George Leach is probably a lot like you. He says he’s “always” played the guitar, but spent years in a high-stress engineering job with Intel, as music wasn’t his career path. In the eighties, he got into collecting guitars as a hobby, and from there his luthier business took root. In 2006, he and his business partner Diana Huber, formerly a software tester in the telecommunications sector, left their high-tech jobs to devote themselves to the guitar full time.
However Phoenix Guitar Company isn’t just about building and selling guitars. In addition to being a high-end custom-building business – they operate on a “You want it? You got it” mantra – George and Diana pass on the craft through group and individual guitar building courses in their shop. The courses have been so successful that George says most of the guitars produced in their shop in a year are student-made.
We caught up with George and Diana to talk about how they ended up as luthiers, where their models come from (short answer: the customer), and why building guitars isn’t exactly less stressful than Intel.
How did you get started building guitars?
I’ve always played the guitar. I was getting more into playing and collecting some guitars, and around 1988 or early ’89, one of my guitars developed a problem – the bridge started to lift. So I took it to a local repair shop to have it fixed, and they messed up my guitar. I thought, you know, with no training I can certainly do that good! And the whole thing took off into a direction I never expected it to.
I worked on several friends’ guitars, taking them apart and putting them back together, and I finally decided to build one. A friend of mine sent a guy over to check out the guitar I had built and he ordered one, and then somebody else ordered another one, and it’s just kind of been going ever since.
You just came out with the 14” Baby Phoenix archtop; how do you come up with your models and shapes?
Both of us are players and so we develop guitars based on what we like. The most popular guitar that we sell is our steel string grand concert. It’s a 16” lower bout, large body guitar with a lot of sound, and people seem to really like that. We sell an OM also that has a smaller body, which appeals to a lot of people. It just depends, we talk to different people and we build something that we think makes sense. That’s kind of the way we’ve developed our model so far – just how we thought would make sense.
Basically every guitar you make is custom made, right?
Pretty much custom, yeah; they’re all hand-made, one at a time.
If somebody comes to you with an idea, you’ll give it a shot?
Absolutely. We know people are going to want a different variety of sizes, 14, 15, 16, 17… somebody may order an 18 someday, and we’ll build it. But with the 14 and 15, we didn’t have a specific order for those when we went out and built the first ones.
The thing is, if somebody came to us with a specific request that’s somewhat off the wall, we’d work closely with them to develop that guitar.
Any interest in electric guitars?
You know, if somebody wanted to order an electric and made it worth our while we’d do it, but at this point there are so many places where you can buy a great electric that that’s not something we feel the need to build.
You guys really place a high importance on working closely with the customers on each guitar.
Well, it’s a lot of fun. Since we’re both players, when we get a guitar we want it to be a good one. We want it to play really great, and it’s even better if you know who built it and you can call them up and talk to them or ask them a question and develop a bit of a relationship.
You might appreciate the guitar a bit more than getting something from a box…
Oh, absolutely. Once, we had just finished a steel string grand concert on a Wednesday, and a fellow and his wife walked in that Thursday, saw it and bought it. And he’s called us a couple of times to ask about things like which tuners we use and other things. He’s in Oregon, so it’s great that he can write and ask questions and we know that he’s got the guitar and he’s taking great care of it.
We’ve also had the fortune of working with some international customers. We had one customer in New Zealand who was here on vacation and came in the shop saw an archtop sitting on the shelf that Diana was in the process of building, and he said, “I want one just like this.” You can see that on the website on Diana’s current project page. We also have a customer in the UK who is purchasing her second guitar from us.