If you are thinking about buying a new guitar, it might be worth considering one of the many amazing custom built guitars out there.
When we talk about the best guitar brands for the blues – there are typically a few major brands on which we focus. Fender and Gibson are the most significant of these. Fender and Gibson guitars have been used by a countless number of the most famous blues guitarists of all time. And as such they are typically the first brands that spring to mind when we are talking about notable blues and blues rock guitars.
In more recent years, PRS have also become popular amongst blues players. John Mayer, Robben Ford and Joe Walsh are just three notable guitarists who are working with the brand and have their own Signature models.
These brands produce quality guitars that are brilliant for the blues. As such, opting for a guitar made by one of them will make a great addition to your rig. Having said that, these are just three of the many different brands out there. And depending on what you want – and the price range you have in mind – you might be better off looking at guitar brands that produce custom built guitars.
And that is what this article is all about. Here I will be covering the following:
So without further ado, let’s get into it. Here is everything you need to know about custom built guitars, as well as some of the best brands for the blues.
Guitar manufacturing processes
Before we look at some of the best custom built guitars out there, I think it is worth quickly running through exactly what they are, and how they compare to guitars made by mainstream brands. And to do this, we need to look at how guitars are produced.
In recent years, developments in manufacturing have allowed brands to produce guitars at increasingly cheaper price points. Guitars no longer need to be manufactured by hand, and instead are predominantly put together by machines.
Software programmes now create models for guitar companies to use during manufacturing. These models illustrate the dimensions of different guitar designs. The models are sent through to machines on the factory floor, which then cut blocks of wood into the shapes and dimensions specified by the software.
Machine involvement is not just limited to the body and neck of the guitar either. Machines are involved in fret dressing, as well as pickup winding and various other elements of the manufacturing process.
As you might expect, the mechanisation of guitar production has allowed manufacturers to produce instruments quicker and at a much lower costs than ever before. And this is one of the main reasons that we have seen a boom in the last few decades in the production of affordable guitars from brands like Squier and Epiphone.
Of course, there remains some human involvement in the manufacturing process. However not only is it much less compared with the early days of guitar production, it is also of a different kind.
Factory workers are now largely responsible for operating machines and assembling parts. They are less involved with some of the more intricate work traditionally undertaken by trained luthiers. This requires less technical skill from the workers involved, which again decreases the cost of production.
Custom built guitars
By comparison, custom built guitars are handmade. They are not created in large batches but instead are created one by one, often by an individual or a small team.
Custom guitar manufacturers still use machines. However they do so to assist them in some of the more physical operations involved in guitar production. This helps them to bring their design ideas to life without unnecessary and strenuous physical labour. It is not to mass produce guitars more quickly and cheaply.
The business model and philosophy of custom manufacturers is also a little different to mainstream brands. Custom guitar builders opt not to mechanise the manufacturing process. This increases both the cost and time it takes to build each guitar. As such, custom guitar builders tend to focus on quality, rather than price. They typically source only the best parts, and use materials of higher quality than those used by mainstream brands.
I am sure there are exceptions. However broadly speaking when you buy a custom built guitar, you are opting for a very high quality instrument.
The additional and key factor to note is that custom guitars are built to order. A truly custom guitar manufacturer will not have a ‘stock’ line of guitars. You can’t go into a custom builder and pick a guitar off the shelf. You have to order a guitar to be built to your particular specifications.
The benefits of custom built guitars
In my opinion, there are five main benefits of opting for a custom built guitar. And these are as follows:
Broadly speaking, the build quality of custom built guitars is superior to those that are mass made. Custom built guitars are handcrafted individually. This means that custom builders can pay greater attention to some of the finer details that go into manufacturing. This extends to all elements of manufacturing and typically results in an end product with a higher quality.
For a lot of players, one of the key benefits of custom built guitars is that they are different. Even when they are designed in the style of classic guitar shapes like Strats, Teles and Les Pauls, custom guitars stand out.
