I was down in Nashville a couple of weeks ago and was lucky enough to get a tour of the Custom Shop from the world-famous Steve Christmas. I’m no expert on guitar-making, but I was surprised by the things I learned on my trip.
For instance, I didn’t know that they weigh and measure every Custom Shop Les Paul numerous times in the production, and that the lighter Les Pauls are more prized by many dealers. I always thought that the heft and weight of Les Pauls was what made them sustain so well, and sound so “fat”, but Steve Christmas said that side-by-side tests of Les Pauls of all different weights showed no measurable difference in tone attributable to heavier bodies. So the lighter ones are in high demand from dealers now because, well, obviously because they’re easier to hang around your neck. Interesting. Below nine pounds seems to be the desired range.
I also learned that the Custom Shop has a collection of tools that are older than time itself. Although the Custom Shop has a new, much bigger, location, they brought all their old tools with them when they moved. For instance, the apparatus they use to carve out the bodies of archtops is so banged up I didn’t even recognize it as a valuable tool. It looked like a beat-up workbench held together with duct tape, varnish, and glue. But that’s how they get the shape of every archtop they make.
Also, guitar making is a very physical process. Everywhere I looked folks were really manhandling the instruments, sometimes dancing with them, sometimes wrestling with them. Far from being a sterile assembly-line process where the workers are just monitoring machines, every person there had a hands-on connection with the instruments that passed through. Sawing, carving, sanding, gluing, clamping, shaving, scraping, buffing, it felt more like a fine furniture workshop than a modern guitar factory.
One piece of modern equipment that I was excited to see was the Plek machine. In fact, the Custom Shop has two Pleks, and most every guitar gets the Plek treatment now. It’s a computerized fret-leveling machine which makes guitars play like they’ve been set-up by a master. The machine puts tension on the neck to mimic the effect of strings, (you can choose the string gauge you wish to imitate), and then the computer scans the frets the whole length of the neck, micro-shaving and dressing them until they’re perfect. Even this hi-tech machine has an operator who is intimately monitoring each guitar and making adjustments on the fly to optimize the set-up of each instrument.
Moving on to the painting room I felt like I was in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. A steady stream of guitars float around the room hanging from a conveyor belt. They drop down into a sort of open-sided booth where they get sprayed with different coats of paint and lacquer. Each one gets a completely individual paint job. The white guitars and the goldtops are done separately in a special area that’s sealed off, but they’re isolated for different reasons. The white paint has to be meticulous, because even the smallest bit of color or contamination will show up later, whereas the gold paint gets into everything and has to be kept separate so it doesn’t float around and make every guitar have little sparkles on it. Surprisingly, when they paint a guitar they paint right over the binding, and then a team of gals meticulously scrape the paint off the binding with little tools they make or modify themselves. Can you imagine the steady hand you’d need to get the edge of the binding perfect? Amazing.
Once it’s painted they lacquer it and buff it and lacquer it again. I wasn’t quite sure in what order everything happened because we were bouncing around the factory shaking hands with everybody and I was getting slightly mixed up. The process repeats several steps along the way and I wasn’t exactly taking notes. The room where they buff out the guitars was like a work-out spa for heavy-metal rednecks. All these really big, long-haired dudes were wrestling Les Pauls against giant spinning shoe-polishers. Steve Christmas informed me that normally they listen to punishing Death Metal in the buffing room, but when I was there it sounded like they were listening to Bjork. They must have been feeling sensitive.