It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday in Chicago, and I’m perched on an antique taupe couch surrounded by guitars, piles of records, violins, a black and red piano, and an elaborate stereo system. The space looks as if it hasn’t been touched since the 1970s – probably because it hasn’t.
Guitar repairist Geoff Benge resides in this preserved 1970s apartment. The floor is patterned with turquoise, royal blue and orange circles, and the walls are paneled white and brown. Around the corner there is a glass table with wooden chairs adjacent to a narrow kitchen with overhead cabinets.
This apartment is not only where Benge lives, but where he works, fixing guitars. In his living room, I sit across from a brown, hollowed-out table that Benge and his wife reclaimed as he recounts his childhood obsession with guitars.
Benge grew up in Evanston, Illinois, prior to the suburb’s gentrification in the early 2000s. He lived there with his mom, soon after his parents’ divorce.
“It was totally amazing. Like, pretty much the definition of a melting pot: very diverse, very interesting. Lots of kids. Everybody was free range,” Benge said.
“Free range” perfectly characterizes Benge, who, as a kid, constantly took apart anything he could get his hands on. For a while, that was TV sets with multicolored knobs and vertical holds that looked like pieces of candy to a young Benge.
“Before long, you start getting in trouble. So you better figure out how to push it back together,” Benge said.
Beyond that, Benge was constantly immersed in music. His dad had played the drums and guitar, and his mom could play the piano beautifully.
Instruments were always lying around, just as they do now in Benge’s apartment. From those instruments in his childhood home, Benge gravitated towards the “little stella guitar” that had belonged to his grandfather.
Benge started playing guitar at the age of four, and by fifth grade, he was taking guitar lessons. In eighth grade, Benge tuned into FM radio and listened to Diana Ross and Harry Nilsson, as he departed for the local guitar shop where he worked.
Benge’s affinity to fixing things and his fascination with guitars guided him to guitar reparation.
Benge has been in the business of fixing guitars for over 20 years now. He helped open local instrument store Guitar Works and worked at Chicago Music Exchange before opening his own guitar repair business.
As an independent business owner, Benge works on four to five guitars daily that require several adjustments and operations over the course of many weeks. These guitars need time between adjustments for parts to dry, for example, before the next modification can be made. In addition to these longer projects, Benge additionally works on 10 to 20 guitars each day.
Benge has worked on hundreds of thousands of guitars, ranging from a 21-year-old’s 1986 Stratocaster from Japan to Billy Corgan’s infamous stolen guitar.
Corgan, the lead guitarist and vocalist of the Smashing Pumpkins, initially acquired Jimmy Chamberlain’s 1974 Fender Stratocaster and customized it with a DIY paint job. In 1991, the Smashing Pumpkins released their debut album “Gish,” and merely minutes after their tour in Detroit, the guitar was stolen. Twenty-seven years later, it was found, and Corgan immediately brought it to Benge.
In any case, Benge’s goal is to maintain the authentic sound of the guitar, while ensuring that it is still playable.
When examining the guitar, Benge noticed the pickup remained set low, where he’d originally placed it to accommodate Corgan’s intense picking technique. Additionally, the unique blue, green and red paint job appeared untouched. According to Benge, the Fender had not been played since the Pumpkins’ concert in Detroit almost 30 years prior. Kriss Bataille, Benge’s assistant and friend, noticed this, too.
“It was nice to see that it had been taken care of (all the original parts seemed to be in place) and it would lead me to assume that whoever had it was a fan and treated it with some deal of respect,” said Bataille.
Benge’s eye for guitars is highly refined from years of guitar work. With Corgan’s guitar, the serial number stamped on the neck reads 1976, but Benge contends it’s a ‘75. (Fender went through a period in the ‘70s where parts were commonly mismatched).
In the 1980s, it was common for people to personalize their guitars, so Benge spent his early career modifying original pickups and replacing necks to upgrade a guitar. Today, he finds himself reinstalling original pickups.
Ultimately, the components of the guitar – new or old – create a unique sound, which is subjective to each player. Jerry Garcia, lead singer and guitarist of the Grateful Dead, used a highly modified guitar to create the distinctive intonations of “Althea” and “Truckin.’”
But the guitar style and sound cannot be fully attributed to its composition. Technique also plays a huge role.
“Jerry Garcia, from the Grateful Dead, has such a distinctive picking technique. He’s played a lot of guitars in his career, but he still always sounds like him,” Benge explained.
While customizing guitars was favorable in the 1980s, in today’s market, original guitars, devoid of modifications, are often placed at a much higher value than those altered and a huge part of that is due to the quality of materials.
Nirvana’s 1993 album “In Utero” features Albini’s vintage Veleno aluminum guitar, which Benge converted to be played lefty. Veleno guitars were originally built in the 1970s by machinist and engineer John Veleno, who constructed aluminum guitars as a side hustle to his primary job constructing electrical housing for space shuttles in Florida.
Those made between 1970 and 1977, including Steve Albini’s, are called Veleno Originals, and they are worth between $20,000 and $30,000.
“They’re beautiful. They’re shiny. They’re really unusual. They’re really cool. But they have a very distinctive sound,” Benge said.
Veleno’s aluminum guitars are composed of two hollowed out pieces of aluminum, joined by screws in the bridge and neck joint. The neck was likewise assembled from one piece of aluminum and bolted to the body.
Benge was tasked with converting Albini’s right-handed guitar to be playable lefthanded, also known as upside-down and backwards.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be inverted to make it work, make it play in tune, and all that kind of stuff,” Benge said.
The process of adjusting and assembling guitars is akin to car manufacturing. Even the slightest nick can devalue a guitar. To protect the body of the guitar, Benge uses pillowcases, and he maintains a clean space to fix pristine guitars, and most especially to assemble new guitars.
Benge is currently working on a project of a dozen or so guitars for Darryl Jones, the bass guitarist for the Rolling Stones.
Jones recently came to Benge to assemble a series of guitars and basses with Jones’ name on it: setting them up and doing the fretwork. Benge works closely with Jones to choose the best hardware and plan out the designs. Once those designs are finalized and the parts ordered, Benge will be able to assemble each guitar in roughly eight hours.
“You gotta move slow, and be very, very careful. Especially if you spend seven hours and then, you know, on the seven and a half hour, you make a mistake, and you scratch them or whatever. That’s not cool,” Benge said.
The precision and care that Benge prioritizes in his work is far less common in the overly commercialized industry. Today, guitars are made quickly and with lower quality materials, and the wood is often not allowed enough time to fully dry, risking a lower-quality sound.
The hyper commercialization within the guitar industry drove Benge to leave the Chicago Music Exchange and start his own business. The business for guitars is huge, but Benge maintains his own model to ensure quality over quantity. It’s important to Benge that he maintains the authenticity of each guitar that he works on, whether it’s for Darryl Jones or an amateur guitarist.
“A lot of my best work you never should have known was done,” Benge said.
He’s honest, he’s precise and he’s passionate, and that’s what makes Geoff Benge one of the best in the industry.
Header Illustration by Magda Wilhelm