Dunable’s current 6-string platforms include (left to right) the Yarnhawk, R2, and Yeti models.

Sacha Dunable on Building Guitars

How did you start fixing and building instruments?
It started in 2007 when we did our first European tour. Dave and I had one guitar each and mine was cutting out at shows, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I dealt with that issue the entire tour and, at the end, the headstock broke off. It felt like my soul had been sucked out of my body because I wasn’t able to buy a new guitar and I didn’t know what was going on with it, so I said, “I can’t let this happen again.” I befriended a local repair guy, started googling things, and watching YouTube tutorials to simply understand the circuitry and how the various components of a guitar function. Then I started working in guitar stores, from Guitar Centers all the way down to the smallest mom-and-pop shops. I sought out anyone that knew anything about guitar.

In 2009 I went to this program at the Musician’s Institute that taught the basics of how to build and repair guitars. I learned a lot there and was able to network with a bunch more people. I eventually moved into a house in L.A. that had a garage that was perfect for a wood shop. I started doing repairs out of there and building my own designs. I’ve built over 100 guitars and launched Dunable Guitars in 2014. Besides being in Intronaut, that’s become my second passion and the thing that takes up all my time.

Guitarists in Converge, Deafheaven, and High on Fire all play your guitars. Have you used Intronaut tours to network with players and see what they want in an instrument?
Yeah. Honestly, it happened, as you’d imagine it would, touring as a guitar builder in a band. Normally on a tour, the guitar dorks always get together and talk shop or compare rigs, and guys would be curious about what I was playing because it wasn’t something they were familiar with. I think the first tour we did with Dunable guitars in our setup was in 2014 with Between the Buried and Me, and Deafheaven. The Deafheaven guys had these ratty old Gibson beaters from the ’80s. First thing you know they’re asking me about tips or to help with repairs, and by the end of the tour they asked me to build them guitars. And in the metal and hardcore community, we are all pretty close. The word got out once people saw me and Dave and Kerry McCoy of Deafheaven using Dunables. That led to Jeff Matz from High on Fire contacting me to do my first bass. I’m sure some builders might see this as cheating, like a weird artist relations advantage, but I’m not going to complain. I’ve paid a lot of dues onstage and in the wood shop.

The guitar industry is still deeply rooted in legacy. Today’s most popular designs and wood combinations are at least 50 years old. How do you see your building within that framework?

I’m sure every young builder goes through this experimental phase: I tried making a guitar body out of snakewood and necks out of solid ebony because I wanted to see what it would be like. I have come to realize that the classic combinations are classic combinations because those are superb pairings. At this point, unless somebody wants something else, I’d advise to go with a mahogany body, mahogany neck, and ebony fretboard—or maybe a rosewood fretboard. My personal preference is mahogany, mahogany, ebony.

“We’re using the guitars I built and they have a 25.5" scale length, which is longer than our previous guitars. That gives a bit more string tension, and better snap and response from note to note—and when we tune down we keep more definition, clarity, and overall intonation." —Sacha Dunable

Why is that?
It’s a nice weight for tone woods. Not to discredit any argument about the importance of tone woods, but a lot of people overemphasize the importance of them, especially in electric guitars. I’ve noticed tone has so much more to do with what you’re tuning to, your string tension, the type of pickups you’re using, the way you play the guitar, and then, of course, the amplifier. If you give someone a blindfold test and have them listen to a guitar cranked through a 100-watt amp at a show, I highly doubt they’re going to pinpoint all the pieces of wood onstage. There’s just not that noticeable of a difference. I’m not saying there isn’t a difference, but I don’t think it’s as important as everybody makes it out to be.

That being said, a mahogany neck and body with an ebony fretboard is going to create a nicely balanced sound. I’ve also been making some guitars with swamp ash bodies and maple necks because I think that combo is a little bit snappier. It’s a lighter body and there’s definitely a difference in the neck.

What other build factors should players think about?
I don’t think there’s any real difference between a neck-through guitar versus a bolt-on neck model. For efficiency, a bolt-on is probably a smarter construction. Both options get the job done. It’s more about the feel of the instrument and how that interaction between a guitar and a player creates inspiration and allows the musician to express musical thoughts without getting in the way or making them think.

More important things to me than neck joints are more practical issues, like broken headstocks. Over the course of 10-plus years as a touring pro, I’ve broken at least two headstocks from a popular brand that your readers’ will easily identify as having an infamous design error. My solution is to build all my guitars with volutes where the headstock meets the neck. Of the 100-plus instruments that have left my shop, I have yet to hear of any issues with the headstock.

Guitarist, lead vocalist, and luthier Sacha Dunable relies on his own handiwork as he now rocks entire sets with
the same Dunable Yeti. Photo by Andrew Bansal

However, I’ve had issues with output jacks, switches, or potentiometers that go bad, but that’s just inevitable with any guitar. What I try to do with my designs and building tendencies is to make these sorts of repairs as minimal as possible. They should take less than five minutes to fix. I know, because during the last tour in Austria I had to replace my jack during the intro sample as our set was starting!

Where do you see yourself fitting into the guitar market?
I’m really into all the funky stuff from the ’70s and early ’80s. From a design perspective, I lean towards Guild, Alembic, Gibson, and Rickenbacker, and, obviously, old Japanese stuff like Yamaha and Ibanez—especially the lawsuit Les Pauls. I was just talking with another guitar maker about how this style is getting more and more popular, and that’s reminding me to retain some originality in my interpretation of any of these aesthetics, but the two main pillars are still practicality and playability.

With each new design, I’m trying to make “the guitar that plays itself.” So many small details go into a guitar, like how it balances when the player has it over the shoulder with a strap. The body contours need to free up the player instead of being intrusive. The fret work has to be clean and even. All the way to how the nut and saddle grooves are cut. I hate to say it—at the risk of offending early Dunable buyers—but each guitar I finish in my shop is the best guitar I’ve built because I’m learning so much from playing these instruments and the constant feedback I’ve been lucky enough to receive from other players.

Do you see guitar building as a lifelong career?
I sure hope so. It’s funny, the moment when I realized I might make a side career out of this—Intronaut still being the main focus—was when I started getting emails from people I didn’t know telling me that they saw someone playing a Dunable and they wanted to buy one. Even if it wasn’t a viable option for a full-time job, I’d still be doing this in my spare time, because the whole process of designing and building guitars and pickups is beyond enjoyable. It is, for lack of a less cliché expression, what gets me up in the morning.