Friendships - The real 'USP' of handmade, custom instruments? - My Odessa Deadbeat Baritone build
Lusting after the 'next' guitar rarely stops for many of us. The idea of a baritone has stuck with me for quite some time, and being without a main electric whilst I await my own Millimetric MGS3 to be built next year has had the cogs turning on the idea more than ever. My mind wandered to a Jazzmaster based parts build, 3 pickups, perhaps an extra one behind the bridge for weird sounds, a walnut long scale neck and although this notion was undeniably exciting, I couldn't help but think about supporting a luthier brand over doing a parts build which in some cases can soon see costs creep up to a similar mark anyway.
The first maker that sprung to mind, and the very first I messaged about the idea was Mr Mike Wiltshire of Odessa Guitars whom you might remember from a Meet the Maker interview a little while back. His Deadbeat design is one of my favourite guitar shapes around at the moment, and I wondered whether he'd be up for a baritone take on it for me. Maybe it was simply meant to be, as I was instantly greeted by the photo I used at the beginning of this article. Not only was he up for the idea, but he had began building a baritone Deadbeat for his own stock a while back and it was poised for the fun ideas to begin with where to take it. If you don't believe in fate, then I don't quite know what to say to you, maybe I'd read his mind and vice versa?!
The ideas soon started bouncing back and forth, and Mike was nothing but accommodating of my dream of a three pickup baritone, supporting his brand over building a 'partscaster' was simply the only route to go and I'm so happy I have. Although a parts build can of course be incredibly fun and rewarding, having a custom guitar built for you by a talented luthier truly reminds me about what makes a custom guitar so special. It's about the experience you wouldn't otherwise have when picking a guitar up of the hanger at the high street guitar shop, it's about a passionate customer with an idea for a guitar interacting with someone with the skill set and talent to be able to bring that idea to life. It's inspiring if nothing else, but it got me thinking, surely one of the 'USP's of handmade, custom instruments is the friendships that can come of it?
The instrument Mike had already begun making was an ash body, with a maple neck and beautiful black walnut fretboard. This was a detail in particular that I was drawn to, as I had chosen a walnut (well, oxidised walnut) neck for my Millimetric build next year so it was nice to have a similarity between the two custom builds there. I decided to further that with a matching set of black Hipshot locking, open back tuners with industrial buttons to match my Millimetric build too. A nice detail when they're hanging on the wall next to each in a years time. To pair with the Hipshot tuners Mike often uses their hardtail bridge too, so I wanted to go with something that was consistent with his past work and experience there.
Since the early ideas of a baritone began emerging in my mind, it had always been a three pickup affair. But with the design of the Deadbeat guitar, I wanted to make sure it fitted with the aesthetic as much as capture the sound I hoped for from the build. Also, as much as it's easy to get carried away with a custom built instrument, I always believe that you must be respectful of the maker's design too. This guitar is a reflection of their art, the guitar is of their design and that's worth respecting in my opinion. To settle my mind, I did a rough photoshop edit of one of Mike's previous builds which had Firebird pickups fitted, and added a nifty middle one to see how it could look. Below is the rough edit, and it had my attention straight away!
The deadbeat has such clean, angular lines, the pickup sizing and look had to be right. I gave some thought to the sound I wanted to achieve, the low tuning of a baritone can easily get muddy, so it had to posses clarity and note definition, and I didn't want it to bog down in output so a pickup type that can pack a punch would be good here too. I remembered back to a McNelly pickup set I first heard in one of John Ambler's guitars, a beautiful Icarus model, featuring Tim McNelly's Firebird pickups, and it was a eureka moment!
The super clean covers and mini HB sizing on Firebird pickups was an obvious answer aesthetically, but tonally they are incredibly vocal and responsive and far from a conventional humbucker in my opinion. Firebird pickups have their own distinct voice, and one that I felt would suit a baritone scale very well. This turned out to be the first time Mike had built a three pickup deadbeat, but luckily for me it is something he's wanted to do and with open arms accepted the challenge! He was also gracious in allowing me to use McNelly Pickups in the build, a brand he hadn't used prior in his instruments so I'm grateful of his open mind in using them on this build.
