When you want something new in your sound, you can buy a new pickup or pedal to shape the tone, or you can buy a brand new amp or simply replace the guitar. You establish a wishlist and go to a store and search for a guitar that fits the bill, and hopefully you find the correct instrument. It’s also highly possible that you can’t find it, so you keep on searching. But what if the guitar that fits your bill doesn’t exist? In that case you’re left with two options: buy something as close as possible to want you want and modify it with new hardware, or approach a luthier and choose from his line-up.
The last category is a rapidly expanding business, from what I see around me. Many players I know have a bespoke instrument and are intensely satisfied with that instrument. You can also choose to go to a luthier and design a guitar together to fit your needs. That business model caters to small group of players, but their numbers are growing. I fall into that last category. Somewhere in 2008 I approached Ben Crowe of Crimson Guitars to design two singlecut guitars for me, based on the Les Paul. I couldn’t find what I wanted and needed in any Gibson, PRS, Hamer, or other brand because what I wanted was a combination of features. If the heel was sleek, the body was too light or the neck too thin. If the neck was thick enough, the body was too stiff and resonated badly or the heel was cumbersome. So the decision to go ‘all the way’ was eventually eased out. Since the guitars would be built literally from scratch, I could redesign several features that bugged me. This photo blog shows those features, but bear in mind that the guitars aren’t brand new on the pictures: they’ve been heavily, intensely played for the last two years!
Here’s an overview of the guitars. At first, they seem like two Les Paul Customs: three pickups, multi-ply binding all over, gold hardware, dark fretboard… But when you zoom in, you will see appointments completely unique. For starters, the tops are carved and are not intended to be a copy of an original 1950s Les Paul. Instead, I chose the tops to be carved deeper, with a deeper dish and a slope upwards near the edge. PRS does that, but a bit edgier, and I wanted the smoothness of Gibson’s carve,as well as the shaved cutaway PRS guitars have. The next picture shows off the carve quite nicely. The timbers used for the left guitar are a wenge top on padouk with a neck made out of bocote and wenge with maple spacers. The right one has a rosewood top on purpleheart with neck made of alternating pieces of pau ferro and bubinga, also with maple spacers.
As you can see, the guitars have multi-ply binding along the top and bottom but in stead of having them done in plastic, we chose wood binding. The ‘white’ parts are flamed maple where the darker parts are wenge, ebony and rosewood. Even the headstocks got the same treatment! The fretboards were cut to have a compound radius, from 8’’ to 16’’ at the bottom. It’s not made of ebony, by the way. At first, they were, but we decided halfway through the build to change them for snakewood. A friend of mine was always extremely enthusiastic about snakewood and I think it rubbed off… A lovely detail is that the trussrod cover is cut from the same piece of wood as the fretboards, so the grain follows through after the nut. The headstock designs are also bespoke. I wanted something big, like Gibson’s headstocks in the 1970s, but with a unique feature. The logo is Crimson’s old logo, and I’m very glad to have this one because I think it’s just a lovely, rustic logo.
The center inlay is of course a piece of Star Trek’s legacy. Something that’s not easily noticeable is that the headstocks are thicker than usual. Normally, a headstock is around 15 millimeters; mine start at 18 millimeters and shave down to a thinner 16. The idea is that a thicker headstock would result in better tuning stability and longer sustain. I don’t know how much of those features can be attributed to the thicker headstock, but these guitars are incredibly solid when it comes to sustain and tuning stability! A nice feature is that the headstock veneers are cut from the tops, but vice versa: the guitar with the rosewood top has the wenge headstock veneer, and the wenge top has a rosewood veneer.
The necks. This is where they are truly one of a kind instruments. I played Warmoth necks for years, and those 1 inch thick fatback necks are really my thing, but I wanted even bigger. We decided to make them 1.15 inch thick. For the guys who do only metric, that’s over 29 millimeters. Just to give an example: Ibanez Super Wizard necks are 17mm at the first fret and Gibson’s are approximately 23.5mm. And these necks aren’t just thick, they’re also nine-piece laminates with opposing grains, and their profiles are highly asymmetrical. The bass side is cut almost straight, like the side of a parallelogram, and from the middle (approximately between the A and D string) it curves upwards in a slope towards the other side, making this neck still huge, but for me extremely comfortable. I came up with this design simply by looking at my own hand and measuring my hands and fingers.
The heel. That’s also something I haven’t seen in any other guitar before. Easy-access heels have been amongst us for years, but I really wanted the binding to curve along the entire bottom edge, so this is what we came up with. I have to admit, it’s so slick I have no problems reaching the 22nd fret at all. I don’t even have to adjust the angle of my hand.
The pickups are a toss-up between Wizard Pickups and Seymour Duncans. It depends on my mood and I easily switch between them. The Duncans I put in them are also not standard pickups. The bridge pickup is a hybrid of the Seth Lover SH-55 bridge pickup and the SH6-n (Distortion Neck) with an Alnico 8 magnet. That pickup gives me a medium hot pickup with a lot of clarity and dynamics with huge mids and lots of bite but without being harsh. Rolling down the tone gives me a fatter tone but with loads of sizzle in the upper mids.
The neck pickup is a hybrid of the Seth Lover neck pickup and the George Lynch Screamin’ Demon, also with an Alnico 8 magnet. This pickup balances greatly with the bridge pickup. Also loaded with clarity but with a ‘flute’ like character, this pickup gives me a Paul Kossoff vibe when I’m not cranking the amp that loud, and a John Sykes feel when I’m plugging my guitar in my old Colliseum. If I roll down the volume, I get into that ‘Still Got the Sweet Shild O’Mine’ territory: fat, creamy, juicy with lots of sizzle and crunch!
The middle pickup is a four-conductor ‘59n Alnico 5. The wiring is very straightforward: two volume and two tone, like a regular two-pickup Les Paul. I have one push-pull pot to coil-split the bridge and neck humbuckers and one to route one coil of the middle pickup to the pot of either the bridge or neck pickup. That way, the output slightly decreases and I can roll down the volume of both pickups simultaneously with one volume pot. This idea just came up somewhere last year and I modified all my three-pickup guitars to have that kind of wiring. I crudely modified one of Seymour Duncan’s wiring schematics to fit my own wiring so you get an idea of what I did.
It took a long time to have these guitars built, and it wasn’t always an easy, comfortable ride, but now, several years later, I can’t imagine not having these guitars. I’m glad I have them, because I don’t just own three amazing Crimsons (I also have a hollowbody Les Paul, not showcased here), I also gained a good friend in the process.