From bicycles to “pedal steel” guitars: One maker’s quirky frontiers
Ross Shafer made his mark creating a popular brand of mountain bikes, called Salsa, and a line of small but crucial bicycle parts that no one had brought to the market before. Now he’s making what might be the world’s most beautiful “pedal steel guitar.” Could Shafer’s relentless eclecticism offer a model for a second Renaissance?
By OWEN EDWARDS
Primary photography by MIKKEL AALAND
When I first visited Ross Shafer, the founder of Salsa Bicycles, on his small farm in Petaluma, California, I knew I would be seeing the home and workplace of someone with a cult following. What I discovered is a man who is remarkably expert at a wide range of physical tasks–including raising hogs–a prime example of what the late art critic Robert Hughes called “the spectacle of skill.”
While growing up, what Shafer couldn’t do led to what he can do. “I couldn’t read manuals very well, and still can’t,” he admits. “So I just figured stuff out by taking things apart.”
This discovery began with a guided tour of the premises. First stop was the garage, where a KTM motorcycle stands, partly disassembled while Shafer makes some changes to improve the bike’s performance. Next to the bike is a tractor mower that Shafer bought for his wife, who likes to keep things civilized around the farm. On each side of the mower’s engine cowl he has put Ducati stickers, adding some Italian motorcyling glamour to a utilitarian machine. Attached to the garage is a room with a straw-covered floor, home to an energetic brown piglet named Sally (short for Salami). Just through a gate beyond the garage is a pen where the senior house sow, Arva, lucky receiver of a permanent pardon, grunts contentedly in a mud puddle. Shafer tells me that he named Arva after his fondly-remembered Cub Scout den mother.
To walk around the property with Shafer is to spend time with a man entirely in his element, and very happy to be there. He looks like a farmer, in overalls and muddy boots, as he rushes into the pig pen and is immediately on the ground next to the gigantic Arva (750 pounds), scratching her neck as if she were a huge dog. (There are a couple of those, too—the lovely Rita and a giant, perpetual puppy named Enzo.) Shafer and his critters seem, literally, to be in hog heaven.
One day during his teen years, a car that ran a stop sign destroyed his bike, and almost destroyed Shafer. While he was in the hospital recovering from a skull fracture, Shafer started wheeling and dealing for a loan to get another bike.
The next stop is a small, weathered outbuilding that houses a fully equipped metalworking shop, complete with a computer-run milling machine. From the shop’s ceiling hang some of the custom-built, steel bicycle frames that Shafer has made over the years, the designs for which landed him, in 1991, in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. He pulls down one of his first Salsa bikes, a sleek, bright yellow piece of minimalist sculpture that looks fast just standing still on the workshop floor. The mysterious word “Scoboni” is inked on the top bar of the frame. When I ask what it means, Shafer explains that when he used to ride with a bunch of bike fanatics in northern California, nicknames were bestowed on everyone. His was Rosco, and that morphed into ‘Sco, and then into the Italianish Scoboni—an embrace of goofiness, I later learned, that had a lot to do with his success.
Attached to the workshop is a chicken house, filled with clucking, egg-laying hens. Beyond the coop is another low-roofed barn where Shafer does his woodworking. Standing midway through this shop is his current work in progress, an arcane instrument called “a pedal steel guitar”—basically an electrified aluminum box adorned with rare wood, and decorative inlays of abalone nacre. Shafer turns the instrument over so I can see the intricate metal bits and pieces that make it work. With a matter-of-fact tone, he mentions that he made all the parts from scratch over in the metalworking shop.
The market is so small for these guitars, whose last heyday was in the 1970s, that, by Shafer’s estimate, only 200 new ones are still being sold worldwide every year. “There are probably a million of these things lying under people’s beds and in closets,” he says. Yet Shafer, captivated by the instrument’s sustained, electric twang, is undeterred. He now has a contract to make what he believes might be “the most beautiful pedal steel guitar the world has ever seen.”
