Alexander James literally took matters into his own hands at age 16, when he started building a guitar comparable in style to his desired Paul Reed Smith.

Most aspiring teenage guitarists will bug their parents for a nice axe with hopes of them caving in. Alexander James literally took matters into his own hands at age 16, when he started building a guitar comparable in style to his desired Paul Reed Smith. With help from a few books and the internet, James completed his first guitar, followed by another, and then another. And when people started asking James if he’d sell them an instrument, a business was born.

In 2009, James opened shop in Peterborough, Ontario. While the body shapes of his guitars are certainly influenced by Paul Reed Smith, James brings in his own creativity through the use of unconventional woods. “Because I work extensively with various exotic woods, I can make each model sound like a different type of guitar,” says James. “So it’s not specific to each model what they sound like or anything like that.”

James believes there are so many ways to achieve various tones through woods other than the standards like mahogany and maple. “You know how players are always in the pursuit of the best tone? They can hear it in their head but often don’t achieve it. With the various exotic woods out there, they can achieve that,” says James. “I think guitarists are only getting a very small portion of what’s possible.”

Other characteristics of his guitars include atypical hardware along with neck-through and string-through construction. James believes neck-through and string-through builds provide the best tone and sustain possible. And even on his fixed-bridge models, he often uses Wilkinson roller bridges (which other makers typically pair with a Bigsby) to create more tuning stability.

Now an elder statesman at age 23, James has already built 15 guitars and is busy implementing new guitar construction and design ideas. Lately, he’s been experimenting with chambering techniques. “A lot of players nowadays like really light guitars,” says James, “and it’s really hard to accomplish that when you’re using woods like African blackwood and various ebonies as the main part of the guitar. So I’ve been working with different chambering designs that are yielding incredible tone.”

The Laurent sports an extended body shape with longer horns, and has a yellowheart top with body wings made of wenge. The three-piece neck consists of yellowheart sandwiched between two pieces of bloodwood. The neck and body have a polyurethane finish, and the pickups are a pair of Seymour Duncan APH-1s. This particular guitar sold for $3600.

This model with shorter, more symmetrical horns is James’ most popular. The pictured guitar features an African blackwood top and back with an American holly center and a three-piece African blackwood neck. “It’s a pretty intense-sounding guitar because of all that blackwood, which is typically used for clarinets and bagpipes,” says James. The Xylon has a 24.562" scale, ebony pickup rings, and a Seymour Duncan SH-2 Jazz/SH-5 pickup configuration.

James had used the Ora for his personal guitar, but it is now available for purchase. With a 24.625" scale, it has a purpleheart top and back, a purpleheart/yellowheart/purpleheart neck, and an African blackwood fretboard. The Ora is loaded with a Seymour Duncan APH-1 in the neck position and a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates in the bridge.


The Ursa sports a 5A-grade curly maple back, a curly Macassar ebony top, a Macassar fretboard, and a three-piece Macassar neck. Although Macassar is more common than African blackwood, James says it’s still pretty rare to find a guitar with this type of ebony neck. James installed a Seymour Duncan SH-2 Jazz humbucker in the neck position and a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates in the bridge.

The Teraux is James’ fretless bass model, sporting a 34" scale length and a 16" fretboard radius. This bass is constructed almost entirely from African padauk, but the fretboard is made of ebony with padauk fretlines. This Teraux has Seymour Duncan SMB-4a pickups in both the neck and bridge positions, and black Wilkinson tuners.

Pricing and Availability
Every Alexander James guitar is priced individually, based on the specified woods and custom specifications. “Because I use so many exotic woods and things can get pretty crazy, it’s really all based on your imagination,” says the luthier. “They range anywhere from $3000 to $7000, but can certainly go higher.” The waiting period for a guitar is typically four months, but at press time, each featured guitar except the Laurent was for sale.

Graham Drew, master luthier at Drew & Sebastian Guitars in Virginia, says his company offers various options for every detail on their instruments, all the way down to how the pickups are wound.

Options, options, and more options. Graham Drew, master luthier at Drew & Sebastian Guitars in Virginia, says his company offers various options for every detail on their instruments, all the way down to how the pickups are wound. “I think it’s our level of boutique that really sets our guitars apart—most certainly when people play and hear them,” says Drew.

