Posted by Steve Helgeson on Jun.06, 2001
True American Originals
By Richard A. Riis, Jr.
In September of 1977, I returned to finish graduate school at Cal State University, Humboldt, in Arcata, California, bringing with me a menagerie of vintage guitars and amplifiers. Soon after I arrived, I started looking for a repairman to do a fret job on my ’59 Les Paul Custom. Thinking there would be nobody in the area who could do this type of work, I resigned myself to believing I would have to take it to San Francisco, four hours south. However, the owner of a local music store told me of a local luthier who was making custom guitars, and he was sure this guitarmaker could help me. I got the address and went to the guy’s shop. Driving up to the shop, I saw this big blue sign over the main entrance which read "Moonstone Guitars" on a building that looked like an old church – it was.
As I walked in, an employee came over. I explained what I was trying to accomplish. He pointed to the rear of the shop, and told me that Steve, the gentleman I want to talk to, was in the back. I walked back and this guy looked up from some sanding work, stood up and introduced himself.
"I’m Steve Helgeson, what can I do for you," he said.
I explained my dilemma and the concern I had about disturbing the binding on my Les Paul during the fret job. He told me, very matter of factly, "There won’t be any disturbance."
After we discussed the fret size I wanted, he asked if I wanted to see some of his instruments. I said "sure," very halfheartedly, I must admit. You see, at this time I believed that the sun rose and set on Gibson guitars and Plexi Marshall amps – a snap judgment that would change as I came to appreciate and play Moonstone guitars.
I became friends with Steve, finished grad school and remained in the area until 1982, when I moved to the San Francisco Bay area. We saw each other infrequently and after a few years, lost touch. I later heard that a fire gutted the factory in 1988, and that most of the machinery was salvageable and could have been rebuilt and rewired, but wasn’t. I thought that was the end of Moonstone Guitars, until I heard from a mutual friend who said Helgeson was building his guitars again. I got Steve’s number, and after almost 14 years, we had a couple of long conversations and I suggested we sit down so he could tell me the entire story of Moonstone Guitars, from day one to the present.
In March, Steve and I got together for three days to discuss the history, concepts, designs and some of the innovative guitar firsts developed by Moonstone Guitars. As I drove to his home, I saw what I thought was an open garage door. But when I got out of the car, I realized that it had been converted into a mini-guitar factory. And just like our first meeting, he was sitting in the back of his shop working on an instrument. However, this time he was wearing a pair of reading glasses to see his work (something all of us guys over 40 can relate to). But one thing hadn’t changed – the trademark bent stemmed pipe he was smoking.
Steve is not a typical luthier or inventor. He’s this lean, imposing six-foot-six Swede that you could believe was, in his younger days, a tight end for the Forty-Niners or a power forward for the Chicago Bulls. Steve’s a bit more talkative now compared to the old days, but his employees always told me it, was nothing personal, he’s just thinking all the time.
Looking around the shop, I came to the realization that Moonstone Guitars is alive and well. Steve rebuilt and rewired the pantograph and all the other machinery, constructed a spray booth and totally retooled, including an outbuilding for wood storage. He’s become a certified Fender and Gibson repair station, as well as taking on all walk-in repairs from local shops and individuals. But his main focus is the construction of a new Moonstone acoustic model called the J-90, along with bringing back the M-80, a 335-esque electric that was a definite bread-and-butter model from the old line. As we spoke, four M-80s were being assembled for the European market.
Steve came to Humboldt County, California, in 1970, to attend the College of the Redwoods for a wildlife management degree, take up residence in a cabin among the redwoods and find a staging, area for his falconry hobby (he was a licensed falconer for 12 years, something that would be reflected at a later date, in the design of his Eagle model guitar). It was here, in the college woodshop, that he started building his first guitar.
"I wanted an acoustic bass because I’d go to Yosemite and there would be 50 guitar players out in a meadow, and no bass players, so I figured I’d have a crowd around me," he said. A quick interjection here – Steve is a self-taught luthier who had no one to apprentice under, and had only Irving Sloan’s book Classical Guitar Construction to teach him the basics. The first instrument Steve built was a diamond-shaped Balalaika-guitar with a Kent bass neck. He told me it sounded like ****, but it worked.
Around this time, he built his first acoustic guitar, an asymmetrical mahogany instrument partially formed using a hot stove pipe. Disenchanted with college, he shelved school in 1972, then moved to Moonstone Heights, a vista point that overlooks the Pacific Ocean at Moonstone Beach, 12 miles up the coast from Arcata, California. He started building his first dreadnought-size guitars. Hence the company’s moniker.
