Are custom guitars any good?
February 9, 2012 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Some random guy on Craigslist makes guitars. Should I buy one?

I started learning to play guitar as a hobby. I bought a cheapo Squire Strat I found on craigslist and it has been serviceable but I'm to the point now where I think I'm going to stick with it long-term and I want to buy a higher quality instrument. I've more or less set my sites on an Epiphone Les Paul standard or the standard plus top but I need to spend some more time playing one to be sure. I've been keeping an eye on craigslist to try and find one used for a good price and get a feel for what a good deal is.

I ran across an ad for a guy who will custom build guitars to order. I sent him an e-mail and he said he can probably build what I need for $300 or less (compared to $350-$400).

My guess is that this is a luthier who builds guitars in his garage as a hobby. I would like to get an instrument that, assuming I never become a professional musician, might be the last guitar I ever buy. I also don't want to spend a ton of money and I'm totally okay with upgrading easy stuff later on (the pick-ups in particular).

Assuming that this guy is legitimate, I would probably want to see some examples of his work before I bought anything but I don't know that I have enough experience to determine the quality of his work. The question is then, in general, is getting a guitar from a home craftsman like this a good idea? Will I end up getting a better instrument (in the ways that are important to me) than a mass-produced one? Please share your experience as someone who has bought a guitar like this or makes them themselves.
posted by VTX to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total)
For that cheap? I would be very skeptical. At least one of the pictures he's using in his post is a stock photo, which doesn't exactly scream legitimacy either.
posted by Think_Long at 10:10 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have bought something like this, with a weirdo custom instrument built to spec. My money would have been better spent on a quality used instrument.
posted by modernserf at 10:19 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

That ad seems to be for a guitar tech, not a luthier? He's talking about customizing an existing guitars, not building one from scratch.

With regard to musical instruments in general, you definitely get what you pay for.
posted by maniactown at 10:23 AM on February 9, 2012

Best answer: I'm an amateur luthier. I was thinking you wanted an acoustic and I thought "OMG NO" but then I looked at the pictures and saw that you were actually looking for an electric.

Solid-body electric guitars (what this guy is advertising) aren't too hard to build. You can get kit pieces so you don't have to do the hardest stuff, like getting pre-cut fret boards and even pre-drilled body blanks. I suspect that's part of what they're doing if he can offer this so cheaply. "Easy" by luthier standards is still a ton of work if you're doing everything from scratch. The downside to this is that any kit pieces they use will be machined rather than hand-made and may or may not be good quality. Then again, the same thing is true of all the mass-produced big-name guitars, so you aren't losing out here.

You really need to touch some of their guitars before you can make any decision. Guitars vary in lots of subtle ways that really affect the way they feel to play. Things like the curve of the back of the neck make a big difference in how easy or hard it is to do certain playing styles, and the only way to know if it'll work for you is to touch it. If they don't have any finished pieces available to play, you should get references that will be willing to let you play their guitars.

In summary, I would be wary until you can touch some of the finished pieces. That will tell you everything you need to know about whether *you* like what they build. If you like their stuff, you can do some internet research on body and fretboard woods, pickups, etc, to know what you want. If this sounds like too much work, you might want to stick to a decent used guitar.
posted by zug at 10:24 AM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

There is no way I'd buy a guitar from a custom maker without touching one or more that he'd already made unless he had just an amazing reputation. And in general, if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

The 2nd hand guitar market is a good place for you to look, whether that be craigslist, pawn shops, ebay, etc. Guitars lose (monetary) value after the first sale, but don't tend to lose their worth as a musical instrument that easily. I have bought several nice guitars at half-retail over the years, starting as a kid with the classified ads.

The most desirable ones don't really go down in price, but reasonable workman guitars do. Fender American Strats are common enough, for example, that you can get good prices on them.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:34 AM on February 9, 2012

Yeah, he's buying these things very cheaply (kid buys a guitar and then decides he wants a new XBox more), and then upgrading a few of the parts. I know exactly what it costs to build one of these, and there's simply no way he could make money doing it from scratch. These aren't custom guitars, and I would be surprised if they physically play much better than if you went down to Guitar Center and bought a new one for cheaper.

The problem with spending $245 on a Squier is that it's still going to be a $75 guitar when you get ready to sell/upgrade. It doesn't really matter what mods you put into it. Save your cash and buy something that (without mods) is a truly good instrument that has real value.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 10:39 AM on February 9, 2012

The downside: you'll be buying a Squire-level guitar, assembled to your spec. All the parts are likely Asian low end stuff.

The upside: there's a decent chance it will be pretty good regardless. The playing field in electric guitar manufacturing has really leveled over the course of the last couple decades. Mostly what you pay for in a more expensive instrument is the country of origin label and maybe some extra sparkle. Essentially, what you're paying for here is a good setup. Which is where it really counts, as far as playability goes, anyhow. Crazy thing is even some high end factory made instruments go home with the customer with truly less than optimal setups.

