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Builder Profile: Born Custom Guitars


Born is dedicated to customization, offering clients a staggering array of options. The base price, which typically runs at $2,495 for drop tops and $2,995 for carve tops, includes choice of woods, bridge, pickup type and configuration, neck shape, finish, control layout, headstock, nut material, and fret size. Options take off from there.

“Initially we get to learn a lot about the customer,” says Miller. “We want to know what music they like to play, what they want to do with the guitar we’re going to build for them, what kind of guitars they currently own, what kind of amps they play through, their hand size, and what techniques they use when they play. Do they wrap their thumb around? Do they use formal, classical technique? We really want to know exactly what they like about the guitar, how they play it, and how they want it to sound. When we deliver their instrument, it’s not the guitar we think is the best, but what they think is the best.”

Born offers 12 types of woods for the bodies, necks, and fretboards, and this selection is at the crux of the company’s sustainability efforts. “We use Port Orford cedar, Douglas fir, and walnut,” says Miller. “All these have been used before but they’re not staples within the guitar industry—a lot of people don’t know about them. A lot of our Port Orford cedar has been reclaimed from forest fires in Oregon. The same goes for our myrtlewood, which is pretty rare and hard to come by.”

“A lot of manufacturers’ necks are cut out of one piece of wood, which in turn requires you to start with a much thicker piece of wood. We use a piece that’s only as thick as the neck itself.” —Campbell Davis

Other tonewoods found in Born guitars include cherry, pistachio, maple, and alder, and the company is always searching for new alternatives. For Hehnke, building guitars with these woods can be a challenge. “It makes you a little nervous sometimes working with an ancient piece of wood,” he says. “You really don’t want to screw up. Old woods can be so well dried that they’re truly special. Port Orford cedar is a great wood and we love the way it sounds. That one is pretty tough to machine because the grain is so straight that if you don’t design the machining program just right, the bit can come along and just tear out an entire strip of wood where you didn’t want it to.”

Sustainable logging practices are important to Born and they only work with companies that adhere to them. It’s all about knowing the source.

“When we talk with our suppliers,” Miller says, “our first questions are, ‘How do you harvest your wood? Where does your wood come from? Can you tell us what region of the country it came from, what lumberyard it came from, what tree stand?’ The further we can get down to where the wood came from the better, and if a supplier says, ‘I don’t know and we don’t really worry about sustainability,’ those are the companies we stay away from.”

This depth of inquiry allows Born to provide customers with the full background of their new guitar, which makes for a more personal experience. “When our customers receive a mahogany guitar or a swamp ash guitar with a redwood top, we want to be able to provide a story with the instrument,” Miller says. “It’s cool when you get a guitar and you can say, ‘This top came from southern Oregon and was reclaimed from a stump that was cut 200 years ago from a 2,000-year-old tree.’ That’s an amazing story to tell.”

Born Custom Guitars uses what they call a “higher-yield building method” for their necks. This includes using less wood than typical methods and a scarf joint to strengthen the neck.

Born’s sustainable goals extend to their own guitar-building processes; especially in the way they craft their necks. “A lot of manufacturers’ necks are cut out of one piece of wood, which in turn requires you to start with a much thicker piece of wood,” Davis explains. “We use a piece that’s only as thick as the neck itself. But given the way we do a scarf joint between the actual neck and headstock, we’re able to use less wood and still get the string pull we want with the cut angle. Structurally, it’s even sounder because two pieces of wood glued together is stronger than one solid piece. A lot of people don’t know that.”

Future Is Born
To be sure, Born has large ambitions for affecting deeper societal change, but they are also out to prove that it’s possible to build a great, one-of-a-kind guitar without blindly adhering to tradition. “People resist change—it’s just human nature and you have to fight for change a lot of the time,” says Davis. “We want to be that change that people eventually give in to.”

Larger guitar companies, such as Martin and Taylor, are already making changes to their own process and materials with this reality in mind. But there is more work to be done. “It’s silly to not think about it,” Miller says. “We’re living in a society where we’re trying to ignore our vanishing resources until it’s an issue. That’s not a good way to run this planet. We need to be proactive, like you would be with your health. You eat healthy and you exercise so you don’t get sick, and we should apply the same principle to how we treat this earth. When we cut down trees or use chemicals, we need to think about whether or not that’s going to affect climate change or get into our water supply. Maybe it won’t affect us in this generation, but there’s plenty of proof out there that we’re impacting the world we live in.”

At the end of the day, it comes down to good choices and smart decisions. This is where Miller and Born Custom Guitars draw their greatest hopes. “I believe in people,” says Miller. “People want to do good things, they just don’t always know how, or what options are out there. The more easily available you make those options to the customer, the more likely they are to go with the better, greener route.”

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