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.

Tone sculpting has become a bit of an art, and many players pay so much attention to all facets of their board and guitar. Every link in the chain adds up to the overall tone you’re going to have coming from your amp, and small adjustments in your chain can make a big difference e in the long run.

Picks – There are thousands upon thousands of options for picks, ranging from extremely cheap budget picks all the way to expensive boutique picks that are worth almost as much as some pedals are. If you’re ever looking for a quick adjustment in your tone for something different, try a different pick shape or material. Different material will have a different tonal result on your pick attack, the harmonics and even feel of your playing. Metallic picks (using coins, etc) will have a brighter, chimey-er tone, where using some wood picks will yield a much darker tone. There are a plethora of options in terms of the material used to create them, so do your research and find which material yields the tone you’re looking for. Different thicknesses will make a large difference as well. It’s a fairly inexpensive way to for you to approach your tone differently. Also, if you don’t normally use your fingers, try it! Your fingers and fingernails have their own unique tone, and can resonate differently than a pick can. Switching up your right hand technique can really help you break out of the box tonally and technically.

Cables and Buffers – These are a foundation part of your tone, so great cables can make a huge difference. Again, there are a plethora of options out there for soldered and solderless cables, along with varying ends and methods of creating those cables, along with shielding options and types of outer casings for enhanced durability. The key to finding a great cable is finding a set that creates minimal signal degradation. The cheapo $5 patch cables can suck some tone and cut your high end, which after going through several of those cables will yield a more muffled, dull bypassed tone. Buffers also play a huge part in keeping your tone pristine. Buffers alter the impedence of your guitar signal, which helps it travel through your board easier. Just remember that some pedals (fuzzes and wah’s) aren’t fans of buffers, so place them before it. The best judge of whether you need a buffer or not is to take a short guitar cable (10’) and plug directly into your amp and play. Now plug into your board and see if the tone sounds muffled or like a blanket is lying over your amp. This would be due to signal loss from not having a buffer or needing better cables.

Speakers and Speaker Cabs - Of all of your tonal puzzle pieces, these are literally the devices that project your sound into the world, so choosing the right speaker for the application can play a huge role in turning great tone into STELLAR tone. There are more options than I can possibly put into a single blog, but there are hundreds of speakers from various companies that can accentuate the amp it’s paired with, and subsequently the pedals and guitar that are running into it.

The key to finding the perfect voicing for the sound you have in your head is realizing what you’re intentions are for the amp you’re using. If you want clean headroom, your speaker choices can differ greatly from an amp that you’re intending to use as your dirt tones. Choices can be affected by what configurations you have as well, so a single 1x12” cab will sound different from a 2x12” and a 4x12” (or 4x10”, or countless other options). Having a cab that holds more than one speaker is beneficial because it allows you to mix speakers to fit the perfect application. One speaker may be designed for more aggressive lows and highs with less emphasis on mids, where you could pair that with a more mid-focused speaker to fill out your sound tonally.

When choosing your speaker, you need to pay attention to the outputs on your amps and what ohms they can put out, as well as the speaker and make sure they match up. If you’re not sure exactly how to do this, the easiest method is to email the company and let them know what amp you’re using and they can recommend the right product and ohm rating for you. Your amp can sound completely different based on whether you’re running at 4ohm, 8ohm and 16ohm and doing the research between the various options and what works best for your amp will yield some really fun and great sounding results.

Along with proper speaker choices, deciding on the right cab (as mentioned above) will play a part in your overall tone. Horizontal cables vs. vertical cabs can make a big difference on the tone you and the audience are hearing, along with which way the cab is facing and whether it’s tilted, off the floor, or even facing a different direction. The last thing the front row of a gig wants is to have your speakers blaring directly in their faces. Tilting the cab back (on combos) or getting the cab off of the floor will help diffuse some of the sound and disperse it into the air instead of directly at the audience’s faces.

Mix it up a bit – Do you normally run your delay into the FX loop? Try placing it before your dirt pedals for a completely different set of tones. There are typical “guides” and thought processes that come to mind when laying out a pedalboard, but when it comes down to it there are no rules, and what’s right is whatever sounds best to you. Experiment with signal chain order, especially stacking different pedals into each other to see what sonic tones you can coax out of something that would seem so unorthodox.

