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Modern Builder Vault: Bell Custom Guitars

Bell Custom Guitars builds classically-shaped instruments using a combination of acrylic and wood.

The building bug bit Don Bell of Bell Custom Guitars in 1974 when he was just 18 years old. The inspiration was an acrylic polymer Dan Armstrong Ampeg. And in the spirit of determined DIY-craftsman, he decided to build his own Plexiglas version rather than buy one. “I wanted an acrylic polymer guitar, but I wanted it in a Flying V body style. So to get one, I had to build it,” says Bell. The infectious fever to build guitars was started with the look of Armstrong’s transparent beauty. But after plugging in his acrylic V he heard something very different and interesting going on in the interaction between wood, polymer, and pickups. That realization has guided Bell’s work ever since.

Left: JazzBlaster Deluxe with Amalfitano PAF-style humbuckers
Right: JazzBlaster Frosty

“After working through the body configuration and developing the proprietary bonding process, I set out to make the acrylic sound better, but ended up improving the sound of the wood,” says Don Bell of Bell Custom Guitars. “I noticed my first Vs sounded brittle and thin, so putting the neck and electronics centered in the traditional tonewood bodies—swamp ash or maple—greatly improved the overall tone.” Bell explains that the audibly distinctive give and take relationship between the wood and Plexi happens because the acrylic absorbs the vibration from the wood and focuses the tone, allowing the highs to sparkle without becoming harsh or shrill. In addition, the midrange is clear and clean and free of bleed from the upper or lower registers, while the lows are more defined and less woofy than on a solid wood guitar. “In effect, the acrylic wings act as a compressor,” says Bell. “The overall result of the wood/acrylic fusion and the set neck of a Bell Custom Guitar is long sustain and a sharper, more focused tone.”

Bell acknowledges that the visual peculiarities of his guitars draw players in—just like it did to him ’74. But given the chance to play and hear one, he believes players remember the guitar’s vintage tone rather than its 2001: A Space Odyssey look. “Ever since I got serious about building, my philosophy has been that I want guitarists to experience a difference in tone and a difference in the synergy and feedback between guitar and player that is not there with an all wood guitar,” says Bell. “Strum a traditional guitar without amplification and then strum a Bell—you will hear the difference… [laughs] and just imagine its presence and how it feels when it’s amplified.”

Left: JazzBlaster with Amalfitano P-90s
Right:JazzBlaster Deluxe with lit LEDs

Bell Custom Guitars’ newest see-through creation is the JazzBlaster. Shown here with a translucent red and yellow finish, it features a string-through, swamp ash body with acrylic wings, a 22-fret, single-piece mahogany neck with Bell’s signature neck profile that, according to Bell “is similar to a ’60s Gibson LP that I have.” They also offer a fatter neck based on a ’58 ES-335 and custom necks are available upon request. Both models are loaded with Amalfitano pickups—the red model has vintage PAF-style units while the yellow one has P-90s—which are favored by Bell because “they are super clear and have zero mud factor, while also giving us the vintage tone we’re looking for.” Both models are equipped with 15 LEDs and have an available “frost” option in which the acrylic is blasted with small glass beads to give it a smoky look.

ToneBlaster with Amalfitano TP pickups

The ToneBlaster features a compensated Wilkinson bridge with brass saddles
This 25 1/2"-scale Tele-style model has a butterscotch swamp ash body with acrylic wings, a 22-fret rosewood fretboard, and a Wilkinson compensated bridge. Its Amalfitano TP pickups use slightly taller alnico 5 magnets and are wound to 9.0 kΩ with vintage Formvar magnetic wire that reportedly gives the guitar a more powerful, brighter musical tone. The ToneBlaster features 15 builtin LEDs, too.

SS-V and SS-E
SS series guitars (the SS-V and SS-E are shown here) have a 24 3/4" scale, a maple body with acrylic wings, and a 22-fret mahogany neck with a rosewood fretboard, and are less expensive than ’Blaster models. They also have a Tune-o-matic bridge and Kent Armstrong vintage-style humbuckers, and come with gold or chrome hardware.

SS-V with Kent Armstrong humbuckers

SS-E with Kent Armstrong humbuckers

Pricing and Availability
Pricing for each model varies depends on the amount of customization and aesthetic extras someone may prefer. The JazzBlasters are set at $3409 (including the frost option), the ToneBlaster at $2995, and the SS models street at $1299. Bell Custom Guitars also doubles as a repair shop, so “as long as requests are reasonable, there are no limitations.” Currently, Bell Custom Guitars’ current wait time is about two months or longer depending if they’re beginning a new batch of guitars—they tend to make them 10 at a time for any given model.