Luthier-built vs. production guitars
If you have money to burn, buy whatever you want for whatever reason you want. You don't need anyone's advice for that. On the other hand, if several thousand dollars for a guitar seems like a big investment, then here's my recommendation as to whether you should buy a nice production guitar or have one built especially for you.
If you like to play a variety of different guitars and are looking for one more that scratches that itch, stick with a production guitar. There's an incredible variety of instruments available both new and used.
You might consider a luthier-built guitar if you're looking for a special color, or hardware, or neck carve, or woods, or pickups, or shape, or any other customization detail. In this case, I think you'd be better off customizing an existing guitar, or building from parts, rather than having a luthier build an instrument from scratch to your specs.
The risk in having a luthier build you a guitar for any of the above reasons - in other words, because you think you'll probably like the instrument you've imagined in your mind - is that you might not like the end result. There are many factors that go into making an instrument that is, from a your own perspective, truly great. It's really easy to convince yourself that you know what you need, only to realize later that an overlooked detail turns out to be more important than you thought.
So when should you have a luthier build you a guitar, assuming you don't just have a few thousand dollars to burn on a whim?
- Many luthiers build instruments on speculation, on the premise that someone will buy them. Buy one of these just like you'd buy any production guitar. Play it first. Take it home if it speaks to you. If the design departs significantly from the traditional styles, give special consideration to the luthier's visibility and reputation. If you decide to sell this guitar, your success in getting a good price will depend first upon the guitar's broad appeal to a buying pool that's largely hide-bound by tradition. After that you'll need to depend on the luthier's reputation to help make the sale.
- If you already have a guitar that's almost perfect for you, and you can't make it better through customization, and you can't over the long term learn to adapt to the instrument's minor weaknesses, then you should consider having a luthier build you an improved - hopefully "perfect" version of that instrument. You might, for example, do this to get a particular tonal signature or acoustic properties. Not every luthier can do this. Many luthiers specialize in a particular style or construction technique. As good as they may be at what they do, they probably don't have the range or experience to respond to what you really need. You chances of success are better with a luthier who has build different kinds and styles of stringed instruments.
At any rate, I do think that guitars built by independent luthiers can be a good alternative to high-end production guitars, especially when you're need something you can't get off the line or through customization of a production instrument.
If you're determined to get a custom instrument, the independent luthier is a financially-sane alternative to the custom shops of the big manufacturers. When I looked into this seven or eight years ago it would have cost me a minimum of about $8,000 for a custom-built Gibson or PRS, and that's for a really minimal amount of customization. Once you start talking about something for which they'd need to create new tooling, the prices become astronomical.