The Rise of Boutique Builders
Today as the major guitar manufacturers are falling on hard times, we are seeing the rise of a plethora of wonderful boutique builders. But this isn’t the first time we've seen this phenomena.
In the very late sixties and early 1970s, an appreciation for what we now call vintage guitars began to form. At that time, guitarists were looking for guitars manufactured in the golden decade of the 1950s. Guitar players were seeking high quality alternatives to the increasingly lower quality of Fender and Gibson guitars. CBS had acquired Fender in 1965 and Norlin took over Gibson in 1970. The resulting business strategy for both companies was focused more on profits than quality guitar building. The outcome were guitars that didn't come close to the build, fit, finish, and tone of their namesakes from the 1950s.
Early on, a few vintage guitar peddlers saw an opportunity to build their own higher quality guitars that could deliver the goods and roll with the changing times. They were Jol Dantzig and Paul Hamer who founded “Hamer Guitars" in 1973, and the “Boutique Builder” was born.
Today, there are more high-end boutique builders turning out truly magnificent instruments than ever before. And similar to the opportunity to fill the quality void that “Hamer” seized in the early 1970s, today’s boutique builders are also filling a quality void amongst the big-name manufacturers as they fall on hard financial times.
Driven by lower demand, higher cost materials, costly supply chains, endangered wood species, and the decline of guitar-based popular music, Gibson recently filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 2018, while Fender had to reverse its plans for a 2014 IPO due to mounting debt. These financial woes can also be found in the major distributor of these brands, Guitar Center, who finds themselves teetering on insolvency. And like most business situations, one company’s problems can create opportunity for others. Hence the rise of new builders who are offering great design, customization and build quality.
With the ever-rising prices of the big brand name guitars, the price/value gap is closing between the base models of these big brands and the offerings of smaller builders. Following the wake of trail-blazers like Hamer and Paul Reed Smith, the current class of boutique guitar makers includes the likes of Gene Baker, Johan Gustavsson, Joe Knaggs, Juha Ruokangas, Mike Shishkov, John Suhr, Tom Anderson, Charles Whitfill, Gil Yaron and many many more. So many more that it defies listing them all here. Literally hundreds. I know as I keep a list and it’s been impossible for me to keep up, as new ones are appearing all the time. And the industry is taking notice as well.
Beyond the brands recognizable to anyone who has ever worshipped at the altar of a rock god, NAMM touts a Boutique Guitar Showcase, where an international group of craftspeople shows off their best work. It has been growing year over year in terms of space and builders.
I’ve heard boutique builders referred to as being akin to haute couture; they are handmade and customized to the specifics of the player. Boutique builders are often one person shops or a small team of luthiers led by a Master Builder. At their most elaborate, they blur the line between instrument and art piece. And just as people collect art, I've been working on building a collection of amazing guitars by my favorite boutique builders. The best of the best. I call it the Master Builders Collection.
My current collection of Master Builders includes guitars by what I consider to be the cream of the guitar building crop around today; Jol Dantzig, Johan Gustavsson, Frank Scheucher and Bill Collings.
Few guitar builders have contributed more to the modern electric guitar and Rock and Roll than Jol Dantzig, who together with Paul Hamer, co-founded "Hamer Guitars" in 1974. He is perhaps best known for his unique guitar designs and builds for some of Rock and Roll's most famous artists including all four of The Beatles, three of The Rolling Stones and every member of The Pretenders, Def Leppard , The Police and Cheap Trick. Since leaving Hamer in 2010, Jol Dantzig says he enjoys doing what he likes best, building guitars by hand. Dantzig has built only 3 guitars completely by hand since 2011. The one I have in my collection called, “Hell's Half Acre” is one of them. With Hell's Half Acre Dantzig used cloth covered western wiring from Chicago's Hawthorne plant made in the 1930s, a vintage telephone switch from Central Labs made in the early '50s and vintage '38 bullet cartridges for the inlays on the fretboard. I really like his way of imbuing the build with vintage items to give the guitar soul.
Like Dantzig, Johan Gustavsson is considered one of the greatest guitar builders alive today. Living in Sweden, Johan makes all of his guitars 100% by hand with the best tone woods, aged mahogany, Brazilian Rosewood, hide glue, and amazing attention to detail. Many have described the Gustavsson Bluesmaster '59 as the Burst Buster due to it's quality and tone. Legendary Burst collector, Tom Wittrock says that Gustavsson's Bluesmaster '59 is the closest he's ever played to his best Bursts and that in many ways, it even surpasses them. My collection includes a Bluesmaster ’59. Made in 2006, this guitar is already 12 years old and sounds more like a vintage Les Paul from the late '50's. Johan's guitars are not just works of art but are incredible instruments that are meant to be cherish for a lifetime. This one is loaded with Wolftone Legends pickups with a Brazilian rosewood fingerboard.
Located south of Sweden in Speyer, Germany, Frank Scheucher, owner of Zerberus Guitars takes guitars built for metal music to a whole new level of quality, design and craftmanship. Frank uses unique materials including amazing aged tonewoods from local forests in Germany, and even has a line of guitars he calls “Gorganized” made from gem stones that have to be seen and heard to believe. And if his unique artistic designs and beautiful craftmanship were not enough, Frank also designs and builds all of the electronics including the pickups. I have two Zerberus guitars in my collection. The Chaimira is a sublime piece of design and engineering complete with his custom Kammerstein Quadrail Pickups. The Uriel is a one of kind build that is a beast for 7 string metal.
Returning to the U.S., we find the largest amount of Boutique Builders. One of the pioneers has become synonymous with excellence in both acoustic and electric guitar builds. Bill Collings, who comes from a long line of engineers has dedicated his skills to the guitar and is the founder and current owner of Collings Guitars. A bit larger than a one-man shop, Collings maintains a lazer focus on quality, fit, finish and tone. My collection includes a Collings CL Jazz. The Collings City Limits Jazz is the preeminent thin-bodied archtop guitar available today. Exquisitely crafted by hand from mahogany and European Spruce, the CL Jazz is known for its woody, balanced sound and plugged-in warmth. Whether comped chords or single-note melodies, the CL Jazz is capable of incredible dynamic sensitivity and projects with great clarity. Just one look at this guitar and you can see the quality oozing from its pores.
And like these amazing boutique builders, there are so many more that are worthy of mention. Stay tuned for more info on more great builders coming soon.