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Builder Profile: Santa Cruz Cuts to the Chase



Janis Ian''s original black signature model
How did you hook up with your new signature artists -- Janis Ian, Otis Taylor and Arlen Roth?

Well Janis Ian has been around for a lot of years, and she stepped away, but she called us up a few months back and wanted to come back and join the family again, so we’ve revived her signature model, and revised it in quite a few ways. It’s no longer a black guitar, as she says, she’s out of her black stage.

Otis Taylor is a player who’s getting more and more press -- this is kind of a breakthrough year for him -- but he’s traditionally played archtops, along with banjo and mandolin and electric guitar. We got together with him and created a signature model for him that’s quite unusual in a number of ways, and so he’s set his archtops down and is using that exclusively on stage now. And his next recording that will be out in June 2009 is exclusively Santa Cruz guitar as far as acoustic guitar is on the album.

Arlen Roth is one of those guys who’s played with everybody and is not necessarily a household name for everybody, but us players know who he is and really enjoy what he does, and he’s a big fan of Santa Cruz guitars -- practically a walking billboard for us.

You guys tune your tops by hand.  What is involved with that?

Well, one thing that you see if you go to most factories, is they’ll thickness each top to the same dimensions, often times their brace dock is dimensioned on their CNC machine and they glue them together. Somewhat like a model airplane kit, the parts are already cut up and they just glue them together. Whereas our brace dock is raw and each top is thicknessed depending on the characteristics of that top because each tree is different and each piece of wood is different. Some are stiffer than others and some are more flexible, so we treat each piece individually. We do the same with the carving of the bracing; a lot of it depends on the characteristics of that particular top. By doing it by hand, we have that kind of control, that flexibility to make each individual guitar the ultimate for that piece of wood.

Most production shops want something that eliminates the skill level of the employees, so it’s just a matter of having somebody there doing a task - we’re creating a situation that requires a higher level of skill and it makes it more fun for the people who are building the guitars because their souls are in it. It’s not so much a drudgery job, gluing things together. It’s very different, and it''s evident when you step in the shop.

What direction do you take for the bracing on your guitars?

Well we have a number of different bracing patterns. They’re all X-braced guitars, which Martin pioneered years ago and we just defined it. Most of our guitars are probably more in line with what Martin used to do in their earlier years, much lighter and more resonant, that kind of responsiveness that people crave in those old guitars, but that they may not be getting in some the newer guitars. When you start making that many guitars a day, you start to build heavier because you’re more worried about warranty concerns. If you get a Ford Escort or a Lamborghini, both of them will get you where you’re going, but the experience is going to be very different in that Lamborghini, and that’s what we’re shooting for, that high performance musical instrument.


Santa Cruz second generation tuners
Santa Cruz uses proprietary tuners -- how are they different?

Our tuners were designed by Richard and Dan, our production manager. We used to use the Waverlys like everybody else does, but we wanted something with a higher gear ratio, so we took a number of years for writing a second generation of our own. The first generation had some failures, so we went back to the drawing board to find it, and now they’re as good as anything else on the market plus they have our name on them, which we like. We can keep things in house and we have some control over the quality and we can serve the user better that way as well. We’re not so dependent on a certain supplier that services other people as well.

Do you offer electronics in the guitars?

We have a handful of guitars that come with electronics standard, but we pretty much install what people want. Most recently we’ve been using the L.R. Baggs and some B-band in the Otis Taylor guitars, the AER pickup which is a fairly good product itself, it sounds great, we’re really excited about that one.

With all of the custom orders, how far out of the norm do you go?

As I mentioned earlier, probably more than half of what we do is custom. We have that flexibility. People will request different scale lenghts, the most common is different kinds of inlays, bridge spacing, materials -- it’s all over the board. We’ll do different headstocks on guitars that we normally wouldn’t do. It’s kind of crazy, we leave it to your imagination and it’s very rare that we say no to something.

What’s around the corner for you guys?

Well, one new thing that we’re offering is traditional hot hide glue and Adirondack bracing on our guitars. It’s an option that we have on a couple of models that aren’t standard, the Otis Taylor being one of those. It consists of Adirondack brace dock for the bracing, which is a little stiffer brace dock than we usually use and traditional hot hide glue to glue the bridge, the neck joint and the bracing. We’re finding that it seems to make a more powerful, clearer sounding guitar, so we’re real happy with that. 

All those pre-war Martins and Gibsons that people crave, they were originally made with hot hide glue. It tends to dry harder than the more modern glue, so the wood tends to resonate more. Modern glues can almost be like putting a sponge between the pieces of wood sometimes, obviously not that flexible, but those glues don’t dry as hard and tend to be a little bit more rubbery. So for the best transfer of vibration, we find that using the glue that dries harder, the guitars to tend to be better.

We have all kinds of different things in the works as far as different models or variations. We’re probably the most flexible production shop of our size as far as custom work goes; I’d say over 50 percent of what we build are custom instruments. People get really excited about it because the sky’s the limit as far as what their dreams are, and we can pretty much do it. That’s the beauty of us being a hand builder as opposed to having twenty CNC machines doing everything -- we have much more flexibility to refine an instrument to a player’s needs.

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