Interview: Creston Lea of Creston Electric Guitars

Creston_Lea Creston Lea

Q: Let’s start with some history – how did you get into making instruments?

A: Soon after moving to Burlington in 1996, I found myself playing a lot of guitar in a lot of bands. I also found work doing renovation carpentry and, later, all kinds of work on old houses and barns – tearing them down, putting them up, salvaging the wood, moving them from one place to another. Little by little carpentry morphed into more shop-oriented work, and I began building amp and speaker cabinets with those tools. For about five minutes I thought that might be my future. And then my guitar-playing pal Mark Spencer had me rout out an old Japanese Squier Stratocaster body for a new pickup.

That was my eureka moment. Prior to that, I’d always been too scared to work on my own guitars. But I was no stranger to dissatisfaction. I suddenly realized I had the ability to make myself more satisfied! So I started building guitars from spare parts and then, eventually, began making parts from scratch – just as a hobby. Sooner or later, I made Mark a simple guitar that became the unexpected blueprint for everything that’s happened since. He told people in his circle of professional musicians, they ordered guitars, and then next thing you know, ol’ Jed’s a millionaire. I did about a year of half carpentry / half guitars, but it was a pretty speedy transition to full-time. I didn’t think about much else for the first ten years.

That was my eureka moment. Prior to that, I’d always been too scared to work on my own guitars.

Q: It sounds like you found your market, or they found you, pretty quickly. How has your approach to design changed as a result of a growing audience?

A: It’s not a gross oversimplification to say that when I first got started, small builders like me were mostly making replicas of vintage guitars. That, or they were doing original designs bordering on outlandish. By following my nose, I found that my place in that cosmos meant making instruments that would have looked at home on a bandstand in 1962 but which weren’t replicas of extant guitars. As I got busier and busier, I found it increasingly easy to say no to things I didn’t want to make. So rather than entering into it with a fully-formed aesthetic sensibility, I groped my way there by following instinct and turning away from work that seemed unappealing.

The_work_bench
The work bench

But now the world of guitars seems much less conservative than it did fifteen years ago. There’s a wave of small builders who seem to do well with their original designs. I finally joined Instagram and immediately got enormously depressed. A hundred million guitar makers I’d never heard of, all seemingly very successful! And I saw that a lot of my own original innovations and ideas had become mainstream. All of that coincided with a slowish year, so I feared that my career had come and gone. I suppose the combination of a little more time on my hands and fear of getting left behind led me in some new directions. I designed a couple of new shapes and finally got around to developing some ideas that had been simmering for a decade or more. And I got busy again. So I’m no longer depressed.

Ash body, bound mahogany neck with a rosewood fretboard. 4-ply celluloid tortoiseshell pickguard. TV Jones pickups. Mastery hardware. Metal flake green lacquer. 24-3/4” scale.

When I moved my shop nearly four years ago, I brought in a tenant who builds acoustic guitars under the name Circle Strings. He’s gotten very interested in CNC technology, so having that resource next door really makes developing new ideas less daunting. I can draw something on a piece of plywood (that’s my version of CAD) and he can make me a styrofoam prototype in no time. From there. It’s easy to make adjustments and actually realize a design in wood. I’m a little self-conscious to admit that I’m not burning with curiosity to learn CAD, so this relationship strikes the right balance and, so far, anyway, he remains excited about it.

30_inch_scale_bass
30” scale bass. Alder body, maple and rosewood neck. Lollar Pickups. 4-ply celluloid tortoiseshell pickguard. (I compromised my “I don’t repeat myself” principles when Noel Gallagher ordered one exactly like this bass.)

Q: Do you make all of the pieces of your instruments (aside from strings and machines), or do you outsource some of that?

A: All the wood parts – bodies and necks – are made from raw lumber here at my shop. I make the pickguards from sheets of plastic or phenolic or polycarbonate or steel or whatever else. That wasn’t always the case, but outsourcing seems inevitably to have its shortcomings. So aside from the electronic components and most hardware, I do it all here.

Creston_soldering

Q: Some of your guitars resemble Telecasters and Jaguars. Is that intentional?

A: When it’s time to try making a guitar for the first time, the Telecaster body is an obvious choice. I’d always been drawn to those guitars, anyway, and you can’t really ask for a simpler design. There’s no contouring or fancy routing, so it’s good for the amateur. I made one for myself. A friend liked it and asked me to make one for her. Someone saw that one, and so on and so on. So I accidentally pigeonholed myself from the start. I’ve always been careful to avoid making anything that could be confused with a counterfeit Fender, but I can’t pretend those body shapes aren’t familiar. I still lean heavily on those silhouettes, but as I develop new stuff, I’m doing my best to avoid derivation.

For_Ahmed_Gallab
A guitar for Ahmed Gallab of Sinkane, hand-painted by Sarah Ryan. Chambered alder body, maple and rosewood neck, TV Jones pickups.

Q: Lots of guitars are “branded” with a uniquely shaped headstock. Is there a story behind the design of yours?

