Behind the Scenes with a Master Luthier – An Interview with Crimson Guitars
At some point in every guitarists life, the pull of designing the perfect instrument becomes something that is hard to ignore, but a desire that not many act on. The common misconception is that it’s a luxury reserved for the super rich, but with so much information online helping budding craftsmen work on their own instruments, is that really the case?
So what exactly goes into building custom instruments from scratch? We interviewed Ben Crowe, master luthier and owner of Crimson Guitars to find out more.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: Thank you so much for joining us! For those who don’t know who you are, could you do an introduction to Crimson Guitars, what you’re about and what you guys do?
Crimson Guitars: Okay, I started as a one-man guitar builder in a shed or two and expanded over time. I was building one-off guitars at a rate of 10 or 12 a year, or something like that. And trying to build them as well as humanly possible and make a living.
I started filming the process for YouTube, and at the same time started developing tools for other luthiers to use. There’s not that many people who provide for guitar builders, and through the training and the tools it’s helped grow the company where we have about 20 staff now in Dorset.
It’s essentially three companies. We have a training section where we have three or four students a week who come down and learn how to build guitars and how to repair them. We then have a section where we have seven or eight people making luthiers’ tools and jigs and templates and the like to go around the world. And then, finally, the guitar building section where we have luthiers, apprentices and finishers building guitars.
Crimson Guitars: Living the dream, really.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: It sounds like educating people in this craft is important to you?
Crimson Guitars: It’s part crass marketing, to be frank. And part trying to keep a craft alive. I was trained as a baroque viola da gamba maker, the precursor to the violin. We used chisels and hand planes and scrapers and we learned how to sharpen things without the use of machines. And that stuck with me.
And there are not enough people in this world who know the pleasure of using a truly sharp tool, and it’s something that I absolutely love and really enjoy sharing. So I started filming the videos as a result of that and now we reach tens of thousands of people with the videos.
If you give away content, if you give away your time, much like on your blog, if the content takes you time, takes you effort, people appreciate that very much. So as a result, they come and they want to buy our products or come here for training in person, and it really is what’s helped grow the business.
It’s really difficult selling a £2,000, £3,000, £4,000 guitar. However, a lot of people can buy a £20, £30 tool, or a set of tools, for example, to do a fret-leveling job or something like that. But they’re going to go out of their way to come to Crimson because we have put a lot of effort into the content we create.
It’s a two-sided coin. It both helps the business and also helps me feel better about the state of the world that I’m living in.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: It’s a really nice balance, I think.
Crimson Guitars: That’s it. People ask me if I’m worried about training my competition, they think that I’m going to lose business somehow as a result of that, and it’s just not the case. The people who are going to come to us to commission the best bespoke boutique custom guitar for £3,000 or £4,000, they aren’t the same people who are going to be in their shed, 9 times out of 10, wanting to make their own guitar. It’s a completely different market.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: There’s far more benefit to establishing yourself as an expert in the field and helping the wider community. Completely agree.
Crimson Guitars: Yes, so it does work. This is the day of freedom of information. We have a different world to what it was. It used to be, write a book and sell a book and that’s how you make money from your skills. Nowadays, you teach people online and find some other way to monetize that.
A hell of a lot of people are watching our videos. But the ad revenue isn’t even enough to pay a single persons full-time wage to edit those videos. It’s a very small part of a much bigger beast, really.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: How did you get into your career? How did this become your livelihood?
Crimson Guitars: Essentially, I’m unemployable. I thought I was a musician, and it turns out that skill is only, as we all know, only a small part of what it takes to actually make a career as a musician.
And I just realised that in the end, I didn’t have the personality. I didn’t know the right people or have the energy to pursue that career anymore. I absolutely loved being on stage and having an audience, it was awesome. But, yeah, I met my wife, had enough, and a change was required.
So now I’ve been making things my entire life, I’ve been repairing things my entire life. My first ever business was when I was thirteen or fourteen. I would find an old flute or saxophone, check the springs and the pads, do that up and sell it on for profit.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: So right from school…
Crimson Guitars: Yeah, absolutely. I remember younger than that, going through my room because I needed some money, and going through the house and saying, “Well, I don’t need that, I don’t need that,” then I’d walk down the street selling my stuff going door to door.
Crimson Guitars: And that was at 9 or 10, I think.
Crimson Guitars: Hell, way pre-internet. Maybe not quite pre-internet, but pretty damn close. I went to various colleges to play music and I sort of conned my way into West Dean College.
Picture Hogwarts, if you will, but without the magic, unfortunately. Throw in a few bearded, bespectacled watchmakers and various craftsmen of various kinds. There’s all sorts. It’s an awesome place.
