While there are countless new guitars to choose from in nearly every size, shape, and wood combination across a wide range of price points, some players need a special instrument. Perhaps you’re seeking a reproduction of a rare vintage model, a guitar with specs tweaked to your personal needs, or maybe a brand-new creation that no one else has ever seen. If so, commissioning a custom build can be a uniquely thrilling experience.
Even for those who already have a quiver of fine guitars, collaborating with a luthier can result in an instrument that satisfies performance needs, creative desires, or both. For some players and collectors, the process is almost a hobby in itself, with repeat customers cycling through a builder’s waitlist and returning for a new instrument every few years.
From factory custom shops that churn out special orders on a large scale to one-person operations, you can get a one-of-a-kind instrument made just for you and often have a courtside seat during the process.
As exciting as it can be, even experienced guitar buyers might feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the ordering process and have many questions. What do I want? Will it sound as good as I hope? What happens if I don’t love the finished product? Of course, those are all genuine concerns for anyone diving into the unknown, so I set out to learn more about the ins and outs of commissioning a custom instrument and what you can do to make sure that you end up with the guitar of your dreams.
Many custom orders are variations on classic models. These guitars might have a set of eye-catching, exotic tonewoods and added decoration, or simply a neck profile that fits your hands better than the standard model.
Another compelling reason to commission a custom instrument is to replicate a prized vintage model that’s too expensive, scarce, or unreliable to travel with. “A lot of those vintage guitars are cost prohibitive and aren’t something you’d want to take on the road with you,” says Todd Albright, who plays prewar blues and ragtime on a modern replica of an early baritone 12-string. “It makes a lot more sense to get a new guitar that is an exact copy of a guitar made in the ’30s, which can sound, look, and feel the same as an old guitar, but without the vintage guitar problems.” Albright swears by his custom Fraulini Paul Geremia Signature, based on an extremely rare Regal-made Tonk Brothers 12-string, with birch back and sides and a paper-thin, lightly braced spruce top, for a tone that he calls “trashy-sounding and unrefined, which is exactly what I’m looking for.”
Many of the large- and medium-size guitar makers—Martin and Taylor, along with boutique brands like Bourgeois, Collings, Huss and Dalton, Preston Thompson, Santa Cruz, and others—offer custom versions of their standard models through their dealer networks. In these cases, an outside sales representative serves as a consultant who acts as a sounding board for your ideas and helps you sort through the laundry list of wood choices, decoration, and much more to be selected for the build. This makes the shop a buffer between customers and a maker’s busy production floor. Kimberly Dalton, the general manager of Huss and Dalton, says, “It’s time-consuming working on a custom build, and this allows us to build and the dealer to handle the customer. Ultimately, that’s what that dealer is there for.”
Though this pathway generally provides less of a one-on-one relationship with the person building your guitar, it can be beneficial to have a well-known name on the headstock if you plan on reselling at some point or would like a more predictable outcome.
Some makers also offer customers the chance to hand-select the details that go into their unique guitar. “If somebody wants to come to the shop and actually select their woods and talk about their custom build, we can do that,” Dalton says. “We also look at bindings and whatever else they’re interested in, including duplicating specific neck profiles.”
As one of Martin’s Custom Shop Expert dealers, the Music Emporium in Lexington, Massachusetts, is on the frontline of the legacy maker’s large workshop. The Music Emporium’s acoustic and vintage specialist, Andy Cambria, helps customers with custom orders for Collings, Fairbanks, Santa Cruz, and others. When I ask Cambria what happens when someone inquires about a custom build, he has a surprising response. “To be honest, more often than not, I try to talk them out of it,” he says. “Custom ordering a guitar is only a good idea if you have a very specific request about dimensions or the neck’s playability or if you’re going for a super-specific visual look.”
