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Custom­Shop Guitars Continue to Offer Dealers and Consumers Unique Opportunities

Many professional guitarists, guitar aficionados with money to burn, and even art collectors are drawn to instruments that aren’t in a given brand’s standard lineup. Whether called “master built,” “private stock,” or any other variant, the appeal of individually designed and built guitars (for the purposes of this article we’ll go with the catch­all of “custom shop guitars”) is unique and compelling.

MMR recently caught up with six of the most significant players in this field – both acoustic and electric guitar suppliers – to get a better insight into what’s driving sales of these instruments in 2017, who’s buying them, and how custom shop guitars can mean big profits for MI retailers who play their cards strategically.

While the basic concepts behind “custom shop” guitars are fairly universal – higher quality components, greater attention to detail, better fit and finish, or simply instruments made to a customer’s preference – what characterizes these custom instruments for your brand, specifically?

Tom Bedell: First of all we get the tree trunk and we individually select trees – we never use clear­cut wood. We make sure that we are protecting the forest especially, so we have a very broad collection of really exotic tonewoods that were all thoughtfully, carefully harvested and that means that we can tell people the story of where the wood came from. So that’s number one. Number two: we do a thing called Sound Profiling, which nobody else does. What everybody else does is, they cut their woods to an established dimension. So they have a set, pre­described dimension for how big it should be when in fact there’s as much as a 30 percent variance in the frequency and density of tonewood cut to the same dimension within the same tree. What we do is we actually frequency test and we sand to the thinness that will give us the targeted frequency that we want to be at in order to maximize the potential of that wood, to make a beautiful sounding musical instrument.

Now, the other difference from certain companies, but certainly not all, is that we let people check out their design for what kind of effect they might want to have, what materials they want us to use. Then we take photographs of the instruments that are handcrafted by our craftsmen, and people can see the progress of their guitar as it’s being made.

Matt Masciandaro: All of our custom instruments are made at the ESP Custom Shop in Tokyo, Japan. The luthiers at the ESP Custom Shop are widely regarded as some of the world’s very best. An ESP Custom could be, but is not limited to, a modified version of one of our existing models. Or it could be a completely original work of art, with artistic sculpting, inlays, graphic designs, exotic materials, and more. The ESP Custom Shop’s motto has long been, “If you can dream it, we can build it.”

Mike Lewis: For Fender Custom Shop, it’s not as much about specs, as it is the ingredients and how they are prepared. Even more, it’s about our tenured builders and the tools and processes they use to bring each player’s dream instrument to life, creating a bespoke experience from start to finish.

Fred Greene: High quality components, extraordinary attention to detail and superior fit and finish are universal to all Martin instruments. I believe your last “universal” example – instruments made to customer’s preference – is what primarily draws customers to purchase a custom instrument. We work very hard to accommodate any custom request within reason. I believe that is what truly sets us apart from other instrument makers. We have an incredible pool of talented builders working within our facility. Their ability to handcraft components combined with the resources of a company the size of C.F. Martin allows our customers the freedom to let their imagination run wild and tap into the inner guitar designer that lies within them.

Monte Montefusco: Taylor Guitars’ custom guitar program offers the discerning guitarist the ability to personalize over 40 attributes of a Taylor instrument. They have unique access to tonal and aesthetic options not available on our standard models. While our commitment to delivering an heirloom quality instrument with superior playability is consistent throughout the entire product line, personal choice and option accessibility are the mainstays of our custom program.

Paul Reed Smith: The PRS Private Stock program combines the highest quality of materials, the most personally crafted instruments, and the greatest level of customization available from PRS Guitars. Customers, through their dealers, can choose their top wood, back wood, neck blank and fretboard wood, head­stock veneer, inlay materials, pickups, hardware, and finish. In the end, they have pretty much designed their very own heirloom­ quality instrument using our criteria and materials. We also make some Private Stock models to stock and many of our dealers come to the factory often to pick out their own wood.

