Guitar Stories

Designing and Building a Custom Guitar

Every guitar player, at some point, has probably thought about all the features and. characteristics they would include if they built their, own "dream guitar." VG contributor John Southern is one of the few who strived to make his dream a reality. But it wasn’t easy. Here’s his story.

Ever since I was 12 years old and got my first unplayable guitar, a Kay flat – top with a painted musical note for a pickguard I’ve been subconsciously obsessed with finding or owning the best possible guitar.

I had traded a set of bongo drums to get my hands on that Kay, and I immediately traded for a neck that seemed to lower the action. Then and there I decided the reason I wasn't playing very well - it was the guitar’s fault!  That started me on a lifelong quest that has led me to every music store and pawn shop within a 300 mile radius.

In 1970, that quest led me to a Yamaha FG 300, which I was in such a hurry to pick up, that I burned up the engine on my Dad’s ’57 Imperial.  In 1971, I ordered a Gibson Dove.  Bad move.  The guitar came with a 6 piece plain and knotty maple and the nut was cut so low it had to be shimmed before it could be played.

Bummer.  In 1973, I drove to Mossman Guitars and talked Stewart into making me a fancy curly maple sunburst flat-top.  It’s a nice instrument, but I wanted more. 

Eventually, I found that electrics not only had better action, but the electric sound of an L-5 or Super 400 is pretty cool.  After some moderate success putting Duncan sound spots in a Super 400 with a blend pot, I knew I was on the right track.  I played a Fly, but it, too, was not perfect.  I determined the perfect guitar had yet to be built – and I must be the one to do it!  The instrument needed to be versatile.  I wanted it to sound like my Dove with a mic in it.  It needed to sound like a Les Paul – solid, with sustain.  It needed to have a nice, clean sound like the 2-pickup combination of the Strarocaster.  It needed to be contoured and comfortable to hold.  The weight needed to be 10 pounds or less.  The neck had to be right, not too clunky, not too narrow…what curvature for the board?  A 12” radius is the most common according to my guitar-guru friend, Greg Krochman at Classic Ax in Nashville. Which is the coolest wood?   For me, it had to be curly maple. The guitar had to be functional, versatile, beautiful, classy and had to be similar to, but different from, everything else that preceded it.

I began sketching and redrawing.  I would call it the Lyric, because my basic inspiration came from the ancient Lyre, which recirculated sound to increase sustain and tonality.  After a couple of months on the drawing board, I decided the world was ready for the Lyric. 

I approached my friend Mike McGuire, at Gibson, who politely explained that they were way backordered, and that it would be very unlikely that they would have time to try it.  It would also be very expensive.  Undaunted, I approached Fender’s Dan Smith, who did sign a non-disclosure agreement with me, but alas, Fender has its own designers.  I tried Heritage; no reply.  I called Bill Hollenbeck; out of his style.  I called Jim Triggs, then sent him the drawings; no reply.  Ron Fleming, a local artist, said he could help me, but after months of waiting to get started, he too recanted.  Nuts. 

I began gathering materials anyhow, because one way or another, this guitar was going to be built!  I had tried nearly all piezo pickups on the market and they all sounded pretty “tinky.”  Every expert I talked to said “…you gotta have a preamp to make them sound good.”

Then, at the Arlington show, I ran into John Pearse.  I told him of my dilemma.  He said, “…call this guy.”  He gave me the phone number of 
William Lawrence. 

Bill Lawrence? Hey, that’s the guy who’s been making pickups since before I could shave!  Cool!  I called and got in touch with the man, who, though cordial, was very opinionated.

“Nine-volt batteries are for transistor radios, nothing else,”  he quipped.

I sent my sketches to Bill, and within a couple of weeks, he agreed to make three pickups for the Lyric.  He drew a custom wiring diagram so I could get the sounds we had in mind.  But he refused to put them in a gold-plated housing I requested, because it might interfere with the magnetic currents interchanged between string and pickup.

