Modern Builder Vault: Thorell Guitars
Ryan Thorell got an early start building guitars at 14-years-old. He was already playing quite a bit at the time, and like many rockers his age, he was big into Metallica and Skid Row. It was fitting that his first guitar design included a “battle-axe headstock with an eyeball logo crying blood down the fretboard.”
One probably wouldn’t suspect the heavy metal background when checking out Thorell’s wares today. His master-crafted instruments—from archtops to flattops to nylon-stringed guitars and more—represent the pinnacle of high-end lutherie. In fact, his guitars are the go-to weapons for jazz extraordinaire Frank Vignola.
Thorell contends that the early stages of learning to play the guitar were most influential and defined his sense of the instrument. “I found that I had an affinity for an instrument to respond in certain ways and I really developed a good intuition for what a guitar needed to be able to do as a tool. Once I had really dedicated myself to building instruments, that became a good basis for my explorations in what can be done sonically and aesthetically,” says the luthier. “I also think of guitars like amps, in that I try to influence how they break up or don’t as you push them or play softly.”
Before setting out on his own, Thorell did about eight years of apprenticeships and says that he’s never stopped trying to learn and develop his skills. “I look at my guitars as communal pieces of art, in that they are my responses to what my clients are looking for. If I can build and design from a place of excitement and passion about what I do, all the motives and reasons are right.”
Thorell winds all his own pickups and mostly builds DeArmond-style pups with adjustable pole pieces housed in an ebony case. He uses a slightly wider aperture for the pickup and winds them hot so they’re a “bit fatter in tone but still really crisp.” He builds various other pickups and prefers to wind them himself because it gives him more quality control.
When it comes to tonewoods, Thorell admits he has a special affinity for walnut. “I have been around it my whole life. My grandfather cut it and loved it, and I’ve used it everywhere. There is nothing like Cache Valley black walnut,” he says. “I love other woods, and even other walnuts, but local handsawn walnut always gives me reverence. I’ve also been using a lot of Douglas fir.”
One obstacle Thorell faces as a boutique builder is that some guitarists don’t consider a finely built instrument as a worthy investment when there are many less-expensive options. “It’s unlike the violin or classical guitar world where there are a large amount of great inexpensive instruments, but serious players know and have a tradition of seeking out instruments that respond as fully as possible and allow them more freedom of expression. In those worlds, it’s the experience more than the name that people are purchasing and they are willing to make a proper investment because they appreciate the rewards.”
When asked what model best represents his work, the luthier says it’s always his latest build. “Every one is so unique and I approach each with such passion that it’s hard to see it any other way. It is more of a timeline than a product line.”
Pricing and Availability
Thorell’s shop is located in Logan, Utah, where he builds approximately 20 guitars annually with the help of his apprentice of two years, Nate Wood. Thorell guitars are sold both direct and through a handful of global dealers, with a wait time of about a year. Prices vary greatly from $5,500 to $20,000 depending on build options (most of these instruments are custom designs).