With this tour, I have encountered Shafer’s resume in 3D: motorbike mechanic and former racer, hog raiser (wife Mari deals with the sheep and chickens and a very productive garden), machinist, bicycle maker, guitar builder, and musician. If eclecticism has any virtue, Shafer is its apotheosis. Which makes me think there is something in his former paths that just might lead to the Holy Grail at the end of a new one.
Shafer was one of the early pioneers of making mountain bikes with a rougher look, where the lines of brazing or welding at the bike frame’s joints were left raw instead of being neatly filed and polished. This happened entirely by chance, in an incident that turns an old truism on its head: Necessity isn’t always the mother of invention; sometimes luck is—and determination.
Shafer has the look of a mature version of someone you might have seen at the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets during the Summer of Love; the curly hair is shorter now than in the past, but a gold earring remains, as does a rebellious attitude. The attitude may be partly explained by having grown up in a working class Mormon family with Jewish roots in southern California in the 1950s. (“My Dad painted stripes down the middle of the road for a living.”) At that time, he says, “I was completely non-mechanical. When some rich kid up the block got a mini bike, he and some of the neighborhood boys wanted to make it faster. I thought I had some good ideas, but nobody wanted to hear them from the youngest kid. So in order to be paid attention to, I had to get mechanical.”
His getting mechanical progressed in classic American style—or, more precisely, old-school American style. In junior high in those days, both machine shop and woodworking were requirements for boys. (Girls were prepared for life with typing and “home economics.”) In high school, Shafer was able to take auto shop, a course that came in handy when he got his first car, a much-rambled AMC Rambler station wagon. At that point, what Shafer couldn’t do led to what he can do. “I couldn’t read manuals very well, and still can’t,” he admits. “So I just figured stuff out by taking things apart.”
Meanwhile, Shafer’s connection to bicycles had already begun. “When I was 10,” he says, “I got a paper route, using my bike.” Things were sometimes tense at home, so from an early age the bicycle equaled freedom. That first bike was a Schwinn with a complex, two-speed mechanism that provided his first self-taught lessons on how bikes worked. Devotion set in. Later, when his parents wouldn’t loan him the money to pay for auto insurance unless he got a haircut, he held onto his locks and went back to riding 10-speed bikes, even when his friends were driving cars and “only weirdos rode bikes.”
His first good bike (a used Stella) was acquired, according to him, in “a shady business deal.” Later, a car that ran a stop sign destroyed the bike, and almost destroyed Shafer. But the crash seemed to only add to his determination. While he was in the hospital, recovering from a skull fracture, he started wheeling and dealing for a loan to get another bike.
Shafer moved to Paradise, in northern California, in 1976, to attend Butte Community College, and built his first bike in a chicken coop, using materials from a very basic “Proteus” kit. The Butte catalog promised metalworking courses, but when this turned out not to be the case, he stuck around and took classes in, of all things, jewelry making. “Doing jewelry, I learned a lot about making stuff. And in the end,” he says, “making stuff is making stuff. Whatever the end product, it’s all about tools, design, and material.” Once he had mastered this trifecta, the doors to creativity opened. “Anything in my life that I’ve gotten deeply into I’ve ended up learning how to make,” he says.
In 1982, Shafer, a dedicated road cyclist at the time, was asked by mountain biking friends to make custom bikes for them. When he realized there was a market for the same exacting attention to detail in mountain bikes that he was giving road-bike frames, he started Salsa Bicycles (named for his love of hot sauces, and because he considered Shafer Bikes just too boring.) By 1985, demand for his custom mountain bikes was growing fast, so Salsa began making “semi-custom” production bikes—in other words, a range of sizes, configurations, and materials that is wider than you can find in a bike shop, but isn’t entirely made to order.
