Plugging in
Local electric guitar maker fills ‘small’ niche

Jimmy Carabbia and Jim Gillaspy play Durango Guitar Works electric guitars at Katzin Music last week. Carabbia started the company for people who struggle with the size of conventional electric guitars./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Jen Reeder

When Durango resident Jimmy Carabbia was racing BMX bikes as a teen, the shorter index finger on his right hand made it challenging to reach the brake lever on his bike. So he invented an adjustable one to fit his hand.

“I’ve always been messing around, trying to make things better,” Carabbia says. Carabbia went on to become a professional BMX racer and later, the owner of Stonehouse Subs (before selling it about six years ago). He’s also been playing the guitar for the past 25 years.

“I’ve known that I was never going to be a really good guitar player because my fingers just don’t stretch that far on a standard guitar,” he says. “And after all those years of baking bread and crashing my BMX bike, I don’t have a big range of motion.” Then about a year and a half ago, he picked up a kid’s guitar at Katzin Music and inspiration struck. “I was like, ‘Wow, I can really tear it up on this little kid’s guitar!’ It was like being able to jog and suddenly you could sprint,” he says.

The difference? His fingers could easily reach the frets on the smaller guitar. Typical guitars come in 24¾-inch scale length or 25 ½ inches, or as Carabbia puts it, “medium and large.” Though it isn’t challenging to find short-scale acoustic guitars, electric guitars seldom come in the 24-inch scale. With that, the idea for Durango Guitar Works – Durango’s first electric guitar company – was born. Carabbia and his friend Jim Gillaspy, co-owner of Katzin Music, worked together to make a couple short-scale electric guitar prototypes. Another friend cut out a template, a lawyer buddy looked over legal documents pro bono, and yet another friend designed his logo.

“I have a lot of great friends,” Carabbia says. “I had no idea I was going to end up here. I was just trying to get a piece of equipment I could play.” His friends even named the small company’s first guitar model.

“My friends named it ‘The Contender’ for the simple reason that I’m going up against the Man, and I’m the underdog,” he says.

As word of the new short-scale guitars from Durango Guitar Works went viral, the orders started pouring in from around the world. Carabbia’s clients are as far flung as a doctor in Thailand who bought four guitars (in different colors), and a guitar instructor in Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in classical guitar named Don Reese.

Reese, who at 5 foot 4 inches has a smaller frame, says it was fortuitous to find Durango Guitar Works on the Internet.

“I was always in search of a smaller-scale guitar,” Reese says. “One day I Googled ‘short scale guitars’ and up pops this new company I’ve never heard of.” Reese ordered “The Contender” in the color “Sunburst” and was thrilled with the product.

Detailing stands out on a Durango Guitar Works electric guitar. The local company has already taken orders from around the world./ Photo by Stephen Eginoire

“I loved it. I couldn’t believe it,” Reese says. “It’s a great guitar, it really is. The people of Durango have something to be very proud about.”

Reese bought a second guitar because of the high quality, as well as fears that the low price of $329 wouldn’t last for long. But Carabbia is committed to keeping prices low so more people have access to “the tools they need.”

“What I’m doing is bringing attention to the fact that no one guitar is built for everybody,” Carabbia says. “The way I describe it is, if you went into a bike shop in Durango, you’d find a bike that fit you. If you’re gonna do a good job, you need the right tool for the job – it’s just common sense.”

Short-scale electric guitars from Durango Guitar Works are sold online as well as at Katzin Music in Durango (and in a music store in Carabbia’s hometown of Hubbard, Ohio). Jim Gillaspy, co-owner of Katzin Music, says the guitars fit a niche.

“It’s an untapped resource,” Gillaspy says. “There’s a lot of people who have a little smaller frame and smaller hands – it’s not just kids. Having a guitar that fits comfortably in their body and their hands is very helpful, as it is for a kid.”

Though some of the larger companies have offered short-scale electric guitars in the past, they have had a vintage look, Gillaspy says – another distinction that sets Durango Guitar Works apart. “I don’t think anyone’s done anything with more of a modern look to it, a smaller, slender, jazzier kind of body, so he’s standing out,” Gillaspy says. And the guitars not only look good, they sound good, Gillaspy adds. “This is a great guitar, very diverse in what it can play style-wise, from country to ’80s rock, it’s even got some dark, evil tones for some of the darker, metally-er stuff. Very versatile.”

Carabbia is proud to point out that professional guitarists like Ted Nugent and Brian May have played short-scale electric guitars.

“Brian May from Queen – ‘We Will Rock You’ – played his entire life on a short-scale guitar. He’s 6’ 6”, could walk around with two basketballs in his hands … and he played an electric short-scale guitar he built with his dad,” Carabbia says. The next model of electric guitar from Durango Guitar Works launches this fall. Carabbia hopes his line of electric guitars will open doors for local musicians the way it has for him.

“Now I can play guitar a heck of a lot better than I used to – overnight,” Carabbia says. “I’m still not a good guitar player, but I’m better than I was. And it’s a fun guitar to play. It started out I made myself a toy – turns out people like that toy.” •



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