As Steve became a better builder, he was picked up by Arcata Music to do repairs through the retail store. Here he started the prototypes for his electric solidbodies, later known as the Earth Axe model. When Arcata Music went out of business in late 1974, Steve, with one assistant, started his own shop, continuing to work on his prototypes in conjunction with repair and fret job work. This, however, would not be the permanent home of Moonstone Guitars.
By 1974, he had completed his first prototype, Earth Axe #0001, which he was gigging with in his band, Sky. On the second day of my interview, he surprised me when I arrived and saw #000l sitting on his workbench. The Earth Axe was a single slab of western maple burl, essentially true to the shape of the way it was cut from burl itself. Steve would shape and round the edges and cut a single cutaway. To this was attached a 24 3/4-inch scale eastern hard rock maple- neck with a Brazilian rosewood fretboard, inlaid with abalone or mother of pearl diamonds. The headstock was an original trademarked design, with a veneer overlay of bud, walnut or maple with the Moonstone logo (arched banner style) in abalone with a crescent moon between the tuners.
The hardware and electronics were very simple: a Quan tune-o-matic Badass bridge, a set of nickel Grovers, two strap nuts, a hand-carved set of redwood burl knobs and a carved set of maple burl pickup rings. He used two Bartolini TEA humbucking pickups, wired in the basic two tone, two volume configuration with two mini-toggleswitches to control the pickups separately. The electronics cavity was covered with a maple burl slab plate. The dwell of the neck and the width of the fretboard was almost identical to the 1961 SG Les Paul Standard.
Moonstone guitars were the first guitars ever made of maple burl. When I asked him why he chose maple burl exclusively, Steve responded, "Because of its high density and sustaining quality, and aesthetically, for the highly figured and beautifully burled look." This is especially true when he started making the Vulcan.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the wood. Big leaf maple grows predominantly on the northern West Coast of the United States. The burls, which grow on or under these trees, are caused by either unusual chemical circumstances or the root structure’s unusual growth due to geographic or topographical conditions. Some burl is harvested off the sides of nearly inaccessible cliffs, or in deep valleys and creekbeds where roots have to stretch to the ground to establish themselves. Often, there are rocks and mineral segments embedded in the burl and roots, which makes milling very difficult and expensive. Also, irregular bark enclosures sometime appear, which when milled and finished, give the wood an distinctive, prized look. The contract loggers who scout this wood call it the "Jewel of the Forest."
Color and grain patterns vary widely, and the "figure" in the wood will vary from quilted lace to birdseye, fiddleback, flamed, and spaulted patterns. Burl, renowned for its beauty and density (or mass), is one of the rarest and most costly hardwoods on the West Coast.
The incredible sustain of Moonstone guitars is due to the wood grain, which is closely-packed and multi-directional. Steve uses other woods, including Myrtlewood burl, figured black-burl Walnut, and quilted or curly, flamed big-leaf Maple burl.
By the middle of 1975, Moonstone had enough Earth Axes to stimulate some interest, so Steve started marketing the instruments on his own. By that time, he had modified the Earth Axe, adding coil taps and a phase switch. His marketing method was the traditional "trunk show," an old phrase from the rag-and-shoe trade, where goods were literally carried in the trunk of the car. He covered territory from Portland, Oregon, to Los Angeles, selling pieces to retail stores. As orders increased, Steve started looking around for a larger building to set up a factory. By late 1977 or early ’78, Moonstone Guitars moved to its permanent headquarters on G Street in Arcata,
Production went into full swing and there was no looking back. In fact, Steve was already working on the prototypes to the Vulcan line. It was also about that time Steve’s brother, Peter, joined him, handling all the electronic wiring. Pete’s wiring was so meticulous that a guitar magazine once commented that "… when you lift the cavity plate from the back of a Moonstone, it’s like looking at the movement of a Rolex watch."
Meanwhile, Steve continued to wear many hats – luthier, designer, marketer, etc. Finally, on one of his trips to Los Angeles in 1977, Moonstone got its first big break. Steve was in Studio Equipment Rentals, showing his guitars, when Leland Sklar (see VG interview, October ’95), bassist for Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and his own band, Section, walked in and started checking out the instruments.
