Things to consider when ordering a custom guitar

Discussion in 'The Small Company Luthiers' started by Leonc, Feb 17, 2008.


  1. Leonc

    Leonc Wild Gear Hearder Gold Supporting Member

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    This was posted on the old PRS forum and went the way of the dodo at some point. There have been a number of times when folks have asked me to repost it. Scott F at the Thorn Forum was good enough to dig it out from one of those sites that archives the net. I've reposted it here where it will hopefully stick around for a while. (Thanks Scott!)
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    I think the biggest question facing someone the first time they decide to buy a custom made instrument is "What do I want?"

    I'd like to start this thread to help the first time custom guitar buyer figure out what it is they're looking for.

    The first big decision you must make: Am I building something to:

    * duplicate one of my favorite instruments with a few of my own ideas?
    * fill in a hole in my collection?
    * experiment with something entirely unique?



    There is another major design decision that will help guide your choices. You need to determine where you are on the form vs. function axis.

    At one extreme is a "show guitar" of which the primary intent is to be so tricked-out, made with such detail and incredible components that your friends� jaws will hit the floor when they see it. Chances are, this kind of guitar will mostly sit in its case or in a glass box on your wall most of the time. Materials and design choices are selected primarily for their visual appeal.

    At the other extreme is a plain jane guitar in which every element is selected for its contribution to the tone. Think about an old cherry red Les Paul Jr: slab of mahogany with 2 P90s and no frills whatsoever. If the magically correct pieces of wood were selected, this thing is going to have tone for days and play like butter! But no one is ever going to say it's the most beautiful thing they've seen.

    Chances are, most people are going to want to do something in between, but if you make a decision as to where you are on this axis before you begin, it will help you make a lot of the other choices.

    No matter which approach you decide to take, here are the parameters you'll want to consider:

    * Materials for neck, fretboard, top, body, headstock face, inlays, nut
    * Body cavities
    * Body style
    * Neck carve
    * Fretboard radius
    * Inlay design, body/neck/headstock purfling, etc.
    * Scale length
    * Neck attachment (neck through, bolt-on, etc.)
    * Type/shape of heel
    * Type of volute
    * Type of truss-rod (single vs. double action)
    * Number of frets
    * Type of frets (size, material)
    * Type of pickups
    * Location of pickups, height and angle from surface of guitar
    * Type of controls
    * Size/shape of control and tremolo cavities
    * Neck height/angle from body
    * Headstock angle
    * Control placement/orientation
    * Type of bridge/tailpiece
    * Type and location of instrument jack
    * Locking vs non-locking vs traditional trem bridges
    * Tremolo arm shape, length, type of attachment to bridge
    * Type of pickguard
    * Type of control cavity covers
    * Plating on metal parts
    * Type of knobs (e.g., speed knobs vs. knurled metal)
    * Type of tuners (locking? button material?)
    * Finish for top, neck and other parts of guitar (not only color, but type: laquer vs. poly vs. nitro)
    * Neck weight relative to body (most folks don�t want a neck heavy guitar)
    * Nature of carving on body (e.g., tummy carve, highly carved top, etc.)
    * Overall weight of guitar


    Of course, this list will vary a bit from one custom guitar designer to the next. Some may only do bolt-on necks, for example. But the point is, you should think about each and every one of these, where applicable, with respect to what you want.

    Duplicating your favorite instrument
    The implications here are pretty straightforward, particularly if you're more or less duplicating a favorite instrument. If this is the case, identify all the traits (from the list above) that you like in your current axe, and those that you want to change. For example, you may love the basic Les Paul Standard type guitar, but want one with a tremolo, fancy inlay and three P90s. In this case, you'd want to hold all the other design parameters more or less constant.

    Filling in a hole in your collection
    This is the next simplest situation to deal with. Suppose you have a Tele, a Les Paul Custom, PRS Custom 22 and a 335 and you'd really like something like a Strat, but you have some specific design ideas about scale length, finishes, pickup choices and control layouts that you just can't find on a stock guitar. Again, this should be relatively straightforward to plan out. You'd want to identify all the design parameters that your favorite "Strat" type guitar would have, relative to a traditional Strat and then back into the rest.

    So, in this example, suppose you wanted something with a 24" scale, a 14" radius fretboard, a H-S-H pickup configuration.

