Gerry shares his journey as a guitar builder, his choice on creating standard models, and advice on how to find a guitar that is a good fit.
Leigh Lim: Can you give a quick summary in terms of how you got to where you are with guitar building?
Gerry Hayes: Since I began playing guitar, I’d always wanted to build my own. I eventually got around to it about twenty years ago. At the time, you could still see the outer borders of the internet from the middle, so while I was able to glean a little information online, I learned most of what I needed to know from a fantastic book called ‘Make Your Own Electric Guitar’ by Melvyn Hiscock. I can’t say enough about that book. With its help, and a little luck, my first attempt at a guitar wasn’t too bad.
Turns out, building guitars can be addictive, though. I made another few and after a while friends began making requests. They paid me in tools (to help build my collection) and beer. Another few guitars and suddenly, I was taking an occasional order and building at weekends and evenings while working a ‘proper’ job during the day.
Repair work followed a similar pattern and, after a while, I made the leap—guitars became my day job. Mind you, it’s remained an evening and weekend job at the same time—turns out, you can get pretty busy working for yourself.
As to what I’ve learned, it sounds trite, but I’ve learned that I know much less than I thought. The Dunning-Kruger effect is very real and the sooner you realise it, the better your work will become.
LL: Do you constantly sketch your ideas for guitar specifications? (Electronics, body shape) Or does it come down to what the customer wants?
GH: I don’t really do much completely-bespoke or one-off work any more. Making one-off instruments is a great way to NOT make much money as there’s so much work involved in a completely unique instrument. There’s no doubt it’s interesting and fun but my family insist on eating occasionally. This is why I’ve begun moving towards a ‘range’ of standard models that can be tweaked and customised as needed. With a few models, I can build in some economies of scale and make builds a little less work.
I sketch ideas all the time, though.
Photo: Gerry Hayes
LL: What do you think is the most versatile wood?
GH: How long is a piece of string? There’s no one answer to this. It very much depends on the effect you want and whether aesthetics or tone is paramount. That said, there is a lot of debate over the impact that wood has on the tone of an electric guitar.
Opinion ranges from ‘no effect’ to ‘hugely important’. I fall somewhere between the two camps but I’m closer to the ‘no effect’ camp. I believe that the wood makes a difference in tone but the pickups themselves AND the other construction/design decisions (scale-length, bridge design, neck-body joints, etc.) play more of a part in the amplified sound.
I try to think as critically as possible over decisions like this and not get hung up on popular opinion. It’s difficult to properly A-B test things like guitar woods as variables other than wood ‘type’ creep in really easily but even attempting to do blind listening can be very educational.
Personally speaking, providing the wood is of good quality and properly dried, I don’t get too hung up on the tonal shifts that a quarter-inch of maple might bring to an electric instrument.
LL: Are there certain materials you would avoid working with?
GH: Some woods and other natural materials are (rightly) subject to restrictions because they’re endangered or for other reasons. Working with certain woods can be a pain to ensure you remain on the right side of the law and there are import/export regulations on the woods and any object made with the woods. If at all possible, it’s easiest to avoid these. Regarding the use of other materials, it depends on whether I think it’s suitable for the task and whether I have the expertise to actually work with it.
LL: Are some of your guitars fretted sideways?
GH: Nope. Just regular-style hammering/pressing.
LL: Ever had a request (or plan) to make a fretless guitar?
GH: Nobody’s ever asked. No plans.
LL: What strings do your guitars come with?
GH: I put D’Addario strings on as standard.
LL: Would the size (10-46, 13-56..) and type (pure nickel, chrome…) depend on the guitar?
GH: Depends completely on the guitar and the owner’s preference.
LL: Is it possible to request your signature on one of your guitars? (signed before you apply lacquer, so your signature wouldn’t fade)
GH: If you feel strongly about it, sure. It’ll still get a logo though.
LL: With your guitar pricing, did you have to have a long think of it?
GH: Of course. I spent a long time figuring out what was a fair price in terms of the hardware and the work that goes into each. I don’t see a need to hide the standard prices for these.
LL: How about tools? Do you have tools that you purchased thinking that it would be great to use, but then ended up using it rarely (if at all)?
GH: Yeah, definitely. Rather annoyingly, I can’t think of them but there are many things in my workshop whose main function is to gather dust.