During their discussion, Sklar commissioned Steve to do something outrageous, something along the lines of dragons or gargoyles. Since Steve was a falconer, they settled on an Eagle bass; in early 1978, Leland took possession of a doubleneck Eagle carved-body bass. On top was a piccolo short-scale neck (30"), and on the bottom, a full scale bass neck (331/2") with hand-carved, removable, peg head caps in the form of an eagle’s head with red fire opal eyes lit with LEDs.
Shortly after, Steve surprised Danny Kortchmer with an Eagle guitar at the Miyako Hotel, in San Francisco, prior to the Jackson Browne concert at the Concord Pavillion. That evening, when Jackson Browne played, Kortchmer "road tested" his Eagle guitar, and purchased it on the spot. That night, he and Sklar played their guitars onstage. In addition, the instruments were featured in the 6-page color insert that accompanied Jackson Browne’s album Running on Empty. Sklar’s bass currently belongs to the Hard Rock Cafe’s memorabilia/archive department, which displays it in their many restaurants.
As a result of this notoriety, things started to click for the Moonstone Guitar Company, and Steve realized he couldn’t continue to hand-carve all his guitars and stay competitive. The writing was on the wall he had to automate and take on more employees.
In mid-1978, he contacted Oasis Guitars of Sacramento and arranged to purchase a pantograph capable of cutting four bodies at once, along with numerous edge, belt, and finishing sanders, as well as the necessary tools needed to gear up. In the process, Steve hired the employees that would make up the core of Moonstone Guitars. Besides Pete (head of electronics), he retained Peter Shingle as his production manager, Ken Lawrence, luthier and tooling, and Dace Essely headed up the spraying and finishing department. There were also 8 to 10 other employees working at the factory in the late 1970s and 1980s.
During research and development, it became apparent to Steve and his four cohorts that a degree of standardization must take place in the basic layout of all the instruments. The group developed these standard features: hardshell cases, Allen Bradley mod pots, a completely shielded wiring harness, gold plated bridges, strap buttons and Sperzel tuning machines, side position dots made of sterling silver or brass, buffed brass knobs, jack plates, switch handles and screws, catalyzed polyurethane finish (10-coat, buffed to a high gloss), two-octave fretboards with Dunlap Series 6100 extra high frets; guitars would have a 251/2" fret scale, basses a 33 1/2" fret scale. Options included: elaborate inlay, scale length, fingerboard radius, neck contour, width and taper, pickup and electronic configuration, constructions materials, left-handed instruments, fret size and a myriad of finishes.
In late 1976 or early 1977, Steve laid out the final design for his Vulcan model. The first three prototypes single cutaway versions. However, after looking at these three instruments, he decided that rather than plagiarize the silhouette of an already well-known guitar, he would add a second cutaway. The first Vulcan came off the line on March 19, 1978. In terms of guitars and materials, Helgeson and Gibson shared the same philosophy – nothing was ever thrown or given away. Thus, the three single-cutaway prototypes were sold as follows: #0025 went to Sunrise Music in Sacramento, #5027 was sold to Ron Corbett from the band Rolls Rock, and Pete Helgeson retained #5029 for himself, as he had personally built the guitar.
The Vulcan became the flagship model of all Moonstone Guitars because it was a tremendous rock guitar – nothing matched its sustain or its aesthetic beauty. It was available in two configurations – the Deluxe and the Standard. The thickness of both was similar to the LP standard. But the Deluxe Vulcan had a beveled and contour with matching grain burl pot and covers, along with a more accentuated arch cut into the top, sloping back up to a very predominant recurve. Additional features were diamond and starflake abalone inlay and ebony fretboard bound in African padauk and a 5-piece laminated neck of eastern hard rock Maple and African Padauk.
Beautifully carved out of a single piece of Moonstone’s best burl, the Vulcan was designed for versatility in sound production. It incorporated a 5-voice selectable spectrum rhythm pickup (the Bartolini Beast II) that had four separate windings, enabling it to resonate at several frequencies and resulting in a midrange punch that could be increased without losing the clarity or high frequency response. Its very high output level greatly increased the overdrive sustain characteristics of this instrument.
The Vulcan was wired to a 5-position rotary switch varying the tone to five separate voices: high output high clarity, and three phase positions (1/3, 2/3, full out of phase). The bridge pickup (the Bartolini ES1) featured a narrow-aperture, hum-canceled coil assembly with an excellent high gain, low noise amplifier. The high gain of the amp made it possible to drive the pickup into its own distortion sustain mode.