So I called Alan Greenwood at Vintage Guitar, he suggested I contact Larry Brooks at Seymour Duncan.  Larry was with the Fender Custom Shop until he went to Seymour’s to build custom pickups.  He was very helpful. 

“Larry,”  I said.  “I want a PAF-type humbucker in the neck position with a coil tap, gold-plated with 12 individually adjustable pole pieces.  I also want a ‘trebly’ sounding pickup for near the bridge, with a coil tap and 12 pole pieces.  And while you’re at it, stick two Woodies side-by-side under a gold cover and give me 12 pole pieces and four separate leads.

I imagine Larry wished he’d been on vacation when I called.  He said my pickups could be built but it would cost over $500.  I thought I might implant a Baggs bridge on one model and switch between the Woodies in case of a 9-volt failure.

My next search was for fine curly maple.  My Lyric was to be three inches thick from top to back.  I wanted four bookmatched pieces, two for the front, two for the back.  My plan was to peg assemble, cut out the perimeter, hollow out the top and back, then re-assemble them.  I called every source of guitar woods in the northern hemisphere, with no luck.

Finally, Russ at Northern Hardwoods said he could find me  some curly maple.  He did, but it was four months before he had it, and it was only $700 for the body and neck.  Only!  I realized I needed help.  I ran an ad in the paper, trying to find other local guitar builders.  After fielding 25 or so calls from guys who had little or no actual experience, but thought it would be a “cool thing to do, “  I discussed my plans with Larry “Cash” Briggs.

Larry suggested I call Jerry Reno, who at that time was just setting up shop in Tulsa to make custom guitars.  Jerry had been making only solidbodies, but he finally agreed to take on my project.  We were breaking new ground from the very beginning. No one had ever made a guitar this way or this shape.  Our neck fit is a totally new design that looks like a glue fit but it’s actually a one-bolt bolt-on.  Jerry continues to ask me questions that should baffle me, yet my subconscious and intuition seem to find solutions.  I began designing and inlaying the first of my Quazar design fingerboards, which took me over 50 hours to cut with a jeweler’s saw to inlay.  I am determined to drag guitar design kicking and screaming into the 21st century!

We have been collectively designing and building the modern guitar since about 1900.  There are certain principles, certain designs we have taken to heart, and certain sounds we crave and have come to expect.  I want one guitar to carry to the gig.  Not three or four on stands that get knocked over.  One guitar that, by flipping a switch and turning a knob, will give me any sound I want.  I want a guitar that catches the eye from a distance, a guitar that is outstanding from a perspective of appearance and unparalleled in sound quality, playability and versatility.

In my pursuit, I’m sure I have driven Stewart Mossman nuts.  And Jerry Reno, who does not drink, may consider tying one on when the Lyric is ready for display at this fall’s Arlington show.  But there are so many details, so many considerations in the making of a truly fine instrument.  The minute details cannot be overlooked.  Once we have the kinks worked out and my first four Lyrics are ready to play, I hope to offer my line of guitars for sale to the public.  Perhaps there are others who can’t find that perfect guitar in a pawn shop or music store.  In retail, a guitar which sells for $1000 must wholesale for $500.  This means that the manufacturer must sell it for $250 to make a profit.  Most likely a $1000 guitar costs $125.00 to build!  With the labor costs I’ve encountered, plus material and electronics, it has cost me well over $1,000.  I anticipate a final sale price ranging between $7,000 and $10,000 for my top-of-the-line instrument.  Other models will sell for $1,800 to $4,500.  In my pursuit of parts, materials, and knowledge, I have made numerous contacts in the industry.  I will have spent approximately two years in development and production of my first four prototypes and spent close to $10,000 on materials, labor, electronics, copyrights, phone bills and lost jobs I could have had.  A special thank you to Alan Greenwood for encouraging me to do this article and to build the guitars.  To Alan and Cleo, congratulations on the first 10 years of Vintage Guitar, may you be able to get that VG conversion van in the next 10 years!

Originally published in Vintage Guitar Magazine.  November 1996, Vol. 11 No. 2