I did that and then started a guitar building company. I’ve always wanted to build guitars. I’ve never really been interested in early instruments, but I went to the best place in the world to learn how to build an instrument of any sort, and then started a guitar company in my garage after that.
We’re crafting something we hope you’re going to love for the rest of your life. That’s no small feat.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: How do you work with the customer to kind of make sure they’re getting what they want? It must be quite a personal process…
Crimson Guitars: It evolves over time. At the first stage we’ll see if what you’re asking for is feasible. As a rule, we will not build an instrument that is going to be ugly or an instrument that is going to be unplayable You know, if you’re asking for a 48-fret behemoth with four pickups, you know, it’s physically impossible. It’s impossible to play and it also wouldn’t be anything worth looking at, so we’re just not interested in that.
Then we talk with the client about what their favorite guitar is, based on whether it’s one of our own standard models or if it’s like a Strat or a Tele, etc. Most guitarists have an idea. Most guitarists would say “I like a specific scale length because it this tone, this feel that I’ve grown used to, I like. Jumbo, small frets. I like a compound radius.” And we just put it together. We’re just chefs, really.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: So it’s a very collaborative approach with the customer?
Crimson Guitars: Yes, absolutely. 100%. The client gets to specify absolutely everything that goes on, and we will send photographs throughout the build as well, if necessary, saying “Hey, this is the piece of wood, this is the colour, this is the stain. Which of these five inlay designs do you want? Do you like this mother of pearl or do you like this mother of pearl?” We’re crafting something we hope you’re going to love for the rest of your life. That’s no small feat.
On the other side, we do have a department and we have a custom shop where we take a production guitar that is partially made and we’ll customize that with special inlays or a finish or we’ll use different timbers, a different neck shape, etc. But the full bespoke master build guitar is completely collaborative.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: Sounds like an enjoyable process to go through as a customer, as well.
Crimson Guitars: It is. I think the customers enjoy the designing process. We take a while to build a guitar. It’s two to three weeks or six weeks. Sometimes we design a guitar for several years if that’s what’s needed.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: Have you got any highlights, in terms of builds and the most adventurous or challenging things you’ve ever done?
Crimson Guitars: There’s so many different definitions of adventures or challenges. For our YouTube channel, I built several guitars to a deadline. Well, watch the series. The series was me trying to make a guitar in nine hours. It was a full carved, set neck carved top, finished and capable instrument. In one day. You’ll have to watch the video to see the result of that. That was fun. Very, very pretty. I used some fantastic wood for that one. But I’m going to be building the exact same instrument in 90 hours and putting in all the fine detail and the effort that I possibly can to make an instrument that’s, you know, ten times better.
We’ve built crazy things. I’ve built 10 strings, 12 strings, 14 string instruments. Tap guitars, fanned fretboards, twisted necks. I made a six-string bass, six-string guitar twin neck that detached and became individual instruments. And in a minute and a half you can bolt it back together again. That was fun.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: That’s insane.
Crimson Guitars: It really is fun. You can’t beat creating. And creating in collaboration with a client is, yeah, it’s an adventure. You never know what’s going to be asked for next.
Onlineguitarlessons.co.uk: If someone’s looking to get into the trade what would you recommend as the first couple of steps?
Crimson Guitars: We live in the internet generation now, and, quite frankly, to learn anything somebody will be there teaching you.
I learned to at college and there were only eight students in the whole course, with one master. That was excellent. But actually learning luthiery, I basically taught myself that through reading books and also through looking at magazines and reviews on guitars and seeing what other people were doing.
And, frankly, if you’re watching the videos, if you’re reading books, and immersing yourself in…hell, go on Pinterest and search for custom guitars and just look at the photos of the amazing things that people are making nowadays, and then take it and do it yourself.
Don’t limit yourself just to guitar builders. I watch clockmakers on YouTube, I watch leatherworkers, or people using surface grinders. You can learn something from anyone, should learn from other craftspeople from other disciplines, because that’s the only way to further your craft in guitar building. If you aren’t interested in Japanese pottery, for example, you’re not going to come up with a design idea that hasn’t been done.
But most importantly, go out and make as many mistakes as you possibly can. Make sawdust, break tools, ruin pieces of wood. Out of the first 5 or 10 guitars I made, several of them went to a bonfire because I was so mad. We still make mistakes today. If you’re doing a perfect instrument or a perfect finish, you’re not pushing boundaries. I think the old trope is if you’re not living life on the edge, you’re taking up too much space. The same thing goes with your craft.