The custom guitar experience: know what you want, the go for it!

(Brian Johnston | Posted 2011-09-17)

The custom guitar experience: know what you want, the go for it!

Editor's Note: In several articles, MGR contributing writer Brian D. Johnston has detailed the experience of having a guitar custom built by luthier Stephen Casper. In this article, he wraps up his impressions of how the process went and of the guitar itself. Links to the articles Brian wrote during construction are at the bottom of this article.

There are reasons why a serious guitarist would want a vintage instrument. What comes to most peoples’ minds is the opportunity to own a (potentially) rare and (potentially) valuable guitar and knowing it is uncommon. This is no different than owning an old Mustang or Jaguar, causing heads to turn as you cruise down a street. For guitarists who care as much for playable and tone, there is another reason why those vintage axes are so desired.

Years ago, when the big name companies were small, such as Gibson, Fender, Epiphany, Martin, Gretsch, etc., they were not exactly massed produced, but produced in a quantity limited by what a handful of skilled luthiers could turn out (and relative to the buying interest of guitarists whose numbers were fewer decades ago than today). This meant that a greater passion and attention to detail in every facet of the instrument existed to a higher degree, whereas today the big companies mass produce guitars in assembly factors, usually off-shore with workers who likely don’t play guitar and couldn’t care less about guitar playing – they are given manufacturing instructions from high above and they do what needs to be done for that paycheck.

This brings us to the next point of small-luthier production. There is a reason why some years or models of Les Paul or Stratocaster are more highly acclaimed than others, besides rarity. It’s the luthier ‘at the time’ that had a certain flair, style or elegance in how things were done, and the hand-wound pickups (likely developed by a different person) also happened to ‘get it right’ and right on the button concurrently.

Factor in the above aspects and anyone owning a ’59 Gibson Les Paul will tell you it’s not just a Les Paul. Likewise, find yourself a luthier today, one who possess that unique skill and passion and you will have found yourself a guitar that someday will be held in the highest regard and along-side today’s legends. After all, it does not have to be old to have that special ‘mojo’ happening; it requires a gifted individual to create a vision that has yet to exist.

Certain aspects attracted me to Casper Guitar Technologies, one of them being to what extent each instrument is hand-crafted (carved!) while implementing only the necessary tools that is reminiscent of master craftsmen of yesteryear who were able to create masterpieces from only a hammer and chisel. The other reason is the company’s focus on being ‘green.’ In fact, the owner and luthier, Stephen Casper, is known as the ‘Green Guitar Guru’ because of his ethics in using only FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) approved woods not on the endangered list. He also uses low VOC (volatile organic compound) finishes and select RoHs (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) components (e.g., no mercury, lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium or polybrominated biphenyl). And like any good luthier, you have your choice of a hand-shaped and contoured body, neck and head style, pickups, custom bridge options, custom graphics and hand engraving and custom boutique electronics and switching options.

Stephen builds very few guitars per year, and I was fortunate that he could undertake my project. I had a general idea in mind, best described as follows: A guitar that mixes the traditional or vintage with the modern; this would result in a solid wood body with the grain exposed (no paint). The action would be low for effortless speed work (although I don’t play metal per se, it’s nice to play fast when you want to and without wrestling the strings), the neck relatively thin, and the pickups relatively hot (but not active pickups). I wanted a split humbucker for the neck and likely wanted a Mo Joe for the bridge (since I was familiar with and liked that pickup on my Ibanez JS2400).

In sum, I wasn’t sure entirely what more to ask for. I thoroughly enjoy the Ibanez guitar – its action and tones, but wanted a guitar that felt as good while playing, but with a slightly more edgy neck pickup and a body that would resonate a little brighter or clearer (particularly when playing in the lower register) than the basswood in the Ibanez. In effect, I wished my Ibanez to had a slight more edge to the sonic presentation.

With that in mind Stephen made various recommendations, which I shared in an article series I wrote for MGR. I will summarize those particulars in this review and describe the outcome.

