When I was 18, before my move to Ottawa from Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, to study music at Carleton University, I decided to upgrade my main guitar to something special. Something that was just for me.
I visited the Sudbury, Ontario shop of the late René Roy, an extraordinary luthier who built custom electric, acoustic and bass guitars. I laid down my hard-earned cash, told him the specs I wanted (body shape, woods, bridge, pickups, etc.) and listened to his suggestions as well. After a few months, I got my guitar.
It was glorious! It was one-of-a-kind! It was mine!
While I was lucky enough to get myself something built by a great guitar maker, others may not have the means for such a project. Thankfully there are other ways to get that dream guitar of yours.
Option one - Modifying your existing instrument
This may seem less like “custom” and more like “customize”, but if you have a guitar whose body and neck are to your liking, why not customize it?
These days, guitarists seem to be presented with limitless options for pickups, wiring harnesses, tuning machines, nuts, fret wire, and every other component under the sun. There is also no shortage of reviews and demo videos for many of these, making the consumer way more informed than in the past.
With all these options, finding new and better components for your present instrument is easy. Go ahead and swap those pickups for something different, replace those tuners that seem to be loose, and add that TUSQ nut. Try a different wiring scheme or drop in a pre-wired harness. Don’t like it? Put the old parts back and sell the components to fund the next attempt.
Some may think though that this truly isn’t a custom instrument, to which I say poppycock! Some of the most iconic instruments, from Billy Sheehan’s original P-Bass, to Brent Mason’s famous three-pickup Telecaster, were all the result of a player taking an instrument and improving it to suit their needs.
Another advantage is that you can take your time modifying an instrument, purchasing a part here, and a pickup there, as money is available. In the meantime, you still have a great instrument to play with.
Option two - Building a guitar with parts from a manufacturer
Let’s say that you prefer to get something a bit more to your liking. Maybe a guitar with a particular finish? Maybe a neck made with certain woods? Don’t have a king’s fortune? Maybe building a guitar with custom parts is for you.
Several companies offer custom-made parts (particularly bodies and necks) in a variety of woods, finishes, shapes, etc. the (arguably) most popular of these companies being Warmoth Guitars. While these can certainly replace parts on an existing guitar (a snapped neck, for example), you can build the guitar of your dreams with these parts.
Want a T-style body made of basswood with a maple top and a roasted neck in transparent purple? Go ahead! What about an all-mahogany S-style electric? Sure! Do you want it routed for a certain bridge and pickup configuration? Go ahead!
It is easy to get option paralysis when it comes to woods, neck shape, etc; considering that you’re dropping your money, you do want something that will sound the way you want. To help you choose, consider these tips:
Price-wise, it is possible to save some money by buying the parts for your dream guitar. You can certainly create something that will be pretty darn close to more expensive and similar instruments from other name companies. Quickly selecting a T-style body with a roasted flame maple neck and black pearloid pickguard came up to $1,071 before taxes and shipping. That also doesn’t include the rest of the hardware (pickups, switches, pots, jack, neck bolts, tuners, etc.) so you will have to budget accordingly.
You will have to put it together yourself though, so be ready to break out the tools. Depending on your level of skill, a trip to a luthier may be needed for a proper setup (at the very least), or to put the instrument together for you.
Option three - a custom build from a manufacturer or luthier
This is probably the most expensive option, but also quite desirable.
Whether it's the Fender or Gibson Custom Shops, a builder such as Novo Guitars out of Nashville or your local luthier or guitar builder, being able to tell someone exactly what you want and having it created for you is a great feeling.
When I had my guitar built by René Roy, I had some very specific ideas. What I wanted was the shape of a Peavey Wolfgang (this was 1998), with a neck-through design, Floyd Rose tremolo, a mahogany/curly maple combination for the body and a three-piece maple neck. The neck’s shape itself was taken from an acoustic guitar that he built and was on display at his shop. He made some suggestions about the fretboard (ebony) and the pickups (APC humbuckers with coil taps). After giving him the deposit, he went to work and a few months later, I had MY guitar. Adjusted for inflation from 1998, the guitar would run around $2,500 today, and he wasn’t the priciest builder out there!
René was also a bit of a unique guy in that he was open to a lot of ideas from his customers. Whether it was unique body shapes, neck profiles, wood combinations, etc. he did his best to accommodate his clients’ wishes. These I would call the truly custom builders.
Other shops like Novo Guitars create beautiful instruments for their customers. You will have to expect certain limitations however with shops like this (though it helps with the option paralysis). You can choose between Novo’s standard shapes, finishes, electronics and other items to tailor a guitar to your liking with prices starting around $3,000 with a minimum one-year wait time. Anything out of the ordinary for such shops may mean a few phone calls (and a few extra bucks) to see if anything out of the ordinary can be done, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
You also have the custom shops from the legacy builders (the Fenders and Gibsons of the world). With these, you are limited to really ordering a custom or ornate version of one of their guitars. These do come with a very wide price range; guitars from the Fender Custom Shop generally start between $2000 and $3000, going into the high $10,000 mark depending on Team Built vs Master Built, the model, the specs, etc. Wait times vary widely as well from a few months to a few years, again depending on what you want.
Just for you
We all want something to play that is as unique as the way we play. While a Master Built Fender Stratocaster may be out of reach for the majority of us, there’s more than one way to get the instrument we want. Whether you go custom or customize, you’ll ultimately end up with something one of a kind.
By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr
Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.