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Building a Custom Electric Guitar

The process that leads to a finished McSwain guitar is as unique as the guitars themselves. Each project seems to take on a life of its own as each build has a specific story to tell. Stephen works closely with each customer to create a unique, custom electric guitar specific to their taste. Whether it be an aesthetic choice, a specific neck profile, an electronics option, or a particular accoutrement, all options are on the table.


Looking through our company’s history you will see the evolution of the guitars and how the customers have informed the choices, starting from the meticulously hand-carved models of the 90’s to the current layered, and multi-process guitars. The culmination of over 20 years worth of Luthier adventure has brought the company to where it is today, as a premier builder of Rock n’ Roll machines.


Each guitar stands alone as a curated and crafted piece of functional art. The body contour is an original design shaped to fit each customer commission.  The necks are machined and hand shaped to fit the overall ‘vibe’ of each instrument. No two ever come out exactly the same. They are all influenced by the moment, the theme of the instrument, and matched to the specifications of the customer. All the hardware is custom finished to match the particular aesthetic.  Knobs and plates are milled, machined or cast in wax. There is a constant effort to push what is possible with every detail of these techniques, incorporating elements that many builders might find far too vexing to even consider.


Many of these custom electric guitars give the impression of another time and place, as though fashioned from bits of old World War 2 fighter planes, the chassis of retired 1950’s stock cars, or pulled from the highway signs in a Hunter Thompson novel. Somewhere it all coalesces seamlessly into the mix.  This is the creative fuel that drives McSwain Guitars. Never be predictable; always strive to do something new.

The following are some detailed examples of a few of the standout projects over the years.  


The First Machine


In 1998 a new concept came along that laid the groundwork for what was to come.  Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, Stephen was working closely with Schecter Guitars making showpieces for NAMM on case-by-case basis.  These guitars caught the eye of Mike Tempesta, guitar player for Powerman 5000 at the time, and he reached out to Stephen to get a project going. Mike was in search of a metal top guitar, something that really captured the vibe and the sound of music he was making and something that would catch a ton of attention on stage. Stephen, having already flirted with the idea of doing a metal top model, jumped at the opportunity to make this guitar a reality. They kicked around some ideas and the concept  immediately galvanized into the first Machine concept guitar. It started with offset body design that was a new twist on other McSwain models at the time. The metal top construction was distressed and aged to give it an extremely industrial look.  Rivets lined the edge of the top. Skull inlays on the fretboard.   And the coupe de grace, functional gauges laid into the body itself. A highly functional and playable piece of machinery. There had never been anything on the market quite like it.  This is the proto-model that laid the groundwork for a new model series that changed the trajectory of McSwain guitars. Shortly after the success of this model Stephen developed the signature body and headstock design for McSwain guitars that, along with the metal tops, has been the calling card of the company ever since.


Jared Leto Pythagoras and Artemis


Jared Leto was introduced to Stephen McSwain in 2002 through mutual friend Elijah Blue of the band Deadsy. Elijah, already an owner of a McSwain custom, showed a few designs off to Jared which sparked an idea for a collaboration.  What came of the collaboration has become somewhat iconic in the world of Leto's 30 Seconds To Mars as what became the Pythagoras and Artemis guitars are now etched into the lore of the band. Stephen met up with Jared at his home in the Hollywood Hills and shared with him a very specific aesthetic he wanted to achieve. The idea was create something for the stadium rock show in the style of an old Explorer, but it needed to be minimal, modern and iconic. Jared wanted a signature piece that could handle the rigors of the road, something unmistakeable and original. They traded visual concepts back and forth for several months and eventually settled upon the epic Griffin design for both the black and white version of the the guitars

What really makes these designs stand out specifically from most McSwain customs is the minimalistic nature of the model. A solid mahogany three-piece set neck with a mahogany body, a mono-tone finish, one pickup, one volume knob, and a Tune-o-Matic bridge.   Stephen put his unique carving skills to use on the tops and detailed out the design while the rest of the body, neck and headstock are smoothed to a very sleek, almost stone-like finish.  The inlays on the fretboard were hieroglyphs specifically designed by Jared and were made out of formica countertop material.  The resulting guitars have toured relentlessly with 30 Seconds To Mars over the years, sparking a cult adoration from legions of fans all over the globe.