Standard Vulcans differed from the Deluxe in a number of ways. The body was Honduran mahogany with a bookmatched laminated maple burl top, a bound edge, and plastic switch and pot covers. The headstock was laminated with a light maple burl, as opposed to a very dark walnut burl, with the logo and crescent moon in black decals, instead of abalone. The neck was made from quartersawn 2-piece figured eastern Rock Maple and inlaid on the rosewood fretboard with mother of pearl dots. Electronics in the standard came with two matched-impedance Bartolini 1-S single-coil pickups, two volume, two tone, selector and phase switch.
As I mentioned earlier, the instruments commissioned by Kortchmer and Sklar, as well as the buzz created at Studio Instrument Rentals in Los Angeles, helped Moonstone Guitars’ marketing endeavors. As a result, Marvin Lebeau (then the president of Morley), started courting Steve to become Moonstones’ domestic distributor. Negotiations came to fruition in December of 1976 and Steve held that position until the end of 1978. During this time, Morley took delivery of two instruments per month, through the tail end of the Earth Axes and the beginning of the Vulcans. Lebeau was enamored with Moonstone Guitars’ use of quilted maple burl to make the entire body of the Vulcan.
Steve was the first luthier to use quilted maple burl to construct a guitar. The association with Morley accelerated the sales and notoriety of the instruments to the extent that inquiries and requests for acoustic and bass instruments (all of which were on the drawing board or in the process of being prototyped) were coming in rapidly.
After the amicable split between Moonstone and Morley in late 1978, Moonstone experienced explosive growth in 1979 and 1980, due to the introduction of seven new models – five guitars and two basses.
The first new models were the Eclipse Deluxe and Standard. What individuals were asking for, (and something Steve was aware of) was a lighter guitar than the Vulcan without losing the sting of the Vulcan’s sustain. The Eclipse was a little more than half the thickness of the Vulcan and the body was wider below the curves of the offset double cutaways, as well. Unlike the Vulcan, it had a through-body, 2-piece maple neck, beveled and contoured on the back, and under the arm side of the front. Another unique feature of the Eclipse was the body’s bookmatched top and back with either an African Padauk (Deluxe) of Honduran mahogany (Standard) core between them.
The cutaways and neck were joined to allow complete access to the second octave. In respect to differences in electronics, fretboard and inlay, etc., the Eclipse offered the same options as the Vulcan Deluxe and Standard. Early in 1980, and hot on the heels of the Eclipse Guitar, production began on Eclipse basses – Deluxe and Standard. These basses were identical in looks to their 6-string counterparts, with the exception of a 331/2" bass neck scale.
A new construction innovation was Moonstones’ use of graphite to reinforce the neck, which stiffened the hard rock Maple neck. This also created a rise in the resonant frequency vibrations of the neck itself, so no notes on the fretboard would be canceled out from being the same frequency as the neck – in essence, no dead spots. It had two Bartolini 9S pickups, and two volume, two tone and a phase switch.
If the Vulcan was the company’s flagship, the M-80 was certainly its jewel. A stunning piece of work, the M-80 was a rounded, double-cutaway, semi-hollowbodied, F-hole, thin-line guitar, with a carved top and back, bound ebony fretboard and abalone starflake inlay, made with Moonstones’ best figured Maple neck.
The guitar was designed to look carved, with an accentuated arch and recurved rim with a bound body, its top and back carved out of 1-inch thick blocks of solid or bookmatched maple. Moonstones’ semi-solid model was braced internally, with a revolutionary frame structure (as opposed to solid block) which allowed the top and back to breathe, but increased the sustain through neck and body rigidity. This was achieved with a 1-piece neck-to-tail block skeletal frame, carved to fit the inside contour of the top and back. Later, the brace was carved directly into the wood that made up the top, and the same was done for the back. For those who sought more traditional, longer sustain with less feedback, Moonstone offered the M-80 with a solid Maple center block. Rounding out the look were a raised multilayer black pickguard, a Leo Quan Badass bridge and tailpiece, gold Sperzel or Grover tuners, polished brass hardware, two Bartolini Beast II pickups wired for high clarity, two volume, two tone controls and 2-position phase switch.
This instrument was available in a natural finish. There were also many custom order M-80s made out of different woods. Some were highly figured, black-burl walnut, one from African purple heart, three of curly Koa, a few Maple back and sides with a Sitka spruce top. This model came with a few options: a Quan bridge and tailpiece with fine tuners, DiMarzio PAF pickups or, later on, Seymour Duncan ’59 bridge and neck pickups, a carved black Walnut burl pickguard and the optional orange-honey or tobaccoburst finishes.
