Out of the Woodwork: Four Utah Electric Luthiers: RIP Custom Guitars

Music Interviews

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.

RIP Custom Guitars
Rob Gray

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?

RIP: My first guitar was a nylon string acoustic. The more important guitar was my second guitar: a Hondo II electric guitar. It was a basic starter guitar. It was exciting to be able to turn up to 11 on my little practice amp and play some rock n’ roll. It didn’t play the best. When I found out you could adjust guitars, I tried everything to make it play and sound better. I developed a personal vendetta against poorly playing guitars.

SLUG: What started your journey of making guitars/instruments?

RIP: After I had been playing electric guitar for a few years (I was around 14 or 15 at the time), I came across an article in Guitar World about how Eddie Van Halen and Brian May either modified or built their own guitars. Being a very impressionable youth, I dove right in. I picked up a copy of The Electric Guitar Repair Guide, read it cover to cover, measured one of my guitars and drew up a full-size plan. My parents had some tools kicking around the garage: a router, hand drill, rasp and hand saw. I ended up building a Flying V because I could only cut straight lines with the handsaw. I turned out pretty good for a first build.

SLUG: You were educated at a luthier school. Which one?

RIP: I had been building on my own for four years and about 10 builds deep before I went to a trade school. I did a lot of research on luthier programs all over the nation. I chose Roberto-Venn’s School of Luthiery. Their program included acoustic building, electric building, a repair course. They had job placement with major manufactures, and the school was accredited. I enrolled and graduated in spring of 2007. The requirements were to build one electric, one acoustic and pass the various tests on wood grain, adhesives, construction theory, etc.. I ended up building five guitars while in the program.

SLUG: Could someone with an interest in learning the trade but not much prior knowledge learn the entire trade at a school? Or do you think a more detailed knowledge of guitars is needed, like knowing how to play, for instance?

RIP: In short, no. You definitely can get a basic working knowledge and it’s a great way to get into the industry, but I think it’d be a stretch to say that anyone that is learning any trade would know everything there is to know right out of school. Before the program, and even to this day, I spend several hours a week designing new jigs and fixtures, reading about or performing repairs, customizing and building guitars from scratch. I’m always looking for ways to do cleaner and more efficient work. I do also believe that a tech should be a pretty competent player. Setup work is very dependent on how someone approaches the guitar stylistically, and being able to play will definitely help you dial in a guitar for a customer.

SLUG: You play in the band ToxicDose. Do you play your own custom rigs for the band? How often are you tweaking your rig/setup to adjust how you want your guitar to sound?

RIP: I play lead guitar and sing in ToxicDose. I do play an almost full custom rig. I play custom guitars [that] I have built with custom wound pickups by Ethan Spaulding at Instrumental Pickups. There are two custom amps I will use as well. I scratch-built a Marshall Plexi Clone and modded it (guitar nerd alert) with a Lar/Mar post phase inverter master volume, variable negative feedback, and a few resistor/capacitor value changes in the preamp to voice it a little more aggressively. The other amp is a prototype 1u rack preamp that Ethan built for me that I run into a VHT 2:90:2 power amp. I run either amp into a 4×12 cab with Celestion Vintage 30s. I also use a small pedal board with a CAE Buffer, MXR Flanger, MXR Phase 90, Maxon OD808 and MXR Carbon Copy Delay. All that being said, I believe that having good gear is important, but a major equation in good tone comes from the hands of the player.

Photo: Chris Kiernan
RIP offers a variety of guitar building classes, pedal building, basic guitar wiring, neck building and full electric guitar building workshops.

SLUG: I saw that Van Halen was a big influence in your journey to learn the trade. ToxicDose is a metal band. Do you prefer to build or play that style of music?

RIP: I wouldn’t have taken any interest in playing guitar or luthiery without EVH. The draw for me as a guitar player to EVH was his ability to play technically and still be musical. If I could find my David Lee Roth, it would be fun to start a rock band in that style. I did get into some slightly heavier and intense guitar music for “sport,” if that makes sense. Bands like Megadeth, Annihilator and every Shrapnel Records artist in the ’80s took the technical aspect pretty far. The challenge of playing the music drew me into playing thrash metal.

