In all the excitement of “Back to the Future” Day, and the intense interest in Marty’s time-traveling 345 — not to mention the crushing disappointment of the Cubs flameout at home — we might have forgotten to mention Marty McFly’s other guitar, the so-ironically-small-it’s-cool humbucking monster Marty plugs into an enormous amp at the start of “Back To The Future.” Good thing tennis2007.org has such an active readership and comments section to keep us on track.
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Contrary to what you might think, Marty’s guitar was not a stage prop built for comic relief or the director’s subtle commentary on the excesses of ‘80s hair metal. The guitar is a real, mass-produced instrument called the Chiquita, and it’s still being made today in Austin, TX by luthier Mark Erlewine. You’ll be interested to know that you can recreate the scene in your own garage by ordering one through the Erlewine Guitars website for around $500.
The Man Behind The Icon
Mark Erlewine partnered with a cousin, after apprenticing under him in the late 1960s, to open their own guitar company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1969. In 1972 Erlewine bought the company and moved the shop to Austin in 1974, where he sat in as a pedal steel player in the bars after work.
For the next 43 years, Erlewine built a customer list that reads like a who’s who of the music scene, including Billy Gibbons, who helped design the Chiquita, Bob Dylan, Sting, Andy Summers, Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan, Eric Johnson, Albert King, Bo Diddley, Johnny Winter, Joe Walsh, Jimmy Buffet, John Fogerty, Paul McCartney, Billy Squier, Pat Metheny and of course, Willie Nelson. It is actually Mark’s miracle-working that has kept Trigger, Nelson’s signature Martin N-20, together since 1969.
While much of Erlewine’s work is custom, he does produce and sell two standard models: the Chiquita and the Lazer. You may have seen these pop up sometimes under the Hondo brand name, owned by the International Music Company. Mark leased the patent for both guitars to the Japanese manufacturer and distributor from 1980 until 1985. However, since they are both Erlewine’s designs, he is still able to produce them by hand out of his shop. These are the versions you want as a collector, since the Hondo models were compromised by mass-market production; given the Chiquita’s unique scale length, having a precision setup is especially important.
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Erlewine designed the Chiquita in collaboration with Billy Gibbons as a travel guitar in 1979. The marketing around it still touts it as “nearly a foot shorter than a Strat” and as easier to take on planes. Only 28″ long and 4.5 lbs., it is made from a solid piece of Honduras mahogany. The fretboard is rosewood, with a 19″ scale length over 23 frets, which means you can’t just throw on .010s and use standard tuning. To get around this, you can tune up three half-steps so the top and bottom strings are a G, or you can use a heavier set of strings. Erlewine recommends .013, .017, .022, .036, .046, and also .056. It has Schaller tuners and a Schaller wrap-around bridge; a single DiMarzio humbucker is connected to a lone volume knob for an extremely simplified setup. New models can run $300 to $500, with used ones often found for less.