Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

Acoustic Soundboard: Tales of Custom Inlays

Jeff Huss details memorable custom inlays, from cheesy to heartwarming

In this age of personal expression, where everything from a temporary bumper sticker to a not-so-temporary tattoo offers the world a glimpse of our inner reality, it’s no surprise that many guitarists see an opportunity to make an artistic statement by dreaming up a custom guitar. Depending on your builder, there is an almost endless array of possibilities. But for this column, I’ll limit the discussion to custom inlay work and describe some of the projects we’ve done over the years.

Huss & Dalton serial #63 boasts this custom inlay, which was commissioned by owner Jodie Davis when he bought the flattop in 1997. “The center of the design is from the ancient ying-yang symbol representing balance,” says Davis. “It’s surrounded by a sunburst, which represents limitless energy, and that in turn is surrounded by black ebony, representing the unknown.”
Photo by Jodie Davis
When we were just getting started, one of our first commissions was one of those projects that all parties now look back on with a bit of regret. It began with a group of engineers who worked for a large electronic research and manufacturing facility. All outdoorsmen, they’d formed a club to blow off a little of the steam that inevitably builds up in a high-pressure setting. These engineers did a lot of weekend camping with fireside jam sessions as part of the program. They called themselves the Loyal Rectified Order of Ridge Runners and Skunk Callers Society (or LRORRSCS), and they all had club nicknames. Two of the club members, Possum and Derf, made their way to our shop with custom guitars in mind.

They brought a drawing of their club mascot—a skunk that looked like a cross between the Warner Bros. cartoon character Pepé Le Pew and Angelina Jolie—that they wanted inlayed on the pegheads. They also wanted the abbreviated club name running down the fretboard, complete with nameplates engraved with their nicknames. We were young and hungry and glad to have the work, but the resulting guitars were not something that we show off in our portfolio. Some 16 years later, Derf—who paid for his guitar with a paper bag full of $2 bills—still has his guitar, but Possum eventually gave his instrument to his son and got a “normal” guitar for himself.

Perhaps a more well thought-out plan came from a young man who was married and had a baby on the way. He had designed a very nice set of Chinese-looking characters that were actually English letters if you new what to look for. He wanted to have his wife’s initials on the peghead in this design, but he also wanted to honor the baby—and any more kids to come in the future. As his family has grown over the years, we’ve inlayed similarly styled initials for each of his children on the guitar’s bridge wings and fretboard.

One of our more recent projects was ordered by a group of people as a gift. Dr. Francis Collins is a local of Staunton, Virginia, who has gone on to great things. He earned a BS in chemistry from the University of Virginia and a PhD in physical chemistry from Yale. He followed that up with an MD from the University of North Carolina. He returned to Yale and began working in the field of genetics, and then continued at the University of Michigan until 1993, when he was named director of the National Center for Human Genome Research. It was there that Collins headed up the team that first successfully mapped the human gene code. The team’s discovery has given researchers a guide to studying hereditary contributors to such common medical conditions as heart disease, cancer, and mental illness.

Custom guitar inlays offer a wonderful opportunity for personal expression. Rendered in gold
mother-of-pearl, this double helix appears on a guitar we built for Dr. Francis Collins, who
headed the team that first successfully mapped the human gene code.

Collins is also an accomplished guitar player. When he announced his retirement from the Human Genome Project, his co-workers pooled their resources and arranged to have us build him a custom guitar as a retirement gift. Central to the design was a graceful, gold mother-of-pearl double helix that flows down the fretboard. We presented the guitar to him at a party that included a few speeches and a spirited jam session that went late into the night. His retirement did not last long, however, as he was then appointed by President Obama as the Director of the National Institutes of Health. With a staff of some 19,000 and a budget of $34 billion, he probably doesn’t have as much time as he would like to play his guitar, but then who does?

From cartoon skunks to family history to genetics, custom guitar inlays offer yet another way to let the world know a little bit about who you are. Maybe you’ll consider it for your next instrument?

Jeff Huss
co-owner of Huss & Dalton Guitar Company, moved to Virginia in the late ’80s to play bluegrass. He and his business partner, Mark Dalton, formed their company in 1995. Since then they’ve earned world-wide recognition for their high-end, boutique guitars and banjos.