|To incorporate a few old-school guitar building techniques is one thing -- for your company to sell more OM's than anything else is another. Santa Cruz Guitars aren't just old-school, they're handcrafted by a small team that likes unsung woods and nitrocellulose. But Santa Cruz Guitars have a fresh, new vibe to them, not to mention a modern look, making them a popular choice for the most famous artists in the world, even though those artists have to pay for them - yet another old-school way of doing things that helps Santa Cruz stand out in today's world of mass-produced instruments and endorsement-focused marketing. We had a chance to chat with Willie Carter, one of the company's 20 employees, about the Santa Cruz shop, the guitars themselves and why the company does things the way it does.
With all of the guitar builders out there – from the giant factory guys to the one-per-month custom builders – how do you set yourselves apart in the middle of the pack?
|To see videos of the Otis Taylor and Janis Ian models, click here.
For our podcast talking with owner Richard Hoover, click here.
We’re based on a lot of traditional building techniques, and of all the production shops this size, we’re the only one that really produces a hand-built guitar. We don’t have a lot of mechanized machinery like a lot of other shops. If you come to our shop, you’re going to see a lot of highly-skilled workers building our instruments and a lot of traditional techniques – dovetail joint as opposed to a bolt-on neck, which are a lot of people are using; nitrocellulose lacquer finish as opposed to polyurethane that most people are going to now.
We think [nitro] is tonally better and visually we prefer it as well. It’s a little more difficult to work with, but I think the overall results are better. And it’s traditional, which is what we think guitar making is about. You blend those traditional techniques with some of the modern techniques as well. We think you need to find a happy balance of both to give people the guitars they’re looking for.
It’s interesting because even with more and more people, nobody is doing what we do, and we’re busier than we’ve ever been. And we’re finding that we’re building more and more of the custom instruments and more and more of the high end instruments than ever before.
Let’s talk about this nitro issue for a minute. A lot of players swear that’s the finish for tone, but others worry about checking problems during travel. How do you justify the decision to go with Nitro?
Well, [checking] can happen, but the nice thing about a nitro as opposed to a poly is that it’s much easier to repair. With a poly, if you do have a crack in the finish or something like that, it’s very difficult to repair without being visible, where as lacquer is much easier to repair. It doesn’t require a lot of chemicals or machinery to repair it properly.
What are the tonal benefits to nitro?
We’re able to spray it much thinner than a lot of people are spraying the poly. And it’s more flexible, so if you have a lightly built guitar like we do, we don’t want to kill the tone by putting a thick plastic finish on it.
Let’s talk about your product line – you have a pretty wide range of sizes, what seems to be the most popular?
Santa Cruz Tony Rice model; the Tony Rice Professional model is also available
Well we’re probably best known for our OM model, also the Tony Rice model and the H 13. We have a number of signature models that have already been successful even though they haven’t really been released. We have an Otis Taylor signature model that’s new, a revised Janis Ian model and a new Arlen Roth signature model. All three of those were unveiled at the summer NAMM show. We take orders on all those sight-unseen from people who tend to have faith in what we do.
We’re really fortunate to have a lot of great players playing our instruments. Many of the players you see on TV playing other peoples’ guitars take ours into the studio. So often what you hear in recordings are Santa Cruz guitars, especially in Nashville. There are a lot of great players using our instruments.
For a long time, the masses were into the bigger hips – the 45 or the 28 style acoustics. But we’re seeing more players and other companies going back to the aughts and the OM. Why is it that you guys gravitate toward them?
Well, I personally like the sound of the smaller guitars. Tonally, I think they are sweeter and much more balanced than the big treble strings. Which always seems to be a plus for recording – it’s much easier to mic that way.
And yes, we’ve seen a trend going back to the smaller guitars. As a matter of fact, we have a fairly new model, the Firefly, which is close to a 3/4 size guitar, that we just can’t make enough of. It’s really taken off. Several players in Nashville are using those to record with now because they’re easy, very round, and they sound great mic’ed up. We’re seeing a huge trend going back to the smaller guitars, the OOs, the OOOs, and the OM much more so than we’ve seen in the past.
In the American way, bigger is better – the Cadillacs and limousines – and the dreadnought was traditionally a huge seller. Martin still probably has a great portion of their sales in Dreadnoughts. We still make quite a few, the Tony Rice is always popular for example, but we’re finding that the OM size and smaller are becoming a higher percentage of what we’re producing. The OM has always been our #1 model, so that’s of no surprise to us at this point, but the smaller models are starting to take a larger percentage of our production.
I find it interesting that a company selling dreads and OMs has more success with the OMs. Why do you think that is?
A Santa Cruz OM model
I think what we find is because of our style of building. People like to find a guitar with some presence and some bass, and there are several dreadnoughts on the market that don’t have the same amount, compared to our OM. People are often surprised – they come in thinking they’re looking for a dread and they play one of our OMs and are blown away.
It’s a much more comfortable body for a lot of people too. Especially as we get older, sitting on the sofa, it alleviates some shoulder problems people get with a larger guitar.
Santa Cruz utilizes what’s referred to as a bench style of building, reviewing the work of the person before you. How does that work?
Well, we rotate people throughout the shop, but each person has their specialty. So there’s generally one guy that carve the tops, then he passes that on to the next person who’s putting the boxes together. People inspect their own work and the guy after them will inspect their work and send it back if need be. It’s a real team effort.