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Builder Profile: First Act Custom Shop

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Builder Profile: First Act Custom Shop
Click here to see a photo gallery of some of First Act's wildest custom guitars.
If you're an avid PG reader, you might be wondering just why we have a feature story on First Act guitars. Most of you (and myself included) are accustomed to high-end instruments, a classification that doesn't really apply to guitars that are readily available for purchase at your local Target store. Yet the First Act brand name doesn't end there. Over the past year, as we've visited with numerous and varied artists for our Rig Rundown series of videos, a common thread kept popping up: elaborate (and sometimes strange) First Act-branded guitars in the hands of major players. It might come as a surprise that the First Act brand actually goes much further than your kid's first guitar.

Based in Boston, the First Act Custom Shop has been in business since 2002. Headed by industry-veterans Jimmy Archey [Director of Artist Relations] and John McGuire [Chief Luthier], their little shop of rockers has a very extensive build resume for some of the biggest names in rock, both mainstream and underground. The duo, along with their team of builders, have constructed pieces for artists as varied as The Cure, Maroon 5, Paul McCartney, Drive-By Truckers, Mastodon, Ministry, Aerosmith, and Bon Jovi. I caught up with both Jimmy and John to discuss their build process, the growing interest in their custom creations, and the joys of being able to design custom guitars for lesser-known acts.

How did the First Act Custom Shop get off of the ground?

McGuire: Back in 2002, the company came up with the plan to start an actual luthier shop, initially for more of a marketing focus. They wanted to get some artists playing guitars with the First Act name. They approached Kelly Butler, who was the Chief Luthier up until three years ago, and he started putting together the shop one or two pieces at a time. Initially, Kelly took on apprentices from the Roberto Venn Luthiery School to build the team. Jimmy came on board not too long after that.

Archey: Yeah, I came on in 2003. Essentially what they said was that they wanted to use the shop as a marketing tool for brand awareness, and get some cool artists playing some cool guitars. It was a great way to just get the name out, for people that may not know the name, and to get a buzz running.

McGuire: The hope was that if the younger crowd saw some of their favorite bands playing the guitars, that it would help get them involved in playing music, as well.

It seems like there are two divisions of First Act: one that produces the entry-level, department store guitars, and another for what you guys do in the Custom Shop. Are you guys pretty much given free reign to take on projects that you want to do?

McGuire: For the most part, they pretty much leave us alone. There's still the prototyping element that we have to do now and again, but they're been really good to us in letting us move in whatever direction that we've wanted to. I wouldn't say we're two separate entities, because we're always a part of them.

Archey: I'll essentially get artists and compile an artist spec sheet, and send it in to the shop when I feel like we're done with it. They really trust what we're doing, because we've proven to them that the people that we're going after and the people that we've gotten are hitting a mark. I get so many phone calls and emails saying, "Dude, I saw so-and-so with a custom First Act, I love that guitar." There's a lot of interaction from the public to us that is kind of reinforcing what we're doing, you know? We're getting out to a younger crowd, which is exactly what we wanted to do.

At the same time, we designed a guitar with Adam [Levine] from Maroon 5, and he was totally integral in designing that guitar that he's playing, then it turns around and becomes the basis for a line at Target. We do have a crossover, but mostly this little thing that we're doing allows us to move on our own.


Adam Levine's Custom Double Cutaway with First Act high-output humbuckers and flame maple top.

So, how did the both of you get into the luthier business?

McGuire: I was basically born into the business. My dad owned Valley Arts Guitars. Eventually, we ended up moving to Tennessee, where he worked for Gibson. Once I finished high school, I followed suit by going to work for Gibson and attending school for CAD layout and design. After school, I started working at the engineering department in the Gibson Custom Shop. I worked there at Gibson for a total of 10 years, with about four of those years in the engineering side. I eventually became the Special Projects Manager at the Custom Shop and was in charge of all of the Fortune 500 guitars, NASCAR trophy guitars--stuff like that. Around 2004, I made it up to Boston and got started with First Act's Custom Shop.

Archey: I got my start as a sound man out in the Philadelphia area. Eventually, I made my way out to New York City, where I got offered a consultant job for Gibson. It was one day a week, bringing bands in. It turned into a full-time job, and I was there from 1989 to 2003 as the artist relations guy in the New York City office. For about 14 years, I worked with Les Paul, Joe Perry, and BB King, to name a few. I took a job thinking that I was going to go back out on the road, and then it just stuck. Around 2003, I was up in Boston and Kelly called me up, asking me if I wanted to come by and check out his shop. I swung by that day, and a couple of weeks later I started working with him.


(left) Robert White, (middle) John McGuire, (right) Chris Moncada

How many luthiers work at the Custom Shop?

McGuire: Our build team includes four other guys. Bill Jancr and Christopher Moncada both went to the Bryan Galloup Guitar School in Michigan, and Bill also worked at Gibson for a couple of years. Eric Dueset basically came to us off of the street--he had built a couple of custom basses that were really cool. He came from a carpenter background and just wowed us. Robert White came to us from Roberto Venn.

What's the process with artist models? Do you apply any of the design principles from your previous work?

McGuire: Well, what we make, in the end, is really upon artist request. The one thing that we're still doing that's very important to us is that everything is all hand made. Obviously, a lot of us came from Gibson, but there are things that are different, such as the neck pitch. Again, it really does depend on what the artist wants, but they usually request the standard mahogany body with a maple cap. We do a lot of that. That hasn't stopped us from trying different things, though. Several of our carved top solidbodies have ended up being all ash, ash with maple, and other combinations of woods. We have also built with more exotic woods, like koa, zebrawood, you name it.


Nick McCarthy's Custom First Act

Archey: Artist requests are really fun to work with. When we first started, we didn't have any models or designs to work from. Nick [McCarthy] from Franz Ferdinand essentially went to pawn shops, saying, "I dig this body, I dig the way this and that looks," and we would then piece all of the ideas together. He wanted it covered in white vinyl cobra skin, so Bill figured out a way to do it without the material shrinking and showing the edges, and it turned out pretty crazy.

McGuire: It's actually a really cool guitar. Pictures really don't do it justice--it's really a sight to behold.

Archey: Another really cool one was one we built for Brad Rice, who plays in Keith Urban's band. It's a Delia LS with a Lollar P90 in the bridge and a Lollar Charlie Christian in the neck. He handed us a stack of hotel keycards, and Bill cut up all of the keycards to form a mosaic on the top of the guitar and on the headstock. It took forever, but ended up being really cool looking. Bill hand to hand-cut every single little hotel key.


Brad Rice's Hotel Key Delia LS

There aren't a lot of limits to what you guys build.


McGuire: We really have a pretty broad scope of artist guitars, ranging from the untraditional look and appeal of Matt Pike's 9-string [a double-cutaway where the top three strings are doubled like a 12-string], to stuff that's more reminiscent of traditional instruments.

We have some models that we do every so often that are really true players' guitars, models with multiple pickup selections, no heel construction--features like those. One we call the Session Series Sheena, and the PB5, which is a total rocker guitar. It has a Floyd Rose and a two-humbucker configuration with a coil tap, pretty much all of the bells and whistles that a hard rocker would want.

We give the same treatment to our basses, too. Steve Jenkins [solo artist] just got a Session Series model, kind of a counterpart to the Sheena. We put a video game button on his wired to a kill switch so he could use fast tremolo effects. We're very proud that we work all across the board, making guitars for what anybody thinks is cool.

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