Premier Guitar

Builder Profile: First Act Custom Shop

July 16, 2010
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.



What pickups are the guitars usually fitted with?

Archey: We like to use Kent Armstrongs, unless the artist is endorsing another product. We'll throw in EMGs or Seymour Duncans in sometimes. If they supply their own pickups, we'll put them in there, too. Some people have their own preferences.

You guys have built several models for bigger profile acts, such as Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick and Perry Bamonte of The Cure. But at the same time, there's a big underground rock focus as well.

Archey: Absolutely. One of the coolest parts of the job is getting to build guitars for bands that we all really like. When we started out, we went after what we considered to be the hipper, younger bands at the time. With what the main part of the company is making, mostly kids are going to want to buy those guitars, So we figured it was a good idea to go after those bands the younger crowd will go see, and see them playing a First Act.

Also, a lot of what we've been able to do snowballed from the work that we did with bands early on. We got hundreds of bands [interested] because of Kurt Ballow from Converge. He normally doesn't lend his name to too many brands, he plays what he likes, and he usually plays it forever. Steve Pedulla from Thursday and Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were huge, too. Our Delia model is based on the guitar that we designed with Nick.

Nick Zinner's latest guitar, dubbed the Fuzzaxe has a built-in fuzz circuit.

In addition to the Delia, how many different model types do you guys offer?

McGuire: As far as the limited editions go, we actually have five total. The Lola is a pretty straightforward rock guitar, with a beveled mahogany body and a low profile bridge. The Sheena is a single cut, alder-bodied guitar with a six-in-line headstock. The Delia and Delia LS are our semi-hollow models. Finally, there's the Delgada model, which has an offset body style, and is also available in a bass form. Of course, we do numerous body shapes and styles for artists when requested.

Tell us about some of those.

McGuire: The first guitar that we built for Brent Hinds [Mastodon], a double cutaway model with the offset lower horn, is one of them.

Archey: Another one is the dual guitar-bass that we built for Takeshi from Boris. I'm a huge Boris fan, and they wanted to come by when they were in the New York area a while back. I said, "Absolutely!" [laughs] He literally came by with mechanical drawings from a friend of his in Japan of what he roughly wanted.

McGuire: Roughly? I wouldn't say that!

Archey: [laughs] Yeah, they were actually dead-on diagrams. We had to tweak it a little bit, and we also had to downsize the scale slightly. He's like, 5'7" and 100 pounds sopping wet. I think it came out great.


The Boris guitar-bass doubleneck

Out of all of the custom instruments that you guys have had a hand in, what are your personal favorites?

Archey: That's tough, there are so many good ones. Well, as a bass player, I love the Takeshi [Boris] double-neck, and I like the Kelson Louis [Future Of The Left] Delia LS bass. Guitar-wise, I'm kind of leaning towards the recent one that we did for Steve Pedulla [Thursday], which was a hollowbody, offset doublecut monster. Those are my few that stand out right now.

McGuire: For me, I'd have to say the doublecut, 9-string carved top that we did with Matt Pike is one of my favorites. That one in particular is one that will always stick in my head. When he was telling us what he wanted, it was almost surreal. I had always wanted to do something for the guy, and I've been listening to his music since I discovered his old band Sleep in high school. So that whole situation of talking about what he wanted in a guitar, while he's telling us that he's eating a steak with his bare hands, was really strange.


Matt Pike's 9-String Double Cut

I really wanted him to play what we made for him, and I was a little worried that he wouldn't after a while. That guitar, with three doubled high strings, is the kind of thing that some people would try once then put in the closet. We put a lot of work into that one, from redesigning the stop bar and making adjustments to our original doublecut, carved top design. It's also one of those things where, being that we'll build what you want, you've got to be a little careful in what you say. Part of that conversation with him was, "I like a heavy guitar dude...make it real heavy." So, we did. He never did once complain about it, and I've got to hand it to him. He turned it into his main axe.

Archey: I think that we've done so well because we're just having a blast doing it.

McGuire: Oh yeah. I mean, even before we were working with Mastodon and High On Fire, it was great just being asked what artist I wanted to build for.

Archey: That's one of the coolest things about being here, that everyone is pretty involved. Half the time, I'll go up to one of the luthiers and ask them what their favorite band is, or what they're listening to that they're really into right now. After that, we'll go after them and see if they want a guitar. It kind of keeps everything as a little community within our shop, and makes the guys feel really good because they get to build something for somebody that they really like.

How long does one of these custom guitars take, on average?

McGuire: You know, it varies. It's usually anywhere between six weeks and four months, depending on how many artists and customers are already in line for a guitar, and the time we spend prototyping stuff.

Can a non-touring guitarist order a custom build?

Archey: We're totally open to anybody wanting a guitar. Just get in touch with us and we'll talk.

How would one go about doing that?

Archey: If a player is interested, they can contact us through the Customer Service page on our website, and John will work with them to get a price quote out. They can also email me at JArchey@firstact.com if they have any questions.