Spokane Journal of Business

From lessons to luthier

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From lessons to luthier
-—Staff photo by Chey Scott
MD Guitars owner Marc Daniels says the custom instruments he makes start in price at $2,000.

Marc Daniels estimates that he puts more than 100 hours of work into each of the hand-crafted, custom-made electric and acoustic guitars he builds at his Cheney woodshop.

Daniels owns and is the sole creative force behind MD Guitars, a venture he established in 2006.

The 29-year-old Western Washington transplant to Spokane says he first dreamed of building guitars when he started learning how to play the instrument about 13 years ago.

When his instructor asked him why he wanted to learn how to play, Daniels says, "I said I thought it would be fun to play, but that I wanted to maybe build guitars someday."

Today, Daniels—who's a trained luthier, an artist who builds stringed instruments—estimates that he's built around 20 guitars, both acoustic and electric versions, and many of which were custom orders from local musicians and some across the world.

Late last year, Daniels says he delivered a custom electric guitar in Seattle to the lead guitarist in a South Africa-based rock band called The Parlotones. The musician, Paul Hodgson, was pleased with the instrument, Daniels asserts.

"He plugged it into the amp and plucked a note and a smile just spread across his face," Daniels says. "It was really cool because they'd been on a few world tours and when they came to the U.S., Fender gave them a bunch of gear. But when I handed him the guitar he loved it. He said he was planning to write a bunch of new songs using it."

Daniels also has made custom instruments for several Spokane-based musicians, including an acoustic guitar for Marshall McLean, of The Horse Thieves. One of his current projects is building a custom electric guitar for Kevin Blodgett of 13MAG, a Hillyard-based heavy metal band.

"I don't mind building for local guys—they seem to appreciate it more," Daniels says.

He does most of the work to build his guitars in a shop on his parent's Cheney farm, but says he hopes to move his tools and equipment to his home on Spokane's North Side in the near future.

He says the prices for his custom instruments start at $2,000, which he contends is comparable to high-end Gibson, Taylor, or Paul Reed Smith brand guitars.

When Daniels first launched MD Guitars, he says he let customers give him a list of specific features and characteristics they wanted in the instrument, but now has narrowed down his offerings to a dozen or so design variations. He says he made that decision because some customers asked for extremely specific features that they ended up not being pleased with once the instrument was done.

"There are lots of options customers can choose from, and everything is still custom and built for the musician," he says.

Daniels lets clients pick out the type of wood they want the guitar to be made of, and if it's an electric guitar they also can ask for variations of the electronic components that go into the instrument.

He says he strives to build his guitars from wood obtained locally, and says the wood types he uses include maple, cedar, spruce, mahogany, and some exotic woods like bubinga.

Daniels says the type of wood an instrument is made of has a big impact on its overall sound and tone—more so in acoustic guitars than electrics.

In acoustic guitars, the sound also is controlled by a technique called bracing, he says, which refers to the narrow strips of wood attached to the inside surfaces of the front and back pieces of the instrument. When the strings are plucked, the braces inside the guitar body also vibrate, which helps to project the resulting sound and also contributes to the instrument's overall tone, he says.

Depending on the direction and where the braces are attached, the instrument's sound and tone can be manipulated, he says.

"Everything inside that you don't see is what makes the sound different," Daniels says.

He says the braces also serve as struts to help to hold and support the shape of the guitar and its sides, which have a deep curve that's achieved by placing the wood in a mold before the body of the instrument is assembled.

Daniels says many acoustics have what's called a standard X-brace on the inside of the back piece of the guitar. That means some of the main braces on the inside are crossed in an X pattern.

In the years he's been building instruments, Daniels says he's come up with some of his own modified designs of that traditional acoustic guitar X -brace to create a more customized sound for the instrument.

While Daniels says that acoustic guitars generally take more time to construct than electric guitars, he equally enjoys designing and constructing both types.

The type of wood an electric guitar is made of also has some impact on the instrument's sound, but the biggest influence on its sound is the inner workings of its electronic components, Daniels says.

"You could make an electric out of pallet wood if you wanted to, and it's been done and can be decent sounding, but the better the wood tone, the better the sound," he says.

Similar to the customization he does with the bracing in an acoustic guitar, Daniels says he also enjoys experimenting with the configuration of the electronics system in his electric guitars. By manipulating the coils that pick up the vibration of the instrument's strings, he says he can create different sounds.

Daniels learned the techniques and art of guitar making at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, in Phoenix, enrolling in a 20-week-long program in late 2004. After completion of his coursework there, Daniels says he mostly did instrument repair work and built guitars on the side but not as a business venture.

For the past three or so years, in addition to his work associated with MD Guitars, Daniels has been teaching guitar building classes and other related courses at a Woodcraft Supply LLC outlet in Spokane Valley, located at 212 N. Sullivan.

Most of Daniels' customers find out about his talents through word of mouth, and he adds that past clients are usually more than willing to help him promote his business.

Of the guitars Daniels has made so far, he says several started out as experimental projects. He's ended up selling some of those instruments to musicians.

"People have ended up wanting them so I've sold them," he adds. "I would build even if I didn't have anyone to build for."

While custom guitar building might seem like a lesser-chosen vocation, Daniels says there are at least half-a-dozen professional luthiers in the Spokane area aside from himself. On top of that, he estimates another dozen people here make guitars as a hobby.

"Quite a few people get into it, but it's not a cut-throat competition" between luthiers here, he says.

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