Custom guitars aren't just for rock stars: Customizing a concept with Zero Impact Guitars
(Brian Johnston | Posted 2011-07-11)
Editor's note:This is the first of a series by Brian Johnston about his experiences in working with a luthier to develop a custom guitar. Additional entries in the series on MGR on Mondays.
Click here for Part II.
I have played guitar on and off for about 30 years, although more ‘off’ than ‘on.’ It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve increased the seriousness of this endeavor, having written about 70 original compositions since (perhaps not all good, but certainly nothing bad, and I have received several compliments on music websites).
What kept me from pursuing the guitar with greater vigor during my earlier years largely was due to the quality of instrument(s) I was playing. At age 14, my first guitar came from Sears, at a price of about $100. It was a good beginner guitar, but because of the high action and feel of the neck, improvement beyond a certain point seemed stifled. Not that I could not improve my playing, but the motivation to become a better guitarist on a guitar that left something to be desired was my excuse. As I acquired slightly better guitars they were only modestly better and my yearning wasn’t there anyway. When I finally landed a ’79 Fender Stratocaster instrument quality was not an justification, but my time and interests were divided in other areas as I set aside music for over 15 years (both listening and playing).
For the past decade I’ve worked as a Fitness Clinician, and also operating a fitness certification company, as I worked in rehab, and with athletes who competed at the World Championship level in different sports. But there was always ‘something’ there about guitar playing that eventually spurned another go at the craft. I’m not one of those naturally gifted musicians; I have the passion, but not some innate ability like a Johnny Winter. I find it easier to compose music than to be a virtuoso at any instrument. Nonetheless, I certainly do appreciate a fine-crafted instrument and the improved ease of playing as a result.
I have acquired several guitars over the years, some of which I wrote reviews on because I liked the looks, construction, feel and sound. Others I did not write about because I find them good or all right, but nothing special or unique. This got me to thinking: “I have some fine instruments, but what would it be like to have a personal luthier embrace my suggestions and have that person create a unique one-of-a-kind instrument that matches those elements I find ideal in the ‘ultimate’ guitar?
Of course, I say that with some reservation since the ultimate guitar may have solid gold hardware and other elaborate features that make it cost prohibitive (and with those aspect not having the instrument sound any better anyway). But when working on a budget that is comparative to the cost of any name-brand guitar, what could the outcome be?
This issue, however, is when searching for a luthier there are hundreds world-wide from which a person choose. I knew some were out of my league, charging thousands for a guitar that made it difficult for the builder, or me, to distinguish how the end product would different than a quality name-brand – other than it being given a little more attention to finishing and detail. Don’t get me wrong, subtle improvements in the niceties do make a difference, but in an economy and time when we have choices and we look for the biggest bang for the buck, particularly for the average working person, the goal is to invest no more in a custom guitar than the cost of a good name-brand guitar. At least that would be ideal if such a luthier existed.
Finding the right builder
It was when I was perusing a copy of Guitarist magazine that I came across a short review for Zero Impact Guitars, by Stephen Casper, aka Casper Guitar Technologies. What stood out initially was the reasonable prices for his guitars, but also his use of FSC-certified SmartWoods to reduce the effect on the environment and use of rare or endangered species of trees (hence the name Zero Impact Guitars). I then investigated further.
Another plus is that Stephen Casper has been a long-time (modern) guitar player, and so he knows what it’s like to play a quality instrument when playing blues and rock. With 25 years in the business, his focus is on tone, comfort and playability of a guitar with pride going into each chisel strike or brush of sandpaper. After all, his name is on the instrument, and unlike the big manufacturers, he refuses to put his name to something that is less than it should be. Everything is solid in construction and made from 100% solid tonewoods - no plastics, particle boards or plywood. He even solar-powers his facility to help drive his lighting and computers, and when not using battery-powered hand-powered tools, he powers them by hand. This is what being a classic luthier is about – working the wood with the hands and experiencing every groove and crevice along the way. It becomes a personal experience of pride, just like a finish carpenter and cabinet maker would experience, and which the big companies cannot experience as they get overseas workers (Korea, China, Japan) to construct instruments, most of whom never played a guitar but work in factories because that’s where the work is.