By this time, Shafer had honed his marketing skills, and he knew that his sense of fun, in riding bikes and building them, should be the motif of the company. So he built a community around it. On the wall of the metal shop is a poster advertising one of his increasingly popular gatherings, which he called “Salsa Fests.” While the average frame builder focuses on the metalwork, “Ross understood that people buy a lifestyle with a Salsa bicycle,” says Brad Woehl, who owns American Cyclery, a San Francisco bike dealer that caters to serious aficionados. “You make good frames to build your credibility,” Woehl says, “but you make your money selling the T-shirts.”
At one point, I was moved to ask what makes one bike frame better than another. “It’s mostly aesthetics, and attention to detail,” he said. That last attribute—attention to detail—seems to have been Shafer’s hallmark. Virtually everyone in the bike world who has worked with Shafer points to that very quality in his work. Rob Forbes noticed it immediately when working with Shafer to develop Public Bikes. So did Joe Breeze, a successful bike builder who shared workshop space with Shafer for six years. “I saw my first Salsa bike on a ride in the early eighties,” says Breeze, who is now the curator of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame (see below). Recalling the way the bike’s tubing was put together, Breeze says, “I noticed right away that the craftsmanship was really excellent.”
In the early days of mountain bike racing, contestants had to start and finish a race on the same bike—a test of the bike’s maker as much as its rider. Many early bike frames cracked under the pressure, sending riders trudging off into the woods in frustration. As big bike companies infiltrated the sport, this rule, for a time, was abandoned, just as it has been for road racing.
To explain this kind of detail, Shafer took me back to the metal shop and pulled down a pretty, red and white frame that he built under the name Six Nine Design, his post-Salsa brand. To the uninitiated, the frame might seem relatively standard; on closer examination, it revealed two spots where the tubes—all made of steel, a classic material that Shafer has never abandoned—were joined together in very non-standard fashion. The two joints illustrate the subtle but highly valued qualities that, for a time, made Shafer one of the most sought-after frame builders on the American West Coast, a distinction that was no small achievement. This region has long been a hotbed for some of the country’s best frame builders, so Shafer had plenty of competition.
The first notable joint on this bicycle is Shafer’s design for a lug, which is a thin sleeve surrounding two adjoining tubes to hold the tubing in place. Until the 1980s, virtually all fine bicycles were put together with lugs, typically recognizable by their raised, spade-like curves. What distinguishes this one—which is prominently displayed up front, just below the handlebars—is its unusually delicate floral shape. While Shafer didn’t make the lug from scratch, it’s clearly finished beautifully. After being polished, and then painted red, the floral pattern is neatly highlighted by the white face of the bike’s head tube, which lies under these little metal flowers. Quintessential form and function, joined together with perfection.
The second joint is far simpler, but a lot closer to the design aesthetic you see in many of today’s mountain bike frames. The joint involves the bike’s bottom bracket—that crowded intersection between a bicycle’s pedals where the machine’s structural foundations all come together. In the old days, bottom brackets were also lugged, but this one isn’t. The joint is just fused together—brazed, as metal-workers call the traditional process of melting brass or some other alloy around adjoining parts. Today, most bike frames are fused with a hotter process called TIG welding, but its signature marking is often much the same: a raised band circling the bicycle joint, like a line of clay that someone has smushed with his thumb then left to harden. Shafer’s bottom bracket was entirely different. The braze was so fine and smooth that I could barely see where the connection was made. “That’s how I like to build frames,” Shafer said. “It’s cleaner, and it shows the quality of your brazing.”
Over time, Shafer was able to use his methodology to help bike dealers understand how brazing should be done. This happened entirely by chance, in an incident that turns an old truism on its head: Necessity isn’t always the mother of invention; sometimes luck is—and determination.
In the 1984, Shafer was scheduled to participate in the Whiskeytown Downhill mountain bike race west of Redding, Ca. The night before the race, as he was preparing his gear, he noticed his frame was cracked. “Holy shit!” he recalls thinking. “I have to build a whole new frame!” Shafer stayed up all night cutting and brazing steel tubes, and finished just in time to leave for the race. There was no time for fancy paint jobs—or even for filing and polishing his brazes.
