David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: construction, guitars, human nature, respect, @musings info

Ordering a Custom Guitar

The way I look at it, a one-of-a-kind custom guitar is worth the wait. There are countless issues, both anticipated and unforseen, which must be addressed in order to make a custom instrument. I'm not talking about "checklist customization" where your choices are limited to things you can pick off of a fixed menu. The guys who build "checklist customized" instruments really ought to have a process in place that guarantees a certain degree of repeatability and predictability. If you want your builder to deliver on a certain date, go with someone who does that kind of customization.

If you want a guitar that's truly unique, you have realize that the builder is starting from scratch. He has to create not only the instrument itself, but also the tooling in many instances. Chances are there are a lot of design issues to be considered, evaluated and reworked before construction even begins. Sadly, setbacks can and do happen. When most of the builder's work is one-off, a setback will have a larger impact on delivery time than for the builder who's following pretty much the same fixed process on every delivery.

From my point of view, it's the responsibility of the customer to evaluate the builder before placing an order. Understand that these guys are mostly one-man shops and that estimated delivery dates are just that: estimates. The busier a builder gets, the more likely it is that his actual delivery dates are going to be later than estimated. If you expect your builder to deliver a custom guitar on a particular week, you'd better ask some tough questions about shop process, tooling, suppliers, inventory and all the other things that make a factory run smoothly. If you don't do your due diligence as a buyer and instead simply mark the builder's quoted date on your calendar, chances are that you will experience some anxiety when that date comes and goes without a delivery. At that point, it's probably too late to rethink your decision without some repercussions.

I'm currently waiting for my second full-custom guitar. I spent a couple years doing research before approaching a builder about my first custom guitar. Most of that time was spent deciding what I wanted in my guitar. I spent a lot of that time trying to understand how my choices would affect the outcome. More importantly, I learned that there were certain things that I don't know how to specify. Part of my search for a builder involved finding someone who would translate the things that I don't know how to specify into an instrument that meets my expectations.

My first custom guitar was delivered in eighteen months. That was way over the builder's estimate, but the end result was worth every week it took. The delivered instrument exceeded my expectations on every level.

My second guitar from the same builder is coming into the home stretch after three years. He underestimated his delivery time on this one, too. Why? I'm guessing that it partly because the builder is doing more business because he consistently exceeds his customers' expectations. And partly because my second guitar, despite being a variation of the first, presented some unique challenges with respect to materials and color. And partly because it's in the nature of creative people to be optimistic. I had a pretty good idea that the builder was underestimating the delivery time when I placed the order for second guitar. I figured that the end result would be worth the wait.

My attitude has always been that a one-off custom instrument "takes as long as it takes". I check in with the builder every few months for a progress report and the occasional photo or shop visit (at his request). But mostly I try to stay out of the way and let him do what he does best. I'd rather wait for what I know will be an outstanding instrument than to experience (or cause) anxiety over an estimated date. It takes as long as it takes.

Yes, there's a certain amount of trust involved. Theoretically, there's also a bit of risk. Stuff happens. If you want to acquire a new instrument on-time and with no risk, you should be buying off-the-shelf rather than ordering a custom creation.

If you really want a one-of-a-kind instrument, do your homework before you approach the builder. Know for sure what it is that you want. That includes knowing what you don't know, being able to articulate as best you can the things you don't fully understand and being willing to turn the design decisions for those things over to the builder. Remember that the builder is most likely working alone. It may not be the best use of his time to give you an education on materials and construction. There are plenty of other resources that you can turn to if you need to do some research.

Try to understand that once you turn things over to the builder, you're committed. If you're not sure about what you want, don't commission the project! When you really know what you want, communicate your expectations clearly and in writing. If you can't put your specs in writing, you're probably not ready. If you're going to rely on the builder's expertise for certain aspects of the design, make sure that you understand and support the builder's plan before the work begins. And then get out the way. It takes as long as it takes. Every hour you spend on the phone or in email whinging about progress or changing your mind is an hour that the builder doesn't get to spend doing what you (and all his other customers) pay him to do.

May 10 2007 23:43:27 GMT