Since I am that way inclined, I've given myself this little space to rant and rave about all that is good and evil in the world of guitar making. I'll edjamacate you on this and that and give you a few hints about the lies that guitar shops and magazines tell you to in their efforts to get your money.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you make me an exact copy of a Gibson but for half the price? Yeah, sure I can. But I won't. If you really want a Gibson or Fender, the best thing you can do is stump up the cash and get one. However, if you want to proudly own an Ash, Radian or Customworks guitar, you've come to the right place. I'm not here to make cheap copies of big names, I'm here to create new and amazing instruments, hand crafted fine tuned to YOUR needs.
How much for a setup and what gets done? Guitar setup is a routine maintenance process intended to keep your instrument in top playing form and prevent unnecessary wear or degradation. A standard setup for all types of guitar is $80 plus strings. Strings should be changed during the setup unless they are fairly new. You can supply your own strings if you have a particular brand preference, or I can supply strings in your preferred gauge. The setup involves basically cleaning everything cleanable (pots/switches, the body/neck finish, fretboard etc) and adjusting everything adjustable (nut, trussrod, action, intonation, pickups, screws, tuners etc). Of course a string change and tune up is in there too. You can specify your preferences, or I can assess your playing style and needs to get the best out of the instrument. If there are aspects of your guitar that need further attention or could be improved, I'll let you know what those things are and what can be done about it.
What doesn't get done in a setup? I don't usually do any finish repairs, fretwork, neck fitting or parts replacement as part of a setup. Some luthiers will use those things as an excuse to charge twice what I do. I say those things are one-off tasks, not part of any routine maintenance. You shouldn't be subsidising other people's fretwork when your guitar doesn't need it. If you do need those things, we can discuss your options before work commences or whenever the need is discovered.
How often is a setup needed? It depends on how much you play and how often you change your strings. Filthy guitars with filthy strings wear out quicker. In an ideal world you'd get your guitar setup as soon as you get it (because not all shops or manufacturers really know half the things they think they do about guitar setup) and then every six months or so. This takes care of the rubbish shop-setup, the filthy strings and fretboard crud from every bozo in the shop playing it. And six monthly setups account for atmospheric effects and normal wear. In reality, most guitars don't need that much attention and a setup once a year or just whenever things don't seem quite right is plenty.
What is the best hardware brand for my guitar? There are lots of brands of guitar hardware (tuners, bridges, trems etc) out there, but Gotoh stands out above all the rest. Gotoh is a Japanese company that started out making cheap copies of American and German machineheads and bridges. While the other manufacturers have remained static or moved production to China, Gotoh's quality control, machining and design has improved beyond belief. Since 2002 when they re-engineered the whole machinehead range, Gotoh's have been without doubt the best available in terms of look, feel, lifespan, string life, tuning stability, price, everything. While I often get requests for and can supply Sperzels, Schallers and others, I'm afraid these makers are left in the dust these days. I almost don't know why people still use some brands at double the price and half the life of SG series Gotohs. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of Korean and Chinese made Gotoh copy brands like Sung-Il, Jin-Ho, Grover and Wilkinson. These are the machineheads on 90% of guitars made like Ibanez, Cort, Martin, ESP, Jackson, Fender et al. They tend to look alot like Gotohs and unfortunately people assume they are. While they aren't 'bad' machineheads, they just don't last, stay in tune or feel the same. For example, from what I've seen coming through my workshop, under weekly gigging use you can expect Korean machineheads to last 5-10 years before the bushes wear out and fall off. With Chinese ones, its usually a knock against a cymbal or something that breaks the internal gear off the shaft within 6 months to 5 years. Same with older American made Grovers and Klusons, 5-10 years max. Schallers, Sperzels and older Gotohs can do 10-20 years of regular gigging before getting sloppy, plating bubbles up, bushes wear out. I fully expect that the latest Gotohs can survive 15-25 years of band life thanks to the high tolerance machining, ceramic coated gears and ceramic lubes used. Of course if you only play at home once a month, they'll last alot longer. If you're a pro player working every day, probably much less. It pays to have gear that isn't going to let you down when you least need it. New kind on the block for me is Hipshot. I've been using their bridges and locking tuners more and more lately and really like them. Their advantage over Gotoh locking tuners is the easier to use locking mechanism. Similar price and almost-as-good life-span makes them a great option.