The Boom Years, the Fire and the Rebirth
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the musical landscape changed due to the proliferation of hard rock/heavy metal bands. Many of the icon guitar players in these bands played the ever-familiar V and Explorer-shaped axes, so almost every one of the well known (or soon to be well known) guitar manufacturers started making their version of these instruments.
Steve Helgeson was always reluctant to copy a previously used design. But after going to enough Namm shows and seeing Dean, Hammer, Ibanez, etc., the handwriting was on the wall, and he decided to offer up the Exploder guitar and bass.
The Exploder guitar was built ostensibly on the Eclipse guitar (Standard) platform, while the Exploder bass was built with the Eclipse (Standard) bass specs. Both, of course, were eastern hard rock maple neck-through construction with bookmatched maple burl body and Honduras Mahogany core. Hardware, inlay and logos were identical to the respective Eclipse models they were fashioned from. However, the electronics were slightly different, with two volumes, a master tone and a phase switch. The Exploder guitar featured either the Bartolini 1-S or DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups. Later in 1980 and early 1982, Moonstone followed up with the Flaming V guitar and bass; these two guitars were constructed identically to their Exploder. There was one additional Flaming V model with the option of either a Kahler or Floyd Rose tremolo bridge. These bridges could also be custom ordered on the Exploder guitar.
The final model, the Eagle, was introduced in 1980. Remember, Helgeson was a licensed falconer, and his inspiration for the Eagle guitar came from this love of training, flying and hunting with raptors. Since other musicians were familiar with the Eagle guitar and the doubleneck Eagle bass Helgeson built for Danny Kortchmar and Leland Sklar, he started receiving inquiries and requests for the model. He eventually made it part of the line. Even though it appeared in the catalogue, it was really a custom shop guitar and each of the 11 ever built (#52950-#52960) were hand-carved by the master himself.
The shape of this guitar was very cool. If you’ve ever watched a wildlife show on birds of prey, and seen a raptor in a dive, their wings are tucked close to their bodies (for maximum aerodynamics) with a slight flair at the wing tips, and tailfeathers fanned for stabilization.
This inspired Helgeson when he carved this instrument. The cutaways are more rounded, with the top one slightly forward of the lower. The body curves inward fairly abruptly, then flares out to the tip of the well-defined wing feathers. The guitar’s line follows the four main wing feathers in from both sides, meeting up with the tailfeathers, which are fanned and protruding downward in a near half circle.
The effect is brilliant. Helgeson recreates all 126 feathers found on these birds. On one model, he also changed the headstock to make it look like the contour of an eagle’s head, with the beak pointing toward the high E string and the head feathers pointing toward the low E. The Padauk-bound ebony fingerboard is inlaid with all hand-cut mother of pearl inlays of 10 different species of birds. The neck was a 2-octave, 5-piece laminate of Padauk and Moonstone’s best figured hard rock maple.
This instrument was perfectly balanced, due to its aerodynamic design. The electronics were Bartolini Beast II Rhythm and an active ES1 bridge pickup, two volumes with master tone and a high gain preamp switch located in the push-pull bridge volume pot. The output jack was hidden inside the end of the lower wing and the hardware was either nickel or gold. The Eagle guitar was a fitting end to the seven new instruments issued from December of 1979 to December of 1980.
At this point, things began to steamroll in the marketing department. Helgeson forged a friendship with Bartolini, and after meeting him in 1975, they discovered both grew up in the Livermore-Pleasanton area of California. In 1979 and 1980, they shared a booth at the Namm shows. This marked the first time Moonstone showed itself as an autonomous entity, rather than subordinate, as they were in their association with Morley.
Another connection Helgeson made was with Geoff Gould, founder of Modulus Graphite. Moonstone designed a couple of new neck configurations and commissioned Modulus to manufacture them because they wanted to prototype solid graphite necks on a few existing models, as well as two new models slated for the 1981 release.
The new graphite necks were used on the Eclipse Standard and Deluxe basses, Vulcan Standard and Deluxe guitars, M-80 and the new 1981 models, the D-81 Eagle 6 and 12-string acoustic guitars, D-81 Standard 6 and 12-string guitars and the Moondolin (mandolin) Standard.
Helgeson researched and developed the graphite neck because it was a low maintenance design with superior tone. When applied to the D-81, it increased volume radically, plus it never warped or twisted. The necks were made of high-grade aerospace graphite and the hollow shells of the necks were molded and baked using the patented "modulus" process. A longitudinal-grain graphite top plate was bonded under the fretboard. Modulus Graphite was impervious to temperature, climate or atmosphere, so a truss rod system was unnecessary. After the neck was finished, the fingerboard was glued to the top, and laminate glued to the headstock.
