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Red Bear Trading CompanyRunning a blog like mine is always rewarding; not just because of all the gear I get to play with but because of the incredible people I get to meet. Among them is Dave Skowron, maker of Red Bear picks and co-owner (with his wife) of Red Bear Trading company. If you read the previous article I posted today, you’d know I’m truly excited about these picks! They look and feel great, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear they’re natural tortoise shell. In fact, when Dave made his first prototypes for some friends in Nashville, they all said he was full of it when he told them they were made from a polymer made of animal protein that looks and feels just like tortoise shell. I’ve never had a tortoise shell pick, but I have felt antique stuff made of natural tortoise shell, and this stuff is close – damn close!

But whatever it’s made of, who cares? These picks are special. You wouldn’t think a guitar pick could make a difference in how you’d sound and play, but you’d be wrong. I know I was because I’m now a convert. But I’m also not any big name, so let me drop one: Dweezil Zappa swears by these picks! He shared a story with Dave about how he spent seven days a week for a year and a half woodshedding to learn his father’s songs in preparation for the “Zappa Plays Zappa” tour. He related to Dave that if he’d had been using Red Bear picks, he would’ve learned them in a few months. The point is that these picks not only make you sound better, they make you play better. I can personally attest to that! Whether you play acoustic or electric or both, you can’t go wrong with one of these picks. In fact, you can use the same pick for both types of guitars! I do.

In my excitement about Dave’s picks, I gave him a call to interview him. Funny thing, I really didn’t have to ask many questions, as Dave is a garralous and talkative guy, who’s got no problem speaking his mind. It was a real joy speaking with him. Here’s a transcript (a lot of it paraphrased) of my conversation with him:

So Dave, what’s your story? How did you get started with making picks?

I was a programmer by trade, specializing in Oracle DBA stuff, but I was also really into playing guitar. One thing led to another and I started building guitar. I made a couple, then started getting into building parts for guitar. I was hanging out on the Vintage Guitar forum before it closed, and met a bunch of other guys who were into building guitars. When that forum closed down, I started the 13th Fret web site. One of the guys that hung out there was a luthier who was looking for some tortoise shell-like material for making pick guards, and he came up with a compound that looked just like it, and he made some picks from it. The problem was that it worked great as a material pick guard, but horribly sucked as pick material. So he searched and found a company that made tortoise shell-like material that was great for picks, but horrible for pick guards, and asked if I could shape some.

It took a long time to refine my technique, but I was able to get some good results. So I sent some out to some friends I knew in Nashville for them to give them a try. They called back asking for more, and telling me I was full of shit that these picks weren’t made out of tortoise shell. I swore to ’em that they were made of a polymer made from animal protein. But the end result is Red Bear Trading Company.

How’d you come up with the name?

My dog’s name is Bear, and he has red hair, so “Red Bear.” [And here, I was thinking it was some Native American relationship!]

Without giving away your secret sauce, how are your picks constructed?

I get sheets of the material and use special laser cutters to cut the shapes, then use some precision sanding to get them to size and polish them up.

Sounds pretty involved.

Yeah. The stuff’s not easy to work with, which is why we charge the price we charge. In fact, some guy complained that the picks were way too expensive, so I sent him some of the material and told him to go ahead and try to fashion picks out of it, then tell me how much I should charge. <chuckle> He never did get any picks made…

[That really cracked me up!]

Did you have any idea that your picks would be such a hit, and that you’d get such a glowing endorsement from someone like Dweezil Zappa?

I never even thought we’d get that kind of response! It has been awesome! When we first started, as a bluegrass guy, I was really focused on the acoustic guitar flatpickers. I didn’t even think about the electric guitar community. But they found their way into that community. Mostly, it was the Nashville guys. These were players who were awesome guitarists in their own right, but they played for big names, so when you’d drop their name, people would say, “Who’s that?” I’d have to say that he played in so-and-so’s band. Then the light would go off, and they’d know who I was talking about. But when one of my picks found its way into Dweezil’s hands, and then he called me to get some more (which I didn’t believe at first when my wife said he was on the line), I knew we had made it. We’re so thankful to have his endorsement. He mentions our picks all the time. It is very cool.

——-

Very cool indeed. Our conversation actually went on for a long time. But I thought I’d just include the best parts. Like I said, it was a joy to speak with Dave. He’s the kind of guy that you could shoot the breeze with all day and talk about pretty much anything. He’s immediately personable and warm, and isn’t afraid of cussing when necessary – in other words, he’s real people.

This kind of stuff – the relationships I get to form with folks out there is what makes me keep on going with this blog! Cheers!

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