Unwinding small strands of copper wire, Troy “Hank” Donovan half-smiled over his work as he bent over the small metal clamp holding the cable in his basement workshop.
Donovan has played the guitar since age 17, during his transient childhood in western Montana, but grew very serious toward the instrument after moving to Missoula in 1993. A self-described computer nerd possessing soldering skills, Donovan turned his mechanical know-how to cable making when he noticed how much time he spent repairing worn-out cables for himself and friends.
Guitar cables, like any other gear, wear out in direct proportion to the money spent on it. But Donovan wanted to use high-end materials to make cables that musicians could afford.
“A cheap $15 cable is a $15 cable that might have to be replaced every six months,” Donovan said.
Cables aren’t just a path for sound to glide toward the amp. Cables can be the line between beautiful or abysmal sound blaring from amps, he said.
“A lot of guitarists like a snappy guitar sound but sometimes the sound gets muddy, like a carpet thrown over an amp,” Donovan said.
He repaired his own cords, which lead to experimenting with different types of parts. Soon, he embarked to find the right cable.
“It’s not about sending the signal to the amp, but the best signal,” Donovan said. He determined that good sound quality deserved the same attention as building a sturdy cable.
Ten prototypes later, he found the perfect combination of material that suited him.
Word spread about his cables. Donovan carried a reputation for meticulous work, and when he mentioned he’d started experimenting with making a good cable, ears perked in his direction.
“Anything he does is so meticulous, and he spends so much time researching the quality of products,” said fellow guitarist and longtime friend Gibson Hartwell, who plays in bands Stella Rondo, Tom Catmull and the Clerics and the Idle Ranch Hands.
But the quality doesn’t halt at cable-making. Everything, from the color of the protective webbing surrounding the rubber cable to the plug to the label holds the same, scrupulous attention to detail.
Donovan started his cable business early last year. He chose the name Rattlesnake Cable Co., as well as muted colors and lettering for place recognition.
“When people here hear Rattlesnake, they think of the Rattlesnake (Wilderness). But when people outside of Montana see the label, they think of the West,” Donovan said.
Donovan’s attention to detail stemmed from an encounter with one of the makers of the Travis Bean guitars, known as Frank K while filming a documentary project.
“He constantly said that you have to make a good mechanical connection,” he said as he twirled the plug around the “tinted” copper wires, wires melted to make one solid copper wire in the middle of the rubber shielding.
“I hear him saying that over and over in my head every time I make a cable,” Donovan said.
He said he reached 4,000 feet of cable sold in one year. Keeping the prices low while still reaching a profit and buying more supplies has been a challenge, he said, but his business has started picking up as word spread.
“I have people buying from France and Italy, as well as local musicians,” Donovan said.
Donovan crafts each cable with the assistance of Cade, his 12 year-old son. It takes an hour constructing each cable, from measuring and cutting the cable to soldering and testing each cable’s sound quality personally.
After finding the precise combination of materials he wanted, he allowed musicians to test his cable, most to rave reviews and custom orders.
An Internet-based business, Donovan builds his cables to exact specifications from his customers.
His two most popular cords are the standard cords running from pedal to amp, and his custom-made “snakehead” cord. The “snakehead” cord has a foot and a half of bare rubber cable that guitarists can wrap around their strap without the webbing rubbing against the varnished wood of their guitars.
Though he purchased webbing in muted colors such as gray, a dark red, black and green, his son begged him to buy a bright red. That turned out to be his highest selling one, he said.
“Most people see the bright red and won’t step on it or take it home by mistake,” Donovan said. But he still prefers his own themed colors tying into his idea of a Montana-made product, and giving him a bit of a brand name.
“I hope that people will see the colors and say, ‘Oh, that’s a Rattlesnake cord,’ ” Donovan said.
Hartwell said the cables exceeded his expectations when he tried out the first prototype while looking for a cable for his pedal-steel guitar.
“The cables reminded me of the tractors in the 1950s because they are way overbuilt so that they will last forever,” Hartwell said.
Hartwell’s Rattlesnake cables suited his needs well, and he notices the difference when not using them.
“It’s just a part of the whole sound and setup that I use and I just noticed it when they are missing,” Hartwell said.
Donovan plans to expand his business, but hopes to maintain the “boutique” and custom-made style with the same strict eye for detail.
“I want to hire a few guys to come in and help build and test out each cable. I see that happening,” Donovan said.
But for now, his cables spring him from his small office space offside his basement where he also conducts his web development business.
“I’d be in big trouble if the work was upstairs,” he said chuckling a little bit. “It’s nice to get up from the desk and work on a cable order for an hour or so.”
Krysti Shallenberger is an intern at the Missoulian and a journalism student at the University of Montana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.