Out of the Woodwork: Four Electric Guitar Luthiers: McKinley Sound
Every strong-armed guitarist works hard to hone their craft to deliver a tune, from plucking or sweeping strings. They are the ones who deliver the ballads, tasty licks or bombastic shredding that we all love to hear. On the other side, there are the guitar makers—the luthiers who work just as hard to provide the means to that sound. From a mahogany body with a maple neck or an intricate aluminum neck, a flying V mandolin or a race-car red “violator,” guitars like these are handcrafted and custom-built with gusto and attention to every detail. These four Utah luthiers—Casey Ledingham, Reid Rouse, Moses McKinley and Rob Gray—each exhibit specialized skill sets to spotlight any guitar player’s unique talent.
SLUG: What started your journey of making guitars/instruments?
McKinley: Growing up, I would always disassemble my guitars and put them back together. I remember my dad helping me install a strap pin in one of my guitars, and it just made me wonder, “Some people pay others to do that? I wonder what else I could do on my own.” From there, it was just a natural progression.
SLUG: What was the first guitar you ever bought/had given to you? Looking back, did that first experience at all influence how you craft your guitars?
McKinley: My dad has been a huge influence on what I do. He always has had some super cool instruments, including a super-rare custom Gibson that is one of a kind. So from a young age, I was always looking at, playing, touching and trying to understand what made some instruments better than others. Without internet access, all you could do was find something and pick it up to figure it out. I have my first two guitars tattooed on my chest because I fell in love with them. That’s really what this whole journey has been for me. I know what it’s like to fall in love with an instrument, and all I want is to give someone else that same feeling. I want to make instruments that people create music on. I want heavy riffs, smooth jams and hard twangs to come from what I’ve created. If I build one instrument that someone falls in love with, it will be worth it. I want every one of my instruments to be the best one they’ll ever own.
SLUG: You went to the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. How do you apply (like applying for a college) to go to school to learn how to craft instruments?
McKinley: Roberto-Venn requires that anyone attending the school plans to make it their career. They have no intention of training hobbyists, and they want RV graduates working for all high-end manufacturers. So you have to write a few essays and take some tests just to get approved to go there. Their emphasis is on building instruments with the understanding that repair is a byproduct of being a good builder.
SLUG: What is the school like compared to a traditional education? Did you have an instructor that stood out to you—a mentor, so to speak?
McKinley: RV has essentially a series of workshop-style classes to teach you how to build. At any given time, you will likely have multiple projects going on for multiple instruments. That’s actually a great thing because it informs you about how the real world of luthiers will be. Whether I’m building or repairing, I am working on several instruments at once. When I am building my guitars, I make batches at a time so I can complete the same task on multiples without having to reset my tools. Of course, when you’re building a custom order for a customer that is a one-off, that takes a bit more of a distinct focus. I had the luxury of spending a lot of one-on-one time with many of the instructors, and I learned more than I even realized I did. Matt Baker, who, at the time, was supervising the building of the electric guitars, did some things that blew my mind. I watched him eyeball some stuff that was super super touchy, and when I measured it, it was perfect. Don Wyndham, the acoustic program supervisor, grew up with a machinist as a father and could spot a .005” gap from 10 feet away. The talent in all of the instructors is really, truly amazing. You can tell how much work they put into what they are doing.
SLUG: You play the mandolin in the band Folk Hogan. Do create your own mandolins to perform with?
McKinley: I started playing an old Mid-Missouri Mandolin. It’s an acoustic, which doesn’t hold up to the wear and tear that a raucous band like Folk Hogan can put it through. I smashed it multiple times and have essentially had to rebuild it. As a result of that, I decided to build myself something that could really stand up to the challenge that I put my instruments through, so I built a flying V mandolin: Honduran mahogany body and neck, Honduran rosewood top and gaboon ebony fingerboard. Building instruments is fun, and this is an extension of that. You can do whatever. So many musicians have an obsession with what is “traditional,” meaning that they don’t want to try something too different from what they are comfortable with. In a way, this mandolin is my way of giving the finger to traditional luthiers: I’ll build a flying V mandolin, electric, semi-hollow, 24 frets, five-ply binding. I will do what’s awesome, not what’s expected.
SLUG: What is the hardest part about making a guitar?
McKinley: In the most literal sense, carving braces for acoustics is not something I would say is hard, but it’s so subtle and precise. Every little ribbon of wood you chisel away changes the tone and the response of the instrument. There’s this connection that exists there that is really special.
The figurative answer is getting people to try them. This goes back to the “traditional” mindset a lot of musicians have. Sure, they may mix up their pickups, pedals, amps, strings; but once they find an instrument they connect with, they don’t have a need to try anything different. I totally understand because I have instruments that I am comfortable with. However, every time you hand someone a professionally built, handmade, high-quality, small builder’s instrument, they are blown away at how it plays and feels and sounds. But that initial leap is the hardest one.
SLUG: What have your biggest challenges been for a custom order(s)? What about your biggest triumphs?
McKinley: Most people have specific things in mind when they’re making a custom order, whether it be multi-scale, crazy inlay, tons of electric options or something weird like having a built-in fog machine. Every instrument has its own challenges, but it’s not difficult if you’ve been building for a while. I have never felt like I was great with visual artwork, so my biggest challenges have been the same as my triumphs: custom inlay. Inlay work is something that takes a long time to get good at, and each new request challenges me in a different way. I have finally reached a point with inlay where I feel pretty comfortable with doing complicated, multi-piece little designs. I have wasted a lot of good pearl just practicing, but that practice has paid off.
