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Builder Profile: Santa Cruz Cuts to the Chase

We have a group of fourteen people back there and that really keeps our quality level up and our consistency up because people really care about what they’re doing. It’s just as important to inspect your own work as it is to inspect somebody else’s work, and the final results speak for themselves in that, I think.

How much is handmade? Are there CNCs involved with certain wood shaping processes?

We have one CNC machine. The lay work is done on that, the bridges and the fretboards are done on that. Most of the necks are still carved. We try to do some of the repetitive things like that on the machine. We’re not as efficient with it as some of the other shops are, where the machine does a huge percentage of the work. We really feel that having the human hand involved makes a world of difference in this whole industry.

You guys offer both Brazilian and Indian rosewood. Obviously Brazilian is hard to find and can be prohibitively expensive - what are the differences for someone comparing the two?

Initially, the first thing you notice is that visually the Brazilian is typically much flashier, prettier wood, much more dense than the Indian. And [Indian rosewood] came about as a replacement for Brazilian wood when it became more difficult to obtain, and it’s a very nice tone wood, I’m not one to believe that one’s better than the other. They are different in density. The Brazilian tends to have more clarity, we find that they tend to be punchier instruments.

Obviously the difficulty in obtaining the wood affects the price, so Brazilian is much more expensive than Indian, but we do see that there’s a definite difference in tone between the two. But it depends on the player and what the player likes; some people love maple, some people love mahogany, some people love Brazilian, some people love Indian. And I think they’re all valid, it depends what you’re doing with it. A lot of it’s like cooking, you can have the same recipe and give it to ten chefs and it’s going to turn out different. People say that they don’t like a certain wood, so I always try to get them to play one of our guitars and see because it’s going to be different than someone else’s guitar with the same wood.

Otis Taylor and his cedar-topped signature model
Likewise, talk about the differences between Sitka and German spruce. A lot of times that conversation goes like this: “Well, Sitka’s warmer, German’s stronger maybe a little brighter.” Is there more to it than that?

There is, again it goes back to what the builder does with the wood more so than anything else, but there are differences. You find that the overtone structure and the clarity are different. I think that the vast majority of guitars we’ve played in our lives have been Sitka tops, and you can make an incredible guitar with that if you know what you’re doing.

You guys do some cool stuff with cedar too. Is that kind of an unsung wood?

I think it is, as a matter of fact, yesterday I had a good conversation with a gentleman in Tennessee about that. There’s this fallacy that cedar fails and the guitar won’t last, but there are guitars that are decades old with cedar that are still together, it’s a matter of somebody working the wood properly, and thickness, and good quality wood. We’re very adamant about keeping it old-growth timber and aged wood, so we’re really selective on the woods that we use. We have the luxury because we’re not building 400 guitars per day, we build fewer than 800 in a year, so we can pick the best of the best for our guitars.

Did you say 800 per year?

Yeah, 800 or less. It varies between 750 and 800. It depends on our production and the types of guitars that we’re building throughout the year. It allows us to be more selective in the materials that we choose as opposed to a factory that’s building 400 or 500 guitars in a day.

How and where do you get your wood?

There are several sources. Some of it’s been here for years – the business has been around for over 30 years. There are wood vendors just like there are parts vendors for any other industry. Most of us builders share the same, but some of us have our secret sources. It’s part of the guitar industry, finding your secret source of wood, and any builder you talk to has that. Some of them we share in common, some of them we don’t.

One thing that’s unusual about Santa Cruz is we really try to use a lot of repeat timber. At one point all of our spruce was coming from old bridge pilings. We’ve pretty much gone through most of that, but we’re really responsible in where we source our woods. We recently started using Madagascar rosewood which is exclusively used on the Otis Taylor model at the moment, but it was a wood that Richard [Hoover, owner of Santa Cruz] was initially just not comfortable using because he was concerned about how it was harvested. We finally found a source that we felt comfortable with, so this year’s the first time we’ve offered that wood.

You have a really impressive list of people who play your guitars, but that isn''t an endorsement list, correct?

Well, one difference between us and a lot of the other companies is that we don’t give guitars away. If you see somebody playing one of our guitars it’s because they actually love it. We think that’s much more credible than giving a guitar to big name and putting up an ad. Our most recent ad campaign is focused on actually playing arts people who have purchased our guitars and are playing them. Some of the names you’ll know, some of them you won’t, but they’re all people who make a living playing their music. They’re supporting us and we try to support them with our guitars, and even Tony Rice, as long as he’s been with us, has paid for ever guitar he’s had. We also have an artist arrangement, but they have to make a sacrifice, because they choose us over some other guitars that they can get for free.

The list includes players like Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Dave Matthews...

There are a lot of well known artist who have endorsements with much larger companies than us, who actually have several of our guitars, but you won’t ever see them in public because they’re contracted, but a lot of the recordings are recorded with our guitars.

Can you let any of those names slip for us?

One of the busier session players in Nashville, Mark S. Stevens is one. A name that comes up the most is probably Garth Brooks. He uses our guitars exclusively -- and this is a guy who''s offered guitars every day. He''s actually been playing the Firefly most recently.
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