A guitar Heart took to ’70s success has an Alabama connection

Don Ross now works on Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal doing IT security, but in 1978 he was living in Seattle and spent that summer sanding a guitar’s curves until it looked “as pretty as a girl.” This guitar would soon be played on arena stages across the U.S. in front of thousands and thousands of fans. It was a 1974 Fender Stratocaster, belonging to Roger Fisher, the handsome bearded guitarist for one of rock’s hottest groups, Heart. A Seattle band with a super-sonic Led Zeppelin-inspired sound, Heart was peaking with a string of hits, including “Barracuda,” “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You.”

Fisher was masterful at signature guitar flourishes in Heart songs that were just as infectious as singer Ann Wilson’s Valkyrie vocals and guitarist Nancy Wilson’s charismatic, propulsive playing. Fisher was also a tinkerer. He’d been devising alternative guitar designs since back in high school.

“And when I actually started to get a little bit of money from Heart,” Fisher says now, “these ideas started festering about lights onboard a guitar that would dance around and be part of the show in a way. So if I had control of my little light show on my guitar neck, then I could acclimate it to each song and that would be really fun.”

A mutual friend introduced Fisher to Chris Miller. Miller owned and operated Fabrication Design Associates.  The Seattle business primarily crafted architectural models of large buildings, like the Space Needle and 1111 Third Avenue, but also created objects for TV commercials, such as a robot that would consume a bowl of cereal by pouring it into its head. After finding out Miller was a builder, Fisher visited his shop. “It was such an incredible talent to do what he did with such precision and accuracy,” Fisher says, “and I was really moved by that. And we became best friends so then we started working together.”

Miller and a team of about four other Fabrication Design Associates staff, including Don Ross, began transforming Fisher’s Strat. Brass inlays, many heart and winged shaped, were installed into the fretboard. As were 60 LED lights. Touch sensors were installed on the guitar body’s upper horn as well as a little VU meter.

“By touching each of those touch sensors you could cause the VU meter to change the pattern of the lights that were flashing in the neck,” Ross says. He credits Miller’s brother-in-law with putting together the primitive onboard processor that allowed the guitar’s lights to produce 10,000 different lighting patterns. “A fourth knob got put on, to control the speed the pattern would flash so Roger could synchronize it with the beat of a song, for example, if he wanted to.” The customization required significant cavities be hollowed out inside the Strat, including the neck, which was stuffed with wires interconnecting the LEDs. Fisher says, “The thing is this kind of information now would take up just a tiny, tiny, tiny little space on a little chip. But back then it was all hand-wired to create the proper electronic relationship to sequence all the LEDs and so it was an incredible task that (Miller and Fabrication Design Associates) performed tenaciously.”

The customized 1974 Strat that Roger Fisher played with Heart. (Courtesy Gruhn Guitars) 

Periodically, Fisher would pop into the shop to check on their progress – sometimes unannounced, as Heart often recorded at downtown Seattle studios. Ross remembers Fisher as “very high energy but very easy going.” He also believes Floyd Rose, a musician and jewelry maker who’d soon make a name for himself due to his Eddie Van Halen-popularized tremolo innovation, installed the tailpiece on Fisher’s customized Strat. The instrument was also outfitted with a synthesizer pickup and extra output jack for the synth.

The final result was an instrument that looked ancient and futuristic all at once. Much like a “Star Wars” set piece. Ross was responsible for putting the final contours on the guitar. Drawing inspiration from an uncle who helped design Cadillac automobiles in the 1930s, he estimates he put in around 180 hours during July and August 1978 finishing the Strat. Lots of sandpaper was involved. “I just handled it as an integrated art assignment. if you will, and it was very exciting to do,” Ross says. “It was a great guitar.”

Nancy Wilson and Roger Fisher on the cover of Guitar Player magazine. (Courtesy Gruhn Guitars) 

Ross recalls bringing the guitar to show Fisher to the home Fisher and brother Michael Fisher, Heart’s then-manager, were residing with Ann and Nancy Wilson. (In case you missed “Behind the Music,” the Wilson sisters and Fisher brothers famously dated, Nancy with Roger and Ann with Michael.) “We got to ride their jet skis on Lake Washinton and that was a lot of fun,” Ross recalls. “And you go walking through the house and there’s Nancy with her sweat pants and her curlers on and walking around. She wasn’t that interest in getting too deep with what we were doing, but that was Roger’ thing and she had her own thing, you know?” Ross recalls Ann being talkative and Nancy as quiet.  

At the time he began working on Fisher’s guitar, Ross was 24 and a recent University of Washington art school grad. He was a huge Zeppelin fan, having seen the British hard-rock deities in concert eight times in Seattle from 1970 to 1977. Although not a Heart fan when he began working on the Strat, Ross developed an appreciation for their music.

As a reward for finishing Fisher’s Strat, the shop staff was given free tickets to a Heart arena concert in Vancouver. While backstage passes weren’t included, Miller, Ross and company were invited to the band’s afterparty at a local Greek restaurant that featured a retractable ceiling, this night revealing a full moon and sky full of stars. “That was great,” Ross says. “We got to go to a party with rock stars.” The mercury rose in 1978 to find Heart playing stadiums, to more than 100,000 fans at Texxas Jam (the two Xs are intentional) after rocking some 300,000 plus at Cal Jam II. Ross believes Fisher’s newly customized Strat might have made its onstage debut at that Vancouver arena, but isn’t quite sure.