SLUG: For electric guitars, what wood do you find best achieves a great sound for anything in the distorted realm?
McKinley: Wood selection is the most important part of the process. Aside from the guitars that I build to sell, I also build guitars to order. So I will usually talk to my customer about what music they like, what guitars they like, what type of sound they are going for. If you want a fast response on your notes, you may want ash. If you want tons of sustain, you will want mahogany. Luckily, we can split the difference by building a mahogany body with a maple top to give you sustain but improve your response. It’s all about balance. Luckily, there are enough woods in the world to accommodate all the different tastes that people want in their tone. Trees make it all happen! A lot of really heavy music benefits from a more dense wood like ash so that you can get clarity and response out of your notes, especially when turning down. I love building guitars for heavy music, because a lot of the time, you have to step out of the realm of the “regular” building process to do something that not just cool but a lot of fun to build.
SLUG: What kind(s) of tone(s) do you usually go for in your builds?
McKinley: I build a number of different models that cater to different styles and sounds. I personally love really warm instruments that have lots of sustain. My favorite combo is mahogany body, maple top and neck, ebony fingerboard, which is what my flagship design, The Pitchfork, is. I have another model, The Luther, which is designed to be brighter and geared toward everything from country to indie rock. I also build a less expensive line of guitars that are more stripped down and affordable—still high-quality woods but meant to be taken onstage and beat as hard as possible. It’s the years of punk in my blood that makes me want to make cool shit that people can go to war with onstage and make them scream whatever style they want.
SLUG: You do repair work on guitars and other string instruments. What extent of damage can you fix? Have you ever had an instrument that was unfixable? Why?
McKinley: There’s no such thing as unfixable. I have repaired acoustics that have been thrown off trains by crust punk travelers, made new headstocks for guitars that have been smashed to pieces, [and] I fixed an auto harp that was run over by a car. Nothing is unrepairable, but sometimes the cost of the repair outweighs the value of the instrument.
SLUG: You have a storefront of your own in addition to your repair work for some guitar/instrument–sellers in Utah. Do you handle the entire business side of your work? What businesses contract your work? What is the most difficult part of managing time and handling the business aspect of things?
McKinley: I run my own show, and I also work at guitarchimp.com doing repair in-house. It’s a lot, but it’s worth it. The hardest part is turning work off and living my life. It really isn’t possible because when I’m not working, I’m practicing or playing a show with Folk Hogan or Turtleneck Wedding Dress. So, I work on guitars six days a week, I have band practice usually three nights a week [and] then I play shows on the weekend where I have instruments in my hands and I’m surrounded by musicians at shows. I end up working or talking about instruments at least 14 hours every day. When I’m not doing that, I’m thinking about what projects are next. It’s overwhelming and overwhelmingly awesome.
SLUG: Do you do custom builds for bass guitars at all?
McKinley: I build custom electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitars, baritones, mandolins, ukuleles, lap steel guitars. Really, I just want to build something for everybody that they can fall in love with. I even designed an acoustic keytar a few years back, and if I ever get the time, I will build it. I love building bass guitars because bass players like weird stuff in their builds.
SLUG: Is there any type of wood that is completely useless for electric (or acoustic) guitar-making?
McKinley: Not really. There are some woods that are not ideal for certain tones, but the best thing about being a luthier is that you can make instruments out of whatever you want. You can do weird stuff just because you want to. I put a hexaphonic pickup in a guitar for a friend as a joke this year, which means that each string on the guitar could be sent to a different amp. Why? Who cares. It’s for fun, just like music. If you aren’t having a good time doing it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
SLUG: Do you get to craft guitars that you want to make just because, or do you mostly craft custom jobs for people who want them a certain way?
McKinley: I build a line of guitars that are all designs of mine. There are enough differences between them that any player can find what they want. I also build custom orders of whatever the customer wants, replicas or wacky stuff. Every player approaches their instrument differently, plays differently and expects different things from their instruments, so I try to talk to them about everything to get a perfect picture of what they want, no matter how off the wall, and I make what they want. If they aren’t happy, they won’t play it. And I do this because I know what it’s like to be in love with your instrument, what it’s like to hate your instrument and what it’s like when the instrument is simply an extension of yourself. I have my three tattoos on my body of instruments that I fell in love with. I want other people to feel that love for their instrument, so I put every ounce of myself into every build.
SLUG: Is there a type of pickup/tuning selection that you like to use in your guitars? If so, what?
McKinley: There are a lot of really cool boutique pickup companies that I like to use stuff from, and [I] have been planning to start making all my own pickups in the future, but I am not there yet. A few years ago, I noticed a serious lack of extended-range custom guitars for all those people who want to tune lower or just want a baritone. I came up with a few designs that I am really happy with, from 26-inches scale length all the way to 29 inches. There are so many awesome, really heavy bands in this valley that like to tune down but aren’t happy with the playability and tone they get from short-scale lengths. This gives them an option.
SLUG: Have you ever made a guitar that, when you finished, you could not part with no matter what offer there was that could be made on the guitar?
McKinley: I have several of my own instruments. The guitar I play in Turtleneck Wedding Dress is one of my Pitchfork models. There isn’t really much of a comparison between a guitar from a major manufacturer who treats instruments like commodities and a hand-built instrument, so it’s pretty common to not want to give up nearly ANY guitar I build! Because of my repair experience and how many really high-end guitars I see at guitarchimp.com, I get to touch thousands of guitars a year. I know what is really special, and I can say that I don’t make anything that isn’t special, that I am not completely in love with.