Top to bottom
The headstock was of Stephen’s trademark design, which was fine by me, as I did not have any particular preference to its design. It houses quality Gotoh tuners, which reputation is well known in the music industry. The tuner set Stephen applied to this guitar is extremely high in quality, and you can feel the solid, smooth tension of the keys when tuning. The headstock also features a low-friction string tree to reduce resistance and to improve tuning stability, which may not be necessary when dealing with a locking-nut system, but which does add that extra dimension in security and even appearance. The maple neck has FSC rosewood from Honduras for the fretboard and includes dot inlays both on the fretboard and on its edge. I requested frets a bit flatter or smaller than on my Ibanez (steering away from the ‘jumbo fret’ design), which reduces finger strain while playing, and this feature was included. The truss rod is accessible via the heel of the neck, but as Stephen puts it: “In my experience, if the neck is made correctly, it should never warp.”

There are two aspects that make this neck very special. One, the action is crazy low, lower than my Ibanez, and without any fret buzz, which makes legato type playing seem effortless. Two, this is by far the thinnest neck I have used, which may be a bit ‘crampy’ for someone with large hands, but I do have smallish hands and when this was relayed to Stephen he did promise me a ‘wizard’ neck... and he delivered. Usually musicians will classify necks as having a thicker ‘U’ shape or a thinner ‘C’ shape (less curving and thickness), whereas this guitar has what is best described as an elongated ‘C’ shape... stretched out or flattened and only about 1.6 cm (0.63 inches) thick! There is extreme comfort in this neck design that feels as though it flows across the palm rather than filling it up, as though cupping it.

The body is a single piece FSC Swamp-Ash from a special farm in Louisiana. As per my choice, Stephen shaped it similar to the MusicMan EVH guitar, which shape I found attractive upon first seeing it (a cool looking Telecaster in my eyes). Although two-dimensional looking from the front, the body has a sexy flow and curve to it when viewed from the side (see below), contoured particularly where the body and picking arm make contact, for improved comfort and fit. As well, Stephen did an excellent job on the neck heal, well rounded and contoured for ease of playing on the highest fret.

Finished with low VOC nitrocellulose variety semi-gloss, the natural wood grain accentuates the custom make in that one can tell the guitar was hand-crafted and not a stock piece from a music shop. Moreover, the top of the body boasts a circular emblem I had Stephen make that reads BDJ 001 Signature Guitar – (see below) my initials with a 001 serial number (this also was placed on the back of the headstock). And somewhere in the body – I’m not saying where – at no extra charge, Stephen implanted a microchip that enables pawn shops and police to ascertain its true ownership if stolen and potentially sold.

My choice of bridge pickup was the DiMarzio Mo’ Joe (as per Joe Satriani, whose tone I really like), chosen for its singing quality and creaminess. I wasn’t sure as to the neck pickup, but I knew I wanted something with more clarity than what I have on my Ibanez and many of my other guitars. Stephen recommended the DiMarzio PAF Joe, another Satriani designed pickup that compliments the Mo’ Joe. This was a wise decision as the tone derived from this pickup is very clear and not too dark. It still produces warm tones, ideal for emulating some David Gilmour, but with each note being unmistakably defined without coming across overly harsh. However, I suspect the solid ash body has something to do with that as well.

A product added to the bridge pickup is the E-Tuner by Shadow Electronics, a humbucker pickup ring only a few millimetres high and integrated into the pickup’s circuitry. Along its upper edge of the ring is a small on/off button and a series of LED lights that enables you to tune the guitar with ease as it shows whether you are flat or sharp, and what note/string is being played/tuned. It should be noted that Stephen is a true problem-solver when it came to the E-Tuner. Prior to me shipping him this device, the guitar body was already developed and originally was designed as a very low profile model with no pickup rings. Stephen was able to restructure the guitar’s body to accommodate the new E-Tuner ring (and add a ring for the neck humbucker) while keeping the string action very low.

The electronics and switching system involves a master volume and two tone controls (one for each pickup), all three of which have rosewood knobs and a mother-of-pearl dot inlay to match the fretboard. Smooth, yet firm, you can tell the quality of the pots as you turn the knobs. The five-way pickup selector switch allows the following possibilities:

1. Bridge Series Full Humbucker
2. Bridge (South Coil Tapped) + Neck (South Coil Tapped) in series / reverse phased
3. Bridge + Neck Humbucker
4. Bridge (South Coil Tapped) + Neck (North Coil Tapped) in series / in phase
5. Neck Series Humbucker

Stephen did an excellent job with the electronics and there is an incredibly large array of tones possible with this setup. The bridge pickup reacts as I suspect it should, with a nice bite, but without sounding shrill. I’m very happy with the neck humbucker as it rings clear and true no matter how low a note I play and whether the tone knob is turned all the way toward bass.