In many cases (as you will see below) custom built guitars have bold features that you typically don’t find with mainstream brands. And even if the differences aren’t glaringly obvious, there are often small touches that make the guitar look different.
In fact, depending on the brand, you can buy custom built guitars which are really very different. They come in radically different shapes and designs. And in some cases they are made of unusual and different materials too.
As such, if you are interested in individuality, then opting for a custom guitar could be a great choice.
As you might expect, one of the significant benefits of going down the custom route is that you can specify exactly how you want your prospective guitar to look, feel and function. Many builders give you a huge amount of choice. You can choose the type of wood used in the guitar, as well as the pickups, hardware and the shape and size of the neck, amongst a wide range of other factors.
As noted above, you can be radical in your choices if you so wish. So if you know what appeals to you as a player, and you can’t find it with the mainstream brands, opting for a custom guitar could be a brilliant choice.
Supporting small businesses
In my opinion, there is something very special and inspiring about custom guitar companies. They are often one or two person operations. You can speak directly to the person building your guitar. They can provide you with advice on what they think will work best for you and they can keep you updated during the process.
I love the blues and music because it allows you to connect with people. And opting for a custom guitar extends this connection to the instrument you use to express yourself. You play a small part in the production of your guitar, and are connected with a luthier or company who shares your same passion for music and the guitar. And I think that is very special.
As I will cover in more detail below, custom built guitars are typically in a high price bracket. That is not to say however that they are expensive. A lot of custom built guitars provide amazing value for money. Considering the amount of work that goes into their creation, many custom guitars are not nearly as expensive as you might expect. And I have seen many beautiful custom guitars that are only slightly more expensive than mass made models.
So if you are looking for a special guitar and you are more interested in value than price, opting for a custom built guitar could be a great option.
Is a custom built guitar right for you?
Despite the numerous benefits of custom built guitars, there are some drawbacks which are worth considering. The most significant of these are as follows:
As noted above, many boutique guitars offer great value for money. That does not mean however, that they are cheap. A lot more time and labour goes into their production than with mass produced guitars. This itself incurs a higher level of cost. And when you add to this the cost of premium woods, hardware and electronics, it all adds up. As such, in many cases, the prices of custom built guitars can be really quite high.
If you are looking to make an investment with your next guitar, then going down the custom route makes sense. However if you are more budget conscious, then I would recommend looking at mainstream brands.
Custom built guitars are made to order. They are made by hand, often by just one or two people. As you might expect, this extends the time between order and delivery. And this is often compounded by the fact that many of these companies are in high demand and have a waiting list.
As such, if you order a custom built guitar today, it might be some weeks or months before it even starts being built. The process of buying a custom built guitar from beginning to end is likely to be 6 months or more – depending on the luthier you choose and whether they have a long waiting list.
If you are not in a rush, then this isn’t a problem. But if you are looking for your next guitar to arrive quickly, then again I would recommend looking at mainstream or boutique guitars, rather than custom built guitars.
Similarly, arranging for the delivery of a custom built guitar is likely to be more challenging than one from a mainstream brand. You can’t just visit your local guitar store, or order online from a music store.
The brand that works best for you might be based in another country or continent. At worst, this could mean that delivery to your location isn’t possible. More likely, it will mean that you have to pay potentially heavy shipping costs, and wait longer before receiving your guitar.
These are not insurmountable challenges. However they do certainly add to the ‘hassle’ of buying a custom guitar. You cannot just walk into your local guitar store and walk out with a brand new instrument on the same day. Ordering a custom built guitar is a process that takes time. And whilst this is part of what makes it special, there are some logistical challenges involved in the buying process.
As noted above, one of the significant benefits of buying a custom built guitar is that you can build it to your own specifications. And should you so wish, you can get quite experimental here. This is one of the main reasons that people choose to buy custom built guitars. They have clear ideas about how they want their guitar to look and feel, and they can bring these ideas to life.