For an overall aesthetic, during the early days of my offset JM shaped parts build, I found myself coming back to a stunning instrument built by Deimel Guitarworks. A Firestar model built for Bryce Dessner of 'The National', featuring a wonderful natural finish with black, chrome and brushed mixed hardware. There was something about that look works wonderfully well and I came back to it time and again. Then I remembered back to a Deadbeat build that Mike made for a customer fairly recently which really caught my eye at the time. The mini HB pickups, natural finish body, black pickguard and hardware and killer retro style HIFI control knobs just works so well with the design. I won't lie, it was an easy decision that I had to recreate this style on my baritone model with a few personal tweaks, but this build very much was the inspiration behind the look I wanted to achieve. Mike's website has so many photos of previous builds, it's a great place to look for inspiration when planning a build if it's something you're considering doing.
So with the general ideas pretty much decided on, Mike was straight onto the work and the updates and photos soon started flying in. It's a really exciting thing to receive build updates. Even in my position, handling custom builds for many customers now, it's a process I never grow tired of seeing and being part of, and truly enjoy getting an insight into a luthier's techniques and also seeing an instrument come to life. Those first few stages involved routing out the cavities to suit the triple pickups and wiring configuration, bridge placement, sanding out any fine scratches in the wood and pickguard marking out.
Here's a handful of the photo updates Mike kindly sent my way -
The pickguards on Mike's guitars are aluminium, which he usually powder-coats black. So the first stages are spent marking out positioning, discussing control layout and importantly pickup positioning. We spent a lot of time discussing the pickup layout as this was Mike's first three pickup build and also being a baritone scale we chatted at length (no pun intended) about what I'd like but also what would look right on the guitar. As a customer this really makes you feel part of the build, it was one of many points I've felt that though! Below are a few of the ideas we had, from a unique, set-back positioning to a more conventional even layout.
It felt great to be involved in this process, I did ultimately want to make sure whatever we went with, was fitting with Mike's design eye, but he definitely was open minded to my ideas which makes you really feel that this is your build. The positioning we decided on was evenly spaced, with the same measurement from the bridge to pickup edge as it was from fretboard end to pickup.
Mike set to work cutting the aluminium pickguard, drilling and routing the bridge cutout along with pickup & pot/switch holes. Not a fun process with the unforgiving material used, but makes me appreciative of the efforts in getting it perfect.
Here shows a quick mockup and needless to say I had a huge grin on my face receiving this photo. So glad we went with three pickups, and it reassured my decision on the firebird models too as they really work well with the aesthetic and overall design of the Deadbeat. This is going to be a beast of a build!
A quick mockup of the industrial button loaded Hipshot tuners too, meant that I was thoroughly excited to see how this build rounds up.
The next updates I began to receive were during the final fret level, crown and polish process. They've come up beautifully well, and look great on the black walnut fingerboard. Fretwork is a pivotal part of a build and I've seen the process many times to see that Mike's work is clearly very precise and tidy here. Great to see!
Now that the frets are looking rather good indeed, the pickguard is cut, shaped and off to the powdercoaters, it was time for the body and neck to see some finish. We had both heard really great things about Livos natural finish oil. It's a really eco friendly oil, but many makers including Florian of Millimetric speak very highly of it for durability of finish and look/feel. So we sourced a tin and Mike got straight to work. The photo below shows the very first coat hitting the ash, and it really made the darker grain patterns pop. Achieving a beautiful textured, 3d look to the grain whilst clearly looking like this will feel superb too!
The maple neck also responded wonderfully well to the Livos, the finish looks stunning. Really excited to see how it feels!
And that's where we're up to on the build so far! I really wanted to share the process and experience on here, mainly as I genuinely feel like a valued customer and very much feel part of the build which in my eyes is what can be so great about a custom build. It's very exciting when a message comes through from Mike as it's always enthusiastic, and the photos insightful to what stage the guitar is at. It feels more like a friendship, which gives you trust in them, and vice versa. If you have ever pondered about having a custom built guitar made for you, but don't fancy going further afield than the UK, you'd be very hard pushed to find a better customer/luthier relationship and experience than with Odessa Guitars. I do this an awful lot with the Home of Tone, and Mike's customer service is truly superb. Very excited to see the coming stages of the build, with the finishing now sitting to fully cure and harden, the pickguard being powdercoated, it leaves some seriously cool stages next! So look out for part II of my Odessa baritone Deadbeat soon here on the blog!