Dave Bunker has been deemed an "extremist in guitar invention" and his radical instrument designs once earned him a spot on a list of the Top Ten Weirdest Guitars ever made. Bunker will likely be remembered longest for designing his electric "Touch" guitars, specifically built for playing with an unorthodox technique now commonly known as "tapping." The technique requires a guitarist to touch or tap the strings from above the fretboard (like a pianist touching piano keys) rather than fingering the strings by clutching the neck from behind. A luthier and entertainer since the 1950s, Bunker is also an accomplished inventor who received numerous design patents, including those for the first dual-neck guitar to earn a patent, the first headless guitar, a fulcrum tremolo, a manual muting system (and later an electronic muting device), and a tension-free neck. His original, Puyallup-made Duo-Lectar instruments led to Bunker brand guitars from Tacoma, then Bunker Guitar Technology instruments from Marysville, and eventually Bunker Guitars and Tone Woods from Lake Stevens. By 2000 Bunker had made more than 6,000 guitars, and the dynasty continued with his son Dave L. Bunker marketing high-tech Treker Guitars out of Utah.
Tapping a Vein of Genius
Although David Douglas Bunker can be considered a master of his Touch guitar, the tapping technique of playing a guitar is not something that he invented out of the blue. As far back as the 1930s, a Missouri kid named Kenneth Carllile (1931-1987) began playing his sister's guitar in an unconventional manner: picking in the standard fashion with his right hand, but -- with his left hand's thumb and fingers still being too small to grasp around the neck -- opting to rest the guitar flat on his lap and press straight down on the strings (as one would depress piano keys) to actuate their tones. Little wonder that he was soon nicknamed "Thumbs" Carllile.
That same decade an Ohio-based guitarist named Harry DeArmond (1906-1999) was performing a mind-boggling act that included a shtick in which he performed with two adjacent guitars simultaneously. The trick was to employ a "hammer-on" style, in which he attacked the strings with his left/chording hand so hard that he didn't need to pluck or strum them with his right hand.
Legend holds that another guitarist, Jimmie Webster (1908-1978), saw DeArmond perform and was so impressed that he adapted the tricks into a method that later, in 1952, he wrote a tutorial booklet about -- "Touch System" for Electric and Amplified Spanish Guitar. It advised players to "Strike the Strings Firmly, Do Not Peck" (Jean German). One historian described Webster's advanced approach this way:
"He would play chords on the lower frets of the instrument, just the way guitarists have for centuries. The thing that made it special is that he 'hammered on' strongly enough so that plucking was not required. With this, then, he had a free right hand to play tunes with. He tapped with the right hand on the higher strings, and higher frets, to get the melody. Mostly, he only had the two or three highest strings to work with when he was tapping the melodies. But he was very adept at the technique ... where he is able to get a full rhythm section sound with his left hand. At the same time, he plays the melody with the right hand" (Jean German).
And while later generations of tapping phenoms -- including Harvey Mandel (b. 1945) and Emmett Chapman (b. 1936) in the 1960s, Eddie Van Halen (b. 1955) in the 1970s, and Stanley Jordan (b. 1959), Steve Vai (b. 1960), and Jeff Healey (1966-2008) in the 1980s -- would emerge, what is most relevant here is that Webster became so popular that he became an endorser and then designer of instruments made by the Gretsch Musical Instrument Company. And while on a nationwide promotional tour intended to show off his new Gretsch White Falcon guitar, Webster made a concert stop in 1955 at the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. That electrified and oversized hollow-body White Falcon, it would seem, was a great choice for Webster: "No doubt this helped him get a good sound from his tapped notes, because it combined the resonance of a large body with the sensitivity of magnetic pickups -- essential for the touch system" (Jean German). A key fact, though, is that one particularly excited 20-year-old local kid was there to witness this tapping stuff first hand: Dave Bunker.
The men of the Bunker family had long been trailblazers. Dave Bunker's great-grandfather James devoted his best years to prospecting for gold, while his son Elijah ran a freighting company. In 1877 Elijah made a homestead land claim in a valley just west of Chehalis, Lewis County, in Southwest Washington, where he settled along a creek that later bore his surname. "Elijah was also an accomplished violin maker who showed his son, Joseph, the trade. Elijah would move from cedar to maple to spruce, rap his knuckles on the trunks and listen for the proper ring" (Seven, 20).
