Henmans on the CNC

What kind of pickups?

We're going with some of Seymour [Duncan]'s pickups. And one of the differences is we are going to put five conductor connectors on it. So if you want to change pickups, just pop the pickup out, unplug it, and be able to drop in another pickup.

You know I've wondered why pickups still don't have plugs.

Well, these will! [laughs] And it's not that people are going to do it a lot. But for us, just in production, it'll save time and it'll also enable Graham to offer different pickup options. So pickups can be the last things that go into the instrument. So you can get two Seth Lovers or a Pearly Gates and a Seth, whatever! Seymour can also do custom pickups for us, so that's how I'm getting to add some of my own stuff. And then my oldest son is a genius metalworker and he is going to be in charge of all the custom metal stuff—the textures, the anodizing, and the plating.

I point to a partially finished Henman on the wall and admit I don't recognize the tuners.

Well, they're Sperzel tuners with Graham's custom designs. Even the knobs are custom-made. I mean, you can't buy those! The pickup rings [are also] custom made. None of this is cheap or easy to make.

What kind of bridges will the Henmans use?

We are going to start off offering three different options—the Tone Kings, the Tune-o-matic with a stop tailpiece, and, for the time being the Tune-o-matic with a Bigsby, although eventually I want to go with a roller Tune-o-matic with a Bigsby.

And will they stay in tune with the Bigsby?

[Sighs] Not as well as I'd like to see it stay in tune.

And are you willing to go the Floyd Rose locking route, or is that too much hardware?

It's too much hardware, and by the way, I hate calling them tremolos 'cause they're not.

I know!

They're vibratos! [Laughs] The other vibrato that we are going to go with in the beginning will be Rick Huff's Skyway. They're really interesting. It doesn't utilize a knife-edge, it works on this pair of flextures, and they are like forever springy hinges and they do not wear out. And they also seem to couple string vibration better to the body than most other vibrato units. That's going to be a very high-end unit—a very expensive unit, but tuning-wise it is fabulous.

Rick lays out for me on a table, select hardware including a Skyway vibrato. Rick patiently shows me the sleek, clean inner working of the vibrato, which has surprisingly few moving parts. It is plain to see Rick digs the ingenuity of the design as much as he does its tuning stability and tonal considerations. All the pieces Rick has laid out, including the aluminum neck inlays, are destined to become part of a Henman guitar. That each piece is well made with excellent aesthetic is easy to recognize. But I am only seeing the pieces. As a guitar maker, Rick sees the sum of these parts, and can hear in his head what they are capable of when used together. He also sees the challenges.

A stack of flame maple in Rick's workshop
One of the problems on a typical [electric] guitar is that you've got at least four different kinds of metal showing; you've got steel, stainless steel, aluminum and brass—and maybe zinc. So you try and coordinate all of that with texture, plating, anodizing, and there is a point at which you can say, 'well we can match these, but these we can't so let's intentionally separate them.' What we don't want to have is three or four different metal looks on the guitar and this is the kind of stuff that Graham is super into. We are trying to do something original. [To make] a Strat, you call up Warmoth and you get your parts, or you call up All Parts, and you put your Strat together. Ain't no one who can put one of these together and get it right except us! So it's a really interesting project for me because I get to bring a lot of what I've learned about making guitars to the table and I get to stay the hell out of the way of the aesthetics other than doing my best to help Graham achieve his ideals. And it's fun, it's really fun.

On the word fun, Rick's already bright eyes begin to twinkle and he asks me to follow him. We navigate around large wood cutting machines, an antiquated pickup winding machine that Rick still uses for his famous Model Ones, and more piles of precious wood, including, stacks of flame maple and rare woods like Tasmanian Black Sassafras. We enter another luthier's station packed with acoustic guitar sides and bodies in various degrees of completion. He takes a finished body from a shelf, holds it up and says,

That is a 1943-spec Gibson J-45. That's Buddy's guitar, with a few interesting changes. The bottom end block is Baltic Birch because it's better. Aside from that, you could slip that into the Gibson production line of 1943 and they might actually say, "That looks a little too good!" [laughs] These are all put together with traditional hot hide glue, and with the original woods mahogany and Adirondack spruce. I'm working with a guy named John Thomas who was an advisor on this project and who is writing the definitive book on Banner Era Gibsons, and so it's just a hell of a project. This also came about from last year's NAMM show.