SLUG: What wood do you think best fits the metal/hard rock style?

RIP: This is kind of a trick question. Nobody [can] tell you what sort of tone will work for you as a player because everyone has a different idea of what sounds best. When I do custom orders, I ask a lot of questions about what an individual likes, or, more importantly, does not like about a guitar, and will help them choose the correct set of specifications, be it wood, hardware, pickups or construction style to build the best guitar for that particular player. The best-sounding guitar is the one that the player likes.

SLUG: What kind(s) of tone(s) do you usually go for in your builds?

RIP: I like a pretty balanced tone. All of my personal guitars are rock maple neck-through, alder body [and] ebony fingerboards with a Original Floydrose. I would almost say they are pretty basic in terms of no bells or whistles: usually, only a bridge humbucker, sometimes a neck single, volume and a three-way. When I’m playing live, handling vocals, lead guitar and sometimes Moog Taurus, I don’t have time to be futzing with controls.

SLUG: What is the hardest part about making a guitar?

RIP: For me, the hardest part of a build is the initial planning and design stage. Making sure I fully understand what a customer wants in their build is critical. There are lots of practical and aesthetic choices to be made, especially when designing a guitar completely from scratch. You want to make sure it’s correct before you start making wood chips.

SLUG: What have your biggest challenges been for a custom order(s)? What about your biggest triumphs?

RIP: The biggest challenges and triumphs I have run into so far have all been finish related. Custom color matching a headstock break repair on a original 1957 Gibson Les Paul Jr. kicked my ass for a few months. The guitar came to me with a poorly previously repaired headstock that re-broke. The original “repair” was a wood plate glued over the paint on the face of the headstock, and they had stripped all the color off the shaft of the neck. The plate was removed, the contaminated break was cleaned and epoxied. I then routed the face and rear of the peg head where the finish was already destroyed and glued in matching mahogany plates to reinforce the break. I spent the better part of the next 2–3 months matching the original burst colors on the neck. I found the original Gibson burst color recipes, but they didn’t match. As the pigments in lacquer age, some colors, particularly red pigments, oxidize and will change color. The yellowing of the clear coat will affect the color as well. I managed to get an identical match after several color formulas and test sprays on scrap.

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?

RIP: I enjoy doing both. When I don’t have any custom orders, I will build whatever is interesting to me at the time. Currently, I’ve been working on designing and building multi-scale or fanned-fret guitars. Custom orders are very fun to do as well because I end up designing and building instruments that I would typically not make of my own volition.

SLUG: Is there a type of pickup/tuning selection that you like to use in your guitars? If so, what?

RIP: I use Instrumental Pickups by Ethan Spaulding, unless the customer has something else they have to have. I tune my main guitar to E-flat. A vast amount of the instrumental guitar guys did E-flat, so I did too. Then, I could play along with the album.

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?

RIP: The only guitar I have made [that] I would not sell is my first build. There’s a lot of sentimental value in that guitar for me. Plus, if someone really likes a guitar I won’t part with, I can build them one just like it!

SLUG: Where do you find inspiration for your creations? Certain guitar-maker brands, or artists whose work you like?

RIP: There are lots of custom builders and major manufactures I am into. I like the “traditional” pointy guitar shapes and super strat styles by ESP, Jackson, Kramer, Charvel, etc. for my guitars, but there are so many great styles and builders to name a favorite.

SLUG: I heard that you make replica rigs, or maybe it’s a rumor. I had a buddy say that he wanted you to make him a Neil Young replica? Do you build replicas, and is there anything more/less satisfying in building a replica compared to your own, original creation?

RIP: I can build replica guitars, but I will not infringe on any trademarked designs. Typically, that means changing a headstock shape or slight changes to body geometry. Electric guitars have been around long enough that it’s gotten to the point where most things that look good and work [well] have been done. It’s hard to re-invent the wheel. Whether it’s a build for me, a customer or a replica-style build, my primary concern is to have the best quality craftsmanship. Top-notch materials, design and execution are number one.