When he arrived at the starting line, Charlie Cunningham—another frame builder who preceded Shafer in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame—looked over at Shafer’s bike and said, “Man, that’s how mountain bikes should look! Anybody can file a shitty fillet and paint it over to make it look good.” As it happens, a fillet (which is a brazed joint) that’s done badly looks a lot like the welds you see on many of today’s bikes: uneven, oversized, and sometimes full of pin-holes. Shafer says that Cunningham’s reaction stimulated him to starting leaving his brazes raw–in other words, un-filed and un-polished, and cleaned up only by the bike’s coat of paint. He then marketed the rough look as a sign of good craftsmanship. Somewhat coincidentally, as other bikes arrived on the market with big, visible welds (sometimes because new materials such as aluminum or titanium required it; sometimes because builders thought the bumpy look suggested hand-made cool), the aesthetic caught on.
Shafer shrewdly ran with these and a few other tweaks to mountain bike designs, all of which the bike world welcomed enthusiastically. After one customer requested a military style camouflage paint job, Shafer spoofed the whole camo idea with pastel and Rasta-influenced camouflage. (The former he called “pooftaflage,” the latter “Rastaflage.”) Soon, the bike world’s growing taste for a bit of Salsa led to a collection of playful names for bike models. There was the Con Todo (a custom bike “with everything”), the A la Carte (a production mountain bike), a cyclocross bike called La Cruz, and the Viajero—a travel bike that would break down to fit into your suitcase.
Maybe craftsmanship lies in taking steps that don’t need to be taken—they’re just done for beauty, or ultra-smooth performance; or because there is some tiny, potential breakthrough that the artisan has been continually running into, and maybe this extra step is the one that will finally open its doors.
As Salsa grew, Shafer helped to pioneer a new approach to bike frame geometry. In the late 1970s, when mountain biking first got started, a lot of riders were bouncing down rough trails on “klunkers”—old Schwinn cruisers of the 1950s and ’60s and other cast-offs rescued from junkyards. Soon they started making their own bikes, drawing from Schwinn’s low, curvaceous geometry. Shafer realized that, while these bikes might be comfy for long bumpy downhills, they were too heavy and inefficient for the arduous, gravelly climbs uphill. So he modified the concept, turning the klunkers’ geometry into a smallish “triangle,” and sloped the top tube down toward the seat post. But he put slightly steeper angles into the frame than other makers at the time did.
With these changes, a Salsa mountain bike suddenly gained three new advantages. The smaller triangle created a stiffer frame, which added stability.The modified tube angles tightened up the way a biker’s efforts delivered power to the wheels, thereby creating a more efficient ride. And the sloped top tubes suddenly allowed smaller people to go mountain biking. While other bike builders were moving in similar directions at the time, Shafer saw an opportunity with the new geometry that they didn’t: its potential for road biking as well. He soon became the first to use some of the tighter geometry in a production line of road bikes. “Before they created women’s mountain bikes,” Brad Woehl says, “I sold a ton of Salsas to small ladies.” Today, smaller triangles with a sloped top tube have become almost ubiquitous, in both mountain bikes and road bikes. Remnants of Shafer’s geometry can even be seen in bicycles recently ridden to victory in the Tour de France.
Shafer’s next innovation was smaller, but in some ways more ingenious. He realized that if he expanded the options on one small part, he could offer mountain bike riders the facsimile of a custom fit, for about $50. The part at issue here was the handlebar stem—that tube-shaped piece than connects the handlebars to the tube that steers the fork straddling the front wheels. If you’ve ever bought a bicycle that was supposed to fit you, but you still felt too stretched out over the handlebars, or too bunched up, chances are the bike’s stem was the culprit. “It’s the main component that allows for a fine fit,” Shafer says.