Yet there are two potential risk areas here:
The first of these is if you are not so well versed in the different elements that go into building a guitar. If you don’t know the differences between ash, maple, ebony and rosewood, then being offered the choice of these different woods isn’t particularly empowering.
At best, you would be shooting in the dark with the design of your guitar. At worst, you could end up with a ‘Frankenstein’ guitar full of odd pieces which don’t work together very well. Thankfully, most custom guitar builders won’t allow this to happen. However if you are not so knowledgeable about some of these different areas, you are unlikely to maximise the benefits of opting for a custom guitar.
The second risk is that you end up going too extreme in your choice, simply because that choice exists. As you will see below, some brands use guitars made from very different materials. And whilst you might think you will love a guitar made of metal, or one with a radically different body shape, there is no guarantee that this will be the case.
Not only this, but you are unlikely to have a reference point for some of the more radical or unusual appointments you might be requesting. And all of this adds to the potential risk of buying a custom built guitar.
Even if you are conservative in your design choices, you will not be able to play your guitar until it has been fully assembled. This again increases the risk of purchasing a custom guitar. Unless you live next to the builder or workshop, you can’t test it out and see how it feels.
In my opinion this is one of the biggest drawbacks of opting for a custom guitar. For whilst you can design the perfect guitar on paper, you can’t play it. And that is the final and significant part of the puzzle.
Over the years I have played guitars that I expected to love, but which just didn’t feel right. Likewise, I have played guitars that I expected not to connect with, only to fall in love with them.
In short, if you are very risk averse and you want to be absolutely certain that you will be happy with the guitar you buy, then going down the custom route might not be quite right for you. That is unless you live near to the luthier creating your guitar. If that is the case then you really have the best of both worlds!
I don’t say all of this to put you off. I think custom built guitars are a brilliant option for a lot of players. However as is always the case with gear (or at least with more significant purchases) I believe it is worth thinking through the pros and cons in full. This will empower you to make the right buying decisions and to add the best guitar to your setup.
If you are drawn to the idea of a custom guitar but you are somewhat put off by the cons listed above, you could opt for a happy medium and look at a boutique guitar.
These bear a lot of similarities with custom built guitars. So much so in fact that the terms custom built and boutique are often used interchangeably.
Like custom guitars, boutique guitars are typically handmade using very high quality parts and components. The key difference however is that they are not made to order. Rather, boutique builders produce stock guitars. They decide the specifications of these guitars, instead of building them based on individual orders.
So if you want a very high quality, handmade instrument, but you don’t yet feel in a position to specify the type of wood, neck shape and fret sizes you want – opting for a boutique guitar could be a great choice.
Some notable brands that offer high quality boutique guitars that work very well for the blues are as follows:
Some of these brands do also offer totally customised options. But I have included them here, rather than below – as in my opinion this offering appears secondary to their focus on producing very high quality ‘stock’ instruments.
A number of these brands also offer semi-customised options. In this case the luthier decides most of the specs. However they give you the option to choose or alter some details – like the finish, colour of the hardware, and the type of pickups in the instrument. This can be a great option if you want some personalisation, but again you don’t feel confident to spec out every element of your new guitar.
Custom Shop guitars
Opting for a Custom Shop guitar from Fender, Gibson or PRS could also work well.
As the names suggest – Fender, Gibson and PRS Custom Shops all offer options to build custom guitars. In the case of Fender, you can head directly to their website to start the ordering process. With both Gibson and PRS you need to go through your local guitar dealer. They will then pass your specifications onto the Custom Shop, who will build your guitar.
The reason I have included them as an option here is that you can also go into most guitar shops and buy custom built Fender, Gibson and PRS guitars ‘off the shelf’.
These guitars are not built to your specifications. Instead they are typically based either on the instruments of famous musicians, or on guitars manufactured in particularly notable years. It is for this reason that you will often see Gibson Custom Shop Les Pauls based on guitars made in the late 1950s.
