An Analog Break From A Digital World

Interview With Daniel Petrzelka

Written by
Logan Tabor
Published on
July 8, 2021 4:33:58 PM PDT July 8, 2021 4:33:58 PM PDTth, July 8, 2021 4:33:58 PM PDT

The biggest inspiration for our team here at Mojotone is the DIY community we’ve been so lucky to be a part of all these years. We learn as much from our customers as they learn from us, so it’s only fitting for us to honor some of the creative minds who spend so much time honoring their craft. Today we’ll be talking with Dan Petrzelka -- husband, father of three sons, creative director, and deeply-driven DIYer of all things “guitar”. 

I wanted to know how Dan’s relationship with music began, how it has progressed, and where it is today.

Like many of us, Dan’s father was always rockin the “oldies” station, and his grandmother would even play her favorite albums for him…

“...from Otis Redding and Chuck Berry to Wes Montgomery, and Louis and Ella. Those were the early foundations of my love for music.”

He recalls his grade school band class experience; starting out on clarinet, then moving to saxophone, and finally over to trumpet. But those instruments didn’t resonate with Dan in a way that made him feel he’d found his musical voice…

“Convincing the jazz band teacher that they needed an electric bassist was a breakthrough moment. I could get school credit and get my parents to help me pay for a bass all in one move—there was no going back after that.”

Dan’s resourcefulness has immediately been proven, and that jazz band just got a heck of a lot cooler.

Now, we all have those special moments buried in our memories where we heard and felt something moving and inspiring for the first time. Those all too palpable recollections that led us down the path of pursuing music as a passion in any capacity. Dan was able to recall some of those critical moments, and they were nothing short of spectacular…

“Hearing Niko Case for the first time in the basement of a bar in college. Walking into a nearly empty Tacoma Dome: PJ Harvey’s Firebird and incredible voice filling an entire stadium before the floor was full. Walking into the Hendrix exhibit at Bumbershoot in the early 90’s, hearing Red House blasting over the PA and seeing artifacts from Jimi’s all-too-short history.The sonic artistry of Karl Blau as a kid growing up in the Skagit Valley.”

It’s easy to see how Dan was captivated by music. But how does this translate into a love for electronics? Some musicians just stick to playing their instrument, right? Well it seems Dan had a similar early-life experience in the world of electronics as he did in the world of music itself....

“Electronics have always been a part of my life. Some of my earliest memories are working out in my dad’s workshop; from repairing our appliances, to remote control planes, and experimenting with electronics kits. It’s always been a combination of necessity and fun. I learned early on to take notes on how something came apart so that there would be some hope of putting it back together. My uncle and dad’s friends were all electronics junkies; from racks of Tektronix gear, calibrators to calibrate your calibrators, signal generators and o-scopes, to russian night vision and geiger counters. There was so much cool stuff to experiment with growing up.”

And now it’s perfectly easy to see how Dan was captivated by electronics. 

Put this foundation in electronics work together in a bubbling cauldron with a love for music, and what do you get? Yep, an absolute guitar and amp wizard.

One of Dan’s earliest projects that still gives him a sense of accomplishment was his first attempt at winding his own single-coil pickup. This was in the early 90s, so the only places to read about guitars and amps were print magazines, the Angela Catalog, and by getting lucky to find a schematic somewhere in the world of 14.4k dial-up internet…

“The pole pieces I turned from steel screws chucked up in a drill press and filed to shape. The flatwork I cut from my dad’s hobby styrene stash. And the coil wire, first unwound from a spare electric motor, was wound back on by chucking the whole thing up in a corded electric drill. From reading about it, I couldn’t quite figure out wax potting, so candle wax was dripped around the outside of the too-loose coil. The miracle of the whole thing is that, with a ceramic fridge magnet stuck on the back, it would make sound. That is the moment that guitar electronics really began for me.”

This was obviously when things really seemed to click for Dan. From there, he was always the guy who was pumped to work on a friend’s guitar; intonation, filing nut slots, etc. He eventually discovered Dan Earlewine’s early instructional material as well as the “old soft-back Groove Tubes book with all the schematics,” and his journey deepened.  

Fast forward to today and Dan is able to attribute further growth to social media platforms, as I’m sure many of us can with such great proliferation of knowledge and easy-to-find resources out there…

“Instagram, with all of its distractions and filler, has been incredible the past couple of years connecting me to a global community of builders, techs and players. I do everything I can to help those who reach out asking for advice or tips, and I’ve been blown away by how generous others have been with tricks and inspiration.”

