowing the components and what makes a particular sound—but taking all the iterations and idiosyncrasies of my art and reapplying them back into the guitar.”

The creation of the Quarter Panel Guitar Co. by Robert Brownwell

To step into Brownwell’s workshop is to step into a guitar piece wonderland: pickups, whammy bars, pick guards, necks, tuning pegs, fretboards, headstocks… This is paired with a collage of colorful fabrics and materials: embossed leather, paisley bandana strips, denim, stickers, paint…

This is the Quarter Panel Guitar Company, perched on the eighth floor of the historic Pacific Tower building at the northwest corner of Broadway and Long Beach Boulevard.

And though its a bonafide business—he’s successfully completed three of his artistic creations, some of which take months depending on what the artist is seeking—Brownwell’s sense of humbleness and respect about organically growing his own reputation is what plays key to his idea of success.

“It’s still not really a business—I loosely call it a business because I really want to earn the recognition,” Brownwell humbly says, even as he picks up a guitar that someone has commissioned for Jack White. “I make guitars for performers and rock stars right now in order to get my name out there. It’s about establishing trust and building relationships.”

The passionate, nerdy, infectious spirit behind Robert Brownwell’s artistic guitars

Every time Brownwell opened electric guitars as a kid, it was unfinished wood and a jumble of wires—something antithetical to what he largely considered a sacred instrument that was used to “create sonic art,” in his words.

“I felt like the insides of them—the most important part of an electric guitar—should be treated like a jewelry box,” Brownwell said. “Especially the type of electronics I use: I collaborate with a company in Atlanta, Kellingsound, that’s ran by the son of Frank Zappa’s guitar tech and he makes these awesome little contraptions that fit to what I tell him I want to do electronically. I can do basic wiring for guitars but when I want something specific, this is the guy I go to.”

Extending his hand out, he displays what looks like, well, the very jumble of wires he previously noted, attached to metal nodules. Going “way into the weeds,” he begins to talk about the pickups, the heart of electrical guitars that converts string vibrations into electricity.

“There are two types of pickups,” Brownwell said. “Single-coil and humbucker. Single-coil is a bit noisy, the first incarnation of a guitar pickup. But the double-coil humbucker—you could say it is the precursor to noise cancellation technology. It essentially makes it less echoey.”

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This passionate dedication—from his array of double-coil humbuckers to his array of materials used as artistic decor—is infectious when hearing him discuss his art: Extremely selfless but inherently deeply aware of details, his creations are beautiful odes to the arts of music, sculpture, collage, and more.

“Nothing in what I do is innovative—I use technology that is already out there,” Brownwell says, once again harnessing his own sense of humility. “I just know how to put it together it different configurations to create the sound that someone is seeking. And then I add the artistic element on top of it if someone is seeking a guitar that looks a specific way.”

There is one way he admits he stands out: Every single one of his guitars is, as he had said they should be, treated like a jewelry box, inlining each with some type of fabric.

“You don’t see underneath or inside the compartment but as the artist who purchased this from me, you’ll know I lined it with black velvet and red piping,” Brownwell said, uplifting one of his creations. “Every guitar of mine has a story—and this one is a bit simpler: You know it has the lining and leather pick guard—and it’s something to show what I can do.”

Brownwell keeps his creations simple, sticking to two types of shapes when it comes to the guitar bodies he is willing to work with: the iconic Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, tending to steer clear of weird shapes. Between those shapes, you can do standard or what he dubs “the smuggler’s style,” which is a hallowed out body which he lines. (Like the denim-lined creation he created for a blues player, including a zip-up fly that allows for the changing of strings.)

After a shape is chosen by a client—his necks are produced in Indiana by a company led by veterans and bodies constructed by another vendor—and then Brownwell gets to work.

“Ultimately, each piece is really an expression of both the artist requesting it and my own artistic vision,” Brownwell said. “And hopefully the music world at large will start requesting them.”

For more information on the Quarter Panel Guitar Company, click here. To contact Robert Brownwell with inquiries about potential commissions, email him at robbie@quarterpanelguitarco.com or call or text 562-449-3706 for an appointment.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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