Oh. Baby. Yeah. I’m here today to tell you: there is nothing – nothing – like a custom guitar. No way will a production instrument compare. To illustrate, I will describe the guitar I have just collected.
This is truly a fantastic instrument; I can hardly keep my hands off it. It plays like a dream, and the tones it produces are fantastic. It looks awesome, and is mine – all mine. Everything about it is how and what I wanted. It’s not the product of corporate compromise, or appeal to the lowest common denominator; the good stuff isn’t kind of “averaged out”. The care and attention to detail is something that of course doesn’t happen in a mass-produced instrument, and it really does make a difference.
This all started some years back, when for the first father’s day after our daughter was born, my wife and I agreed that I’d get a custom guitar made by Adrian Hamilton – a friend, and wonderful luthier in Auckland, NZ. The result of that was actually more of a mostly-custom, as it involved a body from an old Rockson (though Adrian made it about a googleplex times better: fixing up screwy bits, putting in beautiful bevels in the cutaways, staining it up …) and an Ibanez neck (also modified, with the locking nut gone, and replaced by a graphtech nut – and little paua buttons in the back where the screws for the locking nut used to come through). Starting points/limitations notwithstanding, it’s a fantastic guitar, and attracts a lot of comments and questions on my YouTube videos.
When we had our son then, my mind was full of plans for the fully-custom guitar that I would get for him. (N.B. by “for him” I mean that if he wants it when he’s old enough, he can have it … and I haven’t yet decided how old that is. Same deal goes for my daughter and the guitar I got for her.) Anyway … looking at what I had already, what was most obviously missing was a 2 humbucker fixed-bridge set neck sort of affair. Kind of like a Les Paul, only not – since I don’t like Les Pauls (except for Billy Gibbons’ Pearly Gates; Pearly is awesome, but all other LPs seem to have a weird fizzy, honky, quack thing going on – even with replacement pickups).
So Adrian and I spent about 3 months or so emailing back and forth about woods, design, specs and so forth. The starting point was a log of old Indian Rosewood he had happened upon. I love rosewood. It feels gorgeous on fretboards, and looks beautiful too. So I decided purely on the strength of that, to have a rosewood neck and fretboard.
And a good choice it was 8)
Next job was choosing body wood/s. I won’t go into the details, but we ended up with a mahogany body and a maple (not figured) cap. Unlike, it seems, pretty much everybody, I’m not a big fan of quilted maple, and I really don’t like flame maple: that tiger stripe look. So unfigured it was.
Irritatingly, I can’t make WordPress have blank space here, to make the next paragraph appear below these pics, hence this paragraph … now …
Having decided on woods, the shape was pretty important. I opted in the end for one of Adrian’s standard shapes – the Heilo – but modified a little; I wanted a more conventional lower horn (boring staid guitar player types … ). It also looked to me as though Adrian might have lifted up the lower bout just a touch. Not sure though – I should probably ask him. As well as the woods, and shape, I specified a chambered body, thinking of Robben Ford’s old Fender Elite, and more recently his custom Bakers. Adrian’s suggestion was one large chamber occupying most of the bass side of the body:
And here’s the first shot I saw of the actual shape:
There the maple cap had been glued onto the mahogany body, but not carved. The fretboard had been glued onto the neck – which had not at that stage been carved to shape.
Adrian has a number of different carves you can choose between for the top of the guitar. I went with what he calls the “modern” carve:
You might have noticed many many holes for controls in that picture. I don’t tend to take the easy option when it comes to my guitar controls, and this is no exception. I wanted as much flexibility as possible, but I also wanted it to be simple to drive.
Alongside the two humbuckers, I opted for piezo saddles on the bridge so I could get an acoustic sound. Therefore there’s a switch to choose magnetic pickups, piezo, or both; there’s also a piezo volume knob, which has a push-pull mid-shift control, via the inbuilt preamp. There’s a master volume knob and a custom 12-way tone switch, which instead of varying the resistance across a fixed capacitance like a standard tone control – which bleeds off mids with the highs – has a fixed resistance, and a bunch of different-sized high quality capacitors. That way the mids are maintained as the treble drops – tricking the ear on some settings into almost hearing the mids as being boosted. Each humbucker has its own toggle switch for series | off | parallel wiring, and there’s a switch to put them in or out of phase with each other.
That’s a lot to deal with, right? Well with all those mini-toggles down, it all functions like an Ibanez JS, or Gibson Les Paul: it has a 3-way toggle switch for the two humbuckers. It also has something called a Bam-Bam (also termed by a friend, the “oh shit!” switch ) which when engaged, connects the bridge humbucker directly to the output jack, and takes everything else out of the circuit. I came up with the idea for this switch about 20 years ago, and have had in most of my guitars since, but I had to modify it for this one, so as to keep the 4 conductor wires separate for all the series/parallel switching.
Now in that picture you can see the colour. While I’m not a fan of figured maple, I am a fan of woodgrain, so I wanted a translucent stain, rather than opaque paint. Since I painted my Yamaha RGX white, none of my guitars were particularly colourful.
So I decided I’d have this guitar be colourful – though still cool. I like blue, so decided to have a blue stain. This was something that I worried about through all the months of the build. Adrian and I are not in the same country, so this was all done online, with scavenged photos of guitars found on the internet and emailed across, then viewed on different computers, different monitors … I really didn’t know if it was going to come out like I had it in my head … but it did. Adrian did a fantastic job and made it just what I wanted: light enough to be bright and translucent, and wow, but dark enough to be cool as well. It’s fantastic. The body and neck are ‘unfinished’: just oiled, and what looks like binding is actually the edge of the maple cap: it’s a really neat look.
I also eschewed fretboard markers other than a geeky block inlay at the 12th fret 8) Adrian has more pics on Flickr.
All of this we sorted out by email in a few months, but I couldn’t choose pickups. I’m a longstanding, certified, card-carrying DiMarzio bunny, and initially had it in my head very firmly that the pickups would be some kind of DiMarzio. As time went on I grew less sure, and at Adrian’s suggestion I went and listened to the clips on the Rio Grande website. Happily, another member of NZ Guitars had posted some clips of his Robin guitars, which both had Rio Grandes in them: a Texas in the bridge and Buffalo in the neck … which was what I had decided from the clips and descriptions was what I’d go for. These pickups are great. Lower output than I’m used to, but tone for Africa. Already I would recommend them most highly.
… It looks great, and has lots of switchy options, but what’s it like to play?
Better than … pretty much anything else I’ve played (which includes Ibanez, Fender, Gibson, ESP, and PRS – not just the budget end of things). It just feels right, and also inviting and fun – so you really don’t want to do much other than play it. 8)
And how does it sound? …