Joseph worked as a logger and truck-driver, but he also took up the art of violin making. In time, he married Ella and eventually the couple was blessed with five children, including Dave Bunker (b. 1935), who was born in the car on the way from Bunker Creek to the hospital in Centralia. Joseph's work drew the young family to the timber town of Elma. While there, and at age 14, Dave Bunker received the gift of a black Epiphone Devon guitar from Centralia Music and started taking private lessons from Clyde C. Landsaw Sr. (1894?-1961) at Darrel Lyons' Olympic Music Institute in Olympia. In 1950 the family moved to Forks, and Bunker continued taking lessons in Port Angeles.
In 1953, and after a near-death logging accident, Bunker moved to a five-acre farm (430 Cherry Avenue) in Sumner and began teaching guitar at Larson Music in Puyallup. After graduating from Puyallup High School in 1954, Bunker began teaching at the institute in Olympia. It was while teaching there that he got the chance to meet and play a few songs with famed guitarists Les Paul (1915-2009) and Mary Ford (1924-1977) and banjo ace Eddie Peabody (1902-1970) when they all stopped by the institute one evening for brief performances.
In 1955, Bunker married Reita Jackson. They would have three children: David (b. 1956), Teresa (b. 1958), and Brenda (b. 1959). That same year Dave Bunker began three years of work as a production controller at the Boeing aircraft plant.
In 1955, while Bunker was taking advanced guitar lessons from the proprietor of Joe Farmer's Music shop in Burien, Farmer invited him to attend a concert by guitar ace Jimmie Webster at Meany Hall on Seattle's University of Washington campus. After the concert Bunker met with Webster backstage and that meeting really impacted the young guitarist's thinking:
"I went to Meany Hall and was quite excited by it. And I went back and I took my guitar [a Fender Broadcaster] and tried to play it -- and it was very awkward. I thought 'I've got ten fingers and six strings and they're all so close together that I really can't do much with it.' And so I went to my dad and I said: 'Pa, can we build a double-neck guitar that would have more strings on two necks?' And he said 'Sure, kid. We can build anything.' That was my dad! [Laughter] So we went immediately to his little shop up there and he started puttin' it together. One problem was that we couldn't find any frets, so Dad took an old chainsaw bar and cut that apart and we used that for frets. And so I had my first two-neck guitar" (Blecha interview, 2013).
And thus the first Bunker-made, dual-neck electric Touch guitar prototype -- one that boasted one six-string neck along with another six-string bass neck -- was born. As Bunker taught himself to play it, he also discovered its weaknesses. The main one was the conventional electromagnetic pickup that they'd purchased from a music shop, which allowed for way too much crossover bleeding of the vibrating strings, creating sonic pollution as he tapped out notes.
Much experimentation led to a unique pickup -- whose coils Bunker and his father wound using a converted old sewing machine, and which isolated and amplified the desired notes much better -- that would constitute a key element of the design patent application that Bunker's new Seattle-based intellectual property lawyer, Lynn Robinson, submitted to the U.S. Patent Office on September 16, 1957. Meanwhile word began spreading about Bunker's remarkable dual-neck electric guitar -- or Duo-Lectar, as his invention would be dubbed -- and the amazing mode of playing that he was perfecting. When Jimmie Webster next returned to the Northwest, Bunker showed his Duo-Lectar to the master, who was greatly impressed.
Word began to spread about Bunker's weird guitar and over the years he would also cross paths with many big-name Northwest country music stars, including Buck Owens (1929-2006), Don Rich (1941-1974), and Bonnie Guitar (b. 1923); prominent bandleader and host of KOMO-TV's Evergreen Jubilee Jack Roberts; early Tacoma rockers the Ventures; and even the region's best-known maker of weird guitars, Harvey Thomas (1920-1987). At one point a businessman named Irby Mandrell (1924-2009), owner of California's Oceanside Music Supply shop, passed through the Northwest and stopped by to see the Duo-Lectar. While very impressed, he suggested one refinement: making the next unit with a more standard four-string bass rather than six-string.
In the summer of 1960, Bunker and a buddy named Jim Schultz hit the road with the goal of attending the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention in Chicago where they would meet with Mandrell, who was now a rep for the Mosrite and Standel guitar lines. Bunker wanted the world to see his Touch guitar and that's exactly what happened. Mandrell got him into a VIP reception at the Palmer House Hotel, where lots of industry bigwigs were hanging out, partying, and watching stars jam. Big-time players like Joe Maphis (1921-1986) and Chet Atkins (1924-2001) were there, as were Semie Moseley (1935-1992) of Mosrite guitars, Bob Crooks of Standel guitars, and Leo Fender (1909-1991), founder of the giant Fender Musical Instruments Corp. Astonished by Bunker and his guitar, Fender offered him $20,000 (plus an additional 3 percent of future sales) in exchange for the rights to the instrument. A true believer in his invention and its destiny of success, Bunker passed. While in Chicago, Bunker also performed, accompanying an up-and-coming steel guitarist/singer, Irby Mandrell's ten-year old daughter Barbara (b. 1949), who would go on to become a big country music star and a lifelong friend of Bunker's.