I’m a gear and pedal addict, and I’m always scouring the internet for whatever is catching my eye at the moment (Gibson SG’s right now in fact). I find it interesting when I see magazine articles or YouTube videos about someone’s rig rundown (or when you see some big name artist like Prince or countless others) and their pedal board was comprised of almost all Boss pedals.

 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it led me to thinking; do we obsess too much over gear? Why do some obsess over “boutique” gear while others are just fine with Boss or some other more budget-friendly brand pedals? Is our pursuit of tone out of necessity to achieve “the sound”? Personal enjoyment? Acquiring the latest and greatest gear? Is it a culmination of all of the above?

I tried to narrow it down to three types of players, in a very broad sense. This is a generalization, so in many scenarios it isn’t quite that static but more of a general observation than anything.

“If it’s not broke don’t fix it” – These are players that love their tone just the way it is and has always been since they found “their sound” years ago. They have no desire to change it at all.  Many times the players that fit this idea have great amps that they’re accustomed to and know every nuance about them, and every tone they can produce. There are likely a few base effects, maybe a boost or OD, delay, chorus, wah, or fuzz (among other things). In many cases it’s not a massive pedalboard, but in many cases the player has learned to coax the tones out of a smaller board of older pedals, and they don’t need any more than that. There’s nothing wrong with this mindset, because it allows the player to focus solely on playing the instrument instead of twisting knobs and they know their tone and utilize every piece of gear with precision that fits the moment and what sound they need.

G.A.S. Hounds – (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) – These are the players that love to buy gear and search for new tones.  There hasn’t been any official proof of why GAS sets in, but millions of players are stricken with the insatiable lust for “new” gear (new can consist of new-to-you, which is why the used market is massive right now). It could be the newest DSP delay that has been released with MIDI input, or a Distortion with active EQ controls and multiple gain stages, or a new Fuzz that’s supposed to be identical to one of the classic fuzzes Hendrix or Gilmour used. In many cases, it’s solely curiosity that drives players to want to try out the new gear.

New gear also can greatly inspire a player to try new tones and thus new ways of playing, which can be advantageous in growing their skill and finding their own sound. This works really well when a player is stuck in a rut with their playing, feeling like they aren’t progressing no matter how hard they try. There are many factors that could be discussed at a later date, but in general the GAS hounds are consistently on the chase for a new sound.

This leads to “flipping”, where a player purchases something (new or used) and in turn after playing it, “flips” it by reselling it in order to replenish the funds to put towards more gear. This is a major advantage to buyers and sellers in the used market, which is why it’s thriving so well. There are a lot worse things to do with your time and your money. Some people like to go bowling or play golf; G.A.S. hounds like to try new gear.

They just don’t care – There are a lot of players out there that don’t care what brand of pedal they playing, or whether it’s true bypass or buffered or if a pedal has the extra fancy functions. To them it is just a tool that they use to create music. It is like a carpenter who goes out and buys a hammer. He doesn’t necessarily need a certain brand name, just a good hammer that gets the job done. A lot of artists fall into this category. They know they need a certain sound, but they really don’t have the time, or care to compare delay pedal A to delay pedal B. They just need a solid functioning pedal that will get the job done and let them get their music out to the world.

So where do you fit in? Have you achieved your sound and are happy with what you have? Or are you the player that just likes to check out the newest offerings from the gear world out of curiosity? Or do you view pedals as just another tool in the toolbox, and it doesn’t matter what brand it is as long as it makes the sound you were hearing in your head?

The funny thing is, like most things in the guitar world, there is no right or wrong way to be. It really is about what makes you happiest, and what makes you want to pick up your axe and head to the woodshed.

I was checking out the wonderful "The Guitar Hour" last week (hosted in part by signature artist Tom Quayle) where the guys went to a luthier and filmed and dissected a full set up on guitar. It's compelling viewing and fascinating to see what happens when a professional does the job perfectly! If, like me (having worked in guitar shops for years and having set up thousands of guitars in my time) you thought you know it all, then this will be a real eye opener for you.

Part 1 - The Fret Dress - The thing that always made me really nervous! 37 minutes.

Part 2 - Taking you through the first part of a standard set up. 35 minutes!

Part 3 - The rest of the standard set up. 36 minutes.

 

Thank you to Tom, Dave, Dan and David for letting us publish on our blog, it's much apprecaited! You can check out The Guitar Hour here.