What pickups do you use? I recommend several brands for various reasons. Top of the list is Dimarzio: Great range (not just metal or shredder pickups, take a closer look), readily available, consistently good prices, easy to find the right one for your needs. Next is Rio Grande: Smaller selection of models and can be harder to get in stock, but they are seriously high quality pickups and the standard ones are very well priced too. Seymour Duncan: huge range with lots of resources to help you find the right one. Bareknuckle: Top quality pickups, these are the real deal. They're pricey, but worth it. Ash Custom Wound: I'm producing a limited volume of custom wound humbuckers, strat singlecoils and P90s to suit particular projects like the Radian range and others. Results so far have been fantastic! Drop me a line to find out more.
What's the difference between Radian, Ash and Customworks guitars? Ash Customworks makes three guitar brands; Ash, Radian and Customworks. Ash guitars are original designs based on the combinations of specs and features that most players enjoy. You may be able to recognise them as modern interpretations of the classic guitar types. They feature the best quality parts and materials available and incorporate design features that put them a few steps ahead of the classic designs in feel, access, style, lifespan and practicality.
Radian guitars are workhorse guitars based on the classic designs like Strats, Teles, Jazzmasters and P-Basses. While there are Ash custom guitars that cover those same bases, the difference is in price, finish and options. Ash guitars are handmade entirely in NZ and are fitted only with hardware that meets our top quality criteria. Radian guitars use Japanese made necks and usually Korean hardware on a NZ made body with limited options. Ash = no compromise. Radian = best value for most functionalityFinally the newest brand - Customworks. in between Ash and Radian there is a space where people can dream up their own fantasy guitar to suit their needs and budget. Customworks is the brand applied to those jobs. No restrictions on design, options, finish, hardware. Just no fakes!! You can have no logo, your own logo or a Customworks logo on the headstock. Clones of vintage guitars, legendary instruments, futuristic or artisitic one-off designs, you name it.
What is your favourite colour? Blue. No, Yellow!
How long does it take to make a guitar? It depends on the design and the workload, but the standard estimate is 9-12 months for a custom guitar, 6-9 Months for a standard Ash guitar or 1-3 months for a Radian. These are only estimates though and they can take longer. Some of the tougher custom jobs have been taking over 12 months. I hate taking that long to build a guitar, but it beats the hell out of releasing something too early and it being less than perfect.
Can I have a job, be your apprentice, watch you build etc? No, sorry. It turns out I'm a terrible teacher, a nightmare boss and unable to organise anyone more than myself. I get people asking this all the time, but it always works out that more time gets wasted, less work gets done, everything costs more. If you want to learn guitar building, the best way is to research until you have no more questions and then build something. I'm happy to provide parts, materials and advice to anyone keen to have a go. if you can prove yourself with your own initiative, you stand a much better chance of getting an opportunity.
How long have you been building guitars and how did you get into it? I built my first 'stringed instrument' in about 1984. I called it a guitar, but it was really more of a cross between a banjo and a ukulele. In 1987 I designed a hollowbody electric, but never finished it. In 1992 after seeing an article on guitars in Craccum magazine, I built my first real electric guitar in conjunction with a university acoustics project. I got an A for the project and a pretty awesome flame-topped telecaster, which still hangs on my wall at home. For the next six years or so I built guitars for friends and few for myself and the rest to sell. After returning to University to complete a Mechanical Engineering degree I resumed building in a fully professional capacity and Ash Customworks was born.
What are the exotic materials used in ASH instruments?
Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) has been the foundation of the best in solidbody guitar design since 1952. Peruvian, Bolivian, Brazilian and Honduran Mahogany are now virtually unobtainable by legal and ecologically responsible channels, so the only fair sources are recycled and stockpiled wood. There are several large volume guitar manufacturers who claim to be using South American mahogany, leading one to assume that they are either not using real Mahogany or are obtaining it illegally. One big name brags about the Forest Stewardship Certified wood they use on special instruments, but neglect to mention that the rest are made from 'pretend-mahogany' which probably shouldn't have been cut in the first place. There is however, some reprise to those who wish to play instruments crafted from the ultimate tonewood. There are now small volumes of genuine mahogany legally and sustainably available from trial plantations in other regions. Ash Customworks uses plantation grown Mahogany, seeded from old growth swietenia macrophylla of Northern British Honduras. Plus I still have a few bits of outstanding recycled and stashed Honduran mahogany from the good old days. Call soon to claim some for your build!