On that same road trip, Bunker went to Springfield, Missouri, to make a cold-call visit to the studio that broadcast the ABC network's popular weekly Jubilee USA television show. The show's booker liked Bunker, who made his TV debut on Jubilee USA with country music star Eddy Arnold introducing him to the nation. (Half a century later, a kinescope of the appearance was viewable on the YouTube website).
Bunker's patent application was finally granted on June 27, 1961. That patent (No. 2,989,884) covered both the overall design of his twin-necked Touch guitar as well as its manual muting device. The former's significance was later detailed by a historian who wrote:
"The double neck gave the instrument two regions -- one for each hand. This two region concept was a revolutionary idea that is still seen in most of the touch-style instruments in use today. It allows each hand to operate independently of each other without bumping into the other hand" (Jean German).
Bunker's patented mute was also an ingenious, if seemingly simple, invention. It was essentially a strip of cloth placed across the neck's first fret, which successfully kept the open strings (those not being touched at any particular time during a song's performance) silent. Many years later the historian noted, "The manual mute that Dave invented, or a reworked version of it, is seen on many tapping guitars and other tapping instruments in use today" (Jean German).
Bunker himself later outlined the key design innovations represented by his guitar. It was "the first string-type instrument in the world which could be played using two necks (or fret-boards) at the same time, one with three octaves of bass and one with four octaves of standard guitar. Because of the Bunker patented muting method which made this possible, it opened up a complete new method of play" (Bunker Press Release, 1980s). In other words, "it is designed specifically for the 'tapping' technique. The strings are touched or tapped instead of being plucked or strummed, allowing both necks to be played at the same time" (Bunker Press Release, 1999).
This fact -- that players would need to learn a radically new physical technique to play a Touch guitar -- would seem to be a major hurdle in popularizing them, but Bunker believed that his method was easier than traditional methods. Even decades later Bunker, the evangelizing salesman, enthusiastically insisted, "Send anyone you want to my shop, and I'll have them playing both necks the first time they pick it up" (Thomas).
The Bunker Guitar Corp. began by building an initial fifty units in an old building at 100 River Road in Puyallup (which was owned by State Senator Ted Schroeder). When the first commercially available Duo-Lectar instruments were completed in 1962, they bore a logo mentioning both Sumner and Portland, a nod to the fact that an Oregon-based businessman had invested in the enterprise. Bunker sold 25 units to the Coast Wholesale Music Co. in San Francisco and about 25 to individuals before he changed course.
The Dave Bunker Show
Bunker knew from experience that showing a Touch guitar in action was the most effective way of increasing public interest in them. In 1964 he decided that he needed to hit the road with a band in order to accomplish that goal. Unfortunately, his wife of eight years did not approve of that idea and the couple divorced.
Bunker went ahead, and formed the Dave Bunker Show with three of his students, Pat and Vic Wilkerson and Dixie Lee (vocals and drums), and the latter's mother, Jodi Lee (MC, vocals, and drums), all from Sumner. With Pat and Vic playing unique (non-touch-style) electric Bunker guitars (replete with built-in microphones), the band toured the West Coast and held down a steady nightclub gig at Las Vegas' famous Golden Nugget casino, where they worked the same stage as the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings (1937-2002), Merle Haggard (b. 1937), and other stars. Before winding things down around 1972, the band also participated in numerous military base tours throughout Europe and Asia.
Locally, Bunker picked up gigs that included the Blue Boy Restaurant in Puyallup, the Elks Club (1314 Auburn Way N) in Auburn, the Black Angus in Bellevue, and the Edgewater Inn (Pier 67) and Wharf Restaurant (Fishermen's Terminal) in Seattle. In 1977 he reemerged with the Dave Bunker Quartet, playing everywhere from Joe's Bar & Grill (121 S Main Street) in Seattle to the Prospector nightclub in Juneau, Alaska, where in 1978 Bunker met his second wife, Jensine Winther.