Again then, opting for a Custom Shop guitar in this way could work well. You will not capitalise on some of the benefits noted above. You won’t be supporting smaller business and you won’t be opting for an instrument that is different. However you will be adding a high quality instrument to your rig.
The best custom built guitars for the blues
If you have decided that you do want to buy a truly custom built guitar, you next need to decide which brand is best suited for what you have in mind. As you might expect, there are a whole range of custom guitar companies out there. And many of these produce guitars which are ill suited to the blues. Here then, I have added in companies that produce custom built guitars that are perfect for the blues.
It is worth noting that by no means is this list exhaustive. In fact, part of the challenge when it comes to custom built guitars is actually finding these companies. I have no doubt that there are a great number of quality luthiers all over the world. Yet many of these businesses have a local presence, and are not easy to find online.
So if you know a local luthier who is doing great work and I have missed them off the list, please do add their details in the comments below.
Now with that in mind, let’s get into it! Here are some of the best custom built guitars for the blues:
Based in Portland, Oregon – Chapin Guitars produces a range of custom built guitars based on classic guitars like the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster. You can design every element of these guitars. This includes their scale length, the wood used in the body and neck, the shape of the neck and the electronics and wiring – amongst a variety of further elements.
Until quite recently, modern blues virtuoso Josh Smith used a Chapin T-Bird as his main guitar. As he said of the owner Bill Chapin:
Bill’s a mad genius. He definitely knows more about building guitars than anyone I’ve ever met. I would honestly be lost without this guitarJosh Smith
So if you are looking for a classic looking guitar with top quality appointments, Chapin could make a brilliant choice.
The prices of the guitars vary greatly depending on the options that you choose. However they start from around $2499/£1850.
Dutch luthier Nick Oswald started Oswald Guitars in 2016. He launched it from a workshop in his back garden, and sold almost all of his guitar gear to finance the venture. Luckily, his company has since gone from strength – his custom built guitars proving popular with professional musicians and hobbyists alike.
Oswald offers three different models. These are based on the Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster and then an offset guitar of his own design. The guitars which are designed on the Strat and Tele come in two different options – modern and contemporary.
As the names suggest, the former are based more closely on guitars from the 1950s and 60s. Conversely, the latter have more modern appointments. As such, they are better suited if you are looking for a modern twist on a classic design.
Oswald Guitars is a one man operation. And it would appear that Nick Oswald offers a lot of support and guidance during the build process. So if you want to build a custom guitar but you would also like to be guided through the process, Oswald Guitars could be a brilliant option.
Additionally, Oswald Guitars offer some of the most reasonably custom built guitars out there. The base price for their cheapest model starts at just less than $2000/£1450. And that price includes shipping in the EU and a Reunion Blues gig bag!
Like the majority of the companies listed here – Case guitars offer a twist on classic guitar designs. The ‘twist’ here however is more significant. Luthier Jon Case has taken the designs of (mostly) Gibson guitars and put his own unique stamp on them by offsetting their body and providing a deep cutaway on the treble side of the fretboard. In his own words:
The asymmetry of our designs is not just for good looks, it gives a Case Guitar excellent balance and superior access to the top frets. Positioning of the machine heads allows for a straighter string pull aiding tuning stability, while the ‘wave’ theme running throughout creates a sense of harmony to the overall designJohn Case
The striking design and playability of Case guitars has made them popular amongst guitarists across a wide range of genres – as well as blues guitarists like Ariel Posen, Josh Smith and Dudley Ross.
When you order from Case Guitars, you can choose one of their various models and then specify a variety of features depending on the model. The level to which you can customise the guitar depends on the specific model you choose. However generally it includes fret wire, controls and pickups. In some cases it also includes the colour, ageing options and hardware.
