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The benefits of bespoke: Why custom-built guitars are good value for money

Feline Guitars’ Tiger Supreme custom build.

In case you haven't noticed – boutique is in. Small, hip record labels, artisan bakers, independent cinema and bespoke tailoring are all reportedly thriving (although, for a certain class of gentleman, the latter has always been the preferred option). The MI industry has been increasingly following this trend too in recent years, perhaps most noticeably in the areas of FX pedal and amp manufacturing.

It is both surprising and pleasing that small makers can survive and compete in this age of worldwide markets and mass production and the demand for handmade products seems to have even spurred some of the bigger names to offer a similar service. Hence, we have seen the rise of the Custom Shop- specialist divisions dedicated to limited production runs of exclusive instruments or one off customer orders made to individual specifications.

Both Fender and Gibson, for example, currently offer this service in the form of the Masterbuilt and Made To Measure schemes respectively, but it obviously comes at a price. A custom built Strat or Telecaster will cost you around £4,000-£5,000, while a Les Paul made to your tastes is reportedly around $7,000 (which is almost £5,600 at the time of writing).

However, the biggest brand names in the business are not the only options for musician looking for the quality, playability and unique personality that a custom instrument can provide. The UK has a number of luthiers offering a bespoke service.
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Feline Guitars, based in Croydon, is a good example. This year, the company celebrates its 25th year in business and as Jonathan Law, the owner of Feline, explains, a custom build from a smaller maker is an option that can often either save you money on an equivalent instrument from the big players or make it go much further.

“If someone wanted a twin humbucker, single cutaway guitar (from me) they would be looking at somewhere between £2,800 and £4,000, depending on the choice of woods and features,” he says “But if someone came with six grand in their pocket and said to me 'what can you do for that?' I can allow the customer full carte blanche, rather than just ticking choice A, B or C. Because a lot of the Custom Shops allow you twenty or thirty choices of features but they are only minor variations on each other. Whereas if you want it to fit your hand, I can make it fit your hand.”

So, although a custom built instrument is an indulgence it would seem that it can also be, in a strange way, good value for money. But with the amount of choice out there among factory built guitars, what kind of person is ordering a personalised instrument? What would lead someone to a point where a custom build is the answer to what they are looking for?

“It can be a number of reasons, I think some people like the idea of dealing with one specialist, one individual who oversees the project from beginning to end. Often it can be the kind of person who can't find what they want off the shelf, who has struggled to find exactly what they are looking for. They have bought many guitars and sold them on and still not found something that is right, the weight, the fit, the shape of the neck or a combination of features. They like some features from this brand, a couple of features from that brand, or some combination of features that they have never seen put together in one place, so sometimes you are trying to make that happen.”

Speaking to recently, UK maker Mark Bailey of Bailey Guitars would seem to agree and remarked that “an ‘off the shelf’ job might just fit you perfectly and suit your style but they are made for the masses, so there is normally a compromise to be made somewhere along the line”. However, once you have all the perks that go along with a top-notch luthier putting care and attention into building a great guitar to your demands, does the lack of a big name on the headstock actually affect its value on the marketplace? Jonathan Law doesn't think that is an issue.

“Well, we don't build down to a price we build up to a spec,” he says. “And I think with an instrument that's made to measure – provided that you get it right – you tend to find that guitar becomes a keeper. Often a lot of bespoke instruments don't hit the secondary market not because there is no resale value but more because the player actually still likes the guitar and it fits them.”

With a long list of satisfied customers (and a total absence of negative remarks on any online guitar forum that I can find) I wondered if Jonathan had ever been tempted to try to take Feline Guitars into the bigger leagues?

“There has sometimes been talk of it but I've just decided that I didn't want that. When you become successful you find yourself in the office and not in the workshop with the lovely woods and the nice tools. You are on the phone, in meetings, talking to the bank manager and away from the workbench and the customers and that's not why I got into it. Guitar making is still somewhere between a hobby and a passionate enterprise for me. I have chosen to become a respected small brand and in some ways that has worked better for me because I still care about what I do and if I didn't get to care about what I did then it wouldn't be right. I'm happier caring about the instruments I'm making rather than it just becoming a job.”

So, if a custom built instrument is the right tool to inspire creativity, then it seems that it is not just the player (and presumably the listener) who benefits. It’s a symbiotic relationship that would appear to enable the builder to indulge in his craftsmanship to a pleasurable degree as well. Plus, you can add supporting a local cottage industry to the list of advantages too. The only possible downside, as Jonathan Law points out, is the personal touch can lead to a personal attachment to the instruments he builds, which sometimes makes delivering them to their new owner an occasion tinged with a slight sadness.

“If you've done your job right,” he says with a rueful smile “every guitar is difficult to part with...but in a good way!”

Adi Vines has worked as a professional guitar technician since the late 1980s. He is also a part time musician and former contributor to the UK's 'Guitar & Bass' magazine.

Main image: Feline Guitars’ Tiger Supreme custom build.

Tags: guitars , boutique , Opinion , Adi Vines , benefits of bespoke , bespoke guitars , custom built guitars , custom building

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