There’s a lot more to building a great guitar than just tools and materials, as Ken Francis of Francis Guitars explains.
Ken Francis' Maple Sugar in the early stages of its build.
We strive to bring you content that's just a little bit different here on Guitar Hive. And, as you'll know if you've had a look around the site, we care as much about building, customising, and maintaining guitars, as we do about owning and playing them.
We're always keen to learn as much as we can about the process of making guitars, and so we thought we'd ask an expert, Ken Francis of Francis Guitars.
Ken runs his own guitar-making business, which keeps him very busy, but we managed to catch up with him and ask him about the guitars he makes. First off, we asked Ken about how it all began.
'I got started building guitars about 7 and a half years ago. My wife bought me a book (Build your own electric guitar, by Martin Oakham), for Christmas, because she thought it would be great as a father/son project. That was the beginning,' Francis explained.
As with any new skill, learning to make guitars is something that takes practice, and a lot of patience, as Francis told us. 'My first build was a single neck pickup, 24 fret, hard maple body, with a black walnut neck. The shape was designed by me and my son. It was very playable, even though it had a baseball bat sized neck and a very heavy body!! I've learned a lot since then.'
Now that he's built and sold quite a few guitars, we wanted to know about the key to making a a great guitar. 'I feel that the most important factors in building a quality guitar are the choice of materials and the quality of all the component parts. All the parts that are used should be of the highest quality that you can possibly afford,' Ken said, before passing on advice to anyone who is thinking about building their first guitar.
'If someone was just starting out, I would advise [them] to invest in good tools, for example a quality bandsaw and router. I found that I added tools, as needed, but it's worth it to figure out as you go along, rather than buying everything at once, in case you don't need them. I guess it depends on how in depth your building is going to become. I started out thinking of it as a hobby to spend time with my son. 7 years later, I'm passionate about the guitars that I build, and couldn't see myself not building guitars!'
Anything else he'd like to pass on to new builders? 'The key to the best possible tone relates back to quality parts. Fitting all the parts together well, making sure that you pay attention to detail makes for a quality build. I prefer to stick to solid parts, woods and metals, as opposed to plastic. I started making my own pickup rings, bridges, truss rods, pick guards, nuts and knobs to get the quality I was looking for. This makes for a truly custom instrument. I know someone who bought an expensive, custom built bass and was disappointed that it came with plastic knobs!'
Hard work aside, building guitars seems to us to be a fantastic way to make a living, we asked Ken about what he loves most about his job. 'The best thing about building a guitar is hearing someone play it for the first time. I don't play, except for a few chords to check the action and feel of the setup, so it's really a pleasure to hear and see someone appreciate the end result of my labours. If I spent the time to learn to play properly, I would probably never have time to build!'
As we were about to leave, Francis summed up what it means to to be a guitar builder. 'I enjoy the process of taking raw materials and turning them into an instrument that feels, sounds and looks good to someone who is as passionate about playing guitars, as I am about building them.'
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