Jimmy Lovinggood: As many people know, John D’Angelico is one of the most respected builders of the 20th Century. Our master built guitars are hand-­built one at a time in New York City. Our goal is to maintain the craftsmanship and level of quality that John set when he was building these guitars himself, as well as honor our roots in New York City. The characteristics that make our guitars unique are hand­crafted, original, and built to each customer’s specifications.

For how many years has your company been offering these types of instruments?

FG: Martin has always accepted custom instrument requests and they were traditionally built through the standard production process. It was not until 2005 that we formally established a team of craftsman who were dedicated to specialized custom orders.

JL: We have been offering Master Built D’Angelico guitars for over four years.

PRS: The PRS Private Stock program is 20 years old.

Montefusco: The historical sales documents of Taylor Guitars show that Bob and Kurt (Taylor and Listug, co­founders of Taylor Guitars) offered customization starting at the beginning of the company in 1974. The program has evolved over the years and in addition to custom guitars we offer a modified standard model program with a condensed option list.

TB: Well, Breedlove was doing custom work well before I bought it six years ago, but Sound Profiling work just started in the last year.

MM: Over 40 years. ESP started out in 1975 as a small shop in Tokyo selling parts and hot-­rodding instruments, and quickly began creating fully custom instruments under the ESP brand.

How are sales of custom shop guitars so far in 2017, compared to last year?

PRS: The sales for Private Stock are better than they have ever been. We have about a year backorder at this point.

Montefusco: We started off 2017 with a record­-breaking custom guitar event at NAMM. More custom Taylor instruments were ordered in four hours than in any other previous single month. Our industry­-leading craftspeople will deliver the majority of these guitars within 60 days.

TB: That’s been a hot subject in the last couple of days. We have, right now, about 60 in­-progress, unique custom guitars that were designed by individuals or retailers and that would be a little bit larger queue than we normally have. We are probably about twice as busy with the custom shop now than we usually are.

JL: We build each guitar individually and customize each guitar to the customer’s specs and needs. We are only able to produce one or two Master Builders per month, and the wait time is 12­18 months. Recently, we have seen a marked increase in demand.

MM: For ESP that can be answered in two ways. First, each year, the luthiers in our custom shop create a special batch of guitar and bass models that we unveil at NAMM. This is called the Exhibition Limited Series, and each instrument is a one­-of­-a-kind creation, making them very rare and valuable not only as instruments but as collectible pieces. Many of these guitars generally sell almost immediately to our dealers during and shortly after NAMM.

Regarding individual orders of custom guitars, it’s something that’s spread out throughout the year, and really can’t be measured on a month-­by-­month basis. It’s typical for the ESP Custom Shop to require eight months or more to create each instrument, depending on the level of complexity of the design.

FG: Very good. We are beginning 2017 with more Custom orders than 2016. The Custom Shop has shown tremendous growth over the last 10 years.

Given the higher price of these guitars, it’s generally a safe assumption that customers are not of the “budget conscious” variety, but beyond that how would you describe the consumer demographic – pros, well-­heeled hobbyists, collectors?

ML: Fender Custom Shop’s customer demographic includes professional players, well-­heeled hobbyists and collectors,

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 with the addition of the “guitaraholic.” One is never enough! Many of our players have purchased dozens of Fender Custom shop guitars.

FG: Artists are certainly customers. All of our brand ambassadors regularly use Custom Shop guitars in addition to their vintage instruments. I would describe the majority of our Custom Shop customers as, “sophisticated guitar enthusiast.” They have owned multiple instruments of various brands and they know what they like and what they don’t like. Like all of us, they are looking for that “holy grail” instrument. I know people think that money is no object to those buying a custom Martin, but that is definitely not the case. These individuals are very value conscious when deciding what they want on a guitar.

MM: All of the above. A good number of our ESP Custom Shop customers are indeed professional recording/touring artists who’ve dreamed of a certain type of guitar or bass that best fit their style, musically and aesthetically. Some of the artists’ custom designs end up being made available on a more widespread basis with our ESP and LTD Signature Series. Other customers of the ESP Custom Shop do include people who are not professional musicians, but have a passion for guitar or bass and are willing to spend more to get the exact instrument they want.

