Guitars and Caffeine is an online magazine covering a wide range of topics relating to the building and repairing of guitars. Founded by guitar repair pro Chelsea Clark, the site sets out to share information about this field in a refreshing and unique way.
“As someone who has chosen to build a career in the guitar repair and manufacturing industry, I find it difficult to source approachable information that is viable to all aspects of my life — without feeling belittled, berated or less-than. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way,” Clark says.
Below, Clark explains the backstory of GAC, her career repairing guitars, her experiences with sexism in the industry, and much more.
For more, visit guitarsandcaffeine.com.
WiMN: What is the mission of Guitars and Caffeine? Tell us about the site and why you launched it.
CC: I’m trying to give my community more than product reviews and how-to videos.
The everyday challenges of being technically minded and creative is never talked about: customer service, putting a price tag on your life, navigating sexism and ageism, healing from metal burnout, figuring out how to stay motivated, avoiding physical ailments from receptive work and chemicals, figuring out what retirement is supposed to look like and how to get there, understanding ideas that have always been presented in complex ways, knowing how to ask questions and hold conversations with an open mind, learning how to learn, and being able to feel welcome in any conversation using any level of education.
Those are things that are never really talked about in this industry, and they are really hard lessons to learn. Throughout my career I’ve watched people fall and not know how to get back up on their feet; it’s scary to know that’s where we’re all headed if something doesn’t change in the way our industry communicates and grows. I truly believe that if we start talking about these things, we can grow as individuals and, together, we can grow a culture.
For years, everything I’ve seen, read, or heard is about the tools I have to buy, the techniques I have to know, or the words I have to use… I got tired of not fitting in because I’m not as classically educated or because I forget words or names; I got tired of being ignored or treated like an idiot because I wanted to try something in a new way or because my brain works differently. And I’m not an anomaly — a lot of people feel like outcasts, or less than, in an industry steeped in heritage and history. It’s a very selfish way to destroy the growth of a budding industry, and I’m not going to let that happen.
WiMN: What made you choose to build a career in the guitar repair and manufacturing industry?
CC: I did not choose it, it chose me — so cliche. But I never sat down and decided to build a career in the guitar repair and manufacturing industry; this career and industry have built me. The challenges and successes, no matter how big or small, have shaped who I’ve become, the value I place on happiness, and what I want my life to be. The experiences I’ve faced, the people I’ve met in this industry have raised me to be me — for better or worse (lol).
As I think back, fearlessly saying “yes” to opportunities, following up on what baffled me, treating others as people instead of products — all of these things eventually started to add up and my journey started to make sense — I started to make sense to myself.
WiMN: Can you tell us about any special guitar repair projects you’ve worked on? Or any particularly challenging projects?
CC: I’ve had the opportunity to work on some pretty amazing guitars and some awesome players… but, I like to keep details private — my favorite guitar projects are always the most challenging ones. They’re usually vintage restorations or custom aesthetic changes (funky finish with personalized details…. cat-camo, two or three-layered relic’d finishes, color matching/blending in a repair, etc.). Vintage restorations tend to be challenging but relaxing for me because I’m not trying to be flawless. I’m trying to replicate the life of the guitar — mimicking mojo is always fun and fascinating because it’s not about me or my thoughts, it’s about the individual history of a particular guitar.
I think of myself as a conservator — I don’t create the piece, I do not own the piece, it is not my vision; it is my duty to bring out the beauty and function that other’s crave to experience from it.
WiMN: How do you divide time between your work repairing guitars and the online magazine?
CC: I’m still learning. My early lessons in life-balance have not been easily applicable to my adult life. I’m from a small town in Southeastern Ohio, near Athens, which is the home of Ohio University. My parents are teachers — in the summers we would have a big vegetable garden, we had animals to care for, and occasionally a house to flip… so my parents never really sat still, and their time was divided by their work. But being self-employed, following through on ideas, all just flows together one day after another — and I think it has to in order for me to achieve my goals. I think if you decide to walk away from someone else’s structure, life becomes more about blending and less about balancing or dividing — not just different projects, but all aspects of life. That’s why, if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s pointless.
I say this after years of trying to divide my time and apply the same rules of working for someone else to a life of working for myself — it isn’t the same, and it doesn’t work for me. It takes a lot of getting to know your own pulse, accepting all of your potentials, to stay well blended. My brain doesn’t stop thinking about one thing just so I can start thinking about something else. I almost drove myself crazy trying to compartmentalize and achieve goals quickly — that’s how I was taught and treated as a worker. Do this, then to that, be more efficient and do it faster — wash, rinse, repeat; however, creating something, growing something, doing something without instructions, doesn’t really work best using that method. So I’m still learning.
WiMN: Have you ever experienced discrimination as a female? If so, how did you handle it?