Maple (Acer spp.) One of the most versatile and capable woods in the world, American Rock Maple (acer saccharum) is immensly strong and stiff - just the thing for guitar and bass necks. For beautiful figured tops, Western Bigleaf Maple (acer saccharinum) has a wonderful habit of growing with an unbeatably beautiful quilted figure. I usually use hard maple from Pennsylvania, where it is grown on plantations for maple syrup. I even found a syrup tap buried inside one piece!
Rosewood(Dalbergia Spp.) is another of the now rare South American sourced timbers which is only available by illegal and irresponsible means. Even East Indian Rosewood is becoming unobtainable, but I've had the enormous fortune to find a large local stash of gorgeous timber that was imported in the '70s. I use it for fretboards, solid rosewood necks and bodies. True Rosewood is remarkably hard and durable with a dark chocolatle colour and a sweet fragrance when cut. Many of the timbers labelled as rosewood (much like mahogany) are not even slightly related to the real thing. Often the best you can expect is a dark colour and maybe a fragrance, although sometime the fragrance is more akin to cat piss than roses. The exotic timber industry is littered with liars and conmen. Beware!
Narra (pterocarpus indicus) is a favourite of the aforementioned timber industry conmen. it is marketed as Rosewood locally, even though it bears no resemblance and smells like... you know. It is however a fine choice for bodies and necks with glorious Koa-esque tones and shimmering amber grain. Some harder peices have streaks of blood red amongst the amber and pink. A bit more delicate, bright and airy sounding than good mahogany. Less grit in the mids, crisper tops and amazing clarity.
Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) is an Australian Eucalypt which exibits hardness and durability along with a bold red/brown colour that makes it an acceptable fretboard and neck wood. Rarely used, but I have some very special recycled curly Jarrah reserved for custom instruments.
Cedrella (Cedrella Odorata) Literally, stinky cedar... Well, its more fragrant than stinky and more mahogany than cedar. This is one of the species falsely marketed as mahogany by some of the big names in guitar manufacturing. Not that its a bad wood, in fact its quite marvellous... but lets be straight, Cedrella may be a Meliacae, but that doesn't make it Mahogany. Cedrella has a beautifully sweet aroma and it sounds like it smells. A little brighter than real mahogany and usually lighter in weight and colour. Sometime has the most gorgeous satiny 3-d figure. Used for classical guitar necks and cigar humidors for centuries. Now used for beautiful guitar tone where warmth, depth and resonance are called for.
Ash (Fraxinus spp.) is another of the traditionally desirable timbers for electric guitar building. Swamp ash fraxinus caroliniana from wet ground for guitars and White Ash fraxinus americana for bass guitars makes for a beautifully strong grained look with the traditional clear sound. Swamp ash is very expensive here as it has to be imported in pre machined blanks, but hard ash substitutes well where the weight can be mitigated for a scooped metal wail or when hollowed out, the crispest thinline tele you ever heard.
Rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) grows only in New Zealand and is the subject of continued controversy as a result of its protected tree status and its prized heart wood in the furniture industry. Large quantities have been milled over the last two hundred years, and quantities of recovered timber is available which has been seasoning inside the structure of old houses for up to 100 years. Most ordinary Rimu makes for a poor tonewood, but occasionally superb resonant heart pieces are found for the Katipo special edition instruments.
Kauri (Agathis australis) is the most prized of New Zealand indigenous timbers. The massive Kauri tree yields a fine grained golden timber which has been in high demand since the 18th century. NZ Kauri only grows in the far North of NZ and like many of the other indigenous species, cannot be felled or exported without a licence. Common golden coloured kauri is the more usual glowing, lustrous grain for a strong, snarling sound. Swamp kauri is the result of many thousands of years of anaerobic preservation. Kauri stumps up to 40,000 years old can be found buried and perfectly preserved in peat bogs where the mangled and distorted wood takes on a glittering golden lustre unlike any other material. Kauri has been compared to Alder in tone, but I think it has a more aggressive, snarly, singing tone without the middy honk of Alder.
Fiji Kauri (Agathis vitensis) is the Pacific Island cousin of NZ Kauri and the SE Asian Agathis often used in Korean made instruments. The Pacific grown wood is vastly superior to the Asian species but not quite the same in sound or appearance as the NZ species. Fiji Kauri has a sparkly golden texture often with pinkish-tan stripes and a sound in the same ballpark as US Alder but again, with less honk and more song.