Soon after hitting the road the first time, Bunker had applied back on March 10, 1965, for another design patent. Granted on May 17, 1966, this one (No. 3,251,257) covered his "headless" guitar, a radical instrument that lacked the traditional peghead at the top of the neck and instead had the guitar's strings begin there and terminate at tuning gears located at the bridge. Around that same time, Bunker launched his futuristic Astral Series guitars, "a radical Jetson-style line that sported detachable body wings so players could mix and match colors and wood grains" (Seven, 23). He sold a respectable total of several hundred units before discontinuing production.
It was also at about this point that his son, David L. Bunker, began helping out: "As a kid growing up my Dad always had a shop and I cleaned the shop and often helped him build guitars and basses" ("Builder Profile"). Then, in the mid-1970s, Bunker Guitar Inc. was founded in Tacoma. Its Pro-Star line, featuring tuner gears hidden on the body's backside, met with further success and the approval of players including Waylon Jennings and rocker Nancy Wilson (b. 1954) of the Seattle band Heart.
In the 1970s, the Bunkers introduced guitars with their patented tension-free neck design and a fine-tuning system. The Bunker Fine Tuner was "a slotted chunk of brass through which the strings passed with thumbscrews that allowed micro-adjusted tuning. Unfortunately [Bunker] didn't patent the idea, and it showed up years later on Floyd Rose" locking tremolo devices for guitars made by Seattle guitarist/soundman Floyd D. Rose (Wright, 74). The tension-free neck was a design concept that evolved from discussions Bunker had with some friendly engineers back in the 1950s during his Boeing days. Guitar necks have long suffered from twisting, warping, and compression due to the pulling of the tight metal strings attached to their two ends. Bunker called his initial design the "floating neck." This later became the basis for the tension-free neck, which solved the problem via "a metal rod that ran inside the length of the neck [from the body to the nut] but was not attached to it; in other words, the neck itself was totally floating with respect to this rod and the nut. That was the idea; the nut and rod supported the string tension" (RickC), "thus eliminating strong-tension stress on the nut-to-body length of the neck" (Roberts, 30). Bunker's son later explained the advantages of his father's new system:
"[The] tension-free neck has a lot of benefits. Our design takes the pressure off the wood so it can resonate better than other neck systems. Other systems' truss-rods and graphite systems put pressure on the neck to keep it from warping and staying true for really good action. Many other systems inhibit the neck from resonating. Our system frees the wood up to resonate and thereby increasing the overall sustain, improving tone, and making play more consistent anywhere on the neck. All the time holding the neck true and stable" ("Builder Profile").
The father/son team took their new Super Nova model to the January 1979 NAMM show in Los Angeles. The son recalled:
"We had 4 or 5 prototypes there. We only sold one guitar -- which I sold -- but we were excited anyway. We went back [home] and set up production and the guitar I sold was the first guitar we shipped. It was a maple Super Nova that looked similar to a Steinberger. They were amazing guitars. We built, or had pieces custom made for us, nearly every part of the instruments from tuners to pickups. The pickups we built were really interesting. We modified an old Singer sewing machine and hand wound the pickups ourselves. They were excellent sounding pickups; each pickup was mated to its own individual string for a great [Fender] Tele[caster] sound" ("Builder Profile").
But dad was soon out fronting a new band -- the Dave Bunker Affair (with Clyde Landsaw Jr. and Tammy Landsaw) -- and letting his guitar design and manufacturing business go into hibernation. In 1987, Bunker built a new home in Lynnwood, Snohomish County (1717 181st Place SW), and eventually he returned to his Touch guitar after a five-year respite. He had a new and improved model to share with the world. A press release touted it as "by far the finest. The touch guitar totally depends on wood, strings and structural acoustics for very pure sounds" (Bunker Press Release, 1980s).
The year 1989 was a memorable one for Bunker. Just as he began another round of touring, his second marriage ended in divorce. Then Bunker accepted an invitation to perform in Nashville on The Ralph Emery Show, a popular television program. Finally, while at the Los Angeles NAMM convention, Bunker -- as usual at such shows -- drew oglers and potential customers alike to his booth. Among them that day was rock guitar star Eddie Van Halen, who initially just watched the spectacle of Bunker's Touch approach. But circling back later he strapped one on and gave it a whirl. Already skilled at tapping his regular single-neck six-stringer, Van Halen clearly had a head start, but he quickly realized the challenge anyone would face with a Bunker instrument. He "told Bunker what many did: An established guitarist would be reluctant to change his playing style so drastically" as to switch to the "Touch System" (Seven, 23).