Shafer developed a line of sleek black stems that grew to 109 different sizes and angles, and through much of the 1980s and early 1990s, a Salsa was the only stem that a discerning bicyclist would use. These were the years when mountain biking—which was born in neighboring Marin County—exploded as a new sport. In its early days, mountain bike racers had to start and finish a race on the same bike, a test of the bike’s maker as much as its rider. Many early bike frames cracked under the pressure, sending riders trudging into the woods in frustration (and giving some new materials such as aluminum an undeservedly tainted reputation). As big bike companies infiltrated the sport, this rule was abandoned for a time, just as it has been for road racing. “Whoever had the money to buy a bunch of fancy bikes got the advantage,” says Cunningham, an early aluminum pioneer.
As the sport progressed, and steel held its own, Salsa quickly became a go-to destination for serious off-roaders, among them Peter Gabriel and some of his band members. In 1987, Shafer began sponsoring the first ever all-women mountain bike racing team, and Salsa became an official supplier of stems for the U.S. Olympic time-trial squad.
If the number of Shafer’s bikes changed over the years, his attention to detail didn’t. During the process of manufacture, Salsa bikes were put through six or more alignment checks—a standard that even one of his own employees thought was excessive. After visiting a competitor one day, the employee returned to tell Shafer that the competitor performed only two alignment checks. The employee argued that cutting down on all these alignment checks would speed up production. “For me to be comfortable,” Shafer responded, “we have to do all those alignments. So go do some.” The subjects of speed, efficiency, and profits did not come up again.
On other, less safety oriented aspects of bike design, Shafer readily acknowledges that all that extra care isn’t entirely necessary. “Whatever the end product,” he says, “the last little bit of quality is really for the maker.” This comment got me thinking about what makes a maker into a master. Maybe craftsmanship lies in taking steps that don’t need to be taken—they’re just done for beauty, or ultra-smooth performance; or because there is some tiny, potential breakthrough looming in the artisan’s work, and perhaps this extra step will finally make it happen.
Shafer sold Salsa in 1997 to a larger company, Quality Bicycle Products, which closed the California factory in 1999 and—like the vast majority of bike manufacturers today—moved production to Asia. Thus began another beginning. Under his new company, Six-Nine Design, Shafer started pursuing a wild range of assignments, from electric bicycles and reproductions of classic fifties racing motorcycles to guitar amplifiers. Along the way, he consulted for some of the biggest names in bicycling—Richard Sachs (a highly respected custom frame builder), and Gruppo (maker of Cinelli, a legendary Italian brand). He has even written a wry sex advice column, as “Uncle Ross,” for a British bike ‘zine called Bad News.
During one of these peripatetic pursuits, Shafer started playing guitar. (“As a kid, I had the same rock star dream everybody else did,” he says.) At one point, Shafer bought a damaged Japanese arch-top guitar called an Ibanez and, using long-dormant woodworking skills, managed to get it back in good shape. So he decided, in classic Shafer style, to figure out how to build new ones. With nothing but his repaired Ibanez and a few bike frames as his C.V., he got an unpaid apprenticeship with Taku Sakashta, a well-known guitar maker who lived not far from Shafer’s home in Petaluma. For more than a year, Shafer put in 20 or more hours a week studying with Sakashta, building four mandolins (small, detailed, and difficult) and two acoustic guitars.
Since then, Shafer has continued to make electric and acoustic guitars, which now hang against his living room wall. The finish on each one is so rich, so detailed, so alluring that it would make anyone feel like a rock star. His first pedal steel guitar—a long, electrified box with strings, frets, and pedals everywhere—stands underneath, making the room feel like a sculpture gallery. “Do you want to hear the lick that got everyone my age into pedal steel guitars?” Shafer asks. I nod, of course, and Shafer plugs in the guitar, puts a metal slide on one finger, takes a seat, and breaks into “Teach Your Children Well,” the 1970 classic by Crosby, Stills & Nash. The man behind the pedal steel on that song: Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead fame.