LL: Would you consider giving them a new home?
GH: Nope. Never know when something might come in handy.
LL: Is there a guitar tool that you find yourself bringing with you most times when you travel?
GH: Nope. I’m not that much of a nerd.
LL: Why do you think ‘short-scale, six string bass’ guitars are difficult to find?
GH: That’s really just a bit of hyperbole. While a number of manufacturers have made instruments in this vein, they’re pretty thin on the ground compared to regular four-stringers (in long or short-scale) but you can find one if you poke around. I hadn’t really anticipated that anyone would subject the claim to major scrutiny to be honest. 😉
LL: Are there still specific guitar builds (body type, material) that you think guitarists should embrace more?
GH: I think that all guitarists will have to get used to the fact that the woods we’re all used to seeing in guitars are a finite resource. We’ve chased rosewood and mahogany around the world as the supplies from one region become close enough to exhaustion that they become heavily regulated. Guitarists are a conservative lot and will often turn their noses up at something that’s not familiar or ‘traditional’. When a single factory is churning out a couple of thousand guitars a week, it puts a dent in supplies of those traditional woods.
There are alternatives to much of this but the people with Internet Opinions begin whinging when one is mentioned and that whinging seeps in to become the opinion of many who hear it. I doubt that anybody with sense believes it’s sustainable, however, to continue the way we are with the woods we’re using. Things will change and materials will change and people will have to get used to it. We’d all do well to remember that Leo Fender’s plank got a lot of scorn and snobbery back in 1950.
LL: What would you say to those who would hold to the view that ‘in the studio it all sounds the same’ or ‘it could all be made to sound the same with effects’?
GH: I suppose it depends what effects. If you pile a mush of a dozen different fuzz, modulation, pitch-shifting, and filters on top, I’d agree there will be a point where it doesn’t really matter if you’re playing a rubber band on a shoe-box as long as you’re getting the sound you want.
The other way I could take your question is that you mean the average listener may not be able to tell if the solo’s played on a Les Paul or a Telecaster. That may well be the case too.
Whatever your concerns and opinions when buying a guitar, you should buy what you think is right for you.
I hand-build guitars but am absolutely not a guitar snob. There’s a massive choice of really good quality instruments available for only a few hundred bucks. If one of these guitars or basses does the trick for you, brilliant. Go for it and ignore any naysayers. And, if you’ve some more money to spend, you’ll find no shortage of makers, big and small, to provide or build a guitar for you.
Get the guitar that makes you happy—that sounds and plays like you want. Don’t discount anything. Play loads of guitars. Find the one that ‘fits’. One that’s got songs and riffs in it that fall out when you pick it up. They’re out there and when you find yours, it doesn’t matter if someone listening can identify the exact model in the mix—how you feel about it is what’ll matter.
LL: Do you think when someone is planning to buy a guitar (their first or next) is to take time not only in looking at what’s available at the local shops, but also to look at the guitars that are owned by musicians they know (as inspiration could be found there too)?
GH: Guitars are pretty much democratised these days. It’s certainly preferable to try one before you buy it but it’s not possible for everyone to do so. I wouldn’t get too hung up on it. Quality control from the majority of manufacturers these days is good enough that you can buy a guitar online without too much worry. It might need a little work to get it playing its best but that’s true of the majority of guitars, wherever they’re bought (some music stores do a great job of setting up their instruments but many either don’t bother or don’t do a good job).
LL: How about generic guitars? (They could be given as gifts as someone’s first guitar, or could have been bought as a communal instrument) Do you think that a proper set-up, strings, and pick-ups would make them sound okay?
GH: When I began playing guitar, many of the ‘generic’ instruments were terrible. And, while it’s still possible to find a terrible guitar, the quality of instruments costing a hundred bucks has come on in leaps and bounds. Like I said about the democratisation thing, almost anybody can buy a guitar these days that will be perfectly serviceable. It will almost certainly benefit from some setup work (but so will guitars costing ten or twenty times as much) and pickups are generally a weak link in budget instruments.
Knowing what I know, if I were starting guitar without a lot of cash, I’d be happy to play a ‘budget’ instrument. When I’d saved up a little more money, I’d pop in some pickups. Oh, and an output jack (which is always rubbish in budget guitars).