The customized 1974 Strat that Roger Fisher played with Heart. (Courtesy Gruhn Guitars) 

When activated on a dark stage, the lights on Fisher’s Strat would chase around the neck, blinking on and off.  Fisher says he would typically engage the special effect for the first time each concert during “Mistral Wind,” the closing track on Heart’s then latest album “Mistral Wind.”

“So you’ve got this really ethereal, spooky introduction going on for ‘Mistral Wind,'” Fisher says, “and then the lights come on my guitar and I would see all the people down in front going ‘Ooh!’ and pointing up at the guitar and nudging their friend. [Laughs] When people first saw it, there’d never been anything like it before and they really got fired up. So that was very rewarding.” Fisher can’t recall what other songs he used the Strat’s lighting array on, live with Heart. And he’s not 100 percent sure if he played the guitar on “Dog & Butterfly,” although he’s “positively certain” he did. “My memory’s not what it used to be,” Fisher says. The guitarist played his customized Strat on the tour promoting multi-platinum “Dog & Butterfly,” which featured the sinewy, disco-inflected hit “Straight On.”

The Wilsons-Fishers romances ended around 1979 and the band and brothers parted ways. Roger Fisher went on to join pop-rock band Alias, known for 1990 hit power-ballad “More Than Words Can Say.” On a recent morning, he calls in for this phone interview from his home in Monroe, Wash., taking a break from packing an RV for a beach trip.

Roger Fisher playing his customized Fender Stratocaster onstage with Heart in the late-70s. (Courtesy Roger Fisher) 

Fisher let his customized Strat go in the early-2000s. Famed Nashville store Gruhn Guitars put the Strat up for sale for $15,000 around 2004. Fisher says a friend in Atascadero, Calif. eventually bought the guitar, as well as the double-neck Gibson that Fisher played onstage with Heart and helped build. He jokes about me starting a crowdfunding campaign online to help him purchase both guitars back.

The customized 1974 Strat that Roger Fisher played with Heart. (Courtesy Gruhn Guitars) 

Around 1981, Ross later helped make another guitar for Fisher. This one with a solid brass fingerboard scalloped to facilitate the sort of string bending guitar-guru John McLaughlin was doing at the time. When the architectural modeling business slowed doing in the ’80s, Chris Miller went to work for Boeing on massive airplane-building machines. Later, Miller helped open tech company Microsoft’s modelling shop, Ross says, before succumbing to a brain tumor around 2000. Fisher recalls Miller as a “dear friend.” Ross has remained connected to the family through Miller’s daughter Cady, who does Ross’ father’s taxes back in Seattle.  After his time working in architectural modelling, Ross has lived several professional lives – marketing, technical writer, etc. – before setting into IT. He reconnected with Fisher around 2002, via a website about Pacific Northwest rock bands. Having grown up playing in combos with names like Great Whale, Fisher’s own extensive guitar collection includes a recently acquired, limited edition Gibson L5S.

Roger Fisher, right, and Nancy Wilson perform with Heart in the late-70s. (Jim Summaria via Wikimedia Commons) 

When he was starting out as a guitarist, Fisher was inspired by the Yardbirds’ “holy triumvirate”: Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. “They got the spirit of those great blues players, worshipped them in a way and passed that on,” Fisher says. “If you listen to something like Led Zeppelin’s first album, it’s got that same spooky voodoo spirit. I loved that.” He and Michael Fisher’s current project Fisher Brothers and The Human Tribe is currently working on an album titled “Heart of the Blues.” Fisher says his new music “draws a line from Africa to Mississippi Delta blues to jazz, rock and R&B.” He hasn’t stopped experimenting with guitars either. Fisher’s arsenal includes a reshaped Strat with a titanium fretboard and he’s developing a carbon-fiber and titanium guitar with onboard amplifiers and speakers and “other things about it I can’t tell you. But it’s definitely the guitar of the future.”

The customized 1974 Strat that Roger Fisher played with Heart. (Courtesy Gruhn Guitars) 

In 2013, Fisher was inducted as part of Heart into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony was the first time the band’s classic lineup, which also included guitarist Howard Leese, bassist Steve Fossen and drummer Michael DeRosier, had performed together since 1979. That night, the band blazed through “Crazy On You.” Fisher’s lead guitar sparkled as brilliant as ever. The memory might have faded on some career details, but Fisher can still vividly recall coming up with those “Crazy On You” bits. “Ann, Nanc and my brother and I living in an A-frame house in Point Roberts, Washington,” Fisher says. “One day, Ann and Nanc were working on this song and they were saying, ‘Hey, Rog we were thinking it would be nice to have some guitar lines over this part of the song. What would you play over that?’ It didn’t take more than 10 seconds.” He then sings that descending dah dah dah dah dah dah dah guitar riff anyone who’s listened to rock radio the last four decades knows by, well, heart. 

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