As Shafer brings this bizarre instrument to life, he’s getting almost as much exercise as he does when he goes bicycling. To operate its myriad functions, Shafer explains, “You need both feet, both knees, both hands, and way more brain than I have.”
Watching Shafer work on his ambitious new pedal guitar project is a “silence, please” experience. Intensely focused, he doesn’t want to talk (and doesn’t particularly like having an inquisitive audience). Before each small move, he seems to ready himself for a leap. I’ve never watched a diamond cutter at work, but I imagine the tension might be similar. One slip can ruin weeks of work.
In one corner of his shop, Shafer was conducting an unusual test. “There’s one string on a pedal steel guitar that leads a very difficult life,” he says. To make sure that is pedal steel strings can live long and productive lives, Shafer has constructed a kind of Rube Goldberg machine—a little 24-volt motor that is attached to a gear, which turns a lever that pulls on the guitar string, at the end of which, on this particular day, hung a 34-pound block of steel. Shafer had been running the machine for a week, which meant, by his calculations, that this little string had been stressed 1,028,000 times. Once the guitar is complete, it will have taken a year of his time—actually three and a half years, he says, “with all the R&D.”
How can artisans make a project like this pan out? Normally, they couldn’t. “The market for these guitars is so small it’s nearly non-existent,” Shafer says. “They’re really weird instruments, even weirder than bagpipes. And the prices I’d have to charge would be met with gasps and fainting by the aging pedal steel constituency.” (When pressed, Shafer puts a price tag of $8,000 on one of his pedal steels—a hefty sum, of course, but a pittance when measured by hourly pay.)
To his great fortune, Shafer was approached by “a musician of means” (whom he can’t name), who shares Shafer’s love for this odd machine. After the musician glimpsed Shafer’s skill at other pursuits, he asked what Shafer would need in order to clear his calendar to concentrate on developing a piece of pedal steel perfection. Shafer gave him a figure, and the musician agreed. Shafer has been happily tinkering ever since.
As rare and lucky as this arrangement sounds, it is not unprecedented. “It’s kind of an artist-patron relationship,” Shafer says, clearly feeling awkward about the arrangement’s implications. His remark made me think of the famous patron relationships that led to the Renaissance, that golden era of European art and innovation that has never been equaled since. Without the largesse of the Medici, we might not have read much about the accomplishments of the brilliant but needy artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. Today, the great old Italian merchant families have been replaced by foundations and hedge fund managers. Those benefactors seem to appreciate the fine arts, but fine artisans have so far generally escaped their notice.
While artisans everywhere dream about such a golden age, Shafer keeps exploring his own frontiers. With each new piece of his custom pedal steel, he finds ways to better isolate string vibration; to give the instrument added resonance; and, of course, to improve its sheer physical beauty.
If this story puts you in the mood for a great, classic bike—one that’s made with a little more individuality than the piles of cookie-cutter bicycles put out these days by big manufacturers such as Giant, Trek, and Specialized—look at some of the offerings in our sidebar to the right, “How to shop for a bicycle: Our visit with American Cyclery’s Brad Woehl.” Among other things, the story offers a surprise: one of our recommendations is a bike from Specialized.
If you’re anywhere near the San Francisco Bay Area, don’t miss the Marin Museum of Bicycling, which also houses the nation’s Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Run by Joe Breeze (who has developed his own line of production bikes, Breezer Bikes), this little museum in Fairfax, Calif. houses a glorious collection of some of the world’s earliest bicycle inventions. Most were created in the late 1890s, just before the invention of the automobile. This was that brief moment in time when bicycling was the best mode of independent transportation available. All of the leading inventors of the day gave it their undivided attention, creating groundbreaking innovations such as the first chain with bushings (still a standard today), and the first air-filled tires.