The prices between different models also varies. And these are somewhat determined by the level of customisation. However most of the Case Guitar models start from prices around $5100/£3750.
Of all of the guitars on this list – I would argue that Melo Duende offers those which are furthest away from what you might consider to be ‘mainstream’.
All of their guitars are made from aluminium, rather than wood. Not only this, but many of them come in shapes and designs which also help them to stand out. In fact, they are about as far as you can get from ‘stock’ guitars.
As such, if you are looking for something totally different, a Melo Duende guitar could be a great option. This is particularly true if you are looking for something with a slightly edgier and ‘rockier’ look. It is perhaps for this reason that blues rock guitarists like Tyler Bryant and Scott Holiday (of Rival Sons) both have Melo Duende guitars in their rigs.
I think that Melo Duende guitars also make a great choice if you have a clear idea of how you would like your guitar to look and function. Aluminium is the material of choice for all Melo Duende guitars. However beyond that, there seem to be very few limits to what you can specify. As Duende state on their website: ‘You dream it, we build it.’
So if you are looking for a unique blues rock guitar that stands out from the crowd, a Melo Duende could be a brilliant option.
The prices are determined by the model that you choose and your particular specifications. However they range from between around $4700/£3450 and $9800/£7200.
Unlike many of the companies listed here – which offer a range of both vintage and modern style guitars – Macmull are completely focused on the vintage. And this is apparent in everything they do. Their designs are based on classic guitars, come in classic colours, and are fitted with their own RVT (Real Vintage Tone) pickups.
Macmull offer a range of guitars based on Telecaster and Stratocaster body shapes. None of these stray too far from original Fender designs. However they all come with striking Macmull headstocks.
More recently Macmull have also introduced the ‘Stinger’. This is an original design, which – at least to my eyes – looks like a mix between a Fender Jaguar and a Gibson Les Paul Jr.
Whichever Macmull model you choose, you can customise a wide range of appointments on the guitar. So if you are a lover of vintage style Strats and Telecasters, but you want a handcrafted instrument with custom appointments, a Macmull guitar could be a brilliant choice.
The prices of their guitars start from $4190/£3100.
This next company was in fact recommended to me by Paul – one of the earliest readers of The Happy Bluesman. Paul was looking for a special Telecaster type guitar, but did not want a Fender Custom Shop guitar.
Instead he reached out to UK based luthier Josh Parkin and set about designing his own Telecaster style guitar from scratch. Paul enthused about the entire process – from the initial consultation right through to the final product. As he told me recently ‘The more I play it, the more impressed I am’.
Like many of the companies listed here – Josh Parkin Guitars (JPG) offers a mix of ‘stock’ guitars, and fully custom options. These are based on classic and modern guitar designs. And in fact JPG creates a blend between vintage and modern with his choice of finishes – which are closer to those used on PRS, rather than Fender or Gibson guitars.
So if you are a fan of both classic and modern guitar designs, a JPG guitar could make a great choice.
As is always the case, prices vary depending on the extent to which you customise your instrument. But prices for custom built guitars start from around $2950/£2200.
As noted earlier, one of the potential challenges of buying a custom guitar is that they are challenging to design. Even if you know what you want, there is still a high likelihood that you will struggle to visualise exactly how you want your guitar to look. Given the prices of custom built guitars, this can be problematic for a lot of players.
To help solve this problem, Finnish company Ruokangas Guitars have a ‘Guitar Creator’ application. This contains the various guitars that Ruokangas offer. Through the app you can then customise these extensively.
As you can imagine, playing around and experimenting with the app is a lot of fun. Crucially though, the app is linked up to the Ruokangas workshop and the different woods, pickups and hardware that they have in stock. As such, if you actually want to design and buy a custom built Ruokangas Guitar, you can do so through the app.
All you need to do is design your guitar and then send a message directly to the workshop to arrange the next steps. At every stage of the design you can view the price of your guitar. The app also offers up a short blurb on each of the different woods and finishes available. It explains what these elements are and if they pair particularly well with other woods or certain fretboard materials etc.