When I asked Dan what some of his driving factors are when it comes to the craft of DIY guitar and amp work, he had some really incredible things to say. 

Now, he gave me a number of bullet-pointed philosophies by which he carries out his work, and under each of those bullet points he gave a truly insightful description of them. For now, I’m going to highlight just the bullet points, but for those who want more detail on Dan’s philosophies, I’ll include his full description of each at the bottom of this article…

Take care of people.

Leave it better than you found it.

Know when to say “No.”

Keep a secret, and give everything else away.

Stay curious.

I’ve been following Dan on Instagram for a while now and I can say without a doubt that he is one of the most meticulous and detail-oriented techs I have ever witnessed. Everything he builds, repairs, or modifies is handled with the utmost care. Dan believes it’s his responsibility to listen to what any given client is excited about and to help them get what they want out of their gear. He notes that…

“Every length of wire matters, the angles that components intersect, their proximity to one another, the quality of a solder joint, it all matters. As does the coating on the wire used for winding my pickups, the gauss of the alnico, and the mixture of wax for potting. I do measure and document the specs of every cap and resistor that goes into or comes out of an amp, the inductance of each pickup wound, etc. But it's not just the measure of the ingredients that go into it that counts; it's also how they come together and your intention when working.”

Do yourself a favor and follow Dan on Instagram. He has two accounts: @dpetrzelka AND @harrowedstrings. You’ll get the benefit of seeing some killer gear, top-notch tech work, and beautiful photography. And if you happen to be in the Mount Vernon, WA area, you might just want to hit Dan up for some tech work; you’ll definitely be in good hands.  

For those of you who want to read more, please do check out Dan’s full descriptions of the bullet points from above; they’re well-worth the read. We want to thank Dan for taking the time to talk with us and for pulling together these great images for the article. Builders, repair shops, and curious minds are the lifeblood of Mojotone, and we are forever grateful for those in pursuit of pristine tone. Thanks for reading and we’ll see you all next time.  

Here are Dan’s fully-detailed bullet points…

Take care of people. People of all means, and all aspirations will come by your bench. No two of them are on the same journey, have come by the same path, or have the same dreams—respect that, and do whatever you can to do right by them. This is big “world view” kind of stuff, but also as simple as respecting the instrument they came in with. My job isn’t to tell a kid how much better it would be “if we…” or if they “upgrade to…” My goal is to help that musician feel inspired, and excited to play, and to follow their lead in helping find that mojo. 

Leave it better than you found it. This is true of the trail and the turret board, and in both cases that means leaving as little of a footprint as you can, making sure that what you’ve done can be undone, and that you clean up after yourself. With my acoustic instrument repair, it’s a simple thing like using hide glue whenever possible, so that if a tech down the line can do it better, they have a clean way to undo my work. With amplifiers it means working with what is there, respecting and preserving vintage components and parts whenever it’s reasonable to do so, and always returning removed/replaced parts to the owner. Much of this was here before us, and with care it will be here long after we’re gone—leave it better than you found it, or leave it alone.

Know when to say “No”

It’s sometimes hard to pass up on a project you really want to tackle, but that you know is outside your expertise—respect your client by respecting your own limits and know when to pass on a project. In that same spirit, you must also have the confidence to push yourself, and embrace opportunities to learn. I think it was Luke Single who pointed out what a mistake it can be to start learning to refret on a cheap, bogus neck or fretboard. Just like repairing amps that are true basket cases, those repairs are fraught with challenges that do nothing to help you grow. I love taking on projects that are going to challenge me, but I always work to be honest with a client before starting, and have an exit strategy or a friend you can call.

Keep a secret, and give everything else away.

There are very few things that have been shared with me in confidence over the years, and those things I keep in the vault—everything else I try to share as freely and widely as possible. Guys like Dan Erlewine and Erick Coleman were key in my instrument repair learning (and still are), techs like Skip Simmons, Colleen Fazio and Lyle Caldwell have been instrumental influences in my amp work. Ian Davlin, that guy knows how to knock out a repair. They are excellent role models for the idea that we all get better the more we share our knowledge and skills. I don’t know anything when it really comes down to it, but I’m happy to share whenever I can.

Stay curious.

I just love sound—yes, music, but also sound. The tones that wood and metal, electrons and paper can make. The perception of it all, what we expect to hear, what we think we actually hear and how it makes us feel. There is no perfect amp, nor perfect guitar, no final pedal that will make the board complete. There’s just the possibility of discovering new tones, new ways of making sound, and new ways to get people excited to play.