This does not mean that big-name guitars are not good, since they have to have some quality standards in place, but when you have specialized attention given to each instrument by an actual guitar player, it certain sparks curiosity as to the potential outcome. And I’m hoping that outcome is individuality, a higher precision in construction and assembly, and a professional setup that allows me to play right from the case. That personal luthier effect means exactly that – what you want for the bridge, the style of neck, the quality of pickups and electronics, etc.
To look at it from a relative perspective, have you ever paid a hefty price for a stock name-brand guitar and wished that some aspect was different… more sensitive pickups, a slightly different body shape or paint color, or if the headstock could be shaped differently with a better machine head? For the same investment as the big brand-name guitars this is possible, and when you have an experienced guitar player building it, one who knows about different pickups, saddles and bridges, volume and tone knobs, etc., it’s not like he has to second guess your requirements or expectations. He’s more than a builder, but an experienced connoisseur of the guitar. Whatever the specs, Stephen Casper claims he is capable of doing it and at a highly competitive price. I wonder if I can return my Les Paul Custom? In any case, don’t underestimate the personal value of a signature model. After all, any unique guitar out there is because of its rarity (e.g., ’59 Gibson Goldtop) or the personal modifications done by a guitarist (e.g., Van Halen’s early models). Now YOU have that opportunity.
Don't worry about the cost
If money is a factor, think of the money spent over the years on less expensive guitars, pedals and amps, and if only you saved your money a bit longer to get what you always wanted. I’m not trying to sales pitch you, since I have nothing to gain and have no financial interest in Zero Impact Guitars or any other luthier or guitar company, but it was something I have experienced with music gear and other investments in life. You go a bit cheaper and in the end, not being satisfied, you eventually spend a bit more on something that is a lot more. And during that process, you have bought and sold thousands of dollars in equipment. Wisdom is hindsight.
OK, and so I asked Stephen to provide updates with photos – what’s going on at each stage and a visual context to go along with it. Like any responsible luthier, Mr. Casper provides updates anyway, but I thought it would be interesting to share it with others who may be interested in the process and possible investment. Stephen’s first update will be presented in the next installment, but let’s look at some specs for MY one-of-a-kind signature model.
• A similar body design to the Ernie Ball/Music Man ‘Game Changer’ or ‘EVH’ model. I like that body shape, it being a modified Telecaster design, but with a modern edge.
• A slight scoop of the lower ‘horn’ to allow easier hand access when working the upper frets.
• Clear coating to show the depth and quality of the wood grain.
• A whammy bar, although regular or floating is not a concern, but so long as one existed.
• A bridge pickup similar to the DiMarzio Mojo.
• A neck pickup that is warm, but has a bit more bite than the typical neck pickup (as though to have the warmth of a neck pickup, but with some clarity and aggression of a bridge pickup).
• A ‘smallish’ neck suitable for smaller hands, and to allow fast fret work and easy string bending.
• Medium-sized frets to reduce finger fatigue when playing quickly.
• Both rosewood and maple necks are enjoyed equally and so no real preference in that regard expect for it to match or be attractive relative to the wood grain body.
Stephen also knows that I own an Ibanez JS2400 (one of my favorite guitars), besides owning some other darn good quality instruments by other respectable companies. He knows my playing style and musical interests, being influenced by Satriani and Vai. And now, as a personal consultant and designer (just like hiring an interior decorator, wedding planner, financial investor, etc., etc.), he is in the position of looking toward my best interests. And this is where the journey begins!
Part 2 will appear on MGR on Monday, July 18, 2011.
More about Casper Guitar Technologies
My #1 goal is to produce instruments that present little or no impact on the environment during the manufacturing process.
• I use materials that are tried and true to the art of lutherie.
• I use science and technology to help bring out every drop of tone from any given combination of materials.
Casper Guitar Technologies was established in 2007.
It has evolved from my longtime business of Casper Technologies where I performed modifications to guitars, modified parts and enhanced the tone for 100’s of local and regional guitar players since 1985.
I strive to achieve my shop goals by using sustainable growth and FSC Certified materials, solar powered LED lighting and 12V charging systems for hand-held tools and my computers, low VOC finishes and other methods that are proven to minimize ecological impact.
I am a self-trained luthier, descendent of French Cabinet Makers. Trained by my Grand Father in the fine art of cabinetry, I’ve been taught the patience and the techniques of hand shaping and assembly of fine wood.
“Guitars are my passion. I will continue to explore and learn the art until I can no longer"