In short, if you are looking to buy a custom guitar and you want to combine old school guitar building techniques with modern technology, I think Ruokangas guitars would make an amazing choice!
Price wise, their cheapest models start from around $4050/£3000.
Unlike most of the companies listed here, Echopark’s production appears to be fairly evenly split between handcrafted boutique guitars and custom built guitars.
They firstly offer the ‘Standard Series’ guitars. These are a range of handcrafted guitars based on classic guitars like the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, as well as the Gibson Les Paul Jr, single, and double cutaway models. These guitars are not custom built. However depending on the model, you can specify certain appointments. This includes the types of pickups in the guitar, as well as the wood used for the fretboard and even the size of the neck.
As such, if you are looking for a special guitar but you don’t want to decide all of its features, one of these guitars could make a great choice. Prices of these guitars start from around $2400/£1770.
If you are looking for a custom option, then Echopark Instruments also have a ‘Handcrafted Series’ of instruments. As the name suggests, these are custom built guitars, handcrafted based on your specifications. They have 10 different base designs – ranging from classic guitar shapes to asymmetrical offset guitars that have a much more modern look and finish.
If you go down this route you can customise almost every element of the guitar. This includes the fretboard wood, neck profile, binding, fret size and fretboard inlays – amongst a whole range of further options.
So if you are looking to be very involved in the design process and you have a clear idea of what you want, one of the Handcrafted Series could make a great choice. Base prices start at $3500/£2580 before customisation.
Many of the most iconic guitars of all time have an interesting story. B.B. King’s ‘Lucille’, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s battered ‘Number One’ and Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie’ are just three notable examples of instruments with colourful histories.
As guitar players, I think we are drawn to these stories. And yet if you buy a guitar from a mainstream brand, there is no back story there. Your guitar has been constructed in a factory and shipped out to you.
Opting for a custom built guitar changes this somewhat. You play a role in dreaming up and designing your guitar, and that gives it a bit more history.
Wallace Detroit Guitars have really taken this to the next level. All of their guitars are made from reclaimed wood from abandoned and dilapidated buildings in Detroit. The wood is typically over 100 years old, and has a different grain structure and look from that used in modern guitars.
This process of reclamation has a social and environmental purpose. Wood that would otherwise be destroyed is recycled, and in their own words: ‘Detroit Wallace source wood through local non-profits who provide training and employment to local Detroit residents’.
Detroit Wallace offer a small number of ‘stock’ guitars, which start from prices around $2100/£1550. These come in a range of different designs based on guitars like the Gibson Les Paul Jr, and Fender Telecaster and Jaguar.
You can also design your own guitar and alter everything from the type and number of pickups, to the finish and the fretboard material. Slightly curiously, you don’t seem to be able to choose different body shapes as part of the customisation process. The only body shape they have available is the Telecaster.
However if you are looking for a custom built guitar with an amazing story – and you also like Telecasters – then a Detroit Wallace Guitar could be a great option! Prices are based on quotations and are not readily available on their website.
Well there we have it – some of the best custom built guitars out there for the blues. Opting for a custom built guitar is not for everyone. They are in a higher price bracket than most mainstream guitars, and they take a long time to be built. You need to be involved in the design and build process and in some cases you might be required to navigate complex bureaucracy and international shipping services to ensure your guitar arrives with you.
However, if you are looking for a guitar that is unique to you, and which has been built with the highest quality parts and to exacting standards, then I think a custom built guitar could be a brilliant choice.
If you do decide to buy a custom guitar, then I hope that the companies included here help to give you some ideas of brands that could work well for you. And of course, if you think I have missed anyone notable off the list, please do let me know. Just add them into the comments below or send me an email on [email protected] I am always happy to support small independent builders, and to discover more beautiful guitars to add to my wish list! 😁