Because Helgeson wanted a truss rod for his wooden-necked guitars that was as reliable as the graphite neck, he designed and patented the Graphite Aluminum Honeycomb Composite (G.A.H.C.) truss rod system. It looked like a rectangular slab with a 1-inch piece of graphite on the top and bottom, a quarter of an inch on both sides, and an aircraft aluminum honeycomb core down the center. All components were heat bonded together, and an adjustment rod was added.
This system was designed to eliminate twisting and warping, while increasing sustain. In year-long beta testing, it proved to be the most stable neck support system available. It decreased weight and increased torsional and longitudinal stiffness, and as a result, Moonstone offered a lifetime guarantee on these necks.
In 1981, Moonstone hit full stride, with its own booth at the Namm shows, domestic and international dealers in place, and client lists formulated. Every time they went to Namm, they sold every floor model and came away with $25,000 to $30,000 in orders, not including direct factory orders. Life was good.
Helgeson then settled down to making the company’s first acoustic guitars. He had built acoustics in the past, but initially, electric guitars were the engine that drove the company. The model designation for the new dreadnought was the D-81 Eagle and Standard, 6 or 12-string, with the graphite or flamed maple neck. The D-81 was gorgeous. The 6 and 12-string were constructed the same way and had a 251/2" scale and graphite-spruce laminate soundboard bracing. The peghead was, of course, black walnut burl veneer with the abalone halfmoon/logo inlay. Its ebony fretboard was bound and inlaid between the third and 15th fret with a mother of pearl vine and pink abalone flowers and green leaves. It had abalone inlay around the soundhole, as well.
The body was bound with a black pickguard and ebony bridge shaped like a highly detailed eagle, with wings fully extended. The top was Sitka spruce, and the sides and back were highly quilted maple. However, Helgeson made some guitars with sides and back made of KOA, Paduak and Rosewood.
Necks were either graphite or eastern hard rock maple, with the G.A.H.C. truss rod system. The D-81 Standard was identical in construction and scale, but had wood-inlaid rosette around the soundhole, dot inlay on the neck and a plain, belly-out, ebony bridge. In terms of tone quality, both were exceptional, opulence being the only difference.
Helgeson also made a mandolin, called the Moondolin, available in a solid or semi-hollow f-hole maple burl body. These instruments look like miniature Vulcans and had five or eight strings and a graphite or traditional wood neck. There was , like most other models of the line, a Deluxe and Standard, the difference being the inlay and the fancier headstock of the Deluxe verses the dot inlay and decal on the Standard. One additional difference between the Deluxe and Standard was the hand-carved black walnut burl tone and volume knobs as opposed to brass ones.
The 5-string mando had three-and-two tuner arrangment on the headstock, whereas the 8-string had four per side and a more elongated headstock. The 5-string had a solid brass bridge with built-in saddles, but the 8-string had a hand-carved wooden bridge that could be raised or lowered with thumb screws, and a floating tailpiece that attached to the rear of the body with the strap nut. The mandolins were more of a custom order, only seven were made, with serial numbers T001 through T007.
Of the five additional custom shop instruments, the first was the Eclipse Standard electric 12-string, the second was the Eclipse Standard electric 6 and 12-string double neck. These instruments shared the same construction, design and electronics as the regular Standard Eclipse 6-string guitar. The Standard doubleneck had the same specs as the Standard and Standard 12, with each neck having separate electronics wiring and a 3-position neck selector switch being the variable.
The third instrument in this trilogy was the Pulsar. Designed with the heavy metal guitarist in mind, it was built to compete with Charvel, Jackson and the like. Painted jet black with a high-gloss black polyester finish over a lightweight alder body, it was fitted with a graphite neck (maple neck was optional). The headstock was a black and gold decal minus the crescent moon. The electronics, attached to a raised, multilayer, black pickguard, were Allen Bradley mod pots, one volume and one tone. The output jack, and either a DiMarzio super distortion or Lawrence L-500 pickup, mounted in its black plastic pickup ring. A neck pickup could be added for an additional charge.
The bridge was a Leo Quan Badass black and gold tune-o-matic, tuning machines were a 16:1 ration, die cast and gold plated. The neck had a 12-inch radius fingerboard with extra high frets. The guitar was striking, resembling a Moonstone Exploder. It was loud and could sustain a note all day long.
