Date: 05 May 2006
Reviewer: Martyn Casserly
Carbon fibre cases and aluminium tubing are not things that you ordinarily associate with guitars. But as Martyn Casserly has been finding out, Gus guitars are far from ordinary.
‘I first got into guitar making when I was at school.’ Remembers Simon Farmer, the man behind Gus guitars. ‘It was a charity based boarding school called Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex, which had a fantastic building called the ‘Manual School’ with fully equipped wood and metal working shops, we even had a foundry! I spent a lot of time in there and eventually built a plywood fretless bass. The design was more out of necessity than choice – plywood was easy to come by, and I didn’t know how to put in frets! It worked fine though, and I played it in bands for a few years.’
Staying in education, Simon moved on to study Craft and Product design at university, where he developed his unusual tubular steel ‘Guitubes’.
‘I suppose I started looking at steel because I was surrounded by furniture makers, jewellery makers, and a whole range of different crafts people – plus the fact I liked it. There’s something interesting about the roundness and curves, and I thought it would be a good material because it would give you a lot of sustain – which it certainly does - and of course there’s no problem with warping.’
The tubular steel ‘bodiless’ guitars attracted attention due to their striking design, and Guitar magazine featured a news item about them back in ’91.
‘That was the first press I ever got,’ he says, ‘and it helped me on to several design shows. There was one in London where I met Seal’s manager’s mother in law!’ he laughs, ‘she took my details and the next thing I know there’s a phone call saying they wanted the guitars for the ‘Killer’ video. I turned up at the studio literally straight from a show and had about 4 guitars with me. This proved very fortunate, as Seal is a massive bloke and left-handed! My normal guitars just looked tiny on him, and upside down, but I had a symmetrical 8-string bass that looked fine- so they used it.
‘That really kick started things for me. I got a couple of TV spots, worked with the Mock Turtles and Johnny Marr, plus a few other bits and pieces. Not bad for someone with my low level of clout.’
Inspired by his early success Simon decided to redesign the guitars to include a body.
‘The ‘Guitubes’ didn’t really generate a characterful sound due to the lack of a body, and I wanted to put that right.’ He says, ‘So I spent weeks drawing shapes, trying to come up with something new – but of course you can’t. A guitar essentially has a waisted shape really, and curves that need to fulfil a job (the flying V being a notable exception), so there’s not much you can do with a slab body that draws attention. Eventually I realised that my tubes were good, they were unique! So, I developed a body shape to fit within a tube framework.’
In ‘94, after receiving a Craft Council grant, Simon officially set up his guitar company. Out went Guitube and in came Gus (see boxout). Armed with 4 prototypes of his new G1 model, he headed for the guitar show at Wembley, which resulted in a review in Guitarist magazine.
‘The review was very positive but I didn’t get that many orders to start with. So I continued to build prototypes, with the help of a couple of musicians. One was Paul Cuddeford, an old school friend, and session player who was a great help. Since then it’s been a constant process of development to refine the product and make it better – and there are still a lot of things that I want to do.’
Today the Gus workshop is a purpose built site at the bottom of Simon’s garden. Here he hand builds nearly every component of the guitars using classic luthier’s skills, as well as a few new ones.
‘It all starts, as things usually do in guitar making, with the wood.’ Explains Simon, ‘I use a laminate of two types of cedar, Canadian-grown western red cedar for the central core of the instrument, and English-grown for the outside sections. The English one grows much faster – as it’s warmer over here - so it makes a much lighter wood. From these I make 3 body sections – top body, back body, and neck, which are the heart of the guitar. Next I create a carbon fibre casing for the wood (see boxout 2), which will protect and strengthen the whole structure as well as give it its distinctive look.’
The rest of the process is more conventional, with the fretboard being prepared and fretted (although the choice of Cocobolo wood is quite unusual), the body being painted in a special spray booth next to the workshop, and electrics fitted – along with the aluminium outer frame. A notable exception to the norm though is that Simon builds nearly every component by hand, from bridges, knobs, and fittings, right through to vibrato arms!
