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Designing and Ordering a Custom Guitar, PT. 1

Owning a custom instrument is a dream for most guitarists. Doing your due diligence before placing the order will help ensure it is the guitar of your dreams. In

Owning a custom instrument is a dream for most guitarists. Doing your due diligence before placing the order will help ensure it is the guitar of your dreams.

In my years as a luthier, the folks I work with and I have helped many, many people order a custom guitar. This should be a thrilling and fulfilling process for the customer that culminates with an instrument they will cherish for a lifetime, and then most likely pass down to loved ones. It can be that, and most often is, but sometimes it’s not. In this column and my next, I will give some pointers on the process that will get you closer to the guitar you are imagining.

Choose a Dealer or Individual Luthier
It might be heresy for me to suggest this, but your dealer could be more important than the brand name on your headstock. This is, of course, assuming that you aren’t working directly with one of the many great individual builders out there, but are instead going with a boutique, production-shop operation similar to ours at Huss and Dalton.

Finding the best possible dealer for your custom guitar purchase is crucial. One way to be sure to fail at this process is to go with a dealer based on price alone. It’s like buying a car: An acoustic guitar is one of the most complicated pieces of machinery that you will ever own, so you want to choose a music store with which you can build a long and lasting relationship.

Think about it: A guitar is an object made of wood—with the body’s wood not more than 1/8" thick—that must not only withstand around 180 pounds of torque from string tension, but must withstand that pressure while making music. A good guitar-store owner can make your entire guitar-owning life easier by helping you keep your instrument adjusted and humidified, and by helping identify problems. For those times you’ll need help after your purchase, I’d recommend finding a dealer that’s close to where you live and has a competent and reputable repair person on staff.

Choose a Body Size and Shape
This may seem like the easy part, since most of us know what we’re looking for before we start. You could be a dreadnought person or you know for sure that you’re looking for an OM. But this is where a well-stocked music store can help you be certain that you’re making the correct choice. Go and play all the body shapes that you can before you give in to your preconceived notions. You may go in thinking, for example, that you are only looking for an OM. But when you pull down a 12-fret OOO and find there is something similar to the OM in size and shape, along with a whole new tone and feel that you’ve never experienced, you may instead end up with an OOO. Take your time with this part and enjoy the process. This is also the stage at which you’ll be considering things like neck dimension, scale length, and wood choices.

Neck Size and Shape
If you’re going though this process, you’ve probably been playing for a while and you probably already know what size neck you like. You or one of your playing buddies most likely has a guitar that has a “just right” feel about it to you. And you notice when you play this guitar that you play more cleanly and with less effort than other guitars. If this is the case, then this is the one area of the custom-order process where I would recommend not shopping around. Don’t let your friends or internet-board mates tell you that you simply must have a 1 3/4" nut width and a flat-neck profile if you are a fingerstyle player. If you play your best with an old, student model that has a 1 11/16" nut width and a round-neck profile, then you probably won’t be happy with your new guitar unless it has a neck similar to what you are comfortable with. That’s why we usually like to get our hands, dial calipers, and profile gauges on the neck you like before we start your new build.

Going with a longer or shorter scale length can make quite a difference in both the tone and feel of a guitar, so scale lengths are something that you’ll want to take note of when trying out different guitars as well. But because scale length is something that is talked about much less often than other considerations, you’ll want to consider insight from your dealer or luthier on the matter rather than a layperson.

In my next installment, we’ll tackle some other parts of this wonderful undertaking such as the ever-complex issue of tonewood selection.

Mark Dalton
Mark Dalton is a founding partner of Huss & Dalton Guitar Company. When not building guitars, Mark and his wife, Kimberly, tend to the draft horses and mules that inhabit their farm in the Piedmont region of Virginia.