At 68, John Backlund feels like he’s yet to get his big break.
Still, he concedes, he’s satisfied knowing there are scores of people who own and play the guitars that bear his last name — especially when that list includes names like Todd Rundgren and Joe Walsh.
“It gives you a lot of street cred to have those guys play that stuff,” Backlund said.
A professional illustrator of more than 40 years, Backlund has been designing electric guitars for roughly the past 10. The cozy living room of his Summerset home is strewn with guitars, the looks of which are often compared to classic car tail fins and vintage motel signs.
“Retro-futuristic is one of the terms they use for it," he said. "That’s sort of a mythical future as predicted or viewed from the past."
Prior to moving to Summerset in 1993, Backlund and his wife, Teresa Verburg, worked as textbook illustrators at a small firm in Minneapolis. The two took to the Rapid City area having previously passed through on motorcycle trips.
While he prefers playing acoustic guitar, Backlund began sketching electric ones in the mid-2000s that were inspired by design trends of the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Backlund works now with the Ontario-based Eastwood Guitars to bring them to life, and they run between $1,200 and $1,600 a pop.
"The people who like them really like them, and I’ve known about them for probably 10 years before we got together with John," Eastwood President Michael Robinson said.
Most Backlunds look classically automotive, sporting pastel colors and bearing shiny, steel inlays. The first few models are unique in their winged shape, but recent ones take their cues from more recognizable body styles: the figure-eight form of the Rockerbox, the newest model, calls to the Gibson Les Paul to mind.
The Model 200, meanwhile, resembles a Fender Telecaster.
“I didn’t try to reinvent this wheel, but I put a shinier, brighter white wall hubcap on the old one,” Backlund said.
The road to Summerset
Growing up in Pipestone, Minn., Backlund said he didn't doodle more than any other kid. He entered the art industry as a self-taught artist with little in the way of formal training.
“All of it's instinctive," he said.
After dropping out of high school at age 17 and earning his GED, he briefly studied art at Southwest Minnesota State University but withdrew after six months. He soon moved to St. Paul, where he began working as a freelance illustrator.
One of his early gigs was cartooning for the Saturday editorial page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
His career would take him all throughout the Midwest. He and Verburg met in Mason City, Iowa, in 1983 while working in the art department of Decal Specialties.
His foray into guitar design wouldn't come until years later.
“I would sketch little designs for different guitar bodies," he recalled. "I would post them on some of the guitar forums on the internet, in particular one called Harmony Central.”
The drawings caught the eye of a luthier in Chattanooga, Tenn., who wanted Backlund to build them for real. They went into business together for several years, with the very first Backlund guitars fetching prices of more than $3,000.
Backlund began working with Eastwood about three years ago. If all goes smoothly, he said, it takes three to four months for a rough drawing to become a playable instrument.
The drawing board
Designs are first sketched and refined in pencil. Backlund further polishes them using a 10-year-old version of Corel PaintShop Pro.
Eastwood then works with their manufacturer, which Backlund said is based in South Korea, to determine how something practical can be built from the drawings. Because Backlund doesn't render the guitars as 3D models, technicians must work to see how and where individual parts can be mounted.
"They try as well as they can to make them as faithful to my original art as possible," Backlund said.
Inevitably, a few quirks are left on the cutting room floor. Original drawings of the rocket-shaped Backlund Marz, for example, featured a grill-like cover over the bridge.
The piece would have been too expensive to machine en masse, Backlund said, and would likely have got in the way of players' hands.
Robinson said that most of Eastwood's guitars are sold online, and Backlunds appeal to a small crowd rife with repeat customers.
"If somebody buys one, they buy five or six of them," Robinson said.
That Rundgren, Walsh and other rock stars are among them, Backlund said, is surreal. Rundgren played several of them onstage during his Utopia tour last year.
"I didn’t do it to stand out. I started doing this because I wanted to have guitars that really appealed to me. And it just so happened enough other people liked them," Backlund said.