Trained as a carpenter in the UK, Drew came to the US in 1999 and repaired guitars as a hobby while playing in a full-time band. He learned a lot about his craft from British luthier Bernie Goodfellow while he was home visiting for a few months in 2000. Three years ago, shortly after opening Jade Guitars—his own guitar repair shop in Virginia that is also the sole distributor of D&S Guitars in the US—Drew entered the custom guitar market after speaking with numerous customers and other musicians in the area.

He began by offering building services and specializing in solidbodies inspired by the classics. Drew has found that, while customers do request a variety of custom features, most want to maintain the look of a traditional guitar. “Guitarists are a pretty conservative bunch,” says Drew. “And speaking as a guitarist, I’ll put my hand up and say I’m totally the same way. [Laughs.]”

That hasn’t kept Drew from toying around with ideas like unconventional woods and configurations. For instance, he’s currently building a thinline Tele-style guitar with a neck made of solid wenge. And his Avenger model looks like a cross between a Fender Jaguar and Jazzmaster but has the pickup and hardware configuration of a Tele. “Those are the kind of ideas that I’ve got,” says Drew. “I want to do something that’s familiar but different.”

Drew & Sebastian Guitars offer vintage-style hardware, like Kluson tuners, and more contemporary machines such as Grover, Gotoh, Schaller, and Sperzel. The standard pickup options are handbuilt by UK-based Wizard Pickups for each guitar. Drew calls the guys at Wizard and they determine how each set will be wound and produced using several criteria—from the woods and shape of the guitar to the customer’s playing style.

Standard specs on Drew & Sebastian guitars are a 25 1/2" scale, 22 frets, and 9.5" fretboard radius. Basses have a standard 34" scale, 20 frets, and 9.5" fretboard radius. However, customers can always request alternative specifications, electronics, and hardware.

The most popular D&S model is the Europa, a Tele-style guitar that’s available in Standard, Deluxe, or Special pickup configurations. The Standard option has two single-coils, the Deluxe option features two humbuckers, and the Special option has three single-coils. Standard wood choices for the body are alder or ash. The Europa has a maple neck with either a maple, rosewood, or pau ferro fretboard, and is also available in a semi-hollow thinline version.

The Strat-style Avatar model comes in Standard and Deluxe configurations. The standard woods are the same as the Europa, and other standard options include a Callaham Vintage S tremolo and TweedTone, Texas, or Triple Cream pickups from Wizard. The Avatar in the photo was a tribute to Ritchie Blackmore and features a swamp-ash body, 21 frets, and a Callaham Vintage S bridge.

Swingmaster Bass
The Swingmaster sports a Jazz-bass-style look with an alder or ash body, and a maple neck with a maple or rosewood fretboard. Customers have the choice of Gotoh, Hipshot, or Badass II bridges. The Swingmaster featured here has a solid alder body finished in Torino Red and a maple neck with a rosewood fretboard. Drew also recently built two semi-hollowbody Swingmasters (with f-holes) that weigh around 6 pounds.


This model got inspiration from the Jazzmaster, Jaguar, and Telecaster. With the same standard wood options as the Europa and Avatar, the Avenger is also available with a Jazzmaster-style floating tremolo or a Jaguar-style 24" scale. This Avenger has Velvet Alnico II Wizard pickups and a Joe Barden compensated, vintage-style bridge.

The Firenza is Drew’s own creation and was inspired by many classic guitars— including the Jaguar, Mustang, Tele, SG, and Strat. With this model, Drew’s goal was to incorporate elements from as many guitars as possible into a single instrument. Fittingly, the Firenza is available with many different wood, hardware, and pickup options. Additionally, it is available with a single- or double-cutaway body.

Pricing and Availability
The starting price for most Drew & Sebastian guitars is $1650, and it goes up from there depending on the finish, woods, and other options. The guitars featured here normally range from $1800 to $2200, with the pictured Swingmaster bass being $1750, and the Europa model being $1950. At press time, 12 weeks was the average turnaround time for a D&S guitar. Visitors to the company’s website can check out the “For Sale” section to view guitars currently available, or the “Work In Progress” section to see guitars that will be for sale soon.

Canadian luthier Michael Dunn has spent most of his life experimenting with interior resonators.

Decades ago, while working as a classical flamenco guitar maker in Spain, Michael Dunn ran across a steel-string guitar with a D-shaped soundhole and an interior sound box and reflector. “I thought this was a whole new world,” says Dunn. He took measurements of a similar guitar he found in London, and from there, the experiments began. The Canadian luthier has spent most of his life experimenting with interior resonators. “I’ve taken that technology and modified it, reshaped it, and re-jigged it in every imaginable way,” says Dunn.