Instruments four and five were the Vulcan and Vulcan II Bass, with construction identical to the Vulcan guitar. The Vulcan Bass was a flat-topped guitar, the Vulcan II Bass had a carved top like its 6-string brother. They shared a 331/2" fret scale, 3-piece maple/Paduak neck, 24-fret bound ebony fingerboard with pearl diamond/star inlay, fixed Quan bridge, dark black walnut burl veneer headstock with pearl crescent moon/logo inlay, two-per-side tuners, gold hardware, a covered humbucking Bartolini "P" pickup, two volume/tone controls and an active tone circuit. These basses thundered because of their solid, dense maple burl bodies.
On the side, Moonstone was making bodies and pickguards. Bodies were made of bookmatched maple burl, maple quilt, flamed maple, walnut burl and myrtle burl, laminated to a Honduras mahogany core, routed for a rear control cavity, and shipped finished with back cover plates. They were for bolted-neck guitars such as the P bass, Jazz bass and Strat.
Pickguards were made from the same woods and finished with an exclusive polymer coating with unique properties and characteristics – it felt hard, but retained a semifluid state all the time. Always a high gloss luster, this finish remembered the way it was originally cured; it could be dented or creased, yet would "heal" itself in a few hours, or overnight. But if an instant "heal" was desired, heat could be applied (1-second application of torch flame or lighter, infrared, etc.). The finish could also be cleaned and waxed, and the only way it could be damaged would be by cutting, scraping or removing the polymer coating. These pickguards were designed to fit Teles, Strats, P basses, Jazz basses and Les Pauls.
Moonstone experienced its boom years in 1980 through 1984. The National and International Music Press was constantly writing favorable reviews: Times Standard (August 1979) "Stradivarius of electric instruments … there’s nothing that comes close;" Fachblatt Magazine (Europe’s Guitar Player) (December 1979) "Comparable to … a Rolls Royce … Moonstone … the best electric guitars in the world;" International Musician (July/August 1981) "The Moonstone’s flexibility was … the best … an extraordinarily beautiful instrument … a joy to play;" Rolling Stone (July 1981) "The best custom guitars;" Bam Magazine (August 1981) "Obsessed with attaining the perfect guitar sound."
Famous musicians began to buy. Besides Sklar and Kortchmar, Helgeson made Greg Allman a D-81 Eagle acoustic with a graphite neck, Sitka spruce top, quilted maple back and sides and an ornate vine inlaid neck. Howie Hursh, from Joe Cocker’s band, commissioned Moonstone to build an Eclipse Standard fretless bass and an additional Eclipse Deluxe bass with fiber optic side position dots. J.J. Cale came away with a Z-80 semi-hollowbody electric (The Z-80 was a one off design concept).
Another benefactor of a Z-80 guitar was Wendy Melvoin from Prince’s band at the time, the New Revolution. Helgeson was contacted by somebody from Prince’s holding/production companies, who told him they had heard very good things about Moonstone Guitars and asked if he had anything unique they could purchase for Wendy. Helgeson mentioned the Z-80. The voice on the other end of the line said that would do, and didn’t flinch at the price.
A few days later, a cashier’s check came from Minneapolis, and Helgeson shipped the guitar. He never met Wendy, never found out whether she liked the guitar, doesn’t know if she still has it. J.J. Cale apparently still has his and would never sell it.
What was the Z-80? Essentially a hybrid M-80, it was a very unique instrument with a totally innovative design. A marriage of a 335 and a classic archtop electric, but with no f holes, one pickup in the neck position, a tune-o-matic bridge and a floating trapeze tailpiece near the rear strap nut.
Sound emanated from five oblong vents on either side of the neck, along the width of the cutaways. Inside was a baffle system similar to a folded-horn PA cabinet. This enabled the player to get unidirectional feedback when pointing the instrument directly or indirectly toward the amplifier. As the sound collects in the body, the guitar throws the sound back at the amp in greater or lesser degrees of harmonics, based on the vibrations it was sustaining. The floating, arched, top did not touch the baffling system, and only attached to the guitar on the leading edge of the sides. On J.J. Cale’s guitar, the neck was eastern hard rock maple with an ebony fretboard and starflake abalone inlay, and the headstock was Moonstone’s Standard black walnut burl with abalone inlay logo and crescent moon.
The electronics differed only slightly on the two; J.J. Cale’s Z-80 had a single Bartolini Beat II pickup, wired for high clarity, in the neck position. Wendy Melvoin’s had an additional bridge transducer and a preamp wired for both pickups. Wendy’s neck and headstock were a little different, bound in black-white-black, and a circular inlay on the neck, with an outer circle of abalone, the second and third circle in made of mother of pearl, and the fourth dot circle made of abalone, again.