Puriri (Vitex lucens) is another New Zealand native tree and has a remarkable grey/brown colour along with excellent toughness. Puriri is good for a lighter coloured fretboard, and makes a superb neck. Historically Puriri has been plundered for ground contact uses like piling and fencing, and now it is recycling of these old seasoned pieces that provides the nicest examples of this protected timber. Private plantation stocks are also chosen for custom instruments and the special edition models.
Padauk is the nearest relative to Narra and is a striking bright orange when fresh, aging to a nice russet brown colour when exposed to light and air. This African grown timber is fairly hard and has a bright resonant tone. Padauk is a nice fretboard and accent wood as used in many Ash instruments. Sounds like glassy rosewood, so needs to be matched with mellow body and neck woods.
Merbau is another of the great new alternatives to the traditional luthiery species. Merbau is a South Asian and Pacific Island timber which is very hard and dark brown in colour. It has a rich bright ringing tone somewhere between rosewood and ebony and is one of the most stable timbers in the world. These features and the fact it is readily available quarter sawn make it perfect for necks and fretboards, although requires great care during machining. Merbau supplies have been strongly questioned on environmental grounds, so will only be used in future where ecologically sustainable supply can be established.
Paua (Haliotis iris) is a New Zealand shellfish closely related to Abalone. The big difference is that Paua is very rare and exhibit almost holographic and luminescent shades of blue and green in its shell. Paua is strictly protected and can only be obtained by snorkelling, so full shells are in limited supply and are only used in premiere instruments.
Finishing materials used on Ash and Radian guitars include Acid Catalysed lacquer, Nitrocellulose lacquer, and custom mixed natural oils and waxes. AC lacquer is the standard choice and comes in high gloss and satin. It is a mix of old fashioned nitro lacquer and more modern resins and solvents which give it gloss and toughness well beyond what nitro can deliver. Its also much faster and easier to work with and emits far less than 1/3 of the volume of noxious vapours during application. For those who insist on Nitro lacquer, I can spray pure, old fashioned nitro as required for the appropriate upcharge. Certain suitable woods can be finished with my own custom mix of natural oils and waxes for a gloriously sensual playing surface. A degree of owner maintenance is expected with oiled/waxed instruments to keep them looking and feeling their best.
Is your wood from ecologically sustainable sources?
Ashcustomworks selects guitar wood from ecologically responsible sources in order to minimise any negative effect on the natural forests from which our most prized species originate. Mahogany, for example usually comes from island plantations, maple from sustainably managed forests and NZ natives, Honduras mahogany & rosewood from salvaged logs and recycled planks. The use of recycled wood and recovered logs has musical benefits in that these woods are perfectly aged and seasoned far beyond what is commercially viable for big factories, potentially giving unsurpassed tonal qualities when used for guitars. Beware of manufacturers who boast Brazilian Rosewood and Honduras mahogany, as unless they have extensive old stocks they could either be lying about the species, the origins of their materials or they are obtaining it through illegal and irresponsible channels. If in doubt, ask if they even know where their wood grew! We all have a responsibility to make sure that our arts have minimal impact on the truly important aspects of this world. Even your most prized guitar means nothing compared to maintaining the integrity of our environment.
What is the design philosophy behind ASH instruments?
Probably the first thing that comes to mind when looking at ASH guitars is 'Oh, another bunch of PRS copies"! Quite frankly, the answer to that statement has to be "Yes....and No". The lineage of the Aurum and Heilo models is quite clearly from the PRS designs, which like original Hamers, copied the Les Paul Junior and Rickenbacker 600 series and so-on. There really is nothing new under the Sun!
The design philosophy of our instruments recognises the fact that good old Leo got things pretty right 50 years ago and people like Mr. Smith and many others managed
to refine the guitar to the edge of perfection. Only personal taste
and specific customisation can improve on such a great set of ancestors. The trick is
that personal tastes can take us a long way from the classic guitar designs and every change
matters. The Ash Customworks line-up is formulated to cover all the usual bases with scope for massive customisation and when that is not enough, we can work together to start from scratch and create something truly unique.