CC: I think it was 2004. I had been working in Dan Erlewine’s shop, mostly interning with some hands-on work like detailing and finishing. Through his shop, I was given the opportunity, along with the five amazing repairers that worked with him, to be part of ‘The Mod Squad’, a DIY guitar modification column in Guitar Player Magazine that ran monthly for three or four years. I was featured in seven articles. This was when the standard of guitar gear advertisements was women in string bikinis holding guitars, and this wasn’t so long ago. I was just finding my footing in the guitar world, and I was one of — if not the only — female being published as a technical person. I was a 19-20-year-old, in an industry dominated by 40+-year-old men — so you can imagine the reaction.
Dan and the other guys in the shop got some forwarded emails and fan letters with questions, and at one point Dan asked Guitar Player if anyone had written to me. We were told that no one had sent technical questions and many were too explicit to forward. I remember googling myself just to see what was being said in the tech blogs; guys were talking about my “innocence,” how they preferred my hair, or what looks from one article to another they deemed sexually attractive… never once anything about the actual article. It devastated me and made me feel gross and cheap.
The majority of guys that were introduced to me bombarded me with gear talk. If I knew more than they did, they wouldn’t be interested in talking with me anymore — or if I knew less, they totally disregarded everything about me. Eventually, I stopped telling people I repaired guitars and I went back to college. I just got tired of being around people who saw me as cheap and stupid. Three years and a bachelor’s degree later, I learned that other people were the ones with the problem, not me.
I learned that lesson with the help of Dan and Joan Erlewine, whose lives are a huge part of this industry. They always kept telling me to “ignore the jerks” — they knew it was a “good ol’ boy” industry and they saw everything I was going through. They were the reason I didn’t walk away from guitars altogether. It was one of the most important things anyone has ever reminded me of, over and over again: ignore the jerks! It did two things: one, it reminded me that I am a separate entity from those people spewing hate; and two, that I had choices. Those two realizations have gotten me through a lot of shady, sexist situations that the guitar industry has introduced me to.
I’ve been told I remind people of their moms, their wives, their ex-lovers. I’ve been asked if I’ve slept with my mentors or co-workers. I’ve been called a secretary when I’m on the phone with clients, customer service representatives, and stores. I’ve been called “girl” most of my adult career. I’ve been given nicknames, like Chuck, just so customer service reps wouldn’t have to waste time explaining why I was qualified to work on customers’ guitars. I’ve been totally ignored in meetings and when shop owners show people around. I’ve been limited on what I was “allowed” to do in shops because the owner thought the work was too difficult for females. I’ve been asked to sleep with the person paying me to consult. I’ve been told that I’m too emotional to understand business. The YouTube videos I’ve done have been riddled with comments about sexualized comments on my body parts. I’ve been in interviews with well-known companies who’ve never hired a female in the R&D or repair shop, and admit to me they are just too nervous to do so… God, I’m starting to tear up just writing this — there has to be some release of frustration.
But I always, always, always knew I had a choice — a choice to walk away, to stop listening, to stand up for myself as if I was standing up for my best friend (my parents taught me that one), and that’s what keeps me here… I could have done a lot more with my life for a lot less cheek. There have been many times that I thought my spirit was too weak and I wouldn’t have the strength to push through — when I didn’t feel like I was enough. And, the thing is, it’s not just because of the sexism.
The guitar repair and manufacturing industry isn’t an easy path for anyone. We are constantly faced with problems, and it’s our job to solve them; we are technically-minded people being asked more and more to be socially available to the public; we are navigating an industry that is going through massive changes; an industry that advertises our craftsmanship, but can seem to pay us benefits or retirement — all of this from a “good ol’ boy” industry where a lot of people still give educators shit for sharing “trade secrets.”
So, yes, my journey has been riddled with sexism — all of those small drops have added up every once-in-awhile. But, no, it hasn’t slowed me down, because I’ve surrounded myself with people who just want me to be a strong, giving, healthy, happy person.
I was recently talking to Meagan Wells, an amazing female builder, about customers coming to us, not because we’re good at what we do, but because we are female — which puts a really weird spin on sexism, and a strange sort of pressure on us as repairers and builders. It’s still judging skill level based on physical attributes… a social measuring device that is totally unnecessary for the future growth of this industry.
WiMN: What advice would you give to a young woman looking to enter the guitar repair field?
CC: Don’t be scared, because there are always going to be jerks. “Ignore the jerks!” That goes for a young anybody because I really believe that this younger generation has it more together than we give them credit for. This next step is going to take all of us, so be respectful, live your life with honesty, step up to the bench with integrity, and walk away when you don’t feel comfortable (because you make your own opportunities).
WiMN: What’s next for you?
CC: What’s not next?! Lol. Truthfully, I’m all about feeding Guitars And Caffeine — I’m established, my repair business is flourishing, it’s private, and I can be selective, which works out great for starting a family.
I’m focused on growing GAC organically. That worked for my repair business, and it allows me to fail faster, figure out what didn’t work, and keep moving without much loss. In the next year, I’d like to see GAC partner up with some gear/tool brands and material suppliers — help them get their products directly into the hands of the consumer to get real, diverse, truthful feedback. So many of the products being sold are based on the personal preferences of the middleman… and I think that should change. GAC’s audience base is naturally made up of research-and-development-driven people, so partnering up with suppliers and brands with new products is a no-brainer.