Helgeson also built a one and only acoustic, the Z-81, with this baffling system. It looked like a 335-meets-classic-big-box-archtop acoustic. It utilized the same baffling system, identical vented slots in the cutaways, and the floating arched top. The top was Sitka spruce, the back, sides and neck were curly KOA. The fretboard was ebony with diamond-shaped abalone inlay and the headstock was the standard black walnut burl veneer and half moon/logo inlay. A bridge was hand carved out of ebony in the form of an eagle with slightly bent wings, and notches to hold the strings, instead of pins.
Despite their awesome sound, Helgeson knew the instrument was going to have few takers, and because it was so labor intensive, he built only the one, which remains in his area. He reports the sound of the Z-81 has gotten even bigger since its construction.
In 1985, guitar manufacturing changed drastically. Hard rock and heavy metal was demanding a different emphasis in guitar construction and shape. Basically, it was not that sophisticated – a neck, a body and a distortion pickup. Guitar companies sprung up everywhere, touting their instruments as the best. There were some great guitar builders – and the good ones are still around – but most are gone because they were only in it for as long as the craze lasted.
This trend cut into the business of custom guitar makers like Moonstone. Helgeson, never one for becoming a sheep or following the flock, was not going to succumb to shifting the company focus by making trendy guitars, reasoning that if the Pulsar, Flaming V/Exploder guitars and basses wouldn’t suffice for this end of the market …tough!
So between 1985 and 1987, Moonstone’s sales were leveled off. But in early 1988, Moonstone suffered its greatest catastrophe; a fire swept through the plant. It didn’t reach the wood stacks or the office; the greatest damage occurred in the manufacturing area. This couldn’t have come at a worse time, because Helgeson was already facing some personal demons and tragedies during this period.
Later, the Arcata fire department determined the fire was set intentionally after they found the igniter a few feet under the floorboards of the manufacturing plant. Helgeson removed all salvageable machinery, wood and records, and stored them from 1988 to 1990.
He then worked on new designs and did a lot of research and development, while having the tools of his trade rebuilt, rewired and repainted. In 1990, he moved his plant to Eureka, California, and rebuilt a mini version of his operation, in his home. Dace Essley, his original finisher, is back assisting him . Helgeson has since built some big box acoustic/electric basses, Eclipse Deluxe 5-string basses, many M-80s, and the new J-90 acoustic. His concentration has been on the M-80 and his new J-90.
The J-90 is arguably Helgeson’s most beautiful acoustic instrument to date. It is an auditorium-size, big-box acoustic, a remnant of the J-200. Materials include the very stout and resonant West African Wenge (wen-gay) neck, back and sides, with master-grade Sitka or Engelman spruce for the top and soundboard bracing. The scale is a 251/2" ebony fingerboard inlaid with a mother of pearl vine, pink abalone flowers and green abalone leaves. It has an adjustable graphite/stainless steel truss rod system. The headstock is an ebony veneer with the crescent moon logo inlay and an ebony belly-out bridge inlaid with a small branch in mother of pearl at opposing ends of the bridge. It is also being offered in quilted maple. The customer can pick virtually any type of soundhole, such as ebony and abalone inlaid into a maple rosette. This is an absolutely stunning piece. And sound…get out of here!
The most important part of doing this article is to introduce readers to a custom guitar maker who is presently reprising his craft, as well as highlight his work from the past. Helgeson introduced custom guitar makers to exotic and fine-sounding woods in constructing premium stringed instruments.
His inventions, like the graphite truss rod system, speak for themselves and continue to be implemented in guitar construction. What is most gratifying, though, is that he is making these exemplary instruments once again, and it won’t be long before peoples’ awareness of his work will be rekindled. In fact, an old European dealer has already commissioned quite a few M-80s as a direct result of the European musicians who, because they played and owned these guitars, encouraged a cult following for Moonstone.
One final note: while I was preparing this piece, a good friend stopped by and noticed I had all the old catalogues and photos laying out, including an 8×10 photo of the J-90. As he perused the material, he was blown away by the perfectly bookmatched, quilted, and curly flamed maple.
"This guy was the Paul Reed Smith of the ’70s and ’80s," he said.
I had to correct him.
"I think you’ve got that backward, chronologically," I said. "Paul Reed Smith is the Steve Helgeson of the ’80s and ’90s."