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Guitar bridge pins produced for specialized market: for this Seldonia resident, fossil ivory makes sound science.

In his own shop across Kachemak Bay, Seldovia resident John Mickelson repairs and builds guitars on a limited basis.

But it is not guitars that Mickelson is known for. It's bridge pins.

Bridge pins are pegs that anchor the strings in small holes drilled in the body. Not all guitars have them, though most steel string acoustics do, and for many guitar makers and players the pins are nothing more than an afterthought.

Mickelson carves his bridge pins out of the fossilized ivory from mammoth and walrus. He steadfastly believes that each material offers a distinct sound, and a different look and feel. Many of his customers agree, and will mix and match based on the specific sound they want from their guitar at any given moment. And like all serious luthiers, Mickelson can't say enough about his preference for natural materials over plastic, which is what most stock guitar bridge pins are made of.

Why put all that work and effort into building a guitar of the highest quality woods, only to skimp on other parts?


There is some debate over what part bridge pins play in determining the tone of a guitar, or whether they affect sound quality at all. But pins also offer an opportunity to spice up a guitar's appearance, which, for many guitar owners, is a draw.

Mickelson says his do both.

He's firm in his stance that quality bridge pins add up to quality sound. All the same, Mickelson offers a lifetime, no-hassle, no-argument return policy on his pins.

"Whether you buy into the tone aspect or simply are captivated by the idea of 5,000-year-old guitar-specific jewelry ... just call and we can work something out," he said.

Mickelson said he's conferred with more than 100 luthiers to determine whether pins affect tone. In a wood instrument, nearly everything does, including the material and shape of the nut--the piece between the head and the neck of a guitar with grooves for the strings--and the saddle, its counterpart on the guitar body anchored in the bridge.

"When all is right in guitar heaven, the guitar's pins need to contact four things all at once to achieve their highest coupling effect," he said. "The string, the top, the bridge and the reinforcing plate."

By being fitted to each string hole individually, Mickelson's pins "allow you to modify the tone (volume, sustain, fullness) of your guitar's voice."

A more scientific explanation, postulated by Mickelson and tested and backed by engineers, can be found on his Web site. Links to magazine and technical articles Mickelson has written on the subject also can be found there, along with pictures of his pins, his theories on bone and ivory guitar saddles and nuts, and photos of his workshop in the village of Seldovia.


He said he and his wife, Vivian, and their children choose to live in Seldovia, population 307, even though "there are no walrus or mammoths" in the area. They choose the small community because there are "per capita more guitar/banjo/mandolin players than anyplace." It also allows him to live a chosen lifestyle, which involves subsistence gathering and fishing, he said, and playing a lot of guitar.

"Small towns in Alaska are overlooked by young families who might like to move here from the lower states," he said. "Mainly for fear of not being able to make some kind of living. For the most part, rural communities targeted the visitor industry, it was a very narrow focus in my view. There are only so many bed and breakfasts, fishing charters or hiking guide opportunities Alaska can sustain. I ... committed this motto ... to the vision of what we do: 'advantage is the root word of DISadvantage.' So we focus on material that is extremely hard to get...."

His pins are gaining cachet among luthiers, players and collectors alike. Guitar makers from the giant C.F. Martin Co. to the famed Hawaiian luthier James Goodall use his pins. Players can purchase them from dealers and retrofit their guitars for them.

He also will fill custom orders, using a proprietary curing process to color and age the bridge pins, or adding a more detailed inlay design to customer specifications.

Fossil ivory pins are not cheap--luthier supply company Stewart MacDonald sells sets of six for about $150-but with quality, handmade guitars bringing in thousands of dollars, and vintage guitars tens of thousands, it's a price few seem to flinch at.

Mickelson has earned the respect of fellow luthiers, and his work is revered as both artistry and sound science.

"It is possible to live in rural Alaska, embrace the reality of 2004 technology/economy and preserve some Alaska dignity," Mickelson said. "It is absolutely possible to earn a living in a remote environment. I'd like to give some incentive and encouragement to other small businesses/entrepreneurs to move to Alaska."

For more information, visit the Web site of the man they call the "Fossil Ivory King" at
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Title Annotation:Business Spotlight
Author:Bernard, Chris
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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