Larry Fishman, 69, studied double bass at Berklee College of Music, and had an engineering degree as well. He began building pickups in his basement to amplify his sound, but when he found that other musicians wanted them too, he changed his tune. Today, his eponymous business reels in roughly $25 million in annual revenue.
--As told to David Whitford

In 1985, I got a call from Hugh Bloom, the president of Martin Guitar. He said, "Can you come down and have a meeting about supplying us with pickups?" So I go down there. They bring me into the conference room. There was a table about 300 feet long. There are five guys from Martin, and me. A little intimidating. I said, "What do you need?" Bloom said, "I think we can sell 10,000 next year--can you supply?" And I said, "Absolutely."

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My wife said, "Well, we're getting out of the damn house." The next day she found us 5,000 square feet--this big empty shell that scared the hell out of me. My dad was a manufacturer of textiles. I'd hung around factories a long time. I knew you could buy machinery. I knew a guy, an instrument builder from New York who was also an excellent machinist. He came in and helped me set up some of the production tooling and stuff. I hired a lot of musicians. They were always looking for day gigs.

Around that time my dad visited. We're driving around Boston in my old VW bug. The floor was rusty, and it was raining like hell, and he got his feet soaked. He calls me the next day and says, "Look, I don't like what's going on. I'll make an investment." He gave me $20,000 for 50 percent of the company, and made me promise to buy myself a safe car. So I said fine. That got us over the hump.

There was no guarantee, but Martin Guitar is the most historic and prestigious guitar company in the United States, a family-owned business since 1833. I didn't think they were going to screw me on this, and they didn't. They wound up buying 15,000 that first year, and then we started getting calls from Gibson and Taylor, and suddenly we were the hot kid on the block.

That was the beginning of my thinking maybe this is something I would like to do. Because the gigging stuff was, well, we were eating a lot of spaghetti. So I dove in. Just like playing, you know? Improvisational music. Never play it the same twice. You dive in over your head and see how gracefully you can get out of it.