The original interior sound box idea came from Mario Maccaferri in the 1930s. Maccaferri placed a smaller sound chamber into the main body of his guitars. Based on Maccaferri’s patented design, Dunn’s interior sound boxes are typically mandolin-sized boxes attached to the underside of the soundhole. These chambers have their own ports that redirect sound waves into a reflector. This acoustic technology allows the instrument to project more at higher frequencies, according to Dunn.

As a Django Reinhardt fan, Dunn builds a lot of Selmer-style guitars. Nearly half of the guitars he makes have his interior resonator boxes. However, he additionally builds archtops, Weissenborn-inspired lap slide guitars, harp guitars, OM guitars, and other types of instruments. Dunn is still thinking outside the box and implementing innovative designs. He is currently working on a cello that a musician can wear while playing. “They give me all the crazy stuff to build,” says Dunn with a laugh.

Dunn has made well over 500 instruments in the last 45 years. “I try to make the guitar as responsive and balanced as I can,” he says. “By responsive, I mean the sound of the guitar is what the musician is going to do with it—not what I did to it. I think a good guitar should be able to sound a half dozen different ways in the hands of a half dozen good players.”

The Cubist
Inspired by Cubist artist Juan Gris, this guitar looks off-centered and as if it’s constructed from various parts of other guitars. It features fanned frets and a soundboard made of Sitka spruce and cedar. The back comprises panels of rosewood, ironwood, ebony, bloodwood, blackwood, satinwood, purpleheart, and sumac. Instead of the traditional soundhole, there is a rear “sound slot,” which is formed by one panel being more elevated than another.

Mystery Pacific
This Gypsy guitar features a D-shaped soundhole and a 25 3/16" scale length. It also sports Dunn’s internal sound chamber, which enhances the guitar’s upper frequencies. The front wall of the interior sound box is located on the straight side of the “D,” and the sound box has a hole that directs sound into the parabolic reflector.

The Bugatti
Dating back to the early 1900s, French Bugatti automobiles were exotic, handbuilt touring machines. Dunn’s Bugatti guitar is made of ebony and satinwood with a yellow cedar soundboard inspired by Bugatti cars that were painted black and yellow. This guitar’s body is 19" long with a 14" lower bout. Two panels on the back represent the sides of the car’s hood, and the horseshoe-shaped soundhole is modeled after the car’s grille.

The OM
This orchestra-model guitar is the most recent addition to Dunn’s line. It looks like a traditional OM guitar, but features an internal sound box and refl ector. Knowing that the market for Gypsy and Selmer-style guitars is more limited than that for OM guitars, Dunn hopes to increase awareness of his interior resonators with his new OM design.

Hawaiian Guitar
The square-neck Hawaiian lap-slide guitar has a 25 3/16" scale length and a thin body that’s hollow up to its neck block. This particular guitar is made of wenge wood. Dunn’s Weissenborn-inspired instruments typically range from $3000 to $3500.

Pricing and Availability
Pricing is determined on a per-instrument basis due to custom specifications of each guitar. The base price of Dunn’s non-resonator custom guitars is around $4000. The models with interior resonators, such as the Mystery Pacific, Ultrafox, and OM guitars, typically fall between $5000 and $6000. The Bugatti model runs about $15,000, and the Cubist guitar costs roughly $10,000. Dunn builds around 15 guitars a year. Some of his Gypsy-jazz models are available immediately. Otherwise, the availability ranges from six months to a year.

The works of master luthiers on display at the 2010 Montreal Guitar Show

The best guitar makers in the world can walk down the street unnoticed. In some cases, they are unknown even to the faithful who play their instruments. Heck, the word “luthier” isn’t even in most dictionaries. This is fitting, actually. Most luthiers are happy to fly under the radar and quietly work on their craft. Avoiding the spotlight seems to be part of the job description. You might have a different opinion, however, after taking a stroll across the Montreal Guitar Show floor.

The MGS is like an all-star game for luthiers. More than 130 of the best guitar makers in the world were at the fourth iteration of the event showing off their stuff, sharing their design philosophies, and soaking up a high level of appreciation from A-list artists, fellow gear makers, and fans of stringed instruments. Some of the luthiers’ reputations preceded them. Some were relative newcomers whose innovative work got them an invitation to exhibit.