‘Sometimes I do think I’m a bit mad to do everything myself,’ he says, ‘but one thing I’ve learnt over the years is that nobody else cares as much about your product as you do yourself. So to get the results I want and expect, it generally means making the bulk of parts by hand here in the workshop. It can get a bit intense sometimes though when you’ve been working on something for 3 weeks solid. You get so close to it that anything that isn’t absolutely perfect drives you mad! So it’s a relief when friends come around and tell you that the guitar looks amazing and that you’re seeing things. That’s when I tend to get out on my mountain bike – there’s nothing quite as therapeutic in life as riding through a big puddle of mud!’
With the Gus range of guitars starting at £2750 for a standard G1, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Simon Farmer is raking in the money, but this isn’t the case as he explains.
‘I would freely say to anybody thinking of going into guitar making ‘make sure you’re doing it because you love it – not because you want to make money’. On average it takes me about 150 hours to make a G1. Even if I charge my hourly rate at only £10 – the same as an office temp – then straight away there’s £1500 on the price. Then when you add on the cost of materials, which on my guitars are quite expensive, not to mention the overheads - workshop running costs and equipment etc. there isn’t much left over for profit… but there’s more to life than just money.
‘Building guitars is a great thing to be involved in,’ concludes Simon, ‘because at the end of the day you create something that the customer will use and be really pleased with. So when you get a phone call from a happy customer saying how much they love the guitar, or an appreciative email drops into your inbox, it makes you feel good and that you did your job well.’ He smiles, ‘ better than collecting taxes for a living….’
‘Gus is an old nickname that my sister gave to me – which turned out to be quite fortuitous. When I was thinking of a name for the company I had ‘Guitube Designs’ - which would have been a disaster! There was also of course ‘Simon Farmer Guitars’ but that just doesn’t work, it sounds a bit agricultural! So, in the end, I fell back on Gus.
‘It works in another way too,’ says Simon, ‘I knew from the start that I wanted a badge for the guitar. I’m a big fan of that whole 50s American car thing, and they all have badges – so I needed a name that I could create a logo out of. Gus was easy to work with, and I’m really glad now that I chose it.’
‘The process that I’ve developed for using Carbon fibre,’ reveals Simon, ‘started off as a relatively low tech method called ‘Hand lay up’, which basically, as the name suggests, involves laying the fabric into a mould and putting the resin in by hand. It’s similar to how fibreglass canoes are made, though the materials are much more expensive and has served me well over the last ten years.
‘Recently I decided that I wanted to show off the actual fabric of the carbon fibre so you could see the weave and colour, rather than painting it as I’d previously done. This meant a new technique was needed, as hand lay up would always have small imperfections in it that would be covered by the paint, and to show off the weave everything needs to be perfect.
‘Now I use my own version of a process called Vacuum Assisted Resin Infusion (VARI) that is essentially creating a vacuum around the mould and pumping the resin into it. This creates a void free surface, and eliminates imperfections allowing the fabric to be seen. There are still a few little fine tunings that I’m working on, but I’m very pleased with the results so far.’
Up until recently Gus guitars were only available straight from Simon himself. That is soon to change with Harrods about to become his sole high street representative.
‘I’ve never really bothered with shops before,’ he explains, ‘as the profit margin on the guitars is so small, that to offer the kind of discounts retailers want would be impossible - but Harrods came up with a different angle. Usually when someone orders a Gus they then have at least four to five months wait before delivery. Harrods proposed keeping a small level of stock that could be sold straight away to a customer. The price is higher than that of a normal Gus because you are effectively paying for the right to jump the queue! So my profit margin remains the same, but they are willing to stock the guitars, and a customer can have a guitar straight away – everybody’s happy!’
Gus guitars are all pretty much custom built to order, with Simon discussing the customer’s requirements in detail before the build begins. But to aid in the process he has developed a series of standard options.
The mainstay of the collection is the G1 which is available with either Humbuckers, single coils (or a mixture of both), and in the following styles: Hardtail, Vibrato, Baritone, Left Handed, Seven String, MIDI, Piezo, or the limited edition 10th anniversary model. There is also a selection of Bass guitar options.
For more details visit www.gusguitars.co.uk
Copyright Guitar ©2006. Used by kind permission of Guitar.