    As you're straying away from more traditional Strat type pickups, you will need to very carefully think through the brands and models you want. For example, in this scenario, you don't want to choose humbuckers that will really overpower the single coil pickup in the middle. You'd also want to think about the kind of switching required to make this combination of pickups really effective.

    Experimenting With Something Entirely Unique
    Well, this is perhaps the most rewarding way to go, but the riskiest too. You're stepping into uncharted waters. To some extent, I think you should still consider design elements that you know to work, particularly with regards to pickups and types of wood.

    For example, combining a maple top with a solid mahogany neck and body and humbuckers is usually a sure fire recipe for the "Les Paul Sound". You can mess around with a LOT of other design parameters and still get something that sounds A LOT like a Les Paul if you stick with those three basic ingredients.

    But with each choice that takes you further away from the traditional Les Paul (in this example), you need to evaluate the degree to which your choice makes sense. You don't want to wind up with a Frankenstein monster that isn't really good at anything. For example, if you use a maple neck and fretboard, a swamp ash body with big tone-cavities and stick a couple high-gain humbuckers on it, are you going to wind up with a great guitar? If you're just going for a certain aesthetic, maybe it doesn't matter.

    The subtle problem you'll want to try to avoid is weird interactions between various design choices. Another example, if you want a really lightweight guitar but want a rosewood neck, well, that thing is going to be neck heavy. Pretty much no way around it. Or selecting pickups that don't have adjustable pole pieces with a really small fretboard radius, you may wind up with D and G strings that sound kind of dead.

    Another example is using a bone nut and a Les Paul headstock design on a guitar with a non-locking tremolo. Well, as the strings splay out on a Les Paul headstock, they're more likely to get stuck in the bone nut, causing the guitar not to stay in tune when you use the trem.

    Yet another bad interaction would be selecting a very flat fretboard radius with a standard tune-o-matic bridge. The problem is that the fretboard radius needs to be matched by the saddle height, more or less, and the typical tune-o-matic bridge may be designed for a smaller radius than what you have in mind. This would defeat the intent of your design.

    So the point is, you shouldn't make any choices without evaluating their effect on the overall utility and sound of the instrument.

    A Few More Points
    Plan the work and then work the plan. Think through your original plan carefully and then stick to it. Don't waffle around. It's okay to make some minor changes a long the way, but if you carefully thought through all the design considerations up front, you're probably in good shape. The more you start messing with your plan, the great there chance that you'll wind up with a Frankenstein.

    Moreover, chance are, you're working with a talented person who you want on your side. If the builder is a pro and a good person, they're not going to mind a small change here or there, but if you start making radical changes you may be making the luthier's job difficult. Perhaps really difficult. And you don't want to do that. So, be reasonable.

    Summary
    But the most important things to think about were laid out at the beginning of this post. Make sure you know where you want to go and have thought through each of those design parameters.
     
  2. big mike

    big mike Fixed Bias Moderator Staff Member

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    A classic post Leon.
     
  3. paintguy

    paintguy Long Hair Hippy Freak Silver Supporting Member

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    I have to agree. I have had 4 or 5 custom guitars made to my specs and I have to admit I really didn't know what I wanted until the last 1.(and the one that is still on order)

    I wish this post was around way back when in the 1980's when I first discovered small builders.

    Great job Leon!
     
  4. decay-o-caster

    decay-o-caster Member

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    This is good stuff, but I'd throw out another point or two. Some great builders won't let you spec everything because what you spec might just plain be a bad idea - a solid maple tele with Bardens, for example. Some of these guys would rather have you tell them what you hope to achieve tonally, feel-wise, playing-wise, etc, then they'll work with you to build the guitar that meets (and with luck, exceeds) your expectations for the purpose of the guitar. There are guys out there who have un-natural relations with wood and pickups and can get you where you need to be better than you can.

    And another point is, luthier time is not the same as human time. No luthier intentionally mis-states how long a guitar will take, but none of them (or at least, none of the great ones who are trying to make every guitar advance the cause of guitars forever) has ever hit a date. This is a fact of life. The luthiers will make you a great guitar, but it takes as long as it takes. Most of these guys work alone or in very small shops, and all it takes is a minor roadblock (tax time is coming, y'all, and they need to figure out where the hell they dumped all their receipts for the last year...) and the schedule goes to hell. It just does.

