The question is often asked “Why should I buy custom guitars when a good mass produced guitar would be as good?” My response is usually “Are you the kind of person who wants complete control over what you play and how you are perceived?” If the answer is Yes, then it’s time for a custom built electric guitar.
There are a lot of terms floating around when it comes to the types of guitar build processes. Let me try to list the three main types and clear up the definitions:
- Production guitars
- Custom shop guitars
- Custom guitars
Mass produced guitars are made on production lines that churn out the same models in volume. Yes they might be different colors, but a production line turns out lots of the same model. Day in, day out. The main players in this space are Fender, Gibson and PRS plus a plethora of international producers who are too numerous to list here.
Some mass producers turn out good quality products, but many, unfortunately, don’t. When recently asked to upgrade what appeared at first glance to be a nice looking electric guitar, we discovered that the body was made from MDF! While MDF is good for lots of things, making guitars is not one of them. Guitar makers go to great lengths to find the right kind of tone woods that create good resonance. MDF does not do that.
Custom Shop Guitars
Custom shop guitars are a halfway house between production and custom built guitars. When you commission a custom shop guitar, you start with a base production model then configure it to suit the player’s needs. You can typically choose hardware, pickups and color choice, but can sometimes get to choose woods and other materials.
A good analogy is that when buying a new car, you get to select your options from a predefined list. The car is personalised for you, but it is still the specific manufacturer’s model, e.g. a BMW 420.
With a custom shop, you get the opportunity to choose some aspects of the guitar design. This normally comes at a premium on top of the production price, but it usually costs less than a custom guitar.
Custom guitars, also referred to as bespoke guitars, are typically made by a master builder. They carry out every step of the design and build themselves. As there are many complex steps in making a guitar from scratch, the master builder requires an array of skills and experience to produce a quality electric guitar. Why should you care? The luthier has sweated blood to lovingly craft an exquisite instrument just for you. That will come through in how it feels, plays, sounds and looks.
The other difference is that you can have pretty much what you want, as a custom build is just that, custom. It does not need to be based on a production model as can be seen by the wide variety of (sometimes weird) designs.
So Custom Guitars vs Production Guitars?
Deciding which way to go comes down to three things:
What can you afford or are willing to spend?
The rule of thumb is that production guitars cost less than custom shop or custom guitars. This is only a rule of thumb though. When you factor in vintage, a 1957 Fender will cost way more than most custom guitars.
Custom shop guitars typically come in cheaper than custom guitars, but depending on brand and the reputation of the maker, they can sometimes cost more.
Your imagination and budget are the only limitations to custom guitar design. If you are desperate for a diamond and gold guitar and have the money for it, I am sure someone will make it for you.
How quickly do you want it?
Production guitars can be purchased off the peg, so there is little or no waiting time before you are playing your new ax.
Your design and configuration options result in a longer wait time from order to delivery. It’s only my opinion, but I think it’s worth the wait. The exception to this is where custom or shop guitars have been designed and finished and are available for sale off the shelf.
Some of the better guitar shops commission specific custom or custom shop guitars based on what their customer buying trends are. Custom guitar makers also make guitars for “stock” which are available off the shelf. This is almost the best of both worlds, as you get a custom or custom shop guitar without the wait.
I want a guitar made that will fit my playing style or my collection.
If you’re a connoisseur who knows what they want, then a custom guitar is the solution for you. You typically have a design session(s) with your luthier. Once you agree on the design, specification and price, the luthier builds you your one off unique dream guitar.
Custom Guitars vs Production Guitars – Final thoughts
Choosing a production, custom shop or custom guitar comes down to budget, time and requirements. You can get a production guitar off the shelf at a reasonable price. You can pay a bit more and get a custom shop, but that will take longer. Or you can go full custom and get exactly what you want, in as long as it takes to make your dreams come true.
Whichever route you take, enjoy the ride.