Constable: Great Scott! Suburban father and son build 'Back to the Future' guitar

  • Sealing the deal with a COVID-19-conscious fist bump, Steve Doner, right, of Wheaton, sees his bass guitar inspired by the movie "Back to the Future" go to buyer Arend Raby at the Sweetwater Sound music store in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

    Sealing the deal with a COVID-19-conscious fist bump, Steve Doner, right, of Wheaton, sees his bass guitar inspired by the movie "Back to the Future" go to buyer Arend Raby at the Sweetwater Sound music store in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Courtesy of Sweetwater Sound

  • Father Steve Doner, left, of Wheaton, and son Richard Doner, of Vernon Hills, collaborated to build a one-of-a-kind bass guitar based on the 1985 movie "Back to the Future." Sold at Sweetwater Sound music store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the guitar netted a $2,000 donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

    Father Steve Doner, left, of Wheaton, and son Richard Doner, of Vernon Hills, collaborated to build a one-of-a-kind bass guitar based on the 1985 movie "Back to the Future." Sold at Sweetwater Sound music store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the guitar netted a $2,000 donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. Courtesy of Sweetwater Sound

 
 
Updated 6/9/2020 10:04 AM

As a teenager in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Steve Doner played trumpet in the high school band, and he learned enough in an electronics class to start a business setting up speakers, strobe lights and a disco ball for dance parties.

Now the 61-year-old certified public accountant from Wheaton has gone back in time to his musical roots with his newest creation -- a "Back to the Future"-inspired guitar with a flux capacitor and a digital light display showing the year.

 

"Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that you built a bass guitar out of a fictional movie time machine?"

Yep.

Doner and his 24-year-old son, Richard, an electrical engineer who lives in Vernon Hills and works for Abbott, started fiddling around with guitars in 2008 after the son got a guitar and the dad picked up a bass guitar. They eventually created Doner Designs, a part-time charity that builds unique guitars to raise money for worthy causes.

Designing their guitar inspired by the movie "Back to the Future" took some imagination and electrical expertise, say the father-and-son team of Steve and Richard Doner. The Wheaton dad and Vernon Hills son sold their creation to raise $2,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
Designing their guitar inspired by the movie "Back to the Future" took some imagination and electrical expertise, say the father-and-son team of Steve and Richard Doner. The Wheaton dad and Vernon Hills son sold their creation to raise $2,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. - Courtesy of Doner Designs

After coming up with a motto of "Warming Hearts with Cool Guitars," a DonerDesigns.org website and a Facebook page, the Doners created two "Fight Back" guitars with military designs in memory of Jenna Richards, the daughter of close family friends who was diagnosed with peripheral T-cell lymphoma in 2006 and died in 2011 at age 16. The Doners donated those guitars to charity auctions that raised money for the local Cystic Fibrosis Foundation chapter and Make-A-Wish Illinois.

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They also made a NASA guitar, signed by astronaut James A. Lovell, best known for his role as the commander of Apollo 13 mission. Doner Designs has built guitars honoring the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy.

"But this is by far the most elaborate of anything we've done so far," Steve Doner says of the bass they dubbed the "Time Machine Bass" guitar so as not to infringe on the "Back to the Future" copyright.

"When we started it, I had a couple years of engineering school under my belt," remembers Richard Doner, who graduated from Valparaiso University in 2017. "I had to get creative with the things I'd learned. I got to apply what I learned in the real world -- if you want to call it that."

In the 1985 blockbuster "Back to the Future," Michael J. Fox starred as teenager Marty McFly, who traveled back in time to 1955 in a DeLorean that scientist Emmett "Doc" Brown converted into a time machine. The DeLorean was powered by a flux capacitor that ran on plutonium. It also featured a digital display of the destination date.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Legendary bass guitarist Billy Sheehan, who played with David Lee Roth before forming his Mr. Big band, plays this "Time Machine Bass" guitar, which was inspired by the movie "Back to the Future" and was designed by Steve Doner of Wheaton and his son, Richard Doner, of Vernon Hills.
Legendary bass guitarist Billy Sheehan, who played with David Lee Roth before forming his Mr. Big band, plays this "Time Machine Bass" guitar, which was inspired by the movie "Back to the Future" and was designed by Steve Doner of Wheaton and his son, Richard Doner, of Vernon Hills. - Courtesy of Sweetwater Sound

The Doners found a way to put both of those concepts on their guitar, but it took several years of work before they even were close.

"I had everything laid out on a prototype board," Richard Doner remembers. "Pretty much nothing worked. So many chips and wires."

A couple of days of troubleshooting, and the time-machine bass was ready. It sold recently to Arend Raby, a bass player who works for Sweetwater Sound in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The sale raised $2,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

Clearly a piece of art that took more than 300 hours to create, the guitar also has high-quality components such as a Warmoth body and neck, a Nordstrand pickup, an Audere preamp, a Babicz bridge, Hipshot tuning machines, an Axetreme Creations pickguard and a ReRanch nitrocellulose lacquer finish, Steve Doner says.

Maker of custom guitars for charity, Steve Doner, left, of Wheaton, got astronaut James A. Lovell, who flew for the Gemini and Apollo missions, to sign this guitar Doner made in honor of NASA.
Maker of custom guitars for charity, Steve Doner, left, of Wheaton, got astronaut James A. Lovell, who flew for the Gemini and Apollo missions, to sign this guitar Doner made in honor of NASA. - Courtesy of Doner Design

The Doners already are thinking about their next guitar, which also has a movie connection.

"Have you seen the 'Mad Max' film where there's a guy playing a flamethrower guitar?" Steve Doner asks. "I'm a little scared of liability issues and burning my own house down. It will take a long time to figure out how to make it all work."

Time, it appears, is something the Doners have figured out.

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