JL: The customer of our Master Builders are collectors and professionals. They could be serious players who play only the finest instruments built by the finest brands, or collectors of museum­-quality art pieces.

Montefusco: We feel we attract several groups of customers for our custom guitars. There are the serious musicians who have developed their playing style to a point where further technical progress is possible by specifying architectural and performance modifications. These options may include bracing, nut width, scale length, or neck profile choices. We can offer these customers a custom guitar that will deliver personalized performance improvements without breaking the budget.

Other players want to showcase their personal expression through their guitar. They may want to combine inlays, bindings, and visual aspects from our standard models into a unique one­-off creation. They’re highly involved in designing their dream guitar, they have a healthy but not unlimited budget, and often they are celebrating an important milestone in life.

The third type of customer is not at all budget conscious and is accustomed to perfect playability, quality, and service. These players own several guitars and are looking for an instrument they haven’t encountered before. They appreciate fine tonewoods along with the hard work and stories connected to sourcing them. Perhaps most important, the level of service provided by the dealer must be exceptional. Dining options include professionally curated wine lists. Automotive choices incorporate beautiful showrooms, loaner cars, and pickup/drop off services. Higher­ end shopping malls offer valet parking, personal shopping assistants, and pet grooming. Why should their guitar-­buying journey be any different? In a time when many retailers are reporting lower foot traffic, the customer with the ability to significantly raise the average sale price becomes increasingly important. Deliver an experience that rivals their best restaurant, clothing store, or golf course and you’ll win their business.

TB: Well, this is a really good question. It’s all of those things, but what happens is, when you think about it: Why does somebody need a custom instrument? It’s about the experience that customers have when they are going through the exotic wood library that we have. We are going to build a guitar, let’s say, out of Sapele, but then the customer starts looking at this very beautiful piece of Cocobolo and all of a sudden, they are following up with one and that connection just happens. I don’t know – it’s not always sound related as much as visuals.

To me, it’s just people realizing they are creating art. Yes, it’s a musical instrument, but it’s going to reflect their personality by the appearance of the wood they chose, the design work that they decided that they wanted to have, and they fall in love with the whole process of creating something very special.

For your brand, what’s currently the best selling custom shop model or body type?

MM: Per our previous responses, all ESP Customs are individual creations in varying degrees, so it’s not really possible to mention a specific model. The ESP Eclipse, which is a single­-cutaway body, is consistently one of the most popular shapes that customers use as a starting point to create their customs, and the Horizon Series and M Series are also often chosen.

TB: Okay, so based on the credentials it would generally be the Concert body shape.

Although, we just did a new body shape, called the Concerto, and in the past two months over half of our custom shop orders have been based on that, so that’s been a surprise.

PRS: A significant percentage of our Private Stock orders are custom versions of our McCarty 594 model, which is a vintage­ inspired instrument.

Montefusco: We’re seeing smaller­-bodied guitars dominating. The custom guitar buyer is either replicating something from their past or filling their collection with the guitar they don’t have. Most players do not own an extensive assortment of comfortable, compact guitars. Our Grand Concert body shape is the perfect musical companion for the nightly living room performance.

FG: Since each custom is unique instrument that is a hard question. The most popular platform is a dreadnaught shape with some choice of exotic rosewood for back and sides. The 1937 D28 Authentic which is built in our Custom Shop is the most popular single model.

JL: We really don’t have a “best­selling” Master Builder model. Our master luthier works with each customer to customize his/her guitar. Often times, it is based on a John D’Angelico original – whether it’s a New Yorker, Excel, or another traditional arch-top. Each customer’s individual specifications tend to change the build of the guitar, so that each model is unique.

ML: What you’ll see a lot of in the shop are personalized pieces of Fender history. Players will start with a model from a certain year and customize it to their own taste or need. Our Artist Signature models have always been a hit – from Clapton to Hendrix – and our customers know they can come to us for the best relic guitars.

Do you have any upcoming or recent custom introductions or developments you’d like to share?

