The construction of your dream guitar can be a fun journey, but learning the language is essential.
You’ve visited countless websites, played as many guitars as you could lay your hands on, and zeroed in on the luthier that resonates most with you. You’re ready to take the plunge and your next step is to have a conversation with the builder. You’ll both have lots of questions. Be sure to listen and let them guide you through the process. This is when the fun begins.
From my end, I try to find out why a client has come to me for a guitar. Was it one of my instruments they heard in a recording, at a concert, or one they had the chance to play? I need to learn what they’re looking for. Are they firm on a size, the materials to be used, a particular feel and tone? Can they reference qualities of other recognizable instruments? What guitar do they currently play and what do they like about it, and what don’t they like? Inlays? A zillion strings? Or do they just like the idea of letting the luthier do their own thing? The list grows....
Of the over 500 guitars I have built, pretty much every customer has had a slightly different vision. My job has been to bring that to life, which is why it’s important for clients to communicate their wishes as clearly as possible. Describing how something sounds or feels can get tricky. I once had two clients in the same week use the word “syrupy” to describe sound. What does that word mean to you? For one it was good, for the other it was bad. A word meant completely different things to each of us, so in each case, we had to establish a common language.
“When Pat Metheny asked me to make him a guitar with ‘as many strings as possible’ I had no idea what that might be, but I immediately said ‘yes!’ because I knew he trusted me, so I ran with it.”
By going through my questions, I’ll get an idea about a player and form a profile in my mind. I’m gathering details—preferred body materials, neck, fingerboard, nut widths, string spacing—which will end up in a file with a client’s name on top. For those who don’t know the exact measurements, don’t fear, we can guide you. Luthiers have tried-and-true models we build as a reference, and a custom guitar is often a simple variation of these standards.
Most luthiers give clients the option to select woods from their stock, and I strongly advise letting your builder make the final selection because they know their materials and their history. Each builder has a unique alchemy around which wood combinations work best, so listen—and learn, too. Should you insist on a wood species that the builder has not combined before, he or she may have reservations and need to explore before moving forward. If I’m the builder, and if no immediate alarm bells ring, I try to keep an open mind and will do the research to either proceed or hit the brakes.
After the structural and material details are locked in, decorative options like pearl inlays, marquetry, painting, and finish colors come next. You will have to trust your maker in this department, because artwork takes on a life of its own. If you’ve seen examples of the builder’s work, you know what to expect, and you may have some ideas of your own which the luthier can flesh out later.
Some luthiers will be willing to act as a “jill or jack of all trades” while others will not, so communication is a key part of any custom guitar order.
Photo by David Wren
Luthiers are generally a polite bunch, and our goal is to make our clients happy, but sometimes we are asked to do things that are outside of our wheelhouse. One example is a client asking a luthier renowned for their archtops to build a harp guitar. One luthier might totally embrace this, while another might not. When I started making guitars, I had to be a “jill of all trades”—see what I did there?—and would build whatever I was asked to, just to keep a roof over my head. This often meant stepping far outside my comfort zone. When Pat Metheny asked me to make him a guitar with “as many strings as possible,” I had no idea what that might be, but I immediately said “yes!” because I knew he trusted me, so I ran with it. The result was the Pikasso guitar, and I am forever grateful for his faith in me and that I grabbed the opportunity to expand my knowledge.
Many folks ordering a handmade instrument are like expectant parents, wanting updates and photos at every stage. We understand your enthusiasm, but please remember that most of us work solo and we literally and figuratively have our hands full, so we can try, but please be patient. And don’t be concerned by our silence, it just means the dust is flying and magic is at work.
The way I look at it, this is your guitar and not mine. My hands are building it, but you will be the one playing it. My job is to deliver you a guitar that will inspire you to create for years to come. We instrument makers are honored that you have entrusted us with the task of making you a guitar. There is nothing we’d rather be doing and we’re deeply grateful for that trust. Enjoy the journey!
Megadeth founder teams up with Gibson for his first acoustic guitar in the Dave Mustaine Collection.