The most impressive aspect, however, is how Stephen setup the electronics. With most tone pots you hear a difference as you move from treble to bass, but on this guitar the audible qualities are much more pronounced and differentiated. It’s not the ‘same tone, but a little darker or brighter;’ rather, there emerge distinct sonic attributes that make this guitar truly diverse. Stephen did warn me about this benefit!

The Schaller locking bridge system is of equal quality to the Edge system in my Ibanez. However, Stephen took this to the next level with a block of AAAA bell brass that connects the springs to the trem bridge. Together with the solid ash body, this guitar is highly sensitive while producing a very clear and attacking tone. I must say that it requires a guitarist to sharpen his or her chops since any mistakes are obvious and audible. I think I need to go practice!

Overall Impression
Featured in guitar magazines, this one-man-band truly is gifted as he pours everything into each creation – and he skimps on nothing. From the general construction to the electronics, everything is high grade and solid. He supplies guitars to the FernStock music festival and is respected enough to be the official sponsor for a European international tour through Ferocious Music. As important, from a customer’s perspective, he sends regular updates of photos and with options from which to choose (in the event that not every aspect is accounted for in the original ‘wish list’). I suspect I received at least 25 e-mails and a dozen photos of the process to ensure everything was on par and on schedule.

In regard to my specific guitar, I believe what makes an axe a go-to axe is two-fold: quality of play with a wide-ranging palette of possible sounds. Will this be the only guitar I will use? No, not at all... for example, I have a Reverend that is so dark and fat sounding that it seems appropriate for certain genres of music, and when I compose in that genre it will be the chosen one. But relative to my playing style, it will be played far more than the other guitars in my collection. Mission accomplished, Stephen!

Working with a private luthier was such a new and unique experience, I wanted to share a general checklist with readers to this review. Of course you will need to develop a list that is more specific, to include the measurement of all dimensions, such as neck width and thickness, to obtaining paint swatches and sending them to the luthier, etc. Even string height measurements need to be considered since action that is too low or too high may not be desirable. If you are unable to determine some elements, then you need to investigate and visit guitar shops, picking out features you like and don’t like, then go from there. I had a starting point, of not only matching but beating my $2000 Ibanez JS2400, but even then I only had a general idea of what the guitar should possess. The more you do your homework, the happier you will be and the less you can blame the luthier for not reading your mind and getting it wrong. A custom guitar design is YOUR design and in the end you are as responsible for the outcome as the luthier.

* Detail everything in writing and include drawings or photographs; get confirmation from the luthier on every aspect so that nothing is left to chance or forgotten.

* Be careful of going overboard on exotic or strange wood combinations, pickup selections, etc., as you may receive something that does not sound as good as you think or expect. A good luthier will steer you clear of designs and electronics that do not make sense, but if the customer is adamant about something, and the luthier builds to those specs, you get what you asked for.

* It helps to have played or owned guitars with features or elements that you like, so that when you have your dream guitar built you can integrate those aspects, such as the number of frets, neck width, body shape, a maple or rosewood fretboard, fretboard inlay shapes, whether there is a tremolo arm and the type of tremolo, the type of electronics, machine head, strap buttons, etc. With so many electronics and so much hardware to choose from, as compared to 40 years ago, that area should not be a problem. Today’s personal luthier’s job is geared more toward helping you discover a comfortable neck size, fret action and body shape, whereas suggestions on electronics and the eventual tone (including wood type) has to come predominantly from you.

*Do not expect a custom guitar to be the Holy Grail of your sound. Some guitars are meant for clean and sparkly tones, whereas others are more dark and aggressive. Likewise, the woods and electronics you select will have its own personality... and the only way to change that personality is to change the pickups, electronics, and sometimes the entire guitar! The idea is to strive to get as close to the epitome of your vision as possible and don’t be unreasonable in your expectations.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V