Players may have other motivations for commissioning an instrument, he adds. “If somebody just read about Bill Collings or Richard Hoover and was like, ‘I just love this person and their whole ethos and theory about instrument building. I want to own one of their guitars’—that’s as good a reason as any to custom order a guitar.”
Ironically, Cambria says the sound is frequently the last consideration when somebody custom orders a guitar. “If you’re going after sound, it’s always better to find something that exists, even if you have to hunt for a year, which is how long it will take you to get the custom guitar,” he advises.
If you’re in search of a maker who is pushing the boundaries of what a guitar can be, who specializes in designs that’ve been otherwise been lost to time, or whose unique take simply catches your fancy, choosing an individual luthier may be the ultimate choice for a unique guitar and buying experience. It’s a process that can involve a lot of direct contact and collaboration on the design with the person whose hands will build your guitar.
The allure of being involved in a build is compelling, and working directly with a luthier on a plan for a guitar can be exciting and even addicting—from visiting the builder’s shop and picking out woods to dreaming up the next guitar.
Several makers report that many of their clients are repeat customers. Pepe Romero Jr., a luthier who makes classical guitars and ukuleles and is also a member of the esteemed Romero family of guitarists, has a three- to four-year waitlist for one of his handmade classical guitars, and about 30 percent of his customers return for another guitar. “They love knowing one is coming,” he says. “They love the process, and during my two-month build process, they love knowing that I’m working for them.”
Playing an instrument from a luthier before ordering can be difficult because these one-person shops have low production outputs—often in the low double digits per year—and multi-year wait times, and they sell all that they can build. While you might not be able to easily find some of these guitars outside of the internet, there are still a few opportunities to get a good sense of what they are all about.
A few shops, like Dream Guitars in Weaverville, North Carolina, and the Golden Era Guitar in Singapore, specialize in representing luthiers. There are also annual boutique showcases like the Artisan Guitar Show, La Conner Guitar Festival, and Woodstock Invitational Luthier’s Showcase, which give players a chance to check out guitar makers’ work up close in person, start a dialogue for a commission, or maybe even bring home a custom instrument.
The key when working with a guitar maker on a commission is the same as it is in any relationship—good communication. For the greatest chance of successfully conveying what you need, extensive field research is essential before you settle on a build. And that means playing as many guitars as you can. With long wait times for many builders, it’s never too early to start playing every guitar and sorting through your likes and dislikes.
Cultivating a relationship with a dealer is an excellent way to explore your options. This part of the process is obviously easier for people living near areas with one or more guitar shops that carry high-end and boutique guitars, but it’s still possible to educate yourself on your preferences wherever you are. “Spend a couple years, at least, playing everything that you can get your hands on,” says Cambria. “Even the boring-looking ones, because you might find one of those that really lights a fire in terms of the sound it produces.”
Cambria suggests that if you live near a shop, try to develop a relationship with somebody that works there. “Your lead-in can be very honest,” he says. “Just say, ‘I’m not going to buy anything today, but I’m starting a process. I want to get it through you guys. Would you mind showing me the way? And would you mind letting me play these things knowing that I’m going to be doing business through you?’”
Since many custom builders have waiting lists of a few years, use this time to zero in on your preferences for body and neck shapes, wood choices, and other features. For sound and playability, a few makers commented that the most important thing to focus on is the top wood and bracing. “It’s probably the most neglected part of the custom order process, because everybody is obsessed with the exotic look of the back and sides,” says Cambria. Though these can be gorgeous and attractive parts of a guitar, many makers feel that other features, such as a thin finish, use of hide glue, and especially the shape and thickness of the neck, rank higher in importance for tone and feel.
When you are working directly with a luthier on a design, the conversations often veer into your style and needs. “It’s always helpful to know your playing style and to have an open mind about what might work best for it,” says Jayne Henderson, owner of EJ Henderson Guitars and Ukuleles and daughter of famed luthier Wayne Henderson.