A: Headstocks are like band names – a giant pitfall. At best, they don’t get in the way and, if you’re lucky, manage to complement everything else. I can tell you, it is hard to design a 6-tuners-in-line headstock that doesn’t look stupid and doesn’t look like somebody else’s. So I just kept drawing until I found one that seemed right. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but maybe that’s for the best. I’ve had occasion to design various 6-, 8-, and 12-string headstocks with the tuners on both sides over the past couple years. It’s a puzzle to balance practicality, ergonomics, and aesthetics. But it’s a pleasurable puzzle and I’ve been happy with the results.

Creston_in_the_shop

Q: How has being a builder changed your playing?

A: Well, I play a lot less guitar now that I’ve sublimated my love for the instrument into building them. So I guess it’s made me a worse player. I’ve never been a real ace, but I’ve been curious about guitars forever. I used to draw guitars and amps in my school notebooks during class rather than, say, listening to my teachers. But, to reverse your question, my frustrations as a guitar player had everything to do with finding my way as a guitar builder – like, “I love how this guitar plays, but it’s way too heavy / bright-sounding / dark-sounding / purple…” or “I love how this guitar sounds, but the neck is too big / small / flat / round…” So I became consumed by trying to figure out why, for instance, certain guitars played more easily than others. I’d sneak a tape measure into the guitar shop and make measurements. A lot of that early sleuthing led to the slight adjustments in traditional geometry and layout that make my guitars play the way they do now.

My frustrations as a guitar player had everything to do with finding my way as a guitar builder

Q: What’s your role in the day-to-day? Are you still building all the instruments yourself, or do you have staff now?

A: My neighbors run the CNC machine and do a lot of the fretwork, but otherwise I’m making the parts, doing the finish work, sanding and polishing, doing the wiring, assembling, testing, paying the bills, ordering parts, dealing with clients, packing, shipping, etc etc. Sometimes I think about hiring help, but I don’t think I’d be much good at managing people. I can’t say that I go to bed at night dying to wake up and sand all day. My aging elbow would prefer that I not do that. But it feels like I’m making the right number of guitars per year without having to bring in help. I don’t know. Ask me again in three years.

Creston_working

An enormous part of the job is corresponding with players. Nearly everything I do is custom-made, so helping clients make decisions can be laborious. But if I spend all my time answering email, I’ll never make any guitars. And I can’t trust anybody else to take over the correspondence. So I guess I’m stuck. It’s not so bad.

Q: How does that process go? Do they visit your shop?

A: Almost never. It’s usually a matter of email correspondence. Sometimes it’s a quick back and forth. Other times it’s dozens of emails over months of hemming and hawing.

Q: The positive spin on that would be a relationship characterized by collaboration. How does seeing these artists play your instruments impact your thinking about the design and build?

A: Oh yes – it’s certainly a collaboration. Making instruments that are unique and specific to the players who order them is my favorite part of the job. But sometimes that’s an easy process and sometimes it’s a long, slow process. Maybe it’s no surprise that some of the best (or at least most notable) players I’ve worked with are the least informed about what makes a guitar a guitar. Whereas a bedroom player may know every desired measurement down to the 1/1000”. Both approaches require a certain amount of communication finesse on my part in order to deliver us to a list of final specs.

Making instruments that are unique and specific to the players who order them is my favorite part of the job

I don’t know that seeing people play them has influenced my thinking about design very much, but it does help remind me that they’re really relying on these guitars not to fail. Every solder joint has to be reliable, etc etc. If something goes wrong, I don’t want it to be my fault. And I’ve gotten a lot of valuable input from professional players who tend toward the nerdier side of guitar appreciation. Some of those people have been consumed with guitar anatomy for decades, so I listen when they have something valuable to say.

Q: So what does the future look like for you? More of the same?

Queen City model
prototype. Chambered
mahogany body,
mahogany and
rosewood neck, Lollar
pickups. 25” scale. 1961
Fender Deluxe
amplifier.

A: More of the same, certainly, but also some new directions. After all these years of making Tinker Toy guitars – necks and bodies made separately and then screwed together during final assembly – I’m starting to make guitars with glued-in necks. That’s the traditional method, with roots dating back to 17th century lute construction. But I’m just catching up now. I made three last year and was very happy with all of them. Two were very small-bodied guitars based on lap steel proportions. One had a flat top and one had a carved top. The third was a prototype of a guitar that I hope will become my centerpiece. It has a double-cutaway, chambered mahogany body with a 25” scale mahogany neck. Pretty utilitarian, but I can imagine it going in a bunch of directions – even more stripped down, lots more ornate, carved top, scaled-up body, a bass version, etc etc. I feel like I’m still trying to catch up from the winter holidays, but I’m on the verge of doing a little production run of those guitars in various forms. I don’t normally take that approach, but this is such a new design, it feels like I need to get a few of them out into the world. So I’m going to make six or seven at once. I’ve loaned the prototype to a few very good players and they’ve been very encouraging. So that’s what the future looks like, I hope. I also just finished an electric lyre for a Classics professor at the University of Vermont. He’ll soon play it in a traveling production of an Aeschylus play. So maybe I’ll discover a colossal unmet electric lyre demand. I’m not sure I’d wish for that.


To see more of Creston’s work, check out his website. You can also check out more video of his instruments in action here.