SHEET-metal fabricator and rockabilly enthusiast Dave Gartland decided to combine his two passions in a series of car-themed guitars, hand-fashioned from aluminium. Early offerings from Dave’s guitar business Ali Kat included a full-sized double bass and other designs loosely based on the classic Gretch and Fender. However, it’s his stunning 1959 Cadillac and 1957 Chev-inspired designs that will interest street machiners.
This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of Street Machine
Tell us about your car guitars.
I wanted them to look like you’d just pulled a piece off the actual car. The ’57 Chevy Kat Bel Air was first, then I did the [pink] ’59 Katillac for myself. It’s very special and features genuine 1959 Gibson Les Paul machine heads. The lights are reproduction Caddies that light up [via an internal nine-volt battery].
Why the ’59 Caddy and ’57 Chev?
I’ve always been into 50s rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly and always wanted to own a car from the 50s. However, I knew I’d never be able to afford one so I decided to build a guitar instead. To me, the two biggest ones are the Chevy and the Cadillac. People can relate to them — especially car enthusiasts.
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With its genuine Les Paul machine heads and rare original dash script, the '59 Katillac is Dave's favourite
Have guitars always been a passion of yours?
I’m not a guitar player, not at all. I’m a fabricator with high welding qualifications — including for nuclear submarines. Two years ago, when I started building them, I didn’t even know what a scale was. I’m still learning, with Billy Mostyn from Guitar Parts Australia helping me heaps.
A lot of purists might consider them to be a bit of an ornament.
No doubt they are to a few of my customers. A lot of people also expect them to sound tinny but some very talented players have remarked on how unique and well they sound. [Check out Ali Kat’s website for numerous videos of them being played — including live on stage.]
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Being flat like a regular guitar makes the Chevy Kat easier to fabricate than Ali Kat’s more complex offerings
Are you contemplating other models?
I’ve got this car thing going at the moment and want to do a whole series, from the 50s all the way up to the 60s, especially a Stingray and a Buick. I’m in the middle of doing an EK Holden one with two-tone paint, which I’ve been asked to display at the Adelaide FB/EK Owners Club show.
That’s be based around the EK’s distinctive tail-lights I assume?
A scaled-down version, otherwise the guitar would end up 300mm wide. Same with the America stuff — they’re massive, so everything for them is equally massive. Not making the guitar 300mm wide is a challenge.
What type of aluminium do you use?
Nothing special, just a normal grade, usually from 1.5 to 2mm thick. It all depends on how I want to fit the pick-ups, bridge and tailpiece. I’ve even used 3mm and tapped and screwed straight into it. With the thinner material, I use threaded aluminium inserts. This makes it a lot stronger, especially with the tailpiece, where the strings are pulling on that.
Each guitar is a complete one-off. Here, Katillac is being formed using a tree log carved to the right profile
What’s the hardest part about making them?
Depends. The Chevy ones are flat, so they’re not too bad. The Katillac was easily the hardest, beating the body over a pre-formed tree trunk getting the back of the fins to taper to a point, adding in the cones for the reproduction lights — that one was pretty hard.
Then there’s sourcing the special little badges and trim pieces. I like to include as much of the car’s original detail as possible. I even tell customers to bring along the original radio knobs to use as volume and tone, so they better resemble their pride and joy.
And does the aluminium body give them a unique sound?
Oh definitely, they’ve all got a totally different sound. I’m looking at making a titanium one, which would sound different again.
How long do they take to make?
Gretchie-style ones take about a day plus painting, whereas the Katillac was more than 100 hours; there was a lot of fabrication in that one. Having done two ’57 Chevs, I’m getting pretty good at them — probably about 40 hours plus paint.
Hand-rolled mouldings, airbrush work and repro emblems really make the ’57 Chevy Kat look the part
How much do they cost?
They start around $2500 for the Fender type and $3500 for the Gretchie. From there it depends on how mad you want to go with paint and the style. There’s $1000 in paint and airbrush work alone. If someone wanted a ’59 Katillac, that would be at least $6000. It all depends on what you can supply. The badge on the Katillac really makes that guitar. It’s a genuine ’59 Caddy dash script, very rare. I’ve seen replicas on eBay for $500 — how do you put a price on an original?
Note: Prices are quoted from Oct 2012, visit Ali Kat Guitars website for more info.