Todd Cambio, the luthier behind Fraulini Guitars, notes that the way you play factors into the critical details of your guitar. “If you’re going to sit on the couch and play in open tunings, and you like a lot of resonance and overtones, you might want a shorter scale,” he says. “But if you use a flatpick and play really fast jazz or bluegrass, you want a longer scale for more string tension and a quicker note decay.” Romero, Cambio, and Henderson said these in-depth talks with customers can help define what the player is looking for based on their playing style, musical tastes, and techniques.
Depending on the size of the guitar maker’s operations, the ordering process can vary. Going through a maker’s dealer network often involves a contract and a deposit, often 25 percent. The order is sent to the maker, and a guitar returns to the shop in as few as several months to more than a year. The completed guitar usually goes to the guitar shop that ordered it—the dealer might like to show off the guitar on its website and social media before passing it along to the customer—but sometimes the maker will drop-ship directly to the customer.
As you might expect with a smaller builder, the process can be more direct and hands-on. Since several years can often pass from when a customer gets on a waitlist to when the guitar is completed, many luthiers prefer to wait until their client’s number is up to commit to the build, collect the deposit, and begin the design. That window not only helps manage the workflow for a busy small shop but takes into account that some customers may have to drop out of line due to unforeseen financial or other circumstances.
Once the build is finally underway, some makers like to share shop images on their social media channels or through email. While the workflow complexity of larger workshops, like Martin’s Custom Shop, means they can’t document each guitar’s build, small shops may provide regular updates as the instrument takes shape. “I post my work every day,” says Romero. “People get to follow the process visually and see pictures of things coming along. It’s much more exciting for them than to find something completed.” Sharing pictures can also help the maker make important changes before it’s too late.
For the past few years, Henderson has used Facebook Live on Saturdays to invite people into her shop while she works on some aspect of building. “I plan it so I have a quiet thing to do, like putting on binding or messing with the small things,” she says. These broadcasts are more than just showing off shop techniques. “I love it when they ask questions, and there have been several times where a client is watching and they get to be part of it. I like that—it’s a nice connection.”
Ultimately, the relationships between guitar makers and their clients are meaningful for both parties. “I really enjoy working with people and figuring it out,” says Cambio. “I enjoy getting to know my customers and working with them on getting the right instrument, because people are putting their faith in me.”
That sense of trust and helping to make someone’s dream instrument come to life also helps carry Henderson through the long and lonely days at the shop. “I love the partnership and getting to know people,“ she says. “I love that I get to be a catalyst to bring someone some happiness.”
What If You Just Don’t Like It?
While you’ve waited for your dream guitar, made to your exacting tastes, you’ve no doubt fantasized about its sound and feel. Often it’s just as hoped for, but what happens if it finally arrives and you don’t feel a connection with it? Are you stuck with an expensive instrument that you don’t like? How it resolves mostly depends on the individual builder’s or shop’s policies.
Typically, once you receive a custom build from a medium or large guitar company, it’s yours. They made it to your specifications and fulfilled their end of the bargain, so there are no returns or refunds. What happens next may be between the buyer and the dealer who managed the guitar order. Having satisfied customers is essential to these independent dealers, so the shop might end up falling on the sword when a custom order doesn’t work out for the player. “No matter what was said or signed before the whole process started, we don’t stick people with instruments that don’t work for them,” says the Music Emporium’s Andy Cambria. Often, the store can move the custom guitar to a new owner, while the customer can apply a credit to another instrument in the store.
The small builders who deal directly with clients also want happy customers. While they do not typically offer refunds, they usually have more flexibility to provide the customer a few options. In most cases, the luthiers I spoke with say it’s only happened two or three times out of hundreds of instruments, so it’s a rare event.
“I tell people there’s no stress with having to buy this guitar,” says Jayne Henderson. “If you don’t like it, I’ll resell it. I’m not scared about that because I know the guitar will go to who it’s supposed go to and you’ll find the one you want.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.