The Case for the Custom Guitar


     Have you ever gone into a a guitarshop or music store that had 2 of the "same" guitarshanging on the wall? When you played them, did they sound identical,or, were you surprised at their different tonal qualitities? Didone have more "punch" than the other?

If you answered yes, surprised, &, yes to the above 3 questions,you are in the majority of guitarists. The reasons for these differencesare the quality of the wood(s) & how these pieces of woodare sculpted & assembled.

This article discusses the reasons for buying a handmade guitarHMG) in 2 Parts. Part 1 involves "guitar-related" factors& Part 2 involves "inter-personal" factors in buyinga handmade guitar.

Part 1. "Guitar-related factors"      A. Sound, Playability & Action          1. Sound     Superior sound, excellent playability & personalized actionare the primary reasons to buy a HMG. Superior sound is obtained bypaying attention to the specific qualities in the wood used to buildthe instrument. Wood varies tremendously in density, stiffness &weight from piece to piece; even in pieces that came from the sametree!     As wood is the basic ingredient from which guitars are made,the initial focus is on who is better able to devote the timenecessary to obtain the "best" or "most desirable" woodavailable. A second question, to be answered later, is whetherfactories or hand makers are better able to assemble these components.     Buying wood for a guitar is not dissimilar from buyinggroceries. You can either: 1) physically venture to the local market of your own choosing, or, 2) call a distributor & have it delivered.     Large manufacturers produce hundreds or even thousands ofguitars per year. They need a large supply of a raw material(wood), whose qualities vary greatly from piece to piece. Manufacturing efficiency does not allow for individual selectionof this highly-variable raw material. When wood is ordered in bulk, even in "master grade", wood is too complex to be consistentthroughout the entire order. Smaller builders are able to personally visit the local wood merchant & hand pick the lightest &stiffest woods.     The reason for choosing stiff, light wood is that thesewoods can be made thinner without compromising the structuralintegrity necessary to hold a guitar together. Building a responsive guitar is similar to building a responsive racing car inthat they must both be as light as possible, yet strong enough to"do the job".Scenario #1- Large Factory      Large factories, use specialized tooling & sophisticated CAD-CAM technologies, to produce guitar components to identical,unvarying specifications. These parts are assembled into guitarswithout regard to variations in density, stiffness & weight. Anautomobile analogy would be to have an engine whose pistons & othermoving parts have been weighed & balanced to promote smoother,more efficient operation. Mass-produced engines are merely compilations of randomly made components assembled at random intoa finished product that will run, it just may not be as smoothas the engine just before or it; on the other hand, it may besmoother than the one that came after it.     This random combination of parts with different characteristics results in the usual "bell-curve" distribution inwhich there will be a majority of moderately good guitars in themiddle, a few really good ones & a few really lousy ones.     This random combination of parts with different characteristics also explains why some very cheap guitarscan sound very good: sometimes, the "right" combination of partsgets assembled. This can happen, &, is particularly noticeable, inguitars from factories not known for particularly high quality.Scenario #2- Better Factories     It is common knowledge that some factories produce significantly higher quality guitars than other factories. Thebetter factories produce better guitars by using better woods, &,by paying more attention to quality control.      Unlike the large factories, the better factories produce noreally lousy instruments. In this bell curve, the majority ofguitars will be very good, a few that will be good & a few thatwill be exceptional.Scenario #3- Hand Makers     Hand Makers treat each piece of wood according to its ownunique properties. The thickness of any given top as well as theshape of the braces are a function of the stiffness of the piece ofwood being used. Factory tops & braces are made to exact dimensions,regardless of the properties of the pieces of wood being used.     This is the reason why hand makers usually do a better job atproducing a consistent sound. Handmakers are extraordinarily pickyabout the woods they use & usually better able to get the exceptional pieces of wood to build consistently great soundingguitars. Handmakers start with basic dimensions & proceed to demonstrate the art of lutherie by shaving away or adding a bithere & there, all the while tapping & flexing the wood until that"magic sound" is heard the tell the luthier he has achieved theunique sound that has given the guitar the desired "voice"."Overbuilding"- A Common Problem     One problem shared by large & small builders alike is thatof "overbuilding" a guitar so that it won't come back for warrantywork. Remember the responsive racing car analogy- "as light aspossible, but strong enough to do the job"...     Factories exist to manufacture & sell large numbers of guitarsto the public in a competitive marketplace. Each member of thisanonymous guitar playing public will treat their guitars differently, use different strings, use different tunings, play indifferent styles & live in different cities or countries withdifferent climates, temperatures, altitudes & humidities. Someconsumers will take their guitar to the beach or to the mountains.     