FRANKENSTRAT: Paul Unkert with a model of the legendary Kramer ‘Frankenstrat,’ which he built for rock icon Eddie Van Halen. (Monique M. Demopoulos)
About half a year following the tragic death of rock ’n’ roll icon Eddie Van Halen, his legend lives on through the famed Frankenstrat, a monster of a guitar created by combining a Northern Ash Stratocaster body with modified pickup routing to fit a Gibson PAF humbucking pickup in the bridge.
The Frankenstrat is widely recognized by its flashy red body, aggressively striped over in black and white — custom painted by Van Halen. The paint job is considered the guitar’s “finger print,” as each one is identified by different striping.
One particular Frankenstrat owned, signed and heavily used by Van Halen made the news after it was placed up for auction on gottahaverockandroll.com by Van Halen’s crew chief, Kevin “King” Dugan. The guitar was expected to sell for $800,000. However, the auction closed on April 24, before any bids were made.
“It’s probably worth $350 in used parts,” laughingly said Paul Unkert, Ocean County’s very own luthier, who built the Kramer Frankenstrat. Sentimental value, however, is priceless. “It was played by a very luminous person,” he certified.
Unkert, nicknamed “Unk” by Van Halen, looked back upon one of his paramount achievements. “That was one of my biggest claims to fame,” he said, referring to the 18 guitars he built for the rock legend. “That was 35 years ago … I was about 27 years old!”
He recounted the day Van Halen passed away after a long battle with throat and lung cancer. “It was a Tuesday night,” he shared. “I got home from a gig and there were 55 messages on my machine.” The answering machine overflowed with condolences.
The Neptune, Monmouth County factory where Kramer Guitars was founded in 1979, closed in 1991. The company is now headquartered in Nashville. But Unkert still works out of his home workshop in Toms River, and happily reported to being “busier than ever.” Nearly every local musician (ask anyone!) has been proud to have an instrument serviced by Unkert.
Originally from Linden, Unkert began his work in the industry as a 13-year-old. “I played with the Avalon String Band every year with the Mummers,” he explained. “We were all instrument nerds, talking about our instruments.” He “caught the bug” during those experiences performing in Philadelphia, talking with his friends about all the different modifications they were making to their instruments.
Billy Young, Unkert’s wood shop teacher and a close friend of his family, helped Unkert build his very first guitar. “And I’ve never looked back!” He went on to work for about every major manufacturer there is: Ampeg, Dan Armstrong, Sam Koontz Guitars, Kramer Guitars, Sadowsky Guitars, B.C. Rich Guitars, Guitar Trader of Red Bank, American Showsters … the list goes on.
“I live in a world of chisels and screwdrivers,” Unkert said.
“Guitars are organic. I look at them as living, breathing things.” He smiled. “My little wooden friends.” Unkert has worked in every facet of a career with instruments: performing, building, repairing, manufacturing, teaching … he even owned a vintage guitar shop for 25 years.
“The only thing that never went out of style for me was wrenching on guitars,” he affirmed. “I have a real passion for fixing guitars and helping people.”
Unkert has built and worked on guitars for some of the world’s most renowned performing acts, such as the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Z.Z. Top, Kiss, Korn, Bon Jovi, Skid Row and Poison. Name dropping aside, it is through his work that he has made “some of the best friends of my life – and some of my best clients.” He was voted among the top 50 guitar techs in the country by Guitar Player Magazine.
During his career, Unkert has been awarded two guitar patents by the U.S. Patent Office. He built and manufactured about 300 “Unk” guitars, and imported another 600. He also imported 1,000 “unk-uleles.”
Though it’s hard to imagine he would have any spare time, Unkert remains a passionate acoustic player, proficient in five string banjo, upright bass, guitar and dobro. He has played Albert Music Hall in Waretown, since it was run by the Albert Brothers. “I hung out at the cabin in the woods!”
David Grisman and Tony Rice were named as big inspirations before he interrupted himself to say, “everybody!” Unkert was moved by nearly every genre of music from bluegrass, to jazz, to blues. “When I was young I was even a big folk artist,” he shared, reminiscing on his days hanging out with Pete Seeger on his famed Hudson sloop, the Clearwater.
In recent years, Unkert played upright bass for Cindy G. with a nationally touring bluegrass band, until it was forced to disband due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now he plays in a duo called The Linden Boys with a lifelong friend from his hometown. “It’s really wonderful to have that history.” They play about three days a week, and make frequent appearances at Blackdog – 7 Stools, in Little Egg Harbor.
Of course, he emphasized the importance of getting out to support fellow musicians. “As a player, you can’t just play.” Success, he explained, comes from always doing the next right thing. “What goes around comes around,” he said.
Unkert helped to found the Acoustic Musicians Guild, a local nonprofit organization for the advancement of acoustic music. The organization is still active 20 years later. “I’m very proud of that,” he said.
“You’re catching the tail end of a 45-year career,” he was proud to share, knowing he has already achieved all he ever set out to achieve. When asked what’s to come, he explained he has a lifelong goal of making 1,000 guitars. “I’m at about 800. I hope I live long enough!”
In the meantime, Unkert is simply enjoying his work in what he has called the busiest year of his life. Despite the challenges of the coronavirus, the time spent at home gave many musicians the motivation to have their instruments serviced. “I’m very lucky to have repeat, expanding business, even through this.”
He works seven days a week, and splits his time among repairs, builds and performing. The current struggle is striking the perfect balance among those three passions. “I’m very involved.”
His many years have earned him the privilege to build whatever he feels like, preserving the creative integrity of his work. He makes his living doing repairs, but no longer takes requests for builds. In fact, he even shut down his website. Between his repair work, he explained, “I build whatever I feel like building; then it sells in 10 days.”
Content with his success and the work left to be done, Unkert concluded, “I just want to do my thang till the day I die!”
He can be reached for guitar repairs at 732-270-1479.
— Monique M. Demopoulos