In any event, I wouldn't buy unless you could play one of his instruments (or your custom instrument) first. That's the only way to know if the guy can properly set up a guitar.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:06 AM on February 9, 2012

A better resource would be the Buy/Sell/Trade forum on ReRanch. This is a forum of actual luthiers, homebuilders and professional refurbishers. Most of them make their own, some of them make a living doing it. As said above though I would NEVER buy a guitar I didn't play first.

Here ya go
posted by spicynuts at 11:27 AM on February 9, 2012

Best answer: I don't know, there could be more to the story. There's a guy in New York who "builds custom guitars" like this, but honestly, it has more in common with building a custom computer than being a luthier, although the guy is really good at fixing guitars and modding and setting them up.

Part of the reason his guitars are so cheap is that they are all frankensteins. He'll find a deal on someone getting rid of ten decent-quality Strat bodies, somebody who's doing an upgrade and doesn't need these pickups any more, some company went out of business and has a deadstock of P-Bass necks to get rid of, and he always buys broken guitars that he can part out.

So you go talk to him (which is, in and of itself, a process, because he only meets people on referral, and only with appointments, in his house in the east village, and at very random times and he'll cancel frequently. He has some health problems) and talk about what you want, and he'll talk about what's possible. He also has guitars he puts together on spec that he likes. We bought one of my friends a slimline semi-hollow tele knockoff from him and we all really like the guitar. I told him I wanted a bass that looked like a stingray, played like a 60s P-Bass, and had a big, loud but still passive single pickup (I don't want to mess with batteries or eight thousand knobs and switches) and he put me together and instrument just like that, very inexpensively. It's not like some super nice nerd luthier guitar but it plays good, sounds good, looks good.

It's variable though. You may want a really thin neck with a rosewood fingerboard and he might just not have any of those he's able to get a good deal on, so that's out. Or you might want some kind of hot rod pickup, and he got a deal on this DiMarzio, but he has no Fralins. If you have a degree of flexibility you can get a nice guitar pretty close to your specs pretty cheap. They're electric guitars, after all, it's not like it's rocket science.

It's possible this situation is something like that. One downside to these guitars is they have no provenance that makes them easier to sell, and they are hybrid. But they aren't super expensive. In the say...I'm going to guess five guitars my circle of friends have purchased from this guy, and we are very happy with all of them, after years of playing them.
posted by jeb at 11:31 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Definitely play his guitars before you make an agreement with him, and make sure it is a guitar with a set neck (glued into the body, not bolted on) like the LP you want him to make. If that joint done badly it will kill the sustain on the guitar, so want to make sure he knows what he is doing.

I would look at used guitars though, as you should be able to get an Epi LP for around $200 and you know it will be built pretty well. If you can find one of the older ones made in Korea that would be perfect, those things were built like tanks.
posted by InfidelZombie at 1:04 PM on February 9, 2012

Just buy the Epiphone. It is an excellent guitar. I play jazz on an Epiphone Dot and am glad of it. No need to look further.
posted by partner at 4:18 PM on February 9, 2012

Best answer: As much as I would like to say, "Yea, support this tech-guy!", I really don't think it's the right thing for you. Totally disregarding the guy's potential skill, you would still just have a cleaned up, tweaked version of what you already have.

Your squire doesn't suck either, btw. I love those guitars. I would take it to a local shop and get it a once-over for $25 to make sure it's all proper and staying in tune etc.

However, if you're anything like me and every other guitar player I've ever known, you've got the "bug" and you need another guitar so that, at the very least, you can broaden your knowledge base. There's nothing wrong with that. Totally natural.

In that case go visit some guitar shops and pawn shops and see if you fall in love with something in your price range. The important thing is actually playing them and seeing how they feel/sound.

If you're playing through something bigger than a 15w practice amp (something where modifications might make a difference in sound) and think you would like to tweak your Squire, just ask over in MeFi Music talk section. There are plenty of folks who could easily walk you through various guitar-tweaking procedures.

Finally, and just for the sake of SCIENCE!, I would visit Guitar Center or someplace and try some really high-end guitars and see what they do for you compared to your Squire.
posted by snsranch at 5:18 PM on February 9, 2012

Unless this guy has some kind of real world street cred, I'd stay far away. Maybe for $100, sure, why not.

It's not all that hard to buy a pre made guitar neck and then drop a router onto a hunk of wood and make a "custom" guitar, but I don't see the worth of it.

Just get an Ibanez.
posted by gjc at 7:17 PM on February 9, 2012

I'm not sure how a lone craftsman could build a guitar for that, and a company with economy of scale and automated machines can't. Ditto what the others are saying- a sub $100 kit, probably.

And there's a guy in Berkeley who does frankenstein-ing guitars. He has tons of spare parts from 1960s/70s Sears catalog guitars. Vibe for days, but these days cheap guitars are way way better.

I'd say unless you're trying to build up a big collection of guitars you're better off saving for something better, even on the lower end of the mid range as in the Epiphone you like.
posted by tremspeed at 12:06 AM on February 23, 2012

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