For attendees in the market for a handcrafted instrument as well as those just curious to see and hear some cool stuff, the MGS was the proverbial candy store for wide-eyed, eager kids. More than 60 mini concerts took place, pairing notable musicians with guitars right off the show floor. There were workshops. There were lectures. Oh, and the world-famous Montreal Jazz Festival was going on right outside the door.

It’s impossible to crystallize the event in a few magazine pages, but here’s a taste of what we encountered this year.

The Papaléocada by Jean-Yves Alquier ( is a lap steel made of a stainless steel exoskeleton and 115 pieces of grain-matched curly maple. The matching KT66-driven amp was made by Christophe Jégou (

LEFT: Michael McCarthy specializes in acoustic archtops that he builds using a CNC machine to carve self-bracing tops.
RIGHT: Prairiewood Guitars’ Midwesterner (left) features a butternut body, while the Hardtop (right) has an Eastern maple body.

LEFT: Ken Bonfield demonstrates Alan Carruth’s latest creation, a harp guitar with a separate soundboard for the bass strings. Carruth built it as part of a competition in which luthiers create instruments from materials that cost less than $100.
RIGHT: Tom Ribbecke’s fan-fret Halfling is so-named because it combines a bass side that’s flat like a steel-string acoustic with a treble side that’s carved like an archtop.

The Cherry Seven guitars by (left to right): Randy Muth (, Joseph Hart (, Jeremy Anderson (, Marc Saumier (archtop,, Alan Carruth (, Marc Saumier (classical), and Joshua House (

In 2009, Marc Saumier, a Canadian luthier who builds guitars exclusively from woods he cuts in nearby forests in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, had a bold idea: invite a group of luthiers to each build an instrument using wood from the same trees. In addition to Saumier, five other luthiers took part in the project—Randy Muth, Joshua House, Alan Carruth, Jeremy Anderson, and Joseph Hart. These six builders created seven instruments (Saumier contributed two) from red spruce, black cherry, and Eastern hop hornbean that Saumier sawed himself and provided to his fellow builders. Because each guitar features a cherrywood back and sides, the endeavor quickly became known as the Cherry Seven Project.

Exhibited as a collection at this year’s show, the seven guitars attracted a lot of attention for their sonic appeal and visual beauty. Though the woods used in these acoustics came from the same logs, each guitar emerged from its respective workshop with a unique look and sound, proving it’s a luthier’s hands—not the materials he uses—that ultimately determines an instrument’s character.

With his Cherry Seven Project, Saumier wanted to prove a point. “I make my instruments entirely from local woods, including cherry, maple, butternut, red spruce, hornbean, poplar, basswood, blue beech, Eastern hemlock, Eastern white cedar, willow, and apple,” he said. “Though our native hardwoods are not as dense as some of the more exotic woods from the rain forests or Africa, it is certainly possible to make master-grade instruments from local materials.”

LEFT: C.P. Thornton’s HTL model honors the classic Fender Strat but features a 4.5-degree neck angle meant to make the 25"-scale guitar immediately comfortable for players used to a Les Paul.
RIGHT: Edward Klein has developed a reputation for bringing head-turning designs to Montreal every year. This year he brought two guitars with metal sides that were bolted to the top and back.

LEFT: Michael Potvin’s Mercury GT features a black-walnut body with a maple top, while the Ranchero Grande Thinline has a flamed, spalted maple top and back with a mahogany core.
MIDDLE: This custom archtop by Claudio Pagelli reflects his philosophy that “Jazz is not symmetrical.”
RIGHT: Kenji Sugita guitars are known for their small neck joints and elegant touches.

LEFT: Dimitri M. Tenev custom archtops feature a 25.5" scale length and Florentine or Venetian cutaways.
MIDDLE: These jazz guitars were built by Sigmund Johannessen, a senior luthier and instructor at the Summit School for Guitar Building and Repair.
RIGHT: Dean Campbell made this UK-1 for Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski of the Screaming Headless Torsos and the Jack DeJohnette Group.

Dutch guitarist Teye, who is known for his flamenco playing and his work with Joe Ely, incorporates classical and flamenco guitar construction techniques into his striking A-, S-, and T-Series lines of guitars.

Michael Greenfield’s guitars are all unique and handcrafted to the tastes and playing styles of his clients. He makes about 15 instruments a year. The harp guitar in the center was delivered to Andy McKee during the show.