LL: Is there any way to test if an output jack is good? (or is it about noticing signal problems when playing and recording?)
GH: You’ll generally know if a jack is dodgy. It’s a pretty simple piece of equipment. Wiggle the plug a little and it it crackles or sounds nasty, you might want to look into it.
LL: How can a refret go wrong? (aside from making the mistake of not realising a guitar is fretted sideways)
GH: There’s a hundred ways. Removal, working on the fingerboard, correcting for relief, re-fretting, leveling and crowning can all be done disastrously if you’re not careful. If you don’t have a reasonable idea what you’re doing you probably don’t want to learn fretting with your ’59 Les Paul.
LL: Can a guitar withstand a number of neck resets?
GH: It depends but, in most cases, a guitar can potentially be reset more than once, yes.
LL: Have you encountered a situation in which you’ve had to install a truss rod to a guitar (which previously did not have one when made) to ensure it has a longer (playing) life?
GH: I’ve never installed an adjustable truss rod in a guitar that didn’t originally have one. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that although I’m sure someone may well have done so. It’s certainly possible (although a pretty big job) to replace a non-adjustable truss rod in an older neck. I’ve never had call to do that, either though.
There’s a trick that I read about (probably from Dan Erlewine) that involves inserting and epoxying a carbon fibre rod into the box-iron, square-channel rods of some older Martins. This provides extra strength and, while it’s a pretty involved process just for that, it can make sense to do it if the neck is already removed for a neck reset.
The most common way to control for excessive relief on older, non-adjustable, neck, however, is to do ‘corrective’ refretting. Frets with different sized tangs can be inserted in places along the neck. Thicker tangs can push back against relief and it’s possible to get a good result with this. You’ll often combine it with some levelling of the fingerboard itself to help things along to where you want them.
LL: Did your early guitars have the Haze logo on them?
GH: I’d made some guitars and basses with just my signature on the headstock before I started Haze Guitars as a business. Maybe they’ll be very valuable when I’m dead.
LL: If you were to guide someone who’s keen to start making his/her first guitar, how would you go about it?
GH: There are a lot more resources online these days but I’ll still always recommend Melvyn Hiscock’s Make Your Own Electric Guitar. It will have pretty much anything you’ll need to know.
Then go and do it. Of course there’s an element of trial and error. There is anything new. Go slow, be careful (sharp tools and spinning blades are dangerous), and think carefully before you start hacking at that bit of wood.
Go for it. It’s a lot of fun.
LL: Do you collect guitars yourself?
GH: Not really. I’ve had a few guitars come and go over the years but I’ve settled on a couple that I’m pretty happy with now. I’ve a nice Les Paul Standard and a brilliant lawsuit-era Tokai Springy Sound (copy of the ‘50s Strat). Oh, I’ve a Parker P-38 that I bought on a whim as I was experimenting with including some acoustic sounds into a set. It now sits in its case because it’s not my cup of tea at all and I haven’t gotten around to selling it on.
On the acoustic side, I’ve got a lovely Lowden O-32 and a beat-up Vintage folk-type thing that gets pulled out for beer nights.
Oh, and obviously a few of my own guitars.
LL: What process did you go through with finishing ’Truss Rods Made Easy’?
GH: I had a number of people, of differing levels of experience, read the book for readability, clarity and mistake-catching. I’m really grateful to them. Layout and diagrams took a long time. Longer than I’d anticipated.
LL: When a guitar has a ‘back-bow’ issue (page 19), do you recommend a thorough check (is that even possible?) to ensure that there is no internal damage to the neck?
GH: Not really. Back-bowing isn’t generally the result of any actual ‘damage’.
LL: Did you use any of your current software [to put the book together]?
GH: I used iBooks Author to layout the ebook. It’s pretty good for this and, while it’s a little ‘blunt’, it certainly has lots of good points that make it worth using.
LL: Thanks for the pictures! What camera did you use?
GH: Not sure. I’ve got a Canon G9, a Nikon DLSR and I use the camera in my iPhone a lot. One of those. If I’m in the photo, it was probably a timer.
LL: Still remember what year those sketches were done?
GH: Last year for those one, I think.
LL: Are there artists that you absolutely dig, and are surprised that others haven’t heard of?
