MYSTIC, Conn. — Build it and they will rock.
That’s the underlying philosophy at Merritt Guitars, the up-and-running electric guitar company headquartered in a small house in Mystic. Essentially a one-man factory headed by veteran local guitarist Brian Merritt, the business is the perfect realization of a “labor of love” concept.
“There’s just something about an electric guitar, how it just sorta melts into you when you strap it on,” says Merritt in a front room/workshop full of amplifiers, axes-in-progress, a workbench — and walls hanging with gorgeous six-string Merritt product. “I love acoustic guitars, but they don’t speak to me like an electric. There’s just something about being plugged in. The combination of an amplifier and a guitar becomes the person who plays it. You could give the same guitar to 10 different people, and the same amp, and everybody’s going to make it sound different. And I think that’s just awesome.”
Area music fans will recognize the 34-year-old Merritt from his long history playing clubs and venues in the area — most notably in the popular party band Wicked Peach. Raised in a music-loving family, Merritt was perpetually and happily under the influence of a musician father who made sure Merritt had one instrument or another in his hands from virtual infancy. In that environment, it’s perhaps not unusual that Merritt heard Cream’s “White Room” as a little kid, and his first thought was, “I don’t know WHAT that sound is, but I need to make it!”
“My dad was and still is a fantastic guitar player,” says Merritt, explaining that, in addition to guitars, the house included keyboards, a drum set, a ukulele … “But, guitars? I dunno, they’re just cool. Back then, electric guitars were pointy and neon green and everything else. I’ve just always been in love with them.”
As he grew up, he was taking lessons and practicing guitar, and Merritt’s love of classic rock expanded and grew to include metal, ’80s New Wave acts like the Police and, thanks to his big brother’s album collection, the Seattle grunge scene. He remembers writing original songs with a friend “by the age of 8 or 9, and I was thinking it was a pretty cool thing to do. I guess I always wanted to be a musician.”
By the time he was a student at Waterford High School, the idea of “education” was as much about music and guitars as it was a scholastic curriculum. “I used to skip school a lot, and I had a guitar very strategically placed very close to school, at a friend’s house, and I would leave classes and go play guitar all day,” he says.
Like most fevered young musicians, Merritt contemplated the idea of stardom and a touring lifestyle. He explored a few of those avenues early on — including coming close to an on-air “America’s Got Talent” appearance — but a variety of developments made him reconsider career options. He fathered twins and says, “It became a ‘don’t wanna be away from home’ kind of thing, so I managed to figure out a way to be a musician without leaving the area.”
Two other factors pushed Merritt toward the idea of making guitars.
For one, at the age of 20, he got a day job at the iconic Ron’s Guitars in Groton — an experience that devoutly changed his life. Merritt started in shipping in receiving — “I think Ron (Apicelli) promoted me because I was using too much packing material” — and slowly worked his way up.
“Ron was a great boss and a great businessman,” Merritt remembers. “He taught me a lot about ethics and being fair and just doing a good job. That was such a good environment (working) with some guys who were older than me and really knowledgeable guys. They probably thought I was an annoying young kid, but they took me under their wings and taught me … and I think that’s when my strong interest in guitars turned into an obsession. When it got slow, I’d just sit and read (manuals) and it got to the point where I was memorizing pickup specs. It was kind of grotesque.”
Apicelli distinctly remembers Merritt applying at Ron’s. “Brian made a point of letting me know that he wasn’t just looking for a job. It was something he really wanted to do — he was looking to make a living to something he felt connected to, and that was important to me,” he says.
And Apicelli recalls something else that set Merritt apart. “During the job interview, he said, ‘I’d like to have my own shop someday.’ That was funny to me because I’m sure most guitar shop employees feel that way, but it’s rare to tell the owner in an interview that you might be in for future competition. I thought it was great.”
After Apicelli sold his shop, Merritt worked at Guitar Center in New London, where he focused on repairs. “I can’t count the number of guitars I worked on during that period,” Merritt says. “Thousands of guitars. That’s where I really honed my chops. It was a very good experience for me.”
But perhaps the main reality that made Merritt ultimately start to build his own instruments was that, as a working, perfectionist musician with two kids, he simply couldn’t afford the quality guitars he wanted.
“I used to have a $5,000 Les Paul and a $4,000 Mesa Boogie amp. Then I bought a house and found out I was having twins, and it was like, ‘OK, bye-bye big, expensive equipment,'” Merritt laughs. “And I was so spoiled working at a great music store like Ron’s. Oof … (I said), ‘I’m gonna go get a band saw and some wood and see what I can do.'”
In 2010, playing a heavy gig schedule at night and caring for his children by day, Merritt started building guitars. Of his first, he says, “It took forever because I was way over-zealous. I thought, ‘Why can’t I just build something easy?’ But because it was so difficult, I learned a lot. But it was really good, and I played it for years. Many people tried to buy it from me, and I was, like, ‘Unh-uh, sorry.'”
Other musicians started to ask him to build guitars for them. At first, he thought he wasn’t quite ready. But as time went on, Merritt thought, “My guitars are getting a lot better. The quality’s better, the sound is better, the craftsmanship’s better. And in the last couple of years, I started to realize it was something I could do.”
Merritt knows a lot of artisans make guitars. It’s logical, he says, because instruments have become so expensive. At the same time, he recognizes that the trend in popular music is away from traditional band lineups and instrumentation — that sales of guitars are declining.
“Well, I think ours is a culture into instant gratification,” Merritt says. “Learning an instrument requires discipline. It actually hurts to learn guitar. But I’m convinced there are a lot of kids out there that want to learn guitar. And there are a lot of musicians want quality, affordable instruments.”
Merritt’s business plan is cautious. He wants to spend most of the year building up stock. He plans on attending some guitar shows and trying to get his instruments displayed in music stores along the East Coast. With the help of girlfriend Blamely Cepeda, who’s social media strengths dwarf what Merritt admits is a major weakness, the idea is to get the word out in many way.
Merritt feels strongly that kids who want to learn guitar should have the opportunity; he acquires and repairs discarded instruments with the goal of distributing them to eager children. In that context, he teaches lessons. Merritt also works with musicians to sell them guitars on a zero-interest payment plan. And Merritt has a go-fund-me page that, he hopes, will enable him to expand personnel and farm out aspects of the craft to other artisans.
Merritt says, “You know, I’m a guy who’s probably spent $100,000 on guitars over the years, trying to get the perfect guitar. And I guess what I want — what I hope for — is that people who buy one of my guitars will be happy with it and it will work really well for them, and they’ll realize they didn’t have to spend $100,000 to do it.”
Information from: The Day, http://www.theday.com