By Robert Downes
Tim Miller built his first guitar in his eighth grade shop class using
coat hanger wire for strings and an old, smashed-up microphone for a
He never looked back.
Im probably one of the few people who can say this, but I have an
extreme passion for what I do for a living, says Miller, 36, who has
been building or repairing guitars and other stringed instruments for
more than 20 years.
Miller launched The Great Lakes Guitar Center Co. a year ago at a
storefront at 171 Woodmere in Traverse City. Approximately 80% of his
business involves repairing stringed instruments, with the rest of his
time spent building guitars from scratch.
I tend to build guitars around whatever piece of wood I acquire,
Miller says. Each guitar is so individual in nature that I avoid
having a production line. What I like to do is rough the guitar in and
then have the customer pick out the appointments.
By appointments, Miller means the hardware, such as the tuning keys
and electronics. He built one such guitar for rocker Kenny Olson using
a Stratocaster design along with Petoskey stone inlays and the kind of
electronics and hardware which he felt mirrored Olsons style. The
Petoskey stone inlays -- carved into Michigan mittens have become a
signature item for Millers work.
Born in Grayling and raised in Frederick, Miller started playing
guitar when he was eight or nine years old. His first guitar was a
gift from his mother, Valerie, whose love of music included playing
the organ. As a child, he recalls his mother taking him on trips to
inspiring musical venues ranging from the Grand Old Opry to the Sun
Recording Studio, sometimes with an OzzFest tossed in the next day.
Other influences included various teachers, including an elementary
school music teacher who used to arrive for lessons on a motorcycle,
wearing black leather pants and a sexy red blouse. Miller also served
as an understudy with a luthier in the area, but he says the majority
of his education has involved trial and error and experimentation.
Ive done studies with other luthiers, but Im never going to stop
learning my craft, he says. There are so many different brands and
styles of guitars, and sometimes it takes longer to build a jig to
hold the guitar than it does to repair it.
Its never slowed down for me, he adds. I get to create art so that
other people can create their art. How awesome is that? To take these
raw materials and turn them into something that will become an
Miller has built both acoustic and electric guitars, but says he loves
the latter best. I like building electric guitars because theres a
mysticism of going from wood, steel and wire to the feeling you get
when you tie that to some huge stack (of amps). Its literally
An unexpected jackpot for Miller has been his creation of a General
Lee guitar, which is an homage to the Dukes of Hazzard TV show which
aired from 1979-1985.
My nephew came to me seven or eight years ago and asked me to paint
his guitar orange, like the color of the General Lee in The Dukes of
Hazzard, Miller recalls.
The General Lee was a 1969 Dodge Charger with a Confederate flag
painted on the roof and the number 01 on each door. Miller has
added these features to his line of guitars, prompting a jaw-dropping
no way! response from fans of the show.
He put the original guitar on his MySpace page and was surprised to
get a friend request from Catherine Bach, the actress who played Daisy
Duke on the show. That contact put him in touch with Ben Jones, who
played a mechanic and tow truck driver named Crazy Cooter.
Jones went on to become a congressman in Georgia and a successful
businessman. Today, he owns two Cooters Place stores in Gatlinburg
and Nashville, TN, which sell Dukes of Hazzard paraphernalia,
including Millers line of General Lee guitars.
He said he wanted to carry my line, so now I build them in batches of
a dozen, he says, adding that hes made 30-35 of the guitars so far,
based around a modified Strat design and retailing for $250-$1,000.
WORD OF MOUTH
Miller performed as a guitarist in local bands years ago, and has
served as a guitar tech for performers including Kenny Olson, but says
his heart has always been on the luthier side of the business. When
my friends heard that I was working on guitars, I started getting work
right away, he recalls.
Hes been a professional luthier for 10 years now, capable of
everything from building an acoustic guitar from scratch in 40 hours,
to analyzing and installing the best electronic mix for your electric
I know a lot of musicians in Northern Michigan, including all of the
top performers, and most of my business comes from word of mouth.