“Just don’t make me seem like something I am not.” Erik said to me as I left his house today. He’ll hate me saying this, but I am going to make him seem like something he is not. He is humble about his craft, soft spoken about his work, and chooses to promote himself the hard way, word of mouth and one customer at a time. He is not out to shake things up, disrupt his market, demand his name be front and center…but his work has become a go to tool for working guitar players. Real gear, made by hand, designed to be played more than collected. We had the chance to get a peek into the custom guitar making world and learn what makes this business tick, where it is going and why the old ways of making wood instruments is still the best way. I want you to meet one of Canada’s best tele makers (he’ll hate that I said that, but it is so true), custom neck shaper, and crazy axe luthier Erik Hansen.

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Tell us your path into making premium guitars – why is this your thing? My dad had an old 335 style guitar so I guess that was my first one. The strings were about inch off the fretboard and I had no idea how to tune it, but that was the coolest guitar ever. I progressed from that one to other garage sale/flea market finds. As I got a bit older, I started taking them apart to see how they worked, and I also started painting them to make them look different. Usually with a spray can…always terrible.

Music has always been a big part of my life. My dad was a jazz lover and audiophile, so I grew up hearing all the greats. My mom loved the 1950’s music she grew up with, so I ended up having a deep appreciation of a wide range of artists.

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When I got old enough to get a job and save money, I finally bought my first real guitar. I bought an olympic white Fender Stratocaster over two years of installments. I had the Jimi Hendrix Woodstock poster on my wall for years and that was the guitar I had to have. I loved that guitar.

In my later teens I started playing in bands, and out of necessity, taught myself to do basic setups. I had no guitar specific tools so I made do using whatever I could figure out.

I didn’t have any direction, so I did a bunch of things that interested me. I took electronics engineering for a while, then fell into mill wrighting because my uncle did it and could get me a job. It encompassed all the things I was good at. I like figuring out how things work. That was when I was exposed to machining and how precise things are made. I spent the next twenty years working all over, and learning. I was airbrushing/pinstriping as a hobby as well.

In my thirties I started having problems with my back. I went through pretty much every treatment available over the next decade and ended up having to have surgery to repair it. I was tired of destroying my body, having my kid raised by daycare workers, and just making money for companies that really didn’t care. I was going to take all the things I had learned and make something for myself and my family. I went back to my first love, the guitar.

People I’d played with, or met over the years started asking me to do modifications/repairs on their instruments, and the word naturally leaked out about what I could do, and I became the repair/modify guy in my area.

I was then introduced to the “boutique” world of guitars by one of my customers who brought in a guitar for a set up. He really did open my eyes to a whole world I didn’t know existed. I thought to myself, why don’t you just try and make the components instead of buying them. So I did.

There is a pretty big learning curve, and the first few were less than perfect, but I patiently figured it out, piece by piece. Now I could make things that were different than what was available. I built a few for myself and played these one-offs at gigs. It was at that time that the same guy who introduced me to this world asked me to build him a guitar, so I did. He was super happy and started spreading the word online. That led to another, another, and another. I started getting inquiries from people I didn’t know and it really snowballed. The work had begun to pay off, and I knew I was in the guitar building business.

Eric Hansen Telecasters

Where’s the buzz in making guitars? Where in the process is the most satisfying part? I think the most satisfying part about this is taking flat raw pieces of wood and turning them into beautiful looking and sounding instruments that reflect the uniqueness of the person playing it. I look at pieces of wood, and they inspire me to shape them into beautiful guitars. No two people are the same, so I don’t believe any two guitars should be the same. Mass production is the enemy.

What is the guitar design holy grail, is there one guitar out there that you think is the best. If there’s anyone who had the most impact on guitar design it’s Leo Fender. I think his simple designs are timeless, rugged, and iconic, and that’s why they’re all still popular. I don’t really think there’s a holy grail of guitar design. Innovations and gadgets come and go, and things are more about style and brand than what’s actually is the “best” or innovative, in some ways, guitar design is anti-innovation.

Hansen KustomsIt seems that guitar making is super conservative. Are most clients wanting the classics forms made for them? I’m thinking of Gibson or Fender pieces…are these still what people want and relate to? Guitar making is a hard world to innovate in. We’ve become so used to those classic shapes just by seeing them for so many decades, and in the hands of so many players. When you radically change those shapes you get a portion of people who might like it, but the majority are looking for the forms they know and are familiar with. These classic shape are timeless, and people want what they know.

Who are builders/makers do you envy, where is innovation in this marketplace…new materials like carbon fiber, or old techniques coming back. What drives the business? I don’t know if envy is the correct term. I appreciate craftsmanship, handmade, and skill. Mass production does nothing for me. Things made by a machine are products to sell, nothing more. The guitar business is like any other these days, money drives it all. I have zero interest in any factory built guitar that’s hanging on the wall at the store. The original techniques and hand made skills are what motives me.

If someone wanted to become a luthier, what would you tell them, what is a valuable tip or a short cut? It’s a very difficult market to just jump into. The best advice I could give to anyone wanting to become a luthier is that short cuts don’t work. To make it as a business start part time, and make sure you have a job that pays the bills until you have enough of a customer base/reputation to sustain it. Learn the skills required, and hone your craft over time.

Guitars are so iconic, such a identifiable part of our culture. What other products do you think compare, and what are some of your favourite designs? I do like hot rods and motorcycles a lot, so I guess that would be my biggest outside influence. Personally I think the 1960’s were the last time that design really mattered, or was important culturally. We’ve become consumers who look at price and the status of things more than anything else. The “style” part of most things is gone now, or at last not as important. As consumers we no longer care about function or design.

Favorite:

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car – That’s a tough one, there are many that I love. To my eye, it’s hard to find a single fault with a ’51 Mercury.

record cover – That little square on my iPhone? I always liked The White album by Richard Hamilton.

beer – Whatever is cold. If it’s free, bonus.

guitar solo – Tough one, I’m an old metal fan and Van Halen’s Eruption is the one that impacted me most.

flower – Do I seem like a guy who’s into flowers?

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