Similarly in the bass guitar side of things, a resemblance to classic instruments is obvious (obvious to me anyway!). The same rules apply - famous designs have been around since the '50s and more modern ones since the '70s for a reason... because they work! There's little sense trying to reinvent the wheel when you can get outstanding results by making targetted improvements in the instrument designs everyone is familar and comfortable with. Some players will of course be happy to stick with the same old plank and be quite satisfied. My job here isn't to recreate the same old plank, though. For players who find the usual off-the-shelf offerings a little lacking in some department, I'm here to produce an instrument that doesn't leave you with nagging doubts or thoughts of "its quite good, but I wish this was a bit different".
The two fundamental aspects of any design are form and function. How it looks and how it works. Some poor misguided souls try to design to form and make function a secondary consideration. But as the old saying goes, "Form will always follow function". The solution that works best is very often the most beautiful. Take a look at the work of Mother Nature if you have any doubt about that! Making life difficult and yet so interesting for the guitar designer is the fact that form and function are inextricably linked. Aspects such as body shape, finish and materials all have a fundamental impact on the looks, the sound and the playing of an instrument - any change to one will invariably affect the others. Luckily, there are a number of materials and shapes which possess beauty and practicality combined for the perfect guitar or bass.
This is somewhat illustrated by the fact that the best of the two different instruments, guitar and bass guitar often use different combinations of shape and materials. Some combinations work for one, but not the other. Another thing to note is that several of the traditional materials also happen to be readily abundant in the area where solid body electric guitars were invented. Thats is not entirely co-incidental, but it is also not strictly linked. Leo Fender didn't use Ash and Maple because it made a great distorted rock sound, he used it because it was cheap and plentiful. The fact of the matter is that those great distorted rock sounds evolved *because* the guitars happened to be made of those woods.
Ash Customworks' main designs combine the best aspects of these material combinations with body and neck shapes that offer particular benefits in appearance and playability. A carved top for example, not only looks fantastic under lights, but allows for a balance of body mass and neck angle that helps the guitar hang on the strap nicely, where your arm wants to be and without crushing your shoulder. Now don't go assuming that carved tops have some magical properties that affect your shoulder strength! Its just a matter of wood removed from where it wasn't needed and the way the neck is usually aligned. This is something you don't even notice until you go back to a flat guitar after a long time.
Other small features common to all ASH instruments have a cumulative effect on the playability and sound of the guitars. Straight string pull between the nut and tuners, the use of solid lubricated Graphtech nut material, locking tuners matched with the VS100 tremolo bridge, dual action truss rods and perhaps most importantly, the careful selection and proper drying of the wood used in construction. In some respects it is best to have the driest wood possible in your musical instrument, but the ambient humidity and several other factors will always conspire to complicate the matter. If the wood in your guitar is drier or wetter than the air it lives in, there is a good chance the wood will exchange some of that moisture and change shape slightly, playing havoc with tuning stability, neck straightness and sometimes cracking the finish along seams. Extensive seasoning, appropriate drying and special techniques like submerged seasoning (usually accidental!) and pitch setting will make the difference between a good guitar and a really great one. Unfortunately these things take time (as any good cheese-maker will know). And that means the process of custom-building a guitar takes a long time. Proper resting and acclimatisation of wooden parts between manufacturing stages is what accounts for 70% or more of the 6-12 months it takes to complete a guitar.
When all these aspects of creating a new instrument are taken care of, all that remains is to attend to the decisions that affect its visual appeal. Rather than offer a range of colours you don't like that much, each model is given a few colours that best fits its character, and the option for a buyer to choose any colour we can find, with any type of finish and any other customisation options they want. The wood selected for each model usually decides for itself which colours to use, and mostly that is to use a clear finish, especially on the back. The top of your guitar is part of your stage presence, so the natural wood can benefit from the grain enhancing properties of NGR colour dyes under the gloss or Satin lacquer.
The choice of finish type; lacquer or oil/wax, gloss or matte is another integrated decision and with each model it is related to the character, materials and contours of the instrument. My preferred finishing system is to spray gloss lacquer on the top only and have the back and neck of the gitar done in vey thin matte or satin lacquer. There are a couple of reasons for this; it looks great, the satin neck feels wonderful, the matte back of the body seems to take more punishment from belt-buckles and real-life use, the thinner matte finish has far less dampening effect on tone than a deep glossy coating, and from a production point of view, its much easier, faster and more reliable than trying to finish and polish an entire guitar full of nooks and crannies to a mirror gloss. This method works best on the carved top designs and bodies with a fairly square or bound or edge. Bolt-on designs like Supra, Coden and Safon are generally all satin or all gloss. Polishing a body alone is far easier anyway!
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