Ralph Steadman and Slash


On a whim sometime in 2006 Stephen reached out to Ralph Steadman’s management to see about licensing some artwork. Being a huge fan of his work with Hunter Thompson it was a fantasy to be able to incorporate his art into a custom guitar piece.  What do you know, Ralph was interested and completely open to participate.  He even went the extra mile and provided some one-off ink blotter pieces to use as example pieces for the graphics on the guitar (these are certainly going into the McSwain museum).  Naturally, the first guitar was going to be a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas tribute as this is the most beloved and celebrated of Hunter’s work and visually the most iconic collaboration between Hunter and Ralph.

Reproductions of one of the original ink blotter graphics were made for the top along with the classic cartoon of Hunter and Dr. Gonzo from the original book cover. Set off by gold hardware and a pair of custom gold Arcane pickups, the simple white finish creates the perfect foil for the graphic elements of the guitar. The mahogany neck is lined with a deep ebony fretboard featuring aluminum inlays of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in the iconic Steadman font. The back of the body has a special flavor unto itself. Stephen decided take old, weathered pages from the original 1971 copy of the paper back and decoupage them in a chaotic collage. Each page contains funny little passages from the book that Stephen found humorous or indicative of the Raoul Duke character in the novel.  The overall collection of type face and images give the guitar a vintage and patinated appearance even though it is simply a standard gloss finish.


Here’s where the synchronicities continue. Stephen had an established relationship with Slash through a prior custom model he made for him and the two had formed  a friendship over the years.  Stephen decided to send some progress photos of the Fear and Loathing Guitar to Slash while he was building it. Being a massive Hunter Thompson fan, Slash just flipped and decided he had to have that guitar. Stephen relayed this to Ralph who was gracious enough to create a custom note for Slash reading, “Savage Journey Slash - Ralph Steadman 2007” which was later sealed into the back of the guitar for all time.   The result was a one-of-a-kind instrument that stands as historically significant piece of art and a jewel in McSwain history.  There are more collaborations with Steadman under way so stay tuned!


The Tak Matsumoto Dragon Guitar


Another great relationship formed out of connections through the Los Angeles music scene. Patrick Lachman, a friend of Stephen's, established contact with Japanese guitar legend, Tak Matsumoto, and managed to get some photos of several McSwain customs in front of him.  Tak is a notorious collector of odd and rare custom electric guitars and was immediately interested.  His first commissioned piece with McSwain was a Machine model with bullet shell inlays. This led to another even more exciting collaboration.

A couple of years later he contacted Stephen to do a very special piece for Koshi Inaba,  the lead singer of his band the B’z. Tak had seen some of the older carved models from McSwain and wanted a carved custom piece done in a very Japanese style.  The idea was to do a traditional carved dragon based on the Buddhist deity Asura. Also, he wanted it done on a Flying V shape guitar made of mahogany.  Never one to back down from a new challenge, Stephen agreed and went to work. Some sketches were done, agreed upon. The rough design was laid out on the slab of mahogany and away it went.

The carving process on this guitar is even more immersive and detailed than any other in the lineage of McSwain guitars.  It was a true challenge mimicking the traditional Buddhist carving style while still trying to make something modern and playable.  All manner of tools were used to get the final piece just right: dremmel tools, X-Acto knives, chisels, and any custom carving tool he could get his hands on.  It was a long and meticulous process. To add even more complexity to the project,  ivory teeth were added to the dragon mouth and a backlight ruby eyeball to the face because who doesn’t want a dragon with glowing eyeballs? The finished guitar was then painted in green and red in the style of traditional Japanese tattoo.  

Tak loved the guitar but felt the color wasn’t quite right. He wanted it to have more of an aged, temple look and less vibrant than the tattoo color scheme chosen.  Ever the creative problem solver, Stephen rigged up a small sandblast kit in the shop and filled with a very fine blasting media.  The fresh paint was slowly sandblasted to remove a majority of the color and the resulting finish ended up looking like that of a 100-year old statue.  After the piece was given a final oil finish, it was at last completed and a total success.  An entirely original and one-of-a-kind, carved Flying V.

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