Bunker took on a gig performing for tourists aboard an Alaska cruise ship line and there, in 1990, a new opportunity arose. He crossed paths with an individual who tendered an offer to partner with him in a Pennsylvania-based start-up company named PBC Technologies. Bunker moved back east and dove in. Then, after two more years of developing a new generation of Touch guitar designs -- this time with a newly patented electronic muting system to replace his original manual one, and the 1992 publication of the Dave Bunker Touch Guitar Method tutorial book -- the Touch project was put on hold. PBC had scored a deal to produce high-quality, six-string and four-string bass guitars for Japan's Ibanez guitar company. In 1994, Bunker began building thousands of Ibanez guitars. In 1995, Ibanez's ATK bass guitar was voted "Best Bass of the Year" in a leading wholesale/retail trade magazine.
PBC fizzled out in 1996. Bunker essentially bought the company's equipment, brought it back to Washington, and set up shop in Port Angeles for about three years. After that, he regrouped as Bunker Guitar Technology (17624 15th Avenue SE) in Mill Creek. Then around 2000, Bunker's partner company fell into bankruptcy and sold the company to Port Angeles-based Maple Valley Tone Woods. Unbeknown to Bunker, this company was in financial trouble and was eventually sold to a California company. The upside of all this turmoil was that Bunker had wisely retained rights to his family name and had soon re-formed Bunker Guitars on some rural acreage outside of Marysville, Snohomish County (14302 25th Drive NE).
Then around 2002 Bunker decided to get into the tone woods business -- selecting, cutting, and aging prime specimens of preferred species of trees that provide superior tones for making string instruments -- and started Bunker Guitars and Tone Woods. Begun in Forks on the Olympic Peninsula, and then relocated to Port Angeles and finally to Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, the enterprise's goal was to produce the very first (as the motto termed it) from "From Stump to Stage" guitars. In other words, Bunker would find a special log or "tree to make your guitar ... cut it down, drag the log out of the forest, haul it home, check it for [attractive grain] figure and then split it into" guitar billets, "and build you a guitar" (Wright, 70, 76). So far, so good. In addition to accepting individual orders, Bunker was soon backlogged in supplying first class billets to major guitar manufacturers, including the Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, and Ernie Ball companies.
The Bunker Legacy
Meanwhile, son David L. Bunker applied all the experience he had gained while working with his father and resurfaced in Mona, Utah, with Treker Manufacturing, which produced a fine product line featuring numerous models, including classic Bunker basses. Treker also built custom instruments for bands including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Spin Doctors, Allman Brothers, Earth Wind and Fire, Poco, Bachman Turner Overdrive, as well as jazz master John B. Williams.
As the years passed, the elder Bunker's musical, luthier, and industrial design skills gained wider recognition and admiration. In 2001, a gorgeous book titled Objects for Use: Handmade by Design was published in New York. It highlighted many beautifully hand-crafted objects, including one of Bunker's fanciest Touch guitars. In conjunction with that, an exhibit was mounted in Manhattan and Bunker was invited to play at the gallery. But the gig was suddenly canceled when, about an hour after Bunker's arrival in New York, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center occurred. Then in 2005 (and again in 2012) Bunker was featured at Deke Dickerson's Guitar Geek Festival in California, where guitar music fans are annually treated to an array of the most talented and legendary players around.
Once praised by Guitar Player magazine as an "extremist in guitar invention" (Bunker Press Release, 1999), Bunker realized that, "I'm probably considered in the too-far-out category, but I won't compromise my ideas" (Seven, 20). And there was no need to. His inventions were all perfectly valid iterations of the ongoing evolution of electrified string-instrument design. Indeed, certain components on them were so effective as to attract music-biz sharks who demonstrated their admiration for Bunker innovations by copying them. But the easygoing Bunker never had much interest in filing lawsuits. As The Seattle Times once noted, "if Bunker had protected his patents he'd be wealthy, and if he knew how to market, he'd be famous ... [but instead he] was left with underground cult status as an overlooked basement genius" and a lingering sense that some folks out there just don't fully understand what he's been trying to accomplish all these years: "People ask me why do I want to change the guitar. I say why not? Besides, it's not a guitar. It's a Touch Guitar" (Seven, 18, 20).
And it was his beloved Touch guitar concept that Bunker continued to believe -- after additional years of research and technological refinement -- might finally be ready for its popular breakthrough. Bunker was energized by the belief that he had "developed the most advanced technology for guitars in the world, and that in time every guitar in the world will recognize the great value in his electronic designs and technique of playing" (Bunker email, August 9, 2013).
In 2013 Dave Bunker remains active, selling tone wood, preparing to launch a fresh round of demonstrating his newest line of single- and double-neck Touch guitars at major trade shows, doing the occasional odd gig, and readying a memoir, Angels, Aliens and Guitars.