Why buy a boutique guitar?
Most of our customers are well aware of the various brands of boutique guitars available, but we still get occasional questions asking what constitutes a "boutique guitar" and how its associated price is justified. Seems like reasonable questions to us. While most guitarists have long accepted boutique amplifiers into the fold, they often have a hard time letting go of the big name guitar brands such as Fender, Gibson, etc. We decided this week we would address some of these concerns and hopefully shed some light onto what makes these boutique guitars special.
So, bear with us a second as we go back just a bit...
Remember your first guitar? For most of us it probably was not the instrument of our dreams, but it was a good place to start and definitely better than no guitar at all. In some ways it may have been better to start with a bit of a "beater" as when most of us first started out, not only were we probably lacking in skill when it came to playing, but we also did not really know what made one guitar better than the next.
As our playing ability evolved, so did our taste in instruments. With experience came an appreciation of what really constitutes a fine instrument.
As a rule of thumb, a boutique guitar company would be one that does not mass produce instruments in large quantities. Typically, these builders are making guitars one at a time, or in very small runs. With this manner of manufacturing, a premium is placed on attention to detail rather than cranking out large numbers. In certain instances, for instance K-Line Guitars, the builder (Chris Kroenlein) handles the construction of his guitars from the very beginning to the end all by himself. As well, with boutique guitars you usually end up with higher end appointments, such as hand-wound pickups, real nitrocellulose finishes, custom colors, and more.
Many guitar builders, boutique or not, are using the same types of woods and components for their finished product, but it takes more than the raw components to make an excellent instrument. Consider this - A beautiful painting begins with the artist, his inspiration, and his tools. In their most basic state, the paint and canvas may not seem like much, but in the hands of the great artist, you get a lasting creation. Now, if you are an art enthusiast, we know that you would choose this type of unique work over the stock painting of a bowl of fruit from Wal-Mart. The mass-produced, Wal-Mart brand paintings have their place and all, but it is rare that one of them will be just the painting you have been looking for.
Does Boutique Mean Better?
Not necessarily, as a guitarist's preferences are always subjective, but as another rule of thumb, yes. Don't get us wrong... We're not attempting to make the point that boutique guitars are definitely better than a name brand guitar, but we certainly know a name brand guitar isn't better than boutique simply based on the name it carries. What we are saying is that the boutique brands absolutely contain options that should be explored when you are searching for the right guitar.
So What Else Does Boutique Offer?
There are many factors that go into considering what guitar is going to fit your playing needs best. Without getting too technical, we figured it would be a good idea to break down a few factors that we feel set the boutique brands apart from the rest. To do this, we've selected a few of our more popular lines and some of the strongest features about each.
Once a Senior Master Builder for Fender's Custom Shop, John Suhr, since starting the company that bares his name, has been been well known for producing instruments that have very few equals in terms of quality. Combining his experience in building guitars with his desire to improve the way guitars were made, he began his company dedicated to offering customers a consistently impressive instrument. A very common reaction we get from customers who play a Suhr for the first time is that they are amazed that a guitar can play seemingly perfect. A large part of the consistency of Suhr guitars is due to every guitar going through an electronic plekking machine. By using lasers and other very advanced technology a plek machine is able to measure and adjust frets to tolerances all but impossible by hand. The end result is extremely low action without having to worry about "fret buzz". This type of manufacturing also produces very consistent instruments from one to the next. Honestly, every Suhr we have had the pleasure of playing has played as close to perfect as possible. This dedication to quality has earned Suhr guitars a huge following and all of us here at the store are definitely huge fans.
Want something unique? This is it! Trussart guitars stray from the traditional guitar composition more so than any company we've seen. After first building violins, James Trussart began building guitars using steel as the main component. To some this approach may sound crazy however, Trussart's unique building techniques produce guitars that are as much art as they are fine instruments. Many of the components are handmade for each guitar with the tooling marks left on the metal for a little bit of extra "Mojo" One of our favorite things about Trussarts is the unique "rust-o-matic" finish which is created using a proprietary process in which the steel body of the guitar is exposed to acids. The end result is a beautiful patina that can vary widely from a slight darkening to a rust-like effect.
But What About the Sound of a Trussart?