For the new acoustic guitar, Gibson acoustic luthiers in Bozeman, Montana collaborated with Dave Mustaine the legendary guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, and founder of the multi-platinum selling and Grammy Award-winning band, Megadeth. The Gibson Dave Mustaine Songwriter in Ebony is available in a both a standard version and a limited edition model, signed by the artist. Part of the Dave Mustaine Collection, the new Dave Mustaine Songwriter in Ebony is the first 24-fret neck ever installed on a Gibson acoustic guitar. With a slightly thinner walnut body, the Dave Mustaine Songwriter guitar features a cutaway for easy access to the upper frets.
Megadeth has gone on to sell more than 50 million albums worldwide, earning many accolades along the way, including a Grammy Award for the title track from their most recent album Dystopia, along with 12 additional Grammy nominations, as well as five consecutive platinum/multi-platinum albums. Megadeth has headlined many of the biggest stages in the world and recently played their most successful tour ever, closing every night on the North American amphitheater “Metal Tour of the Year”. Also, a New York Times bestselling author and sought after speaker, host, and commentator, Mustaine has remained a standard bearer for metal and heavy guitar rock, combining a musical and technical standard with the punk and rock n’ roll ethos and attitude.
Icons: Dave Mustaine of Megadeth
Explore the new Dave Mustaine Songwriter in Ebony, www.gibson.com.
The story of 1960 Gibson Les Paul 0 8145—a ’burst with a nameplate and, now, a reputation.
These days it’s difficult to imagine any vintage Gibson Les Paul being a tough sell, but there was a time when 1960 ’bursts were considered less desirable than the ’58s and ’59s of legend—even though Clapton played a ’60 cherry sunburst in his Bluesbreakers days. Such was the case in the mid 1990s, when the family of a local musician who was the original owner of one of these guitars walked into Rumble Seat Music’s original Ithaca, New York, store with this column’s featured instrument.
Les Paul 0 8145 is a typical 1960 ’burst in most ways. A vibrant cherry color is prominent in the finish—which is a result of a change in dyes Gibson made when owners complained of their new ’58 and ’59 model guitars fading in ultraviolet light—and the neck is thinner than the late-’50s models, similar to what you’d find on the SG-body-style guitars that debuted not long after this 6-string left Kalamazoo.
This close-up of the guitar’s body shows it in excellent condition, and the sound generated by its humbuckers is terrific.
The maple top is hardly the most figured, yet neither is it plain. But one thing certainly jumps out on this guitar: The original owner applied a name plate on the top for all the world to know it belonged to “Johnny B”! Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because Rumble Seat was never short on amazing guitars on display to compete for attention, the guitar we named Johnny B. hung on the wall for close to eight months.
Eliot Michael, Rumble Seat’s owner, insisted that what Johnny B. lacked in flame was made up for in spades via its monstrous sound. The two original PAF humbuckers are incredible. It’s now common knowledge that many of the best sounding ’bursts do come from the later run in 1960, but it took some convincing for one of my friends and good customers to finally plug Johnny B. in to hear it for himself. Upon doing so, he immediately declared it “the best sounding guitar I’ve ever heard.” And Johnny B. left the shop for a new home.
The back of the guitar also shows TLC—as well as its classic mahogany wood grain.
As tends to happen, the guitar eventually found its way back to Rumble Seat Music, after we moved the store to Nashville, Tennessee. Another friend and customer agreed with that assessment of its sound. His name is Joe Bonamassa. Johnny B. went to live with Joe B., where it took on a new chapter of life on the road and in the studio for several years.
Joe wielded this truly exceptional-sounding guitar in many shows across the U.S. You may have seen it onstage. While some Les Pauls are known for their sweet sound, Johnny B. wants to rock. This is one of the most aggressive, raunchy, and downright rude-sounding Les Paul Standards out there, which seems appropriate for an instrument sharing a name with a Chuck Berry song. It doesn’t get much more rock ’n’ roll than that!
As I mentioned earlier, guitars we sell have a habit of finding their way back to our store, and so it goes with Johnny B.–now returned to our walls after some serious adventures. Typically, good condition 1960 Les Pauls carry tags in six figures, and this one is no exception at $278,000. That’s within the same current range for ’58s and ’59s, since players and collectors have gotten hip to the virtues of 1960 models. And although it was initially overlooked, Johnny B. has earned its place as one of the most recognizable ’bursts around.