GH: I’m perpetually surprised that the rest of the world doesn’t like the stuff I do. I’m digging the Dirty Three and their stuff a lot. I really like A Camp right now. Oh and I love some of the disconcerting and unusual noises made by people like Pye Corner Audio and Talvihorros (whose last album is really great and the special edition packaging is a thing of beauty)—music that can make you feel uneasy is something that’s really interesting.
LL: Are there songs/albums that you cannot get enough of? (or ones that you listened to multiple times)
GH: Of course. I’m sure that the ones and zeros that store my Black Sabbath collection on my iPod are pretty worn. There’s tons of stuff that I return to again and again. Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, R.E.M., Nick Cave, Grinderman, Manic Street Preachers, The Black Crowes, Cream, The Beatles, Dennis Wilson, Steely Dan, Bowie… I could go on.
LL: Do you go out of your way to discover new music?
GH: Not really. It sort of happens by accident.
LL: Can you share some instances how your ‘music discovery accidents’ happen?
GH: All of the above: [mate’s recommendations, films scores, commercial jingles, random clicks online]
LL: Do you have a go-to site for new music?
GH: Nope. Soundcloud gets played pretty regularly but I don’t tend to go there looking for anything. I end up there to hear something when I learn of it somewhere else. I’ve started using Spotify from time to time too.
LL: Where do you go for inspiration? What do you do when you need to come up with an idea?
GH: Some of the time ideas happen on their own. I write them down the instant it happens. I always have a notebook and pen in my pocket for To Do lists and scribbling things that occur to me. I’m not sure there’s a way to ‘search’ for inspiration. If you need to figure something out or work on something, you just sit down and hammer your head until it happens. Having ideas isn’t the hard part. Everybody has ideas. Kicking the crap out of that idea to find the way it makes sense is the problem.
LL: What’s your view about social media?
GH: I used Twitter and Facebook on a personal basis relatively early on. Facebook, I quit in disgust about six year ago because it was so annoying and hard to work with. A friend kept telling me I should get a Facebook business page and, eventually I relented right about the time he quit Facebook. I now have a Haze Guitars account/page on Twitter and Facebook and enjoy both. They’re a good way to chat a little and to let people know what’s going on—even just for little throwaway bits of slightly interesting information or photos.
Even though the people I interact with are cool, I still hate Facebook itself, mind you. Especially since they’ve changed their news feed scraping algorithms so that not everybody that has liked a page sees all of that page’s updates. That’s pretty crappy. I can’t see how that helps the majority of either the posters or consumers of content.
I’ve also got a Google Plus account that gets content from my other social media stuff through some automatic trickery. I don’t check in that often and I don’t see a lot of engagement there.
LL: Would you consider having a Haze merch shop?
GH: I don’t kid myself that I’m sufficiently well-known to warrant a merchandise store. I’ll be doing occasional giveaways of Haze swag as I think it’s a nice way to engage a little with the people who have been good enough to sign-up to my mailing list.
LL: What are your favourite sites at the moment?
GH: Oh, god, I don’t know. I’ve built up a pretty formidable pile of RSS feeds stuff down a sausage tube into a reader app. When I can get my Matrix jack socket in my skull, I’ll be happy.
LL: What was the process of building up the Haze website?
GH: I’ve always done my own web stuff. I’ve had three or four different hosts and about twice as many iterations of the site over the last ten years or so.
LL: Do you have a regular schedule of posting blog entries?
GH: Depends on when I get time.
LL: Do you currently post at any Forums?
GH: Nah. I did a little on some local forums early on and have since been invited to some but haven’t taken up most offers. This is partly because I don’t have time but mainly because I don’t have the inclination to get into arguments or indulge in horse-trading.
LL: Are there websites that you like to visit just because you like the design?
While I certainly appreciate good design and UI, my regular internet consumption squirts down that RSS tube I mentioned. I can’t think of any sites I visit just because of the design but I’d bet, if pressed, I could come up with some I avoid because of poor design.
LL: Haha! That’s okay Gerry, I’ll not press you for the names of those sites (with poor design). Though I’m interested in how you’ve set up your RSS. Do pages and sites get added while you are on the go (on your mobile phone or tablet)? Would you have an equal number of listening & reading streams?