A steel body is such a departure from the typical way a guitar is made, some may question if it still makes a good sounding instrument. Actually, it makes an incredible sounding instrument. The steel body produces slight overtones and resonance that are typically only found in steel acoustic instruments such as dobros or resonators. The natural character of the steel body coupled with premium pickups such as TV Jones produce a tone that is rich and full of character. This unique approach to building guitars has earned Trussart support from artists ranging from Keith Richards to Tom Morello . In all actuality, the list of endorsing artist may be one of the most impressive in the business. Have a look: http://www.
Dennis Fano also began building his guitars based on his knowledge of instrument repair. After some of his first models, including the Tonestar and Partridge, he developed the Alt de Facto line of guitars. While maintaining a classic vibe, his vintage-styled guitars also feature updated components such as custom pickups and modern hardware. The popularity of Fano guitars is not just based on the quality of their construction, but how cool these things look! Dennis truly embraces the idea of a guitar playing well and looking good.
A defining attribute of the Fano line is his ability to distress a guitar with style and realism. You can pick the level of aged-look when ordering a custom guitar from Fano, anywhere from light to heavy distressing. Even his heavier distressing is convincing. The checking on some of the guitars we have seen is as though a guitar player was in a cramped basement for band practice and every time he turned to talk to the drummer, he nailed the instrument against a cymbal stand. Now that's a believable scar. The body contours where a player would rest his forearm look like they have seen many sweaty gigs and late night jams. Even the hardware is aged realistically.
Having a guitar pre-stressed can cut down on the worry factor regarding the addition of new nicks and dings. And when done right, a level of distressing on a guitar not only adds to the aesthetic character, but it allows the guitar to feel better too. The worst part about a new pair of sneakers is breaking them into a certain comfort level. There is little break-in time with a Fano guitar, they have a worn-in feel that immediately provides a certain level of playing comfort. Depending on the level of distressing, the neck on a Fano is typically ultra smooth and fast, while the fretboard maintains great accuracy and playability.
Beginning in 2001, Bill Nash has built a reputation for being passionate about his guitars, laboring over the feel and sound of each one. Nash guitars are replicas of classic Fender models, but with modern appointments that have improved upon the concept of some of the actual vintage pieces. We feel he has done this successfully because of his simple approach. Nash guitars come with an ash or maple body, typically 1 - 2 pieces. The necks are one piece, and you can choose maple or rosewood fretboard. He exclusively uses Nitrocellulose for his finishes. It doesn't get much more basic! Even though the company has grown over the years, his guitars are still individually made by hand. While his guitars may not be flashy or wildly creative, Bill Nash is determined to ensure that each guitar he makes is going to fit the needs of the player. We are constantly impressed at the quality of work when a Nash guitar arrives at the shop.
So how does he actually improve the sound and feel of a classic guitar and who says there is a need to do so? Many of us have played vintage Fender pieces, and yes, they are very impressive, but often they seem limited in their playability. It's a given that most guys may not want to take their vintage '57 strat out on the road for a month long tour, which makes the Nash S-57 a perfect contender for gigging.
But we are talking about more than just leaving the vintage piece on the wall at home or in the studio. For instance, let's take a look at the '63 Jazzmaster. Awesome guitar. Seriously, we love Jazzmasters at Humbucker Music. But as great as they are, the old Fenders do have their inconsistencies. Since it was designed for gentle jazz playing, the electronics, bridge, and tailpiece never really made sense for a rock n' roll player. When played aggressively, a vintage Jazzmaster falls out of tune easily and the strings can even pop out of their saddles. Hey, the element of surprise can be a nice touch, but this is no fun on stage during a show. And as far as tone, depending on the settings, the guitar is either super bassy or super trebly; it can be hard to set your amp to accommodate both the neck and bridge pickups for a pleasing sound. The solution? Bill Nash made the JM-63, which has a solid tune-o-matic style bridge and uses custom-wound Lollar pickups, among other modern features. The guitar looks and feels like an old-school Jazzmaster, but has a much better setup and is super easy to get quality tones out of both pickups. Click here to check out the guitar.
Some people may still feel that a brand name guitar is the way to go, and for some maybe it is. Again, in no way are we seeking to downplay the quality of these brands, all of us have played these guitars. As stated previously, these guitars have their place. There is a certain cool factor to having your foot propped on a monitor wedge while wailing on a Les Paul. Well, maybe that's not that cool, but you get the idea about the guitar. With that in mind, we feel that the boutique guys are doing something unique and exciting for guitar players; they are taking new and old elements to produce guitars that are ready to be used and not just placed on display.