PRS: We made one hundred John Mayer Super Eagles in Private Stock, which were all sold immediately after they were announced. I look forward to more of that in the future where the PS team can apply their craftsmanship on a larger scale.

Montefusco: Last year we piloted a program allowing our dealers to design and stock smaller runs of custom instruments. We’re going to develop this further. With an easily digestible option range, the retail pricing falls within the boundaries of our standard model lineup. This offers the dealer the ability to differentiate inventory and create exclusive customized instruments. Many players just look for an excuse to purchase their next guitar; exclusivity is a great reason.

FG: The D­200 which is based on the custom instrument we built to celebrate our 2,000,000 instrument is an incredible guitar. They come with a custom RGM watch and retail for around $150,000. We are also building our first aged guitar, a 1937 D­28 Authentic.

TB: I think the Sound Profiling we were discussing earlier is a huge breakthrough.

We can take, for example, three sets of Sitka – all the same species – and tap on them and you will see completely different curves in terms of the frequency response and it just demonstrates the uniqueness of every piece of wood. Just like your own kids are all unique, every piece of wood is, as well. It just adds to the individuality or the connectivity that a person has with his or her instrument. That’s in addition to the way the guitar is going to look and the way it’s going to be finished and all the rest, so there is a connection that makes it so much fun to do.

ML: Most recently, as part of our 30th anniversary celebration, we introduced what we call Founders Design. This included inviting eight of the original Custom Shop Founding Master Builders to come back and design their dream guitars – all built by the Shop – for players and collectors. What came of it are eight amazing guitar designs, each in the distinct style of the individual Founding Master Builder – as obvious as a Picasso or Monet! The shop will build 30 of each design to be released each month starting in March through October 2017.

MM: Our ESP USA Series, which are built at our facility in Southern California, has recently started a “Made Your Way” program. While not a custom shop per se, we are allowing customers to choose among a selection of body shapes, woods, finish colors and styles, and pickup types. We work with our dealers so that customers can place the ESP USA orders through them.

JL: We have recently begun working with a new master luthier whom we are tremendously excited to be building guitars with. The first of his models will be completed in the coming months.

Finally, what are your expectations for sales of these types of guitars in the coming months?

JL: As mentioned previously, the demand has increased for our Master Builders in the last few years. Sales may increase, but production will most likely not. If we increase production, we run the risk of quality and uniqueness suffering, and we will not allow that for these instruments. The Master Builder Series is an homage to our roots, which are of the utmost importance to our brand.

 MM: ESP has such a long history of building custom guitars and basses that it’s always going to be part of what we do and who we are. Orders for instruments from our Japan-­based ESP Custom Shop are generally steady throughout the year, and we anticipate that the ESP USA facility will be building more and more guitars that are based on the personalized orders of individual customers over the course of 2017.

Montefusco: Each year we examine our custom guitar business and work to enhance the programs we offer. The guitar­ building world is constantly and increasingly challenged, especially when it comes to sourcing exotic raw materials. 2017 will see us adding tonewood options, aesthetic choices, and enhancements to the consumer facing materials we offer. We’ll maintain our commitment to responsible forestry and quality business while continuing to help players navigate the buying experience. We’re looking forward to making custom instruments an even larger part of Taylor Guitars in 2017.

FG: We are only making 50 of the aged D­28 Authentics in 2017. They sold out immediately upon introduction at the January NAMM show. We are also only making 50 of the D­200’s however there is no time frame regarding availability. Sales were strong. Given the price we anticipate it will take several years to sell all 50.

TB: Yeah, there has been kind of a turn in interest. I don’t know why. It seems there is more demand than in the last few years.

PRS: With a year backorder in Private Stock, my current expectations are more about making the guitars than about getting more orders. Our builders are focusing on fulfilling orders while applying experienced attention to detail, skill and passion to make sure each and every PS instrument dearly pleases these special customers. Paul Miles, PRS Director of Private Stock, and I personally play and sign every Private Stock guitar before it leaves PRS as a final check that we’ve all done our job. I get a lot of joy in handing a great guitar back to the team and seeing that guitar head out the door to the dealer.



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