At some point, you may have thought about ordering a custom acoustic guitar. Perhaps you’re on the hunt for a certain look or tone, a specific body size or shape, or a neck of a specific length, shape or width. Your requirements could be due to personal preference or specific physical requirements. Whatever the reason, conjuring up your very own custom dream guitar should be a joyful experience. Unfortunately, it can end up being something of a nightmare if you are bombarded with an overwhelming array of options or kept in the dark about your choices. Before you drop big bucks on an instrument you won’t be able to play until it’s built, you need to know as much as possible about how all these factors work together with respect to a guitar’s tone and performance.
Over the next two issues, Frets will explore the ins and outs of designing a custom guitar to demystify the process and help you make informed choices when the time comes to design the instrument of your dreams.
“The process of ordering a custom instrument can be as simple or as complicated as you would like to make it,” explains Richard Hoover, the founder of Santa Cruz Guitar Company. “One of the worst mistakes people make is buying into the expectations of others, such as a music teacher, or somebody on the Internet using complex sonic descriptions telling you what you should have. You’ll know what’s right.”
A pioneer of the boutique acoustic scene, Hoover has more than 40 years of experience making dream guitars a reality for players ranging from hobbyists to world-famous pros like Brad Paisley, Eric Clapton and Tony Rice. “We’re a custom shop and always have been,” he explains. “From the very beginning, we’ve been handling not only obvious customizations, such as cosmetics, but also functional components, like the shape of the neck, string spacing and all sorts of factors that contribute to the sound qualities everybody wants, meaning great sustain and complex, rich overtones.” He estimates that, today, roughly 80 percent of the company’s orders are customized to meet a player’s specific needs.
In the following interview, Hoover discusses the advantages of going custom, addresses some primary decisions and walks us through a simple process for designing and ordering a made-to-order acoustic guitar. In our next issue, our discussion will continue with a deeper dive for gearheads who yearn to understand more about specifications and the physics behind creating heavenly-sounding instruments. We’ll be supplementing all this information with Learn tutorials. You can check out this issue’s lesson on tonewoods on page 88, and next month we’ll explore how woods can be manipulated to achieve the desired frequency equalization.
What puts somebody squarely in the market for a custom instrument, and what player truly doesn’t need one?
When we shop for a guitar, we all have ideas about how it should look, play and sound, but getting all those things in one guitar is not going to happen in an off-the-shelf instrument. We all go from store to store playing guitar after guitar, and pretty much everybody settles for getting most of the things that they want. The person that doesn’t need a custom will be pleased with whatever you put in their hands, aside from the obvious limitation of price. But there aren’t many players like that. Most would say, “It’s almost right, but I sure would like this modification.” That’s where the fun comes in.
Once the decision to go custom is made, what are the most important elements to consider?
There are a few primary personal choices, and the first one is sound. There is no right or wrong. How loud you’re going to play, how bass heavy you want the guitar to be and how bright — you know what you want, and it should be reflected in your custom instrument.
The second choice is cosmetics: what you’d like to see in a body shape, ornamentation, inlay, the color of the wood, or iconic personal stuff that you might put on your guitar. The third one is function, and that involves working with elements such as neck style, string length and string spacing to get the right feel for you. Maybe you want a more sophisticated-sounding guitar, but you really like the neck you’ve played for decades, whether it’s an old D-28 or a Les Paul. That neck can be copied to give you that familiarity. Or maybe you’ve been playing that same neck for years, and it’s starting to hurt. You’re hand is starting to get numb after an hour, or it cramps up. You need something more ergonomic.
What’s the general starting point for creating a custom guitar?
A conversation. Even though most players might not have the vocabulary to tell a luthier what they want done, they know what they want to achieve. The luthier should listen for what somebody likes in their existing guitar and what they’d like changed: “I love my guitar, but… ” What would you like more or less of? You can supply some measurements and photos, and then dialing it in from there is not a very complicated process.
We’ve simplified the process for our buyers. They can go to one of our dealers, play 30 different guitars and jot down the serial numbers of the one with the neck they want, or the body they want, or the color they like. I can amalgamate a custom instrument from there, because we keep great records.
That’s where most of our stuff comes from — and it holds true for working with most other brands, too. A player finds a guitar that they really like, so most of the decisions are already made. They’ve played a guitar in a store, or a friend’s guitar, or they admire a particular artist and want a guitar like that. We start with what’s known about what the player wants and make a few tweaks here and there.
Is body style the first hurdle?
Usually people volunteer that information. A lot of people my age grew up with a dreadnought, and they’ve never been able to shake that. Or maybe it’s an OM, and so on. The luthier’s job is to make sure that what somebody orders matches what he or she desires in the guitar. If somebody wants pretty even EQ that’s going to work for playing fingerstyle in open tunings, a dreadnought is not the first thing I would suggest because of its tendency to be bass heavy. In fact, I would advise against it. But if they insist on the dreadnought body, luthiers have many ways to control EQ and can build a dreadnought with an even balance. So body size is a really important basis for consideration, but you don’t have to study 15 body shapes and figure out which one is right for you. We can make sure that you get what you need. On a general level, body type basically boils down to big, medium and small.
Can you detail some popular examples?
A bigger body style, such as a dreadnought or a jumbo, has more air volume, which means more acoustic volume and a tendency to be more bass heavy. An OM is an example of a medium-sized acoustic. It used to be considered a small body, but now it’s the largest of the smaller guitars. An OM has an even EQ, making it more versatile for different styles of playing. It’s plenty loud — not as loud as a dreadnought, but the dreadnought is overkill for most applications. The OM is a more ergonomic body style that’s easier to work around. It doesn’t fatigue you as much when you play. Some would say that the acoustic guitar starts to look pretty instead of boxy when talking about that instrument.
And then there are the small-body guitars, everything from a parlor to a 00-sized instrument. Having a custom build makes a huge difference in small guitars. I don’t want people to judge small guitars based on mass-produced instruments, because small guitars from a big factory don’t sound very good or very loud. They’re built too heavy. A custom shop can create a quality of sound and volume in a small guitar that is every bit as desirable as anything you could want. Think of your application, travel requirements and how often you pick up the guitar. All of those things are really important to your relationship with this instrument. You will play a smaller guitar more because it’s more accessible in more places. I always have a guitar in the office that I can pick up and play. The larger the guitar, the less times I can access it while I’m doing something else. The smaller it is, the more I’ll find it in my lap being played.
A Santa Cruz Firefly came into the Guitar Player offices for review back in 2008, and all the editors were taken aback to hear such a strong, colorful sound from such a small guitar.
If a guitar is built in harmony with itself, regardless of size, it will have great sustain and sound rich and colorful. Check out Janis Ian. She’s tiny. The guitar she plays that looks normal size on her is actually very small, but the volume and the tone she gets from it shocks people. The personal choices are easy. You add those in as people ask. But mainly, the custom process means they never have to worry about getting a “good one” as compared to one that sounds dead, plain or won’t sustain. That’s the case with factory instruments because of the way mass production works. You can’t take the time to control the sound. That’s the part of our story that’s most difficult to convey. There’s no ad copy there. It requires a more thorough explanation.