GH: There’s no real pattern. If I find something interesting I might look at other stuff that person’s done and I might RSS it. Or I might not. Depends on how much of a hurry I’m in. I listen to about as much as I read. Maybe more now.
LL: Would you be open to collaborating with other artists? (via YouTube or specific collaboration websites)
GH: Sure. I’m a control freak who’s very protective of his brand. Any takers?
LL: Are you interested in technology?
GH: Back when I worked for The Man, it was in the technology field. I’m still a big old geek.
I’ve been Mac for ten years or so now. Once you go Mac, you don’t go back. I’ve got a relatively new 13” Macbook Air that’s the everyday machine. Most stuff I do gets done on that. I’ve also got a 2007 iMac that I use for any photo or graphics work (or for other work that needs quiet as it’s located away from my family). It was starting to show its age a little and the internal hard drive failed a few months ago. I replaced it with an SSD and my seven year-old iMac has a new lease of life. It’s nice and speedy again.
There was a time, long ago, when Apple was the poor relation when it came to apps but that’s definitely no longer the case. There’s a fantastic choice of indie developers and smaller companies doing brilliant apps. For instance, an app like Pixelmator does anything I’d want Photoshop to do and it costs a fraction of the price. And, getting back to your design question, I love that most Mac developers really put serious thought into how their apps function and look.
I’m still using the inbuilt iMovie app for videos (mostly because I don’t do a lot of video). I’ll likely look for something to replace iMovie soon, though. For audio, I have a version of Pro Tools that hasn’t been updated for ages because it’s hardly ever used any more. I have an older installation of Reason too. I’ve been meaning to try Logic for ages but, the truth is I don’t do enough recording, these days, to justify the expense and time.
LL: What do you find is the best way to connect with your audience?
GH: Social media is great for brief ‘chats’ with people.
Email newsletters are fantastic, though. I’ve made some great connections through my newsletter and loads of people have been kind enough to get in touch to say they’re enjoying it. That makes me hugely happy.
LL: For someone playing one of your guitars for the first time, what is the impression you’re hoping to make?
GH: Because I’m as riddled with self-doubt and afflicted with imposter-syndrome as anybody, I just hope they’ll like it. That’s only slightly facetious. More than anything, I hope a player will like how it plays and how it sounds because they’re the most important things. Of course, I try to make my instruments beautiful (and I think they are) but it’s the feel and the tone that speak to you once you strap a guitar on.
LL: What feeds your soul?
GH: Positive people are great to be around. I’m lucky enough to have a couple of friends who you can chat with and leave feeling completely gung-ho about something. My daughter encouraged me every step of the way when I was writing Truss Rods Made Easy (http://hazeguitars.com/trussrodsmadeeasy) and is continuing to do so as I work on my next book.
LL: What would you like to learn about next? (Has your approach to learning changed in the last 5 years?)
GH: I don’t know. I think I’m always learning stuff. Albeit in an unstructured and slightly haphazard manner.
LL: Aside from guitars, do you geek out on anything else?
GH: Books, music, techie stuff, cooking, eating, beer, running, hiking, all sort of crap really. I also spend a lot of time picking up stuff my children have dropped.
LL: This Q&A would probably not be complete if I don’t ask you about your tea habit! Care to share a bit about that?
GH: I like an Earl Grey in the afternoon but the rest of the time, it’s an unspecified blend from a big box with TEA written on the side. It’d probably be considered ‘breakfast’ tea if people were inclined to give it a name.
LL: Plans on the second ebook? (to follow ’Truss Rods Made Easy’)
GH: Second book is well underway. It will focus on wiring and the electronic stuff in your guitar. You can see more at http://hazeguitars.com/completeguitarwiring
* Gerry Hayes runs Haze Guitars in Dublin, Ireland. He repairs and builds guitars. His first book Truss Rods made easy is available as a free download here. He is currently in the process of writing his next book: ‘Complete Guitar Wiring‘.
Photo: Gerry Hayes
Source Material and Notes: The material posted is based on correspondence (July-November 2014) between Gerry and Leigh. Content has been edited for length, and the final version has been reviewed and approved by the interviewee.
Leigh Lim is a musician based at Sydney. You can find a sample of her music here. To reach out to Leigh, you can do so via this form or a direct message through YouTube. (Curious to find out if she’s your kind of person? You can check out her tweets and personal entries.)
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