If you are in the market for a new guitar, there’s no better time than right now to be into the chase for tone. It seems in the past few years that a plethora of builders have popped up, each excelling at their craft with the ability to take the ideas you’ve always dreamt of and make them a reality. We’ve come to a stage in the gear community where artistic expression is at a peak, where if you want something unique and feature-laden, it’s certainly doable. Want an accurate recreation of your favorite vintage instrument, down to the pickups and even decades of wear and tear? All those options are entirely possible and at varying price points. The market lets the player decide how much to spend, and a dream guitar can be had by various methods; whichever suits the player the best. The first thing that people often bring up when discussing custom guitars is pricing. More often than not, the pricing for a custom guitar can rival or significantly surpass the cost of an off the shelf guitar. There are a lot of factors that go into why that’s the case, which I’ll dive into a bit later. I’m going to look through a few variables and options regarding custom guitars and ways to go about achieving them, and what makes them great and what some of the drawbacks are.
Let’s start off by looking at traditional guitars, and why guitarists prefer the tried and true designs as the basis of the perfect personalized instrument. If you look back to the 50’s and 60’s of guitar history, you’ll see that the likes of Leo Fender, Les Paul, and a few others seemingly hit the proverbial nail on the head when they created their takes on the electric guitar. So much so that each of the aforementioned builders and their subsequent companies have built stellar, roadworthy guitars that have been in the hands of millions upon millions of guitarists worldwide. They’ve become so iconic that the sound of these guitars is instantly tied to our favorite guitarist through the years. When you hear a Strat, a plethora of artists spring to mind (in no particular order): Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, David Gilmour, Dick Dale, Robert Cray…the list of Strat players is staggering. Teles are the same with the likes of Albert Collins, Prince, Andy Summers, Keith Richards, James Burton, Muddy Waters. Gibson? Billy Gibbons, Slash, Jimmy Page, Angus and Malcolm Young, Peter Green, Albert and B.B. King, Randy Rhoades, and these are only just barely scratching the surface of prominent players that I’d be willing to bet have had some form of influence on every player, in some way. At the same time for all of these incredible players listed, a massive amount of them have delved into the custom realm, whether it’s through artist-series guitars, creating their own unique designs, or using boutique builders. These are our guitar heroes, and their sound shaped generation after generation of players to come, even to this day after many have long passed. It’s no wonder many players would use those famous tones and the foundation and springboard for crafting their own sound. Each used their respective instrument to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack.
I won’t go too much into current models of various companies, but there are still a load of different models by too many companies to list that follow the traditional approach. Companies like Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, etc., or revised versions of the classics with personal accouterments like unique finishes or relicing, and so on. Along with standard models that have a streamlined setup with neck shape, pickup combinations, and finishes, many of those companies offer signature guitars that famous artists regularly use (most of the time). These are customized versions that match the player, and great options for providing a variety of different guitars at a cost-effective price point. Sometimes though, these standard models can get the player close to where they want the guitar to be, but not exactly. This is why the guitar parts business has been a boisterous endeavor. There are a considerable number of shops you can visit online that let you piece out the perfect build, down to neck radius, finish and inlays to the routing options for various bodies and bridges control cavities. All things that are made to be easily swappable on the stock instruments to make them a bit more customized to the player. Swapping and upgrading is a cost-effective way to make a guitar customized to the player without going out and fully commissioning a custom build. Many of these online shops offer custom finishes, and some even offer relicing services to make the guitar look like something that had been used on tour for 40 years with tones of use and abuse.
These pieces and parts lead me into partscasters. Partscasters are the amalgamation of various parts in the attempt to find the right fit and feel and sound by creating it from a pile of parts sourced from various locations. Eddie Van Halen was one of the pioneers that led people to start hacking into the guitars and building what suited their personal needs when companies didn’t offer it. He used a Gibson PAF in an old strat-style body and created some of the most memorable music that would spawn hundreds of thousands of guitarists. He found what worked for him and made it his own. When going for a partscaster build, the sky is the limit. It could be a neck based off of a vintage-style Strat paired with a MIM Telecaster body with a pre-wired set of pickups from a small shop that hand-winds their own pickups. Or you could get a Flying V-shaped body with a neck setup for 12 strings, with pearl inlays and a figured ziricote fretboard. See what I mean? You can get as “out there” and intricate as you’d like, or build after the classics. Sites such as Warmoth and USA Custom Guitar allow you to pick the various details of your build, so they come as finished or as unfinished as you’d like them to be. This allows the player to simply screw everything together and do a bit of soldering and have a functional guitar on a relatively decent budget. I say relatively because depending on what choices are made with the types of woods used and various finishes, the costs can add up quickly. In the end though, if you’re coming out of it with the exact guitar that you want, then it’s worth it. The Pros are that you get control in the details of the construction of the guitar within a set number of given parameters, but the negative is that it does require a bit of experience and knowledge to get the guitar to where you want it properly. Setups are vital for having them stay in tune and function properly, and for inexperienced players, it can be an exercise in frustration. The same goes for soldering, especially if it’s not using a prewired kit. Without proper soldering, it can lead to increased noise or no sound at all.
The next thing that truly takes the guitar into the “custom” realm is having one commissioned from a company that builds to spec. These are often more expensive, but the player gets considerably more control, with the bonus of the attention to detail and experience that comes from the builder’s history. Many builders still offer a standard line of body shapes that they will do, some traditional and some very modern and unique. Like the partscaster, you get to pick out your dream instrument, from the type of wood the body is made of, pickup routes, a plethora of finishes, the scale length of the neck, radius, neck shape, what frets are used, nut type, tuners, pickups, custom wiring…everything. The attention to details is what sets these guitars apart from the standard guitars that are off the shelf. Having a guitar that’s perfectly fitted to your playing style, the feel, and sound of the pickups makes you want to pick the instrument up more because you enjoy playing it. These builders have become experts in their fields and have listened to customer feedback, evolving and honing their craft to provide those little nuances that make each creation so special. A big question that comes up is “Is it $$$ better?” It depends on how you look at it. In some cases, depending on what is commissioned, there won’t necessarily be a huge difference. If it’s a T-style with a fairly run of the mill setup with two pickups and a 3-way selector and a fairly known color, then to some that may not be worth it. The details of the fret leveling and action and overall playability would be the biggest upgrade. Is it worth several hundred dollars extra to some people? Most likely not. That’s the beauty of chasing tone and falling in love with the guitar, is that everything is subjective and will be different for everyone. Variety is the spice of life, so they say. The quest for tone is unending, and finding the perfect feeling and sounding guitar is another piece to that puzzle. What are you willing to pay for it?
Personally, own a few of each configuration mentioned above. I’ve got a ‘12 Les Paul Traditional that I upgraded with 50’s wiring and bumblebee capacitors to increase the range of tones available in the tone knobs. The new American Pro Strats just hit the spot, stock off of the shelf (admittedly I always block the trem, just because I’m a hardtail guy). I’ve also got a couple of Crook Custom telecasters that are decked out completely with custom finishes, neck specs, and even G-Benders. There’s a soft spot and something special about each one that makes them fit what I’m looking to do. The one thing I will say, that for me (I don’t speak for everyone), that custom guitars do not necessarily make me play any better, skill-wise. I may enjoy playing more when it fits just right, and I can get into it more, which subsequently makes me practice and the long game is an improvement, but switching from one guitar to another doesn’t have a dramatic effect. The guitars output what your mind and yours hands put into them and no amount of money can buy technique. That’s something I had to learn as I was starting off, and it’s stuck with me all this time.