These guitars have to perform under a wide range of unpredictable conditions without "breaking" or failing structurally.When this happens, it will be sent back to the factory for warranty& repair work. Warranty work is expensive for the factory becausethe factory must render services without receiving payment, eventhough the price of each guitar includes a small "insurancepremium" to cover warranty & repair work.     It is the high cost of warranty & repair work that forcesfactories to overbuild their guitars by making them heavier &thicker than is necessary & held together with more glue than isnecessary. The factory can not afford to build fragile, maximallyresponsive guitars.     While the factory is concerned with selling large numbers ofguitars to an anonymous guitar buying public, handmakers are concerned with making sensitive & responsive tools for musicianswho are fairly certain to treat these instruments with care. Thesesensitive & responsive tools that are virtually guaranteed toreceive proper care & maintenance can be made more delicate & fragile, making possible a louder, more responsive guitar.     Handmakers can not afford to overbuild their guitars. If theydid, the HMG would be nothing more than a factory guitar with ahigher price. They would not have that extra dimension ofresponsiveness, which is the signature of the HMG. The hand maker that overbuilds will not be in business very long.     2. Playability & Action     Playability & action refer to the fine-tuning, or set-up, thatis necessary before a guitar can be turned over to a musician. Set-ups usually include setting the strings over the frets at acomfortable height, checking for fret buzz, calibrating intonationsat the bridge, adjusting the truss rod to straighten the neck, etc.     Factory instruments are assembled in large quantities, almostguaranteeing that some set-up work will be necessary. Many musicstores employ a guitar technician whose job it is to set-up allnew guitars so that they feel comfortable. Handmakers usually willdo this sort of thing prior to delivery because a guitar that isnot as perfect as possible will usually be seen as ready to bedelivered.     B. Choices, Features & Options     It is the choices, features & options offered by handmakers that give their guitars a distinctly individual touch. Choices,features & options generally fall into 2 categories: 1) cosmetic, &2) structural. There is a third category, "miscellaneous".     1. Cosmetic     Examples of cosmetic options include:     a) Decorative carved tops, backs & headstocks     b) Types of, &, materials used in rosettes     c) Inlaid headstocks, necks & fret markers     d) Paint jobs (electric guitars)     e) Tuning machines     2. Structural     Examples of structural options include:     a) Types of woods used     b) Scale lengths     c) Actions     d) Neck widths & contours     e) Fret sizes     f) String spacings     g) Number of strings     h) Body shapes & sizes     3. Miscellaneous     Examples of "miscellaneous" options include"     a) Electronics     b) Tunings     c) Tonalities          C. Quality, Value & Price     Quality refers to the "degree of excellence" with which aninstrument is built. Value is conceptually defined as being worththe price charged.     1. Quality     The issue of quality necessarily begs the question of whetherhandmade guitars are necessarily better than factory made guitars.This depends on several factors, such as the degree of skill possessed by the handbuilder, the quality of the wood(s) used, &,the degree of "quality control" exercised by the factory.     2. Value & Price          Handmade guitars are not "manufactured goods" in the samesense that factory made guitars are manufactured goods. Each ismade differently, for different purposes, & with different skills.Therefore, it is not practical to compare the two when it comes toeach being worth the price charged.     Prices charged for handmade guitars are genuine reflections ofthe labor, materials & overhead used in their production. Handmadeguitars frequently require 100-200 hours of a luthiers' time & skill. Based on a 50 hour work-week multiplied by 50 weeks/year, their are approximately 2500 work-hours/year. That means that ahandmaker can only produce about 12-24 instruments in a year. Hand-made guitars are generally priced so that the maker can survive.     Factory made guitars are estimated to take 2 1/2 & 36 hours ofintensely repetitive & automated work. They set price points for their products & do whatever it takes to sell those guitars at their particular price points. They may undertake advertisingcampaigns, or, buy components from other manufacturers. The degree of quality control excercised by these other manufacturers variesdepending on the particular manufacturer involved.     It is also worth mentioning that factory made guitars are madeto be sold at wholesale prices to retailers who mark the price upto the retail level, at which it is sold to the consumer. It is aneconomic fact of life that businesses exist to make a profit. Therefore, the retail price charged reflects substantial costs beyond the cost to produce, such as marketing & advertising expen-ses, rent, utilities, salaries, etc.     Conclusion     Handmade guitars must be judged individually. As with anyprofession, there are practitioners with varying degrees of skill& experience. Their guitars are a direct reflection of the degreeof skill & experience used in their construction.           Superior sound should be a primary factor in deciding whetherto buy any guitar. Guitarists owe it to themselves to play a fewhandmade guitars before buying their next guitar. Factory madeguitars may sound good, but the factory can not compete with theindividual luthier when it comes to attention to detail, care &exercise of judgment used in crafting a fine instrument. Coming next month:Part 2. "Inter-personal" FactorsAcknowledgements:Thanks to Mike Doolin ( andErvin Somogyi ( for their contributionsto this article.