    So be patient and let the luthier do what he needs to do, and you'll have a new #1 the day the guitar arrives. Try to make them behave like an assembly line, and keep bugging them about is it ready is it ready why isn't it ready, and you will just be frustrated by the whole process.

    My $0.02 based on several custom guitars from several custom builders.
     
  5. PFCG

    PFCG Member

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    I have been in this position and thoroughly agree with this post.
    Having ordered almost all my guitars custom, ive always had to make decisions on
    what im going to get as far as an instrument goes. Here is what i have to say.

    Know what your going to get in the end.

    Make sure you write every fine minute detail on paper and have it signed by your luthier/builder.
    Sometimes things get misconstrued and people think you mean one thing when you meant something else.
    Its very frustrating when you order one thing and receive another after waiting a year+.

    Do your homework!

    An all maple body and neck with an ebony board will sound very bright, you need to know that.
    Do your homework on what woods sound like what.
    Play as many different guitars and combinations as you can to see what you really want and want it to sound like.
    Just because it looks pretty dosnt mean it sounds pretty.
    A solid super quilted maple body may look like the coolest **** youve ever seen,
    but it will probably sound really really bright and not be what your looking for if you want a thick meaty humbucker tone.
    Read up about wood combinations and how they sound, then do a field test.
    Shooting in the dark will rarely get you a bulls-eye.

    Get the best of what you cant afford.
    Know how much you want to spend and work from there. If you can only afford 3k and you want a solid Brazillian neck,
    its gunna put a dent in the rest of your budget. And another tip is not to skimp on things you think are minor details.
    Get the best electronics and best materials so it comes out how you want it to come out.

    Know what you already have and will be using it with.
    If you wanna sound like Jimi hendix and you go out and spend 5k on a strat,
    you still wont sound like Jimi if your playing through a HIGH GAIN monster amp.
    You wont sound like him if you have a vox ac-15. You need to know what it will sound like with your equippment.
    That is why whenever i go to try out a new amp or something i bring my own guitar and cables.
    It should sound the same when i bring it home. If your wanna get a custom LP you should play an LP through your gear
    you already have to make sure it will sound remotely close to what you already have.

    Dont sh*t where you eat.
    If you piss off your luthier it will just take longer and they wont have fun making your project.
    They will probably be very short with you and you will not have a good experience.

    Most of all, have fun and be sure you got what you want, because once you paid for it, its hard as hell to return it!
     
  6. Jon Silberman

    Jon Silberman 10Q Jerry & Dickey Gold Supporting Member

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    Both of the two custom guitars I had built didn't totally satisfy me. One I sold years ago, the other I still have but am contemplating some major changes to now. I've done much better for myself when I've bought a stock instrument and heavily modded it over time through hands-on experimentation. For example, I spent enough $$ on my Fender USA '52 RI over time to have afforded a high-end custom Tele BUT had I gone that route I'm certain I would not be where I am today with an absolutely perfect Tele for me that I love in every respect.
     
  7. Markgtr

    Markgtr Member

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    Specing out every little detail is great but sometimes I find it's best to play a bunch of instruments and buy the one that does it for me. You can't spec magic and mojo. You will know only after you play a guitar.
     
  8. Kappy

    Kappy Member

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    Great post, Leon. Thanks for sharing it. I've not seen this before, so I appreciate your bringing it on over.

    Dave
     
  9. paintguy

    paintguy Long Hair Hippy Freak Silver Supporting Member

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    Very good and valid point. No long wait or ego/attitude to deal with either.

    Still, there is something about spec'ing a guitar out to all my own specs and then getting exactly what I wanted. There is magic and mojo in that.
     
  10. Markgtr

    Markgtr Member

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    +1000

    If you find the right luthier, you can end up with a really special guitar.

    M
     
  11. jcground

    jcground Member

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    I thought there was a lot of good advice in this post back in the day, and I still do. :) Glad to see it resurrected. Thanks, Leon and Scott.
     
  12. jads57

    jads57 Supporting Member

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    I`m sure glad there are a lot of great custom made as well as production line guitars to choose from used. I`ve never found that magic instrument when I tried ordering one, maybe I`ll be lucky next time!
     

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