Modern Builder Vault: Russell Guitars
When no one was willing to build him an acoustic with a scalloped fretboard for microtonal string bends, James Russell took on the project himself and became a full-time luthier.
If the name didn’t give it away, the Waimea was designed with slack key in mind. Shown here is the first incarnation of the Waimea that was built for guitarist Jeff Cook. It features highly figured koa for the back, sides, and soundboard purfling, Madagascar rosewood for the binding and bridge, master-grade German spruce for the top, and a Honduran mahogany neck that’s capped with an African ebony fretboard.
James Russell got his start building guitars in 1979 out of necessity. As a huge fan of John McLaughlin’s acoustic band Shakti, he wanted a guitar similar to McLaughlin’s Abe Wechter acoustic with a scalloped fretboard that would enable microtonal string bends. But after asking several Southern California luthiers to build the guitar he had in mind, Russell was turned down by all of them. That’s when he decided to build it himself and quickly found himself hooked on lutherie. And that first instrument is still going strong today.
Russell truly lives and breathes all things guitar. Not only is he a full-time builder out of his one-man shop, he still finds time to regularly teach guitar and perform. Oh, and he’s also one of Eric Schoenberg’s builders, producing handcrafted guitars inspired by prewar Martin flattops under the highly respected Schoenberg brand.
Checking out Russell’s website reveals that he doesn’t limit himself to one particular genre of guitar. Whether it’s an archtop, semi-hollow, upright electric bass, flattop acoustic, or something else, “the wide range of my guitar models is due to my love of so many styles of music and my love of great instruments,” says Russell. “I’ve been an active performing guitarist for over 40 years and I love and play both acoustic and electric music. Most of my models came about from real-world experiences of desiring changes and improvements in classic instruments.”
With that, Russell says his biggest challenge is just having enough hours in the day to build all the designs he wants to build. “I still have around 20 designs on paper that haven't become instruments yet, and I have several models that are in process and on the back burner.”
Asked what nuggets of advice he’d offer to someone wanting to take the plunge into lutherie, Russell says, “Understanding how to make a guitar is relatively easy, but understanding the interaction of all the materials that make up a guitar requires years and years of working with those materials. It’s easy to make a guitar-shaped object, but it is very difficult to make good guitars that sing.”
Russell also contends it really helps to be a player in order to be able to hear and feel what makes a guitar great. “Another aspect I feel is critical is having the patience and ability to do intricate, long-term projects. A guitar maker has to be driven or the challenges will be insurmountable.”
“I put my heart and soul into every instrument I make,” says the luthier. “My slogan is ‘Voice, Feel, Beauty.’ All three aspects are essential for a guitar to be great and I strive for excellence in all three. This is what is distinctive about all Russell Guitars.”
Pricing and Availability
James Russell’s guitars are available through direct order with the luthier, though he will occasionally have guitars available through Tradarama Guitars and Mighty Fine Guitars. Russell-made Schoenbergs are available through Schoenberg Guitars in Tiburon, California. The luthier produces about 10 Russell-branded guitars a year and the wait time for custom orders is typically 12 to 18 months. For each of his models, clients can request custom appointments such as wood options, neck carve, scale length, electronics, and so on. The price range for Russell Guitars varies anywhere from $3,500 to $10